OPINION: Waiting For Applause

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Along with jazz, many consider musical theatre to be the only music styles indigenous to the once great land of America. But as with everything in the modern American era musicals too seem to have become more about quantity and less about quality.

Recently there has been an explosion of performances (and I use the term loosely) gracing the fading boards throughout Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and the various ‘theatres’ above bowling alleys and liquor stores.

It seems every writer with a tiny spark in the right-side of their brain feels the need to add a few kitsch songs performed out-of-time to badly choreographed scenes (Queue: ‘Is The Sun The Moon?’ from Shane Warne: The Musical.)

“Musicals are not just written – they are collaborative creations that must be put together piece by piece,” writes renowned musical theatre and film historian John Kenrick. So you require a lyricist, a musical director, a choreographer, a producer, a director and countless others simply to create one basic piece of musical theatre.

The unsettling thought is that it takes a number of these apparently creative minds to collaborate on a musical that combines the futile song-styling’s of a nineties pop girl-group to create the West End’s latest jukebox musical gem Viva Forever!.

Musicals are to theatre what pop music is to heavy metal: bright, simple and fun storylines custom made for mainstream audiences, and just like pop music the significance of the storylines (again, loosely) is commonly lacking of any genuine substance.

Mega-movie-corp. 20th Century Fox recently announced plans through a joint venture to create even more stage musicals from popular movies despite the many which have come before and both succeeded and failed in equally spectacular fashion.

Variety’s Peter Bart unapologetically agrees, “Rock of Ages is still a hit on Broadway but the movie was a dud, despite Tom Cruise's bejewelled codpiece, and I think Steven Spielberg should have left War Horse to cavort on stage.”

Similar mediocre reviews have been noted for successful and acclaimed musicals turned into average-at-best movies like Hairspray, Mamma Mia! and Chicago.

Thankfully, many touring musicals have proved me wrong and been positively received by regional audiences at DRTCC to near-full houses. Breast Wishes: An Uplifting Musical, Menopause The Musical (is there a theme here?) and many other high-quality touring productions have kept patrons singing in their seats, dancing in the aisles and even one group of mothers shedding tears into their programs during Motherhood The Musical’s tender ballad, I’m Danny’s Mum.

Aside from the previously mentioned Shane Warne: The Musical, few musical theatre performances are aimed towards the male demographic. Although I imagine it may seem a little bizarre to have rugby loving men dressed in singlets and footy shorts singing and dancing about how much they love their universal remote control.

Andrew Horabin’s one man comedy performance of What’s A Man Gotta Do which came to Dubbo in August last year concerning male coming of age and the man’s side of the relationship is perhaps the closest we are going to come to seeing an idea of this ilk into fruition and despite the rave reviews from members of the audience, myself included, it was far from a packed house and it may be unlikely that there is even a market for such a thing.

Musical productions such as The Addams Family have allowed an attempt at blending cultures, appealing equally to little old ladies who enjoyed the antics of Fester and the gang as kids, through to Marilyn Manson-loving séance indulging modern-Goths. (Fellow attendees had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with The Cruel Sea’s man-in-black Tex Perkins at the session I attended.)

Despite a common human ability to generate an opinion based on our personal perception of quality or the definition of entertainment there is always someone, and quite often many someone’s, who do find these experiences appealing.

There should always be enough of a good thing to go around regardless of our personal opinions of quality and although I am far more likely to discover stories of Renaissance-named turtles living in the sewers of New York are actually historical accounts than I am to ever be in attendance at Legally Blonde: The Musical, there is still a place in a pop-culture obsessed world for the resulting storyline that comes from the tiny spark of a writer’s mind.

John Kenrick goes on to provide a brief history lesson, “The inspiration for Broadway's first musical hit came out of sheer desperation. The manager of a 3,000 seat theatre needed something to fill his stage for the fall. He threw together a stranded ballet troupe, a clunky melodrama and a stack of forgettable songs. Strange as that mix may seem, it clicked.”

The musical was The Black Crook which first opened in 1866 and has returned to Broadway fifteen times proving that a mindless journey into desperation can on occasion prove to be commercially and critically successful.

Aussie Theatre’s Les Solomon agrees that we are far away from an era that created such timeless pieces as Annie, Les Miserables and Rent, describing 2012 as “a very, very poor theatre year for musicals in this country.” However, for those who enjoy a relaxed afternoon of performing arts without the need to engage your grey matter to any great extent, modern musical theatre has created an occasion that is perfectly suited to your requirements.

Australian Musicals states, “In Australia, musical theatre is arguably the most popular and highest grossing form of live entertainment, but (except for a few notable exceptions) the musicals which Australian audiences are applauding with their ticket purchasing are invariably international.”

With the recent lobby to have the NSW Government build a Broadway-style musical-specific theatre in Sydney it would seem the demand has become so great that the brief scattering of currently available theatres is becoming a bit thin with reports the waiting list for available dates at many of the major city performing arts venues can be as long as three years.

The comparisons between Sydney’s musical scene and that of the world-standard Broadway are already being made, although our landscape still falls far short of the New York district.

"There are only 100,000 'regular' theatre goers in Sydney and Melbourne,” says James Erskine, former business partner with producer John Frost. “On Broadway they get a million a week."

The beauty of musical theatre is that it may attract an audience who might normally never see a live stage performance. If Viva Forever! can convince a sixteen year old that a night at the theatre is more fun than loitering next to Supre with a Boost Juice, regardless of my impressions concerning the quality of the show, maybe musical theatre is in fact succeeding.

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