Among otherwise level-headed people musical theatre remains a peculiarly divisive form of popular culture. There are many of who would happily sit through two and a half hours of magic-soaked love stories in the forests outside of Thebes, or will extol the merits of a Turner-prize winner whose contribution to the artistic world is to create soundscapes under Glaswegian bridges.
However present them with a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written musicals as diverse as an examination of the life of pointillist painter, George Seurat; or the gore-spattered grand guignol of the demon barber of Fleet Street; or even an unpicking of the psychological darkness at the heart of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, and they will raise their eyebrows and silently mouth the words ‘jazz hands’.
Watching productions like Merrily We Roll Along act as a constant reminder why such narrow-minded viewpoints need to be challenged. Certainly the landscape of musical theatre has changed markedly since Stephen Sondheim made his career by writing the lyrics for Bernstein’s West Side Story. The rise of Andrew Lloyd-Webber that introduced pop-sensibilities and extravagant staging to Broadway couldn’t be further away from the nuanced lyrics and subtle melodies that encapsulate the magic of Sondheim.
The divide only got greater in the last two decades, as the rise of the mega-musical from Mamma Mia! to We Will Rock You saw a new way for theatre producers to cash-in; tapping into the recognition factor of proper bands set against a licence to perform them in a sub-par way with a witless plot under the banner of ‘musical theatre’ – surely as lowest common denominator entertainment goes these productions are right up there with ‘X-Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.
The Menier Chocolate Factory must be applauded for setting itself against the tide and producing a string of Sondheim revivals that remind us that there are people out there who see no distinction in artistic merit between a ‘play’ and a ‘musical’. In bringing us A Little Night Music, Sunday in the Park with George and now Merrily We Roll Along – transferred to the West End – the Menier has proved time and again that there is a space for intelligent, difficult musicals that can be both commercial and critical hits.
Merrily We Roll Along, a notorious flop when it opened, has taken two decades to gain similar levels of acclaim to what are seen as Sondheim’s masterpieces. However the intervening years have only served to increase its relevance to the audience. Charlie’s bitterness at Franklyn’s desire to follow the money and to leave ‘proper’ writing behind him only seems more familiar to a theatre-scene where, despite writing the lyrics for the commercial smash-hit of Matilda, Tim Minchin finds it difficult to raise any funding for a musical that isn’t based on an existing concept.