The best musicals are the equal of great plays, so why the snobbery?

·5-min read

Snobbery is back. After the catastrophic, industry-savaging closures of Covid, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the theatre along comes playwright David Hare to tell us what we should and, most particularly, shouldn’t be seeing.

Writing last week in the Spectator, he bemoaned the state of, in every sense, play. He recalled a walk last summer past London’s Royal Court, traditionally seen as the country’s leading home for new plays, and where, at the beginning of the 1970s, Hare made his name. Indeed, until The Vertical Hour in 2008, it produced several of his plays.

But Hare found himself dismayed by the theatre’s neon message: “BRB WRITERS AT WORK”. Acknowledging that BRB is an acronym for “Be right back”, he wrote: “It pierced my heart. Why not just mount a neon saying ‘We’ve got nothing worth putting on’?” Ignoring the fact that no sane producer mounts a new play in the summer, when most theatregoers are either on holiday or not wanting to be cooped up indoors, he described similar pain walking past the West End’s ideally proportioned, 759-seat Wyndham’s theatre.

“Squatting there was yet another musical, the one the profession nicknames Wokelahoma.” Warming to his theme, he added: “Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path. It’s a crushing defeat to see Wyndham’s without a straight play.”

Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought

Yip Harburg, lyricist

He has a point. Wyndham’s is not the only playhouse hosting a song ’n’ dance.

Musicals, with vast casts, musicians and backstage crews, are eye-wateringly expensive to produce and require theatres with the largest audience capacities to recoup costs. The West End ranges from the London Coliseum seating 2,359 all the way down to the 431-seat Fortune theatre. The latter, until a few weeks ago and for an astonishing 33 years, housed The Woman in Black. That will be replaced this week by a musical, the transfer of the joyously ludicrous off-West End sensation Operation Mincemeat. So, yes, another playhouse is now housing a musical.

But Hare is ignoring that, strapped for cash, audiences are opting for safe bets. Wanting some guarantee on financial outlay, they are booking titles or stars they know. For producers, new plays have become a risky proposition since even small plays incur terrifyingly high running costs. As the adage goes: as a producer you can make a killing but it’s near impossible to make a living. Prior to opening his West End revival of Shirley Valentine, producer David Pugh banked £4m in advance sales for a show with a cast of one – audience favourite Sheridan Smith – but much of that covered high losses he and his investors made on his marvellous but maverick Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), which won rhapsodic reviews but couldn’t survive the post-Covid audience slump.

But what has stuck in the industry’s craw was Hare’s sneering, his talk of the “defeat” of plays by musicals. Everyone from the Guardian to the Daily Mail ran responses and gave a long list of musicals Hare should consider seeing. Leaping to the art form’s defence, Andrew Lloyd Webber suggested Sir David might be bearing a grudge since the latter’s own musical, The Knife – about a man changing his gender – was a disaster. It ran for less than four weeks in New York in 1987.

Then, yesterday, came a clarification. Stung, one assumes, by the response, Hare wrote to the Times, explaining that he “did not dispute the quality of musicals. Guys and Dolls is a masterpiece and Hamilton is a cracker.” He was questioning “their ubiquity”.

I see. Hamilton is allowed because it’s a groundbreaking work about serious matters and Guys and Dolls is OK because it’s a masterpiece. What about the rest?

To be fair, many musicals are cheerfully mindless. But implicitly lumping them all together into a category beneath “serious” consideration is like watching the 1956 Plan 9 from Outer Space (routinely voted the worst film ever made) or the Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett shocker Saturn 3 (screenplay by one Martin Amis) and declaring all science fiction worthless.

Hare’s quoting of “the profession” to attack the thrillingly reconsidered Oklahoma! suggests he hasn’t actually seen it. Had he done so, he might have been less ready to sneer about it “squatting” there, since director Daniel Fish does to this 1943 American classic what Peter Brook famously did with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He strips it back to its musical and dramatic essence and, without changing a word, reveals it to be earthier, punchier and more vital and vicious than anyone previously thought. And among the seven Olivier awards for which it is in contention next Sunday, one is for actor Liza Sadovy who, a few years ago, was the best thing in I’m Not Running at the National, a play by, umm, David Hare. Is her work in this show worthless?

And what about Rebecca Frecknall’s searingly powerful Cabaret at the Playhouse theatre? Is its study of personal and public politics and creeping fascism insufficiently serious?

Even if a musical doesn’t deal in dialogue arguing issues of the day, is that not theatrically valid? Hare allows the “masterpiece” Guys and Dolls but doesn’t explain why. Cedric Neal and the entire company on rocket fuel, knocking out Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat in Nicholas Hytner’s smash-hit revival, lift the audience into a state of unclouded joyousness no play can match.

Plays deal in words and silence. Musicals use more. Music and dance don’t defeat drama, they amplify it. Or, as Yip Harburg, lyricist of The Wizard of Oz, put it: “Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, but a song makes you feel a thought.” Musicals snobs should open their ears and listen harder.

• David Benedict is the London theatre critic of Variety and weekly columnist for the Stage