3 May

In defence of the musical

first_imgMusicals are easy to look down upon, but immensely difficult to hate. Even the most ardently high-brow theatre-goer can find himself wrenched between tears and laughter during a musical, experiencing dizzy highs and lows of emotion that stage-plays simply cannot ignite. But many cannot help but think that, when all is said and done, they are just candy-floss for the brain. Or is that just rampant pretension unleashed? We asked Lauren Bensted (pictured), an Oxford student who has just written a new musical, SWING! According to Bensted, musical theatre is ‘more ridiculous, but great fun,’ and while it is considered less highbrow to put on a musical in Oxford, they can be intensely rewarding. Showing at the O’Reilly in 4th Week, Swing! is a witty and skewed take on a North London tennis club and the issues involved with upsetting the status quo of suburban life. With its mockery of middle-class antics, this Oxford musical is certainly not candyfloss. What’s more, Bensted says she was concerned to ensure the piece didn’t become ‘all shock and no heart.’ Who said musicals are simply melodrama? In fact, musical theatre is not very far removed from opera, that bastion of ‘establishment’ art. Powerful use of song and melodramatic storylines link the two genres closely. Who, after all, would claim that the plot of La Traviata is superior to that great musical Les Misérables, or that Cosí fan Tutte is more poignant than The Phantom of the Opera? Both these musicals are based on the plots of high literary novels; indeed Phantom is set in an opera-house. So perhaps opera and musical are not so far apart after all. It’s tempting to suggest that musicals have taken the place of the increasingly marginalised operatic form. Opera was originally invented to recreate the aura of the highly stylized, yet approachable, ancient Greek plays in a way that the stature and language of ancient texts themselves forbade. Now the extreme emotion and high drama of the classical age reaches far more people through musicals than through opera. Although they are linked, we can definitely spot differences. Opera singers are just that, singers first and foremost, while stars of musical theatre are often simply actors who can carry a tune. Opera also emphasises fully sung dialogue, something musicals by and large avoid (although some do not – Les Miserables for example.) But these, surely, are stylistic differences only. We would expect less of a division in taste between the two camps. And the use of professional actors should bridge the divide between musical and traditional stage plays, which, as anyone who has ever been to the Globe Theatre will affirm, often have strong links to music and dance. The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, holds the key to understanding the divide. Gay satirised the operatic traditions of the day, removing the action from courts and palaces and placing it on the streets and in the taverns. A highly educated and influential figure, he nevertheless felt that the elaborate offerings of the then maestro of the London scene, Handel, lacked a certain basic humanity. The Italian arias were replaced with risqué pub songs, and opera was effectively popularised. Can this be the source of enmity? Can it be that opera, and theatre, have never really forgiven Musicals for poking fun at their pretensions to high art, poking fun at them and then, adding insult to injury, pulling in thousands more viewers, and thousands more pounds? In fact, Bensted’s musical Swing! will carry on the tradition of poking fun at upper-class pretensions. However, mocking though it might be, Bensted did not set out to be vicious: according to her, Swing! is ‘It’s a celebration at the end of the day’ In the end, perhaps what distinguishes musicals from other theatre is that, while operas and plays can be all head, musicals are always all heart.last_img read more