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Theatre Review: Lost Musicals and "Get Lost" Musicals

110 In the Shade, Fortune Theatre, London

I have to admit that I like musicals, and especially old musicals of the kind that were common from the nineteen-twenties and thirties until the seventies. True many were arch, whilst others were coy and over-sentimental. But when they worked it was usually because they had wit and charm and, in the years following the end of the Second World War, because they were increasingly grounded in the lives of ordinary people. Their books were written by the likes of Guy Bolton, George Kaufman, Moss Hart and Wolf Mankowitz; with words and music from, for example, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Frank Loesser and Howard Goodall.

Today's musicals, by comparison, affect to be populist operas. Words are at a premium, the intention being to write an "all-through" score, as in Les Miserables. Character and story lines frequently fall victim of the desire to produce knock-out "special effects", like the arrival of the helicopter in Miss Saigon. Story lines are pretentious and amoral (Aspects of Love), extravagant and fanciful (Phantom of the Opera) and naïve and childlike (Beauty and the Beast). Audiences are stunned by sound and spectacle. Humanity and reality lose out to noise and stage technology.

The effect is frequently chilling. I recall seeing Les Miserables at the Barbican—astonishingly it was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. All around me people were clapping and cheering—some had even leapt onto their seats the better to give expression to their feelings. And for what? A great novel had been shredded before our eyes and repackaged as an indifferent quasi-opera. History had been re-written, and events in mid-nineteenth-century France turned into the kind of fiction that I remember as a child associating with the adventures of Flash Gordon at the local cinema on a Saturday morning. Yet people were cheering. How could this be? I felt a huge sense of isolation. It was as though I was a prisoner on another, alien planet.

Contemporary musicals form part of the ideological apparatus of capitalism. Their function is first and foremost to make money for their backers by projecting messages which are consistent with the status quo. To do this they employ lavish sets and imposing numbers of people and special effects in order to tell bizarre tales (Starlight Express) and other unlikely fictions, in a manner which, as one critic puts it, "stuns you into submission". Their size makes them expensive, and in order to recoup their costs they have to continue to pull in the punters literally for years. This means that they have to be pre-packaged and sold. Like Star Wars Episode 1 which is reputed to have carried a pre-showing budget of several millions of pounds in the UK, any significant new musical is going to be hyped for weeks and months before it opens. This makes the critic's job more difficult. An honest opinion is difficult if the pre-production gloss has led you to expect a masterpiece, and if the newspaper in which you write is owned by someone who has invested in the show. But once the public has been persuaded, often regardless of the merits or otherwise of the piece that the show is worth seeing, once a show has survived six months or so in the West End and the coach companies are arranging trips from the far-flung corners of the country, then producers can be pretty certain of getting their money back and more; much, much more.

How nice then to report that for those living near to London it is possible to see musicals predicated, in part, on a different basis. For a couple of years now my partner and I have been attending occasional performances of "The Lost Musicals" on Sunday afternoons in May, July and September. Organised by a charitable trust and managed by a man whose enthusiasm for musicals is as obvious as his indifference to the money-making, in nine years they have managed to offer 160 performances of over 40 different shows which haven't been seen for 30-50 years or so, using 600 actors who have given their services free.

Recently we saw 110 In The Shade, a warm folksy tale based on Richard Nash's play The Rainmaker. Never mind that the actors were reading their parts against a black back-cloth, and singing with the support of only a single pianist, this was a wonderful experience. There was more honesty, warmth, wit and wisdom in this unpretentious show than in all of the lavish musicals on offer in the West End. The best musicals manage to conjure from story, character, music and dance, something close to occasional moments of ecstasy. Perhaps understandably then there was something of the ecstatic in the audience's response.

MICHAEL GILL