When musical theatre grows up

Two conflicting articles here: Neil Tennant (the Pet Shop Boy) arguing that Matilda demonstrates how divorced the musical has become from cutting edge popular music, and Charlotte Skeoch (not a Pet Shop Boy but apparently a ‘critic of anything that moves’) touting Matilda as ‘the start of a creative musical revolution’.

Actually they’re both a little bit right. Tennant is correct in his observation that Matilda, and along with it every commercially successful West End musical of the last 20 years (discounting the revivals or the ones based on songs that already exist), contain ‘the sort of music you only find in musicals’ and have ‘no relevance to contemporary music’. (Let’s ignore the ironic fact that his own foray into musical theatre in 2001 was a commercial flop, because it means I can also ignore the fact that he once sat through a musical that I wrote and maybe considers it guilty of the same shortcomings.)

But Tennant’s conclusion, that musical theatre ought to be turning out more pop hits like in the Good Old Days when Lloyd Webber owned the West End, shows a tragic lack of awareness of the real potential of musical theatre. Yes, in its infancy the musical was the source of all the popular tunes, but that was before popular music had outlets like regular air play, the UK charts, Top of the Pops, albums, iTunes… it was also before pop music became so heterogeneous that every form it takes is a niche interest. Cutting edge pop music has never been less mainstream.

More to the point, it was also before the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein, and after them Sondheim and his many collaborators (and lesser imitators), changed the musical from a showcase for popular tunes into a serious form of theatre in its own right. Lloyd Webber’s marketing of his early musicals as pop albums, shrewd though it turned out to be, was a hugely regressive step; in the hands of greater practitioners the musical had become far more than a collection of songs. Tennant cites the richness of the songs in Oliver! as an example of pop genius, but ignores the fact that putting a Dickens novel on stage with song and dance taken essentially from a cockney tradition – a Londoner’s response to West Side Story – was a bold and brave artistic idea, far from the obvious commercial decision it may seem to us in retrospect. It’s worth remembering that Lionel Bart’s theatre writing had emerged from collaborations with the groundbreaking Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood, whose Oh! What a Lovely War was an even more influential piece of musical theatre, and not because it contained any pop hits.

For musical theatre to be cutting edge again it needs more than good songs – it needs to be cutting edge theatre as well. Which brings us to Matilda, which (as Charlotte Skeoch raves, seemingly forgetting her mandate to criticise anything that moves) is a gloriously crafted piece of theatre, packed full of inventive staging and performed by a wonderful and energetic cast. It also looks gorgeous, though what makes the production special is that you could put it on in a barn and it would still be brilliant.

And yet… what Skeoch conspicuously fails to talk about is the music itself (her fleeting reference to ‘heart warming musical surges’ calls to mind Tennant’s paragraph on theatre critics having ‘no value system for judging the music in musical theatre’). That is because the music is peripheral to everything that makes the show brilliant; indeed, you could remove the songs altogether and it would still work.

Apart from anything else, there’s just not enough of them. There are whole sections in which Matilda tells a story-within-the-story, speaking them over underscore which pastiches circus music as if the production team forgot it was a musical and thought they were making a film. (In fact, in one of the most disappointing sections, the story reaches a climax and is accompanied by film; the inventiveness of the production makes way for lazy special effects, all the more frustrating because the pseudo-shadow puppet style of the film sequence could have been thrilling if performed by real shadow puppets.) These sections, the most melodramatic in the show, are crying out to be sung.

But there’s little attempt at a coherent musical journey in this show, none of the sustained musical argument that the greatest musicals have shown is possible, and the songs are rarely interested in telling story. Instead they hold up the action to show off Tim Minchin’s lyrical cleverness or to let the choreography take over. It’s just as well that it does, because the songs themselves don’t stand up on their own – there are a few hummable tunes here and there and “When I Grow Up” stuck in my head for a while (though I have a feeling that’s more to do with the image that accompanied it) but, as Neil Tennant says, nothing that will have any life outside the theatre. If a musical is going to be about set pieces, it needs to bursting with one great tune after another like an Anything Goes or indeed an Oliver! – this doesn’t even come close. (I won’t even get onto the poverty of harmonic and textural vocabulary in the score because, let’s face it, that is endemic not just in theatre music but in most commercial music full stop.)

It’s refreshing and thrilling to see a West End show which contains such beautifully crafted theatre; but if musical theatre is going to be cutting edge, it’s going to need scores that are every bit as thoroughly crafted. Music needs to be at the centre of any ‘creative musical revolution’ and, as far as I can see, we’re still a long way off.

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