Question: what makes a great musical? Answer: well….
27th June 2013
As ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ receives muted reviews, the question arises: what makes a great musical show? First published in the Daily Telegraph, 27 June 2013.
I took part in a pretty sticky debate on Radio 4’s Today programme towards the end of last year, when I was invited to join the venerable lyricist Sir Tim Rice in answering the question – in about the time it takes to boil a kettle – “What makes a good musical?”.
It was not a happy occasion: the news was still streaming in about the terrible massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, which claimed 27 lives. Under the circumstances, it seemed almost grotesque to care much about whether Viva Forever! – the Spice Girls musical, which had become the talk of the town after its critical mauling – would sink or swim, and why.
One of the most useful observations Sir Tim edged into the conversation before we hit 9am and “crashed the pips”, was his contention that a good “book” – a strong story, well told through characters and dialogue – was the essential building block, even before you came to the merits of the score or the potency of the staging. That insight, gleaned from years of such triumphs as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar through to The Lion King, helped to enlarge the scope of the discussion beyond the usual lamenting over the preponderance of jukebox musicals – with which London remains replete, despite the imminent (hardly surprising) departure of Viva Forever! from the West End this coming Saturday.
Laying aside the fact that there are some inspiring examples of the back-catalogue musical – most notably the Abba-based Mamma Mia! – if you were going to create an “original” show, what would you need? A good book, right; maybe even the Good Book? And yet the mixed bunch of reviews that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has just received, following its big-splash opening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, has one scratching one’s head all over again.
Because if there’s one thing this show can already count on as an irresistible ingredient, it’s a brilliant story: loved by children, fondly remembered by adults – perpetuated in classrooms and promulgated by Hollywood. Provided the adapter, in this case the Scottish playwright David Greig, doesn’t tinker too much with the essentials – and Roald Dahl’s estate would hardly countenance that – it should be a case of working out how to do the oompa-loompas, making sure you’ve got lots of catchy tunes, a spree of mouth-watering sets plus a show-stealing Wonka, and you’re well away to making plenty of wonga.
Dahl’s 1964 classic is almost the stuff of Oliver! – boy escapes poverty-stricken surroundings to enter a world of mischief, adventure and temptation while keeping his purity and innocence intact. Yet though the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer has in the past hailed Lionel Bart’s inspired take on Dickens as the best of British musicals – a roll call that includes that other tale of boyish pluck pitted against adversity, Billy Elliot, and the RSC’s Matilda, another Dahl tale that features a spirited young scamp as its star – no such endorsement has been forthcoming on this much-hyped occasion, directed by Sam Mendes.
“It only rarely touches the heart or stimulates the imagination,” Spencer sighed, issuing his three-star notice; and while other critics have been kinder in their ratings, his basic sentiment – that the show is missing some crucial magic, a special “something” – have been echoed across Fleet Street.
It’s not that Spencer’s called it a stinker, but with so much creative and producing firepower behind it, it should be smelling sweeter than this if it’s to have a hope of making it to the realms of the long-runner, let alone the pantheon of greats.
Of course, it’s easy enough to sit on the sidelines and snipe at family-friendly entertainments as “not worthy enough” in some indefinable way. In its defence, I took my eight-year-old daughter and her friend to the opening Saturday matinee. And even though the great glass elevator got stuck at a climactic scene, halting the performance, they had a whale of a time, a reaction only partially assisted by the artificial stimuli of the Wonka-esque confectionery they brought with them from the sweet shop over the road.
Yet were they clamouring to continue their relationship with the show by taking the music home with them? Even if a CD had been on offer, there was no discernible yearning on their part to sustain the afternoon’s delight. I can’t help contrasting that easy-come easy-go attitude with my own obsessional devotion as a child to the recordings of Oliver! and Jesus Christ Superstar, which I played again and again, despite not having seen the shows on stage.
What came bursting forth from those two shows is something I have detected in every other transfixingly good musical I’ve since had the pleasure to watch. However important the presentational aspects are, they are barely half the story. Even the individual songs, however exquisitely crafted, don’t in themselves explain the spell that is cast. What is essential – antiquated and quasi-religious though it sounds – is something underpinning it all called “soul”.
It doesn’t matter how much money, time and effort is thrown at a musical; if it doesn’t offer, at least in significant part, some profound sense of expressing our innermost being, then it’s money, time and effort largely wasted. By profound I don’t necessarily mean heart-on-sleeve agonising. Yes, there’s an intensity about the wretchedness of Les Misérables’ maltreated Fantine, and about her big solo I Dreamed a Dream, that hits you in the guts and knocks you for six. A similar high-voltage sensation should run through you when you hear the orphan Oliver cry out to an unlistening world, Where is Love?
Yet the same spine-tingling effects can be wrought by the opposite emotional polarity, as with Oh,What a Beautiful Morning, that joy-infusing opener to Oklahoma!, or the stomping 11 o’clock number Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat in Guys and Dolls. These are transcendent moments, and no amount of technical skill can mask a deficiency in that department.
The best musicals trade in the same gold as the best opera, but they tend to obtain it by unwrapping something apparently ordinary – the grandeur is hard-earned, not a given.
The problem with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? You’re drawn into a landscape, but it’s not peopled with fully living and breathing creatures; the chocolate river looks enticing but there’s little chance to grasp the feelings coursing through the Bucket family or their colourful arch-saviour. It’s enough for an afternoon, but not for a lifetime.
What’s so wrong with that, you say – and I can also hear objections piling in from other directions. If “soul” is what matters so much, how do you explain the success of We Will Rock You, the Queen musical excoriated by critics for being soulless and shoddy when it opened in 2002, yet still proving a huge hit with audiences; or that sell-out sensation from the South Park team, The Book of Mormon, which appears specifically designed for a more cynical, cold-hearted age? I suppose I’d counter that it is the life-force spirit in the music of Queen that renders that show’s limitations irrelevant – and that beneath the veneer of Mormon’s knowingness there beats a true, touching faith in humanity.
I’m aware that this “thesis” can’t translate into hard and fast rules – and also that “good” is different from “successful”. Why is the superlative A Chorus Line closing early in London? Why is the exquisite Sondheim revival Merrily We Roll Along fighting for every ticket sale? Even masterpieces can be ignored. Public taste can still make the odd turkey fly.
By coincidence, the same night Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was opening in London, I was seeing a new musical by the Calendar Girls writer Tim Firth in Sheffield, called simply, drably even, This is My Family. By any West End reckoning, it has an incredibly pedestrian book – detailing the lives of an ordinary family experiencing the pains of getting older – and its dinky house-shaped design isn’t much to write home about. Yet it absolutely catches the highs and lows of being in a family like nothing else I’ve seen in ages.
If Sam Mendes is like a chocolatier, mixing his version of Charlie using a range of gorgeous ingredients, Firth is like a chef improvising a wet-camping holiday meal – yet with a hint of Ayckbourn here and maybe a scent of Willy Russell there, he conjures total magic. I wonder which of the two shows will still be knocking around in 20 years’ time.