It’s a fact of life that musicals nowadays mostly peddle familiar wares, whether repackaging old films (Billy Elliot, Spamalot, The Lion King, The Color Purple, Once etc) or old music (Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, Thriller Live, Let It Be) or both (Top Hat, The Bodyguard, Dirty Dancing).
Or alternatively, they simply offer slavish recreations of past musical theatre triumphs like A Chorus Line (soon to end its run at the London Palladium) and West Side Story (now back at Sadler’s Wells), as a chastening reminder of the kind of originality that musical theatre creators at the height of their game could produce. Both shows are galvanised by their choreographic input, and the thrilling narrative sweep of Michael Bennett’s and Jerome Robbins’s work respectively remains a wonder to behold.
So the arrival of original musicals in this landscape is all the more welcome, but it’s curious, too, how the best of them are, like A Chorus Line, directly self-referential: The Book of Mormon and Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s [title of show] couldn’t be further apart in terms of scale or budgets, but they’re both cut from the same ‘meta musical’ cloth.
These are musicals partly or entirely about musicals themselves, whether as a hilarious pastiche of the form in the case of The Book of Mormon or a sweet but rather sad paean to the struggle of putting them on in the case of [title of show].
But whereas The Book of Mormon arrived in London earlier this year in an avalanche of advertising and marketing that you couldn’t possibly miss, it has increased the delight I found in [title of show] at the Landor this week that it has come in so discreetly.
This is a tiny miracle of a musical that I previously saw in both its Off-Broadway and then Broadway incarnations at the Vineyard and then Lyceum Theatres respectively. I have to confess that my pleasure in it is amplified, of course, for being ‘in’ on the joke; it’s a show that flatters by speaking my language. (Yes, I knew who Mary Stout was, even before the hilarious references here to her being hit by a hotdog cart).
But even if you don’t get the references (and why should you?), its account of the struggle to realise a dream in the face of numerous obstacles is a universal one, and very moving. The fact that this show actually moved on from the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it originally premiered in 2004, then to the Vineyard in 2006 and Broadway’s Lyceum in 2008, is proof of the veracity of the journey the show itself chronicles.
So although it is completely unmissable for those who know and love their Broadway musicals – and you know who you are! – there is a wider resonance, too. But the show makes no apology or concession to that, as the creators found themselves wrestling with doing in seeking to take it to Broadway, but realises that its truth and feeling comes from shamelessly addressing its coterie audience first. As a result, it utterly inhabits its own (and ultimately tiny) world.
But I also can’t help wondering if, in the midst of the onslaught of generic and formulaic musicals designed to appeal to a more general demographic, it is any wonder that original musicals have therefore reached a dead end? Just as Sleuth and then Deathtrap finally put paid to the stage thriller as a viable form, since both revealed the workings behind the thrills, so [title of show], by taking the lid off the painful process of writing new musicals, may have killed the thing it loves, too.
But what a way to go! As performed with a knowing eye by Simon Bailey, Scott Garnham, Sarah Gilbraith and Sophia Ragavelas, it has a winning verve and utter sincerity that is exhilarating.