An Article for the British Musical Theatre Network about Five musicals I can't forget

  • Follies by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman

I should say that I found it hard to not pick five Sondheim shows for this list. But Follies is the one that I find most engrained in my consciousness. A group of elderly performers return to the theatre where they spent their youthto celebrate the past before the theatre is demolished and turned into a parking lot. The juxtaposition of the promise of youth and the compromises of growing up is something I find impossibly moving. Sondheim cleverly combines pastiches songs from the days of variety and music hall with more contemporary songs of regret, uncertainty and memory. It is a show about the choices we make and the lives we are stuck with set against the fading glow of the golden age of American theatre. People often think musicals set in the theatre are always celebratory but this show is acidic, painful, jubilant and nostalgic. It smashes together two timelines and did so more than three decades before Netflix made that sort of device the mainstream. It is structurally and tonally inventive in a way few shows before or after have ever managed.

  • London Road by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork

I spent most of this show with my mouth wide open. I just couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing.  London Road is the story of a community grappling with the effects of a local tragedy and their efforts to create a new sense of identity to rebuild their reputation and lives. Alecky Blythe, an experienced verbatim theatre practitioner, interviewed members of the community and with composer Adam Cork, pushed the technique of verbatim dialogue to create a mesmerizing polyphonic score. Without compromising, the writers were able to make a piece of musical theatre about the narrative around the murder of prostitutes, a raw and difficult topic, without compromising under the typical expectations for musicals. London Road demonstrated that musicals can combine the pace of exposé journalism with the warmth of the domestic documentary to enhance the emotional connection, tension and intimacy of its characters. Perhaps the specificity of a verbatim-musical has made it seem like an anomaly rather than a paradigm shift but I really think its effect on tone, storytelling and character will have long lasting effects on the British musical. 

  • The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Kander and Ebb, inherently self-aware artists, have always used a purposeful storytelling form to disguise much darker stories. The gap between form and content is most intelligently used in The Scottsboro Boys, where they utilise a minstrel show to tell the shattering story of the Scottsboro Nine, a group of young black man wrongly accused of raping two white women on a train. The piece deftly subverts the medium by using joyful, upbeat performative numbers to expose the crushing reality of injustice. The tension between the style and the story gets pulled tighter and tighter until it eventually snaps. Kander and Ebb illuminate a dark side of humanity where we must face our imperfect treatment of humans in all its complexity, difficulty and brutal honesty that the world is not just or hopeful for many of those around us. don’t think I have ever been so dazzled by the sheer talent and energy of a show and its cast or ever so crushed by its conclusion. I was a crying mess through its finale. For me, musical theatre is at its best when it takes an audience somewhere that no other medium can go. This piece left me emotionally washed out in a way no other theatre trip has ever managed.

  • Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon

This show is significant in that it marked my first professional production, but also because it connected me to a larger world of emerging musical theatre artists. I stumbled across Adam Gwon on myspace, first noticing that we admired similar writers- Sondheim, LaChuisa, Guettel and then listened to his music influenced by these artists, but more importantly, reflective of the ordinary world around him. His songs weren’t about extreme situations, but everyday people, dealing with everyday struggles. Again I think people often assume that musicals have to be overwrought, melodramatic and extreme but these songs and characters were quiet, internal and conveyed their feelings with intimacy and warmth. The piece has four characters but via their intersections it also hints at much larger themes of fate, randomness and the ephemeral nature of life. It shows that musicals can be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time and that they can combine deep meaning with a good sense of humour.

  • Groundhog Day by Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin

I had given up hope in musicals adapted from films. I’d always felt that they were inferior to the original. That is until this show. It is the story of Phil Connors a man who gets stuck in a time-loop, destined to repeat the same day over and over again. Where a film can only offer close-ups, this piece moves into people’s minds and looks at their deepest fears, wishes, insecurities and beliefs. It takes a little time to get going as we have to understand the rules of Phil’s day and what events are set to repeat. But after repeat three, things start to get really special. Time collapses, moments expand and contract, thoughts are shared and lessons are learnt. Music is the glue that guides us smoothly from moment to moment and takes us into and out of people’s heads. The Act one finale might be the best I have ever seen; Not only has our protagonist reached a realisation that he needs to change but suddenly the voices of the rest of the cast layer into a polyphonic hope that ‘someday’ they will start living the life they know can be in their grasp. Where the film hints at the catharsis of living better, the musical leads to a full blown release that one day we might all be healthier, be kinder, spend more time on the things we care about and learn to be less afraid. I have to admit that during the interval, with most of the narrative taken care of, I had no idea what was going to happen in Act Two. But what the piece did really amazed me; it took a deep dive into philosophy, depression, decision-making and mortality. Never before had I seen a commercial piece that managed to be so subversive. I have always felt that musicals should allow us to look into the metaphysical and philosophical, to ask why we are here and why we are alive. Something about music can take stories past our brains and into our bones. That magic happens so rarely for me and it happened in Groundhog Day. It found puddles in the film and used music and lyrics to turn them into wells and that is what I think can make musicals really special.