The Unrelenting March Of The Awful West End Musical

Contrived, cliched and full of instantly forgettable, dreadful songs – what on earth drives audiences to this endless stream of empty theatrical spectacle?

If you travel regularly on London’s underground – as I reluctantly do – then it must be hard to avoid the endless posters advertising a constantly growing flood of West End Musicals. They are everywhere and overwhelming and they drive me to despair.

I don’t like musicals – especially stage musicals. The sheer awfulness of it all, from the bland MOR song and dance routines to the performances that involve vigorous projection to the back row, the whole thing seems numbingly dreadful and overblown. But, you know, each to their own – if you are a fan of such things, good for you. You should probably stop reading now.

I’d be happy to ignore these awful-looking examples of theatrical excess aimed at the unadventurous and uncultured if it wasn’t for the fact that they seem to be spreading like a virus. Is there room for serious and provocative theatre anymore? Less and less, it seems, as the need for venues to host these expanding shows increases.

And then there is the continual lack of imagination at work. It seems that the fans of musical theatre are increasingly reluctant to watch anything that they don’t already know. If it isn’t a show cobbled together from the back catalogue of a band whose fans are now past the age of attending actual gigs and instead want some half-baked narrative structure alongside a collection of songs that they are completely familiar with – guaranteed to allow you to sing along from the opening show onwards – or they want something adapted from a film or property that they already know. It’s mostly stuff that was fairly disposable guff to begin with – Bend It Like Beckham, Pretty Woman, Calendar Girls, The Devil Wears Prada, Billy Elliot, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Bodyguard and a host of other throwaway movies all now clutter up the theatres telling safely familiar stories with instantly forgettable song and dance numbers crowbarred into the narrative. A few films at least seem to lend themselves to the concept of the musical – Hairspray and The Producers at least had a theatrical setting, musical numbers or dance segments to begin with, even if the stage version crams more in there. But when you see films – including edgy, cult films that have no reason to be violated and enfeebled other than because they have now entered the canon of ‘classic’ cinema after years of being only loved by small groups of fans – it feels like a slap in the face. Did we honestly need musical versions of Heathers, Back to the Future, Carrie, Groundhog Day, Shrek or Almost Famous? Are we honestly supposed to believe that these films are lacking something that only the addition of songs by Tim Minchin can supply? The existence of a musical – at least a successful musical – based on a film feels like a violation of the film itself – you can never quite look at the film the same way again or reference it in conversation without adding “the movie, I mean”.

I suppose The Little Shop of Horrors stage show is not entirely dreadful and I can see the amusement value of the small-scale adaptations of things like The Evil Dead or Debbie Does Dallas. But I still think that the world would not be a lesser place without them. As for the ‘greatest hits’ musicals that scoop up the back catalogues of Abba, Queen and similar bands who may have once been cutting edge but who have now safely slipped into the world of middle-aged nostalgia acts and then link them together with a half-baked and desperate storyline by the likes of Ben Elton… really, what is the point? There are already countless tribute acts out there for all these bands. The storylines for these compilation shows are invariably flaccid rubbish that exist only to move things from one song to another, replacing the songs by original performers or soundalike tributes with dehydrated versions from jobbing theatre performers who move from show to show, never bringing anything more than forced jollity and desperation to any of them, a clenched fist held in the air at the end of every number in determined defiance of the blandness of it all. The entire thing feels like a cash-grab by ‘heritage’ acts who can never make enough money to satisfy their own greed and sense of importance and so will cheerfully sell out their back catalogue to the highest bidder.

What’s more, these shows seem increasingly desperate, as the most obvious properties have already been hoovered up. There seems to be no level of real-life misery and horror that can’t be given a feel-good musical makeover, so Brass Eye‘s spoof story of a Yorkshire Ripper musical increasingly doesn’t seem that far from potential reality. And then there are the ideas too absurd for words. Earlier this year I was marvelling at the concept of Spitting Image the Musical, wondering how you take a topical sketch show performed by puppets and turn it into a musical extravaganza. More importantly though, I was wondering why. Where does all this end? Musical versions of Newsnight? Snuff? Metal Machine Music? Never say never.

Here’s the thing. I don’t hate every musical. I enjoy The Rocky Horror Show – or at least The Rocky Horror Picture Show, because even here I’ll take the movie over the stage show (and I’ve seen both, several times). I like Singin’ in the Rain. I’m sure that there are some other musical movies that I have enjoyed, though I can’t actually think of any right now. I like movies about music that are not musicals like Phantom of the Paradise (let’s not fight about this: it isn’t a musical and you know it). But I can’t really find an excuse for people randomly bursting into song during a narrative story, especially a serious narrative story. That just removes me from the whole thing. And in truth, I’m not a huge fan of large-scale theatre in general – all that projection, dramatic posturing and general exaggeration that comes from making sure the people at the back get their money’s worth is lost on me. Movies (and TV) are the superior art form, only let down by British theatrical luvvies who can’t come to terms with the fact that they don’t have to bellow every line when they are on screen.

I do understand that theatre in general, and musical theatre in particular, provides a certain immediacy for audiences. I can appreciate why tourists think taking in a show is part of a holiday experience. More to the point though, I get why theatres pander to the masses and aim their productions at the lowest common denominator. Like West end pubs that promote ‘the best’ fish and chips (we can discuss London fish and chips another time because I naturally have much to say about that) or their traditional nature, shops selling tourist tat or double deckers on the tourist trail, they know what people want and they give it to them. Whether that is a movie adaptation, a collection of Meat Loaf songs or a Lloyd Webber revival, they will play it safe. And yes, I know that there is newer, edgier, experimental stuff out there – but much of this also plays it safe in its own way. Modern theatre is increasingly likely to speak to popular political ideals rather than pushing buttons in the way that people like Edward Bond or Sarah Kane did.

But musical theatre’s odd fan base – the people who really, really love it in an unironic and uncontrived way- remains a mystery to me. I can’t understand what they see in it, not even in the kitsch way that some seem to cling to as justification for being fans of the genre full stop rather than simply enjoying certain shows. I’m baffled by those people who like musicals simply because they are musicals. Yet there are enough of them to support the existence of Musical Con, a weekend-long event that is about to have its second year at ExCel in London – no small venue, that. A ComicCon for musical theatre is beyond baffling to me, but then I imagine that its attendees are equally baffled by ComicCon. Performers and industry professionals will be there, creating what for me would be a living hell. Hopefully, someone will go along to politely ask them to please leave classic cinema and classic rock alone, and to instead try to come up with a few original ideas.


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One comment

  1. The Marc Bolan ‘Musical’ 20th Century Boy was embarrassingly poor…thankfully it seems to have sunk into a deep pit and has been erased from memory…the plot (what plot?) was factually all over the place, the ‘acting’ lame and the lead characters wig kept almost falling off while he leapt about like an overanimated three year old high on ritalin (including one bad taste scene when he humped June Child onstage ..jeez!). It was all just an excuse to pass the time until the finale when the entire company mangled Marc Bolan’s greatest hits and the audience got to stand up and gulder along…I’m not a fan of theatre but this particular disaster put me off for years…

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