Critical responsibility for new musicals

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Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Can critics be part of the dialogue and conversation around the nurturing and development of new musicals, or do we just have to put up and (not so) silently protest when we are faced with some of the routine horrors that are put in front of us?

Are producers feeding the public what they really, really want – with shows like We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages and Let it Be only encouraging, as I wrote here just the other week, "a continued rush to the bottom"?

On the one hand, is it any wonder that the West End has virtually given up the ghost (not to mention trying, and failing, to turn a musical version of Ghost into a hit) in terms of creating original musicals, but is relying nowadays on an endless diet of recycled pop shows or imports of pre-existing Broadway hits, like the imminent arrivals of The Book of Mormon and Once (the latter with a largely Anglo-Irish creative team who had to go to New York to create it before bringing it back home).

Now, however, the tired, lame formula of jukebox catalogue shows is looking like it is on its last legs, too, though just the other day Judy Craymer, producer of Viva Forever!, was putting on a brave face to the Evening Standard, claiming, "The critics were always going to give us a hard time but the truth is it's sold out until June." In which case, one wonders just why the show is at the half price ticket booth every day and tickets are freely available on the ATG website for almost any performance you look for.

But blaming the messenger seems to be a recurring theme: Jennifer Saunders, the show's book writer, added to the Standard, "So the critics – five middle-aged men – didn't like it. If you send your dad to see Viva Forever! on his own then of course he's going to hate it. It was no surprise."

As one of those avowed middle-aged men, I'd only like to point out that many of my colleagues are in fact women, and none liked it any more than we did. In The Times, Libby Purves noted in a 2-star notice, that Saunders's contribution was

…scrappy, lazy, clichéd and inconclusive. Even the end makes no sense, suggesting no jeopardy, choice or sacrifice.

The Stage's Lisa Martland added:

In Mamma Mia!, producer Judy Craymer struck theatre gold with a musical that had just enough of a story to cleverly showcase the excellent pop songs of Abba, but her luck has run out with this truly mediocre attempt at doing the same with the Spice Girls’ back catalogue.

 

And in The Observer, another female critic Miranda Sawyer (who is much younger than Libby, lest age be a factor), wrote:

Oh dear, there is very little to recommend this show. The songs are murdered, either by the set-up – a discussion about middle-aged pubic hair leads, astonishingly, into Too Much – or the arrangement.

Another younger (but male) critic Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out dubbed it "a dull, pointless exercise in not giving the people what they really, really want" and nailed the underlying problem precisely:

For the most part the blandly cast, blandly sung Viva feels like it was knocked off in about five minutes, a witlessly affectionate homage to reality TV talent shows masquerading under the thinnest veneer of satire. It's inconceivable that the intended original Viva Forever! director Marianne Elliott – she of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – would have stood for this, and you only have to look at the just-opened The Bodyguard to see what great direction (from Thea Sharrock) can do for an iffy musical. Viva Forever! is now helmed by Paul Garrington, a longterm Craymer associate whose recent career has largely involved setting up new productions of Mamma Mia! – her sole previous hit – in foreign countries.

Of course all of this has come after the event, as critics have been invited to pass judgement on a show that has already gone through a long period of prior development. But perhaps those negative reviews have dented not just egos but had a positive effect: I'm hearing that it has been re-rehearsed and changes are being implemented. So perhaps it would be interesting to re-visit it now.

I've yet to do that, but more immediately and personally I've seen a creative team respond to my own criticisms of another recent opening – and implement immediate changes. When I reviewed Craig Adams and Ian Watson's LIFT at Soho Theatre that opened the week before last, I wrote in my review for The Stage that it "has sparks of genuine pleasure, but is weighed down by a fragmented, over-earnest structure."

Watson, who wrote the book, duly got in touch with me, admitting, "it's looking like some people are missing a crucial point and without understanding it the whole thing looks just plain odd and fragmented", and offering to send me a synopsis. Of course, no musical should require a synopsis to fully understand it (though it has always intrigued me that the programme for Les Miserables finds it necessary to include one!), but after I read it, I realised I had indeed missed a key point that underlines the show's whole structure. That may well have been me being a bit dim, but as Watson considerately pointed out, the fault can never be with the audience.

But responding to that criticism more directly, the creative team have clarified the thing I missed – and moved it to the top of the show. So I went back to see it again last Thursday, and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. It's not just that they'd taken active steps to embrace the criticisms I'd made and sought to fix their show 'on the run', but even more positively I was struck by how fresh and engaging the show was to its youthful packed audience.

It's fantastic that there's such enthusiastic support for new work like this, and perhaps venues like Soho – which, with its Edinburgh fringe feel of different shows taking place simultaneously on each of its different floors, and its large, buzzy bar space on the ground floor providing a social haven to it all to coalesce around – can offer a home for musicals as well as comedy, which seems to be its default setting these days.

The West End may be the Holy Grail of young (or any) composers, but after the experience of Loserville there last year, perhaps Soho would be a more hospitable home – and still geographically in the West End – for them to find their feet in. Who wouldn't rather play to a full house at Soho than an empty Garrick Theatre in the West End?

I'm going to return to this theme tomorrow, and look at other initiatives that are planting the seeds for musicals to grow.

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