Merrily we roll out of the theatre

Merrily We Roll Along – Harold Pinter Theatrebooking until 27 July 2013

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 Merrily We Roll Along - Harold Pinter Theatreoutside 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’.

Merrily We Roll Along Trio

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.

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Musical Theatre: Comparing old with new

Last week I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of sampling two musicals. One is a scathing social satire on contemporary values whereas the other is a gruesome tale of revenge that ends in a bloodbath for all concerned. One is a complex work that draws on recurring classical motifs whilst the other takes a magpie approach to the classic styles of twentieth century musicals. One is regarded as one of the great musicals by a legend in his field. The other has been championed by Lorraine Kelly. But are we letting reputations get ahead of us?

In the interests of fairness, Civilian Theatre has assessed the merits of both shows to see whether Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the perennially popular Stephen Sondheim musical that won rave reviews at the Chichester Festival last year and has since transferred to the West End, is really any better than WAG! The Musical, which was enjoying its world premiere at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow.

So there you have it, a win for the WAGS. The colossus of Broadway has been brought to his knees by some upstart wives of footballers. As any sportsman knows – the stats don’t lie. WAG! the musical has proved itself every inch the equal of Sweeney Todd and Sondheim (lyricist for West Side Story, Academy Award Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Winner of 8 Tony’s, 8 Grammy’s and 6 Olivier Awards and with a theatre named after him) clearly has been humbled by a new challenger for the crown.

See more here:


Sweeney Todd

Editors Note: Apologies to Mr Sondheim for the misspelt Sweeney in the above article. If I hadn’t been moved close to despair by uploading gremlins then the amendment would have been made.

Around the Web

To fill the gap in the Civilian Theatre reviewing schedule (taking some respite before the Cultural Olympiad kicks off:

1) For those who like their reviews laced with a splash of acid then those good folk at West End Whingers are more than happy to oblige. They have cast their eye over Bingo and most appropriately have been to the Menier to see Abigail’s Party; a play that Civilian Theatre’s middle-class squeamishness means it cannot be endured:

2) Digital Theatre have been adding to their collection of downloadable plays, and now  Much Ado  About Nothing (with Tennant and Tate) and the wonderful David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker headed production of All My Sons are both available in glorious HD. Given that top price tickets can set you back up to £65 then how about enjoying it in your own house with a glass of wine for £10?

3) Over at the Guardian, there is an editorial praising Stephen Sondheim to tie in with his lifetime achievement from the Critics Circle. Little needs to be said apart from…West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music. Oh yes and Sweeny Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Into The Woods and Sunday In The Park With George. The last remaining great American lyricist even if his career has slowed down dramatically in the last decade.

Here are a couple of clips from two of his most best-loved works:

4) Webcowgirl over at Life in the Cheap Seats discovers the perils of reviewing student shows. Student + Sarah Kane = Pretension – Original vision. As much as I admire Sarah Kane, there can be few artists that have had such a devastating effect on the originality and interest of drama students.

This week Civilian Theatre has been mostly…

…listening to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (the Jason Donovan version naturally). Don’t judge me, blame the BBC’s fantastic The Story of Musicals, which does everything it says on the tin and more.

…watching Game of Thrones Season 1. Again. It’s all worth it for lines as amazing as…“The  next time you raise your hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”

God bless fans with time on their hands

…making my own Salt Beef thanks to Hugh F-W.