‘Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publically criticized by illiterates’, wrote Sondheim in Finishing the Hat, by which he meant illiteracy about musical theatre itself. We got to see a little bit of that with the press night of The Go-Between, the most exciting new musical I have seen for years. (In brief: the music is astonishing and has the vocabulary to navigate the psychological nuances of the story, as does a production that plays to every strength of its theatricality, its ensemble cast operating like a beautiful piece of clockwork and accompanied throughout by a single onstage piano which, thanks to the writing and the performance, weaves every colour the score needs whilst retaining an intimacy and intensity that is at the heart of the whole concept. I sat through both acts in what felt like a single breath and it has continued to haunt me since. Go and see it. And take me with you please.)
Not that I was so naïve as to anticipate that response being reflected in the show’s reviews, and even as I staggered out of the theatre trying not to make a fool of myself by weeping too openly on Shaftesbury Avenue I did wonder how far such subtle craftsmanship would go with a critical community more used to seeing (not to mention working in) broad brushstrokes.
Illiterates? Perhaps. It’s hard not to feel empathy with Sondheim when critics of musical theatre have so little belief in the genre: according to The Londonist ‘musical just isn’t the right genre for intense, psychological narrative’, an idea echoed by the opinion in WhatsOnStage that ‘secrets and subtext would be easier if the cast could talk to each other’ – whilst, reducing this to a special kind of stupid, Official Theatre simply has it that this musical contains ‘too much singing’. In The Times we get ‘this is not so much a musical as a play set to music’, which may be the single silliest sentence I have seen in a theatre review, partly because it implies the absence of a librettist and partly because it ignores the development of the function of musical theatre since about 1943.
But perhaps this is not illiteracy so much as inexperience; all of the above demonstrate a profound underestimation of the genre of musical theatre, even resulting in a need to redefine this piece altogether. On BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, Matt Wolf went the whole hog and called it a chamber opera, though his erudite stance was scuppered by host John Wilson explaining that there were no stand out songs and the whole thing was ‘pointless’ because ‘if you love the book, and the film was fantastic, why take it to the musical stage?’ On those grounds we should give some serious re-evaluation to the likes of such pointless musicals as Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, for which there are also perfectly good literary substitutes, not to mention the recent glut of musicals adapted directly from films which are already fantastic.
‘Ah’, John Wilson might respond, ‘but those musicals do have stand-out songs’. His assumption – not an uncommon one – is that the stand-out songs are the point of musicals. Many commercial producers clearly think along those lines with their increasingly desperate attempts to turn some back catalogue into another Mamma Mia, almost as if musical theatre hasn’t moved on since its formative years as a mere glorified revue. But even if that were the case, The Go-Between had been described moments earlier as a chamber opera, and you don’t hear people complaining that The Turn of the Screw is pointless because it doesn’t have stand-out songs and you can read the book.
(Incidentally, both The Turn of the Screw and The Go-Between do have stand-out songs, they’re just rather less heavy-handedly deployed than in, say, We Will Rock You, not least because the composers place storytelling above the audience’s need to clap every few minutes.)
It’s important to point out that not all critics are illiterates, and there have been brilliant and perceptive responses from the likes of Mark Shenton, Edward Seckerson and Libby Purves (perhaps it’s no coincidence that they are largely positive), not to mention from audiences themselves. When I saw the show the now-obligatory standing ovation was genuinely enthusiastic and the audience members who sat in their seats still sobbing as the house lights went up didn’t seem to have had their experience diminished by the shortage of ‘numbers’. It is reassuring that, in spite of the expectations of some critics, music and storytelling are all that’s needed to get that kind of response from West End audiences.
So for all that it has been labelled ‘gentle’, ‘mild-mannered’ and ‘austere’ (it is none of those things, but some critical pulses are evidently conditioned only to respond to heavy synthesisers), The Go-Between lays down a hefty gauntlet. By demonstrating that musical theatre can be sophisticated, even challenging, and still shift seats, it challenges producers to look for ticket sales in quality, not another back catalogue. That way lies a future for the British musical.