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Ask Lyn: Is it snobbish to hate musical theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is it snobbish to hate musical theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is it snobbish to hate musical theatre? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I love the theatre and try to go as much as I can. But I hate musicals. Does this make me a snob?" - Paul, Epping Forest

Yes, is Great Aunt Cecily’s reply. She wonders whether you had an unhappy childhood and you’ve associated being taken to see musicals with family outings. She may have a point: going to see a musical is very much part of many family Christmases or birthdays. I reckon it’s unlikely you would be scarred for life by seeing Mamma Mia (back at the Novello from last week) at an impressionable age, but sometimes people are left with the idea that musicals are not for grown-ups. If they think that, they haven’t seen Follies or Parade. Matilda and the Lion King are fab, but they are not the only show in town.

Look Paul, we all have our blind spots when it comes to culture but if you read a thriller you didn’t like much, you wouldn’t immediately dismiss the entire genre as beneath your notice, would you? One of the things I’ve always loved about my job is that it makes me go and see things I probably wouldn’t choose to go to see and that includes musicals. There have been some surprises. I once unexpectedly enthused quite a lot about the now long forgotten Boney M musical Daddy Cool, and as I’ve said before, I’ve never hummed a Harold Pinter play in the back of a taxi on the way to Waterloo after the show.

It’s a mistake to underestimate the musical. They are not just all uplifting, feel-good fluff, though I’m up for a bit of feel-good fluff as much as the next person. There’s an argument that the musical was the great live art form of mid-20th century America. The critic Kenneth Tynan rated Guys and Dolls as contemporary American theatre’s second-greatest achievement, only topped by Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But maybe that has been part of the problem: when there has been a golden age in any genre it often becomes much replicated without the original vim.

Carousel. Photo by Johan Persson.

Estates have sometimes been wary about updating so shows have become set in amber with the same old production and choreography for years. But if you want to see how a 1940s musical can be reinvigorated for our own times then check out the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s current revival of Carousel. Maybe one day somebody will do the same for Les Miserables and we’ll all be astonished.

Then again, the musical is no more a limited form than any other genre. Operation Mincemeat (currently killing it at Southwark Playhouse) is as different from Hamilton (back at the Victoria Palace and with availability from September) and Spring Awakening (revived by Rupert Goold at the Almeida later this year) and Dear Evan Hansen (at the Noel Coward from October 26) as the plays of Caryl Churchill are from those of Roy Williams. Yet somehow, we seem to lump musicals altogether, and even those who love musicals sometimes fight fiercely from behind a particular barricade championing the musicals of one composer (often Sondheim) and sneering at those of another (often Andrew Lloyd Webber or the jukebox form). I mean Girl from the North Country is a juke box musical, and it’s sublime.

In the upcoming series of essays, Breaking into Song (Salamander Street), director and producer Adam Lenson argues that maybe those who “love musicals are just as dangerous to the future of the form as those who hate them: because both those who love and hate musicals share the same idea of what musicals are.” He goes onto to argue that we need to expand our idea of what musicals are and, most crucially, as a theatre culture embrace an expansion of the musicals we make and support.

“In asking for this I am also asking for everyone on both sides of the love/hate divide,” writes Lenson, “to open their minds.” It’s good advice, because why dismiss a form that is so full of possibility, and which has so often proved its worth and longevity. Go on Paul, give musicals another chance.

Cover image from Operation Mincemeat.

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Lyn Gardner

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