What’s wrong with musicals can usually be traced to something in the first ten minutes.
Mark Steyn in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight
What are the key ingredients of a successful musical? First and foremost you need a close integration of book, music and lyrics, and it is still a matter of surprise how many musicals fail because the book simply is not up to scratch in comparison with the professionalism of the song material or simply does not fit their mood and genre. As Mark Steyn says, it is usually possible early on to spot whether a musical will work or not – you can mostly sense in the first scene whether the tone, style, themes and staging will cohere or not.
It was therefore fascinating to be able to put this to the test in an evening devoted to seven highly contrasted musicals-in-the-making. Curated and introduced by Andy Bewley and Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong, the evening comprised twenty-minute sections of works in progress that should be in a position to reach final performance by the end of the year. In some cases we simply heard a selection of songs, in others an opening scene or other significant segments. In none, it would be fair to say were all the desired components in place, and the quality was highly variable, but none were without interest, and the performers will surely have benefited hugely from the opportunity to gain experience in front of an audience. And from our perspective we had plenty of opportunities to reflect on what makes and unmakes a musical.
The Union Theatre was set up in traverse for the staging of Badgirls with the band set in a caged-off area opposite the entrance. It was a good sized group of players, including strings, but sadly rather underused or untested by a majority of the groups who relied on amplified keyboard and percussion. The musical side of the evening was ably superintended by Ryan Durkan, with the one reservation represented by some woeful intonation from the strings.
The first piece, ‘The Bearded Lady’s Tatoo Parlour’ by Ella Grace and Elizabeth Adlington was a disappointment. The plot was far-fetched even by operatic standards, and ran together too many strands of essentially incompatible stories that needed separate treatment if they were not to conflict and cancel one another out – Norse gods, picture-postcard England, and migration issues need room to breathe separately. Moreover, the songs were too wordy and overpowered the music that cloaked them despite some emphatic acting by some of the cast.
‘Tracks’ by Emma Trow was much better structured and through-written. The story of six homeless people in Manchester, the sequence we heard played the trope of role reversal quite neatly and generated some memorable numbers that also made dramatic sense, rather in the way that James Phillips has done for London in his City Stories. There was some fine singing, especially from Charlotte Coe and Jessica Louise Parkinson, although there was simply not enough time to establish all the characters coherently. But this is certainly a show to look for when it returns fully-fledged in August.
‘The Stars that Remain’, with all elements written by Adrian Kimberlin, also impressed, and won the first applause of the evening for particular songs. There is a simple reason for this – these were the first memorable melodies to reach our ears, and the modern ‘concept’ musical would do well to remember that basic law that tunes draw people into the story like no other element in the overall equation. This is a family drama, which was too lightly sketched here to allow us much of an overview, but the ballad-like material promised well, despite some monotony of tone.
Excerpts from three separate works by Benjamin Turner brought us up to the interval with some true style. In many ways these short pieces – from ‘Android’, ‘The Old Man in the Cinema’ and ‘MARS’ were the pieces that worked best in this format because they were dramatically fully comprehensible and musically succinct, with a good balance of up-tempo numbers too – a true medley. Good use was made of the strings here, and there were some witty nods to Sondheim too (eg. a song called ‘Losing My Mind’, set to a tune that sounded close to ‘Anyone Can Whistle.’)
We resumed with a section of a slam musical – ‘BETH’ – which offered a variation on the plot of the Scottish play devoted mainly to decrying its raw masculinity. While there was some neat word play and evocative acting in the work of Thomas Ryalls, the piece as a whole was very confusing and opaque in its current form. Moreover, if there is no band or singing, and only immersive chanting and monologues in a hip-hop style, then timing has to be all. And this group were still very much ‘on the book’ without the snappy command of internal rhythm that is essential for success in this medium.
‘Wonderland’ by Andy Bewley and Olly Wood was a sophisticated riff on the Alice story. Again a short sequence was not sufficient to give a true impression of the qualities of the whole, but it was enough to show that two of the key features of success in this genre were already in place. The music engaged with the sharply characterised figures of the story with real individuality and the text relished the lexical complexity of the original book. Again this piece promises to break new ground where one might immediately think enough had already been said.
The final performance – ‘Wardrobe Musical’ – was also a strong one, where indeed the book, a true if improbable story from the First World War, was perhaps the best suited for musical treatment in the whole evening. The storyline offered – potentially – comedy, pathos and suspense and a most interesting cast of characters, which could be developed into situations of real dramatic potential. Not all the songs were given their full weight (lack of rehearsal time?) so we were not able to form a clear judgement on the music of Ian Stephenson and Adrian Kimberlin, but there were clearly some numbers, both solos and concerted, that possessed real plangency. This project truly deserves to find a dramaturg able to do justice to the material.
So, all in all, it was a long (perhaps overlong) and mixed evening of musical theatre in both aspiration and achievement. An overall star-rating for a composite one-off show of this kind is not very revealing, and the judgement here should not therefore detract from the quality and interest and potential of some of the shows in the making.