“Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path.” David Hare
One evening I am sitting in the Bridge Theatre, London and I am more than somewhat wondering why their new Guys and Dolls is the hottest ticket in town. I venture many potatoes at 6 to 5 that it is because it is the best show in town! The way it is staged, it is called immersive theatre.
So immersed do I get that I find myself, as I leave the theatre, echoing the snappy patois of Damon Runyan’s fabled New York characters.
With names like Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Harry the Horse, Brandy Bottle Bates and Good Time Charley Bernstein, you are in for that very thinga good time.
Nicholas Hytner’s new production is an absolutely knock-out winner in all departments. The performers give it laldy acting,dancing and singing their hearts out.
The main roles of the two couples Miss Adelaide (Marisha Wallace) and Nathan Detroit (Daniel Mays) plus Sarah Brown (Celinde Schoenmaker) and Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) play off each beautifully, bringing a tingle to their show-stopping numbers like Luck Be a Lady, Marry the Man Today, Sue Me and Adelaide’s Lament (“a person can develop a cold…”).
The hits keep coming
In the Havana interlude, Schoenmaker and Richardson counterpoint the rest of the the frantic action (cops, gangsters, Hot Box showbiz glitz, soul-saving and wildcat dice games) with a dreamy tenderness, giving heart-tugging renditions of If I ere a Bell and I’ve Never Been in Love Before.
And the hits like Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat and Take Back Your Mink keep coming, delivered with breathtaking gusto and whip-smart synchronicity by an ensemble cast of 35, switching scene-to-scene with enough pizazz to light up Times Square.
The catchy songs and incidental tunes are powered by a rhythmically taut 15-strong band, sitting in a dress circle glass cube studded with showbiz lamps.
The costumes (Deborah Andrews) gorgeous gowns, loud check suits and two-tone shoes are as bright as the neon signs which fly in and out. Choreography is by Arlene Philips, a nod to Strictly in the sassy silver skirts of the Hot Box chorus line.
In the round makes it special
What jolts this talented revival of a cherished treat into originality is the staging. 12 lit rostra move up and down, an articulated maze of different configurations at contrasting heights to become garage, mission, newsstand, nightclub, sidewalk and sewer (where the craps get rolled).
The really bold idea from Hytner and designer Bunny Christie is to drop this ever-shifting grid into the middle of a promenade audience who, like Shakespeare’s groundlings, are pressed up against the action, every movement policed by stage managers (literally: they’re all in cops’ uniforms).
It’s a joy to see the rapt delight on the faces of the mostly young audience, cheek-by-jowl with the performers, in the cheaper, standing areas. The rest of us, like John Lennon’s royal audience, just rattle our jewellery.
This version updates with an added frisson; the Havana night club steams with such gay abandon that Sarah’s beau has his head turned by the boys in tightlyclad gear and starts to wonder if he’s Sky or Bi.
The buzz and bliss of a hit musical
As an ex-theatre manager, I also get a buzz from the sheer logistics of a huge production like this: the mingle of so many different people, the meticulous planning, the schedules, the attention to detail, the money, all lovingly coordinated. It’s like watching the intricate mechanism of the Peacock Clock in St Petersburg’s Hermitage on speed!
Yet the true bliss of a successful musical comes from seeing something give such pleasure to so many people. It’s the same with other shows I’ve loved, like The Lion King, Anything Goes,The Book of Mormon, Les Miserables, West Side Story and Hamilton (due in Edinburgh from next February).
It’s hard to share veteran playwright David Hare’s dismay as he notes, in The Spectator, that “it’s a crushing defeat to see Wyndham’s, the most perfect playhouse in London for the spoken word, without a straight play”. But it is showing a smart, imaginative and attractive musical comedy, Oklahoma!, in a revival so far from folksy, they’re calling it Wokelahoma!
As if great plays were threatened by great musical theatre of course there’s room for both.
Musicals are special; they use every element of theatrical experience light, movement, rhythm, sound, story and light to play on the full range of our emotional and mental receptors. They endure and succeed because they stir our deepest feelings, pluck the heartstrings and strike a chord in our very soul.
They make us cry, laugh and feel. Fewer musicals? I’d say we need more!
Scotland – ideally suited to musicals of its own
Seeing these lavish spectacles sparks, in me at least, another yearning why don’t they happen more often, here in Scotland?
The public appetite is there Hamilton will play Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre for weeks, 70 performances, a total of 134,050 seats. Ticket prices go up to £100 each.
The talent is there. We’re lucky to have such versatility: performers who switch acting, music and other skills, plus many actors who can pick up different instruments with alacrity, working on stages across the country. Scotland’s performance style also tends to a non-naturalistic straight-to-the-audience approach entirely suited to musicals.
Scotland is home to some first-class training, encompassing acting, dance, filmmaking, music, singing, technical skills, costume and design, plus writing for the screen and stage. The list of alumni, as well as performers who’ve come up through experience, could run and run.
The traditions are also here the major role played by Variety and Pantomime; the crossover from comedy into theatre and the strength of all kinds of home-grown music.
Such rich potential to be realised but it takes money, time and thorough dedication to make productions that have something to say in a way that audiences will be excited to watch.
Scotland’s capacity to create great popular musical shows would surely benefit from a renaissance. It could do all of us audience and performers a power of good.