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Musicals, to twist an old Kern and Hammerstein title, are in the air. In London there are new productions of Cabaret, Moulin Rouge and Hex (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty at the National), and in the next month – if the pandemic does not force a delay, Spring Awakening at the Almeida. The Drifters Girl (starring Beverley Knight) has just opened, as has Get Up, Stand Up! (about Bob Marley); Andrew Lloyd Webber’s over-the-top (and inside-out) Cinderella got a belated de facto opening gala at the end of November. Steven Spielberg’s film remake of West Side Story arrives on 10 December. The recent death of Stephen Sondheim produced an outpouring of song and memory.
Perhaps this has something to do with needing an antidote. Anything Goes, a frothy romp set on an ocean liner with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, is due to return next summer after a run that enjoyed ecstatic word-of-mouth reviews stressing its joyousness. There is also, of course, the theatre sector’s urgent need of income after months of closure, and musicals – of which there are 30 now playing in the West End, back up to pre-pandemic numbers – are reliable crowd-pleasers.
But the appeal of musical theatre is far larger than that. Yes, musicals can be frothy, but they can also be very dark. Cabaret is, behind the catchy music, about nazism, antisemitism and abortion; Carousel deals with domestic violence and Oliver! with poverty, criminality, domestic violence (again) and grief. The subject matter can be dry – 18th-century American economic theory, which in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton becomes anything but – or funny. The best shows mine the tension between music and subject matter; a recent close reading by the biographer David Benedict of Every Day a Little Death, Sondheim’s potent sketch of married life from A Little Night Music, revealed just how full of emotional complexity and nuance a show tune can be.
Musicals demand the gamut of performance skills – singing, dancing, acting, comic timing; a successful production must pull all those things off. Opera, which often does too, is generally afforded more cultural respect, but musical theatre is emotionally, musically and culturally accessible in a way that opera, which in Britain at least arrives with formidable barriers of class and education, sometimes isn’t (although it’s true that some West End musicals are beginning to rival and even outstrip opera in ticket prices).
Musical theatre is serious about silliness. And having dispensed with realism in order to sing words rather than say them, the form allows for huge emotions, hugely expressed. Because it is a rare musical theatre number that cannot be hummed – or belted – by anyone, it gives a kind of permission; a language of release. Problems like Maria might never be solved, but musicals are an important source of joy.