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Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals reveals the (harsh) truth about musicals

Typical. You wait months for a programme about musical theatre and then two come at once.

On Tuesday, Channel 4 gave us the first episode of its brilliant new series The Sound of Musicals [1], while later that night BBC1’s Imagine strand gave us Broadway Musicals – A Jewish Legacy.

Last week, I wrote about the lack of publicity there seemed [2] to have been around Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals, which was shown in a primetime slot at 9pm. In the event, 1.4 million people tuned in to see it. To give you a comparison, over on BBC2, the 9pm show – Strange Days of Cold War Britain – had 1.3 million. So Channel 4’s show did very well. Just think how many more may have tuned in had they pushed it that little bit harder.

[pullquote]One thing’s for sure, Mackintosh is clearly a hard man to work for. Slightly terrifying, I’d say[/pullquote]

I have already seen episode two of The Sound of Musicals, and it offers an even deeper insight into the brutal world of staging a musical than episode one. If you thought the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory episode last week was interesting, wait until you see this one.

Episode two deals with three shows – Happy Days, Mamma Mia! and Barnum at Chichester. Its particular focus is on the producers of these shows – and how tough it can be both being one, and working for one.

The Happy Days section follows American producer Amy Anzel, “a total outsider” we’re told, who, it turns out, has invested £30,000 of her own money into getting Happy Days to the stage. Anzel has a dogged determination you can’t help but admire. And the episode shows how difficult her journey has been – revealing how she originally lined up Craig Revel Horwood to direct the musical, only for him to pull out. We watch as Anzel pursues Henry Winkler, the original Fonz, as she tries to persuade him to become her new director. Turns out, after not getting a reply to 15 emails, she eventually tracked him down to a book signing in a shopping centre in London just to get some face time with him. Like I said, dogged determination.

The same episode shows the flip side of producing – with Cameron Mackintosh and Barnum. Here we see just how involved – understandably – Mackintosh gets with the creative process of a production. So much so that director Tim Sheader, diplomatically, calls him a “creative producer” while trying his best to conceal his frustration at Mackintosh’s demands and squeels of “this looks shambolic”. One thing’s for sure, Mackintosh is clearly a hard man to work for. Slightly terrifying, I’d say. But it also shows how much he cares for his productions and their quality.

What this episode demonstrates is just how tough it is to be a producer, and how involved they are. They’re not just about raising the money for a show.

And anyone thinking about being one might like to take David Ian’s advice, who says in the show:

Be really prepared for more rejection than you ever thought possible.

While Nica Burns adds

If you’re not prepared to give your life to it, don’t do it.

The same could be said for anyone wanting to be an actor, of course. And as we watch a young performer from Mamma Mia! (Dickie Wood) being put through his paces in rehearsals and told he’s not quite up to standard, we are reminded just how hard it is for them too.

In short, this series is doing a wonderful job of showing the general public that, while what they see for one night on stage is glamorous and spectacular, the work that goes into making a show look that way is intense, stressful and tough. Bravo Channel 4 for highlighting this.