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New musicals and the critics

A scene from The Light Princess at the Lyttelton Theatre, National, London. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
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Just the other day I was lamenting the opportunities for writers of new musicals to get their work heard in the West End, and quoted Nick Hytner’s brilliant comment to Tori Amos: “The hardest form to achieve on stage is a good musical. There are more failed musicals than any type of art.”

In fact those words echoed around my head as I saw Amos and Samuel Adamson’s The Light Princess when it opened at the National on Wednesday. Despite many good features that I took pains to identify, the production felt to me in the end to be a misfire, unsure of who it being aimed at, as I wrote in my review for The Stage here.

Or maybe it is just me who is unsure. (I never said that I was infallible). In fact, as so often when it comes to musicals, the critical response has truly run the gamut of responses – from one star (Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail) to five (Simon Edge in the Daily Express), with everything in between (two Lyn Gardner in The Guardian; three stars from Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph; four stars from Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard).

With so many competing opinions to choose between, there’s something  to support every possible reaction to the show here.  The good news, of course, is that critics no longer have the power (if they ever did) to make or break a show – but we can of course gently nudge an audience one way or another. And it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

I can be a cheerleader for shows I love and am known to even put my money where my mouth is by buying tickets to see things again…. and sometimes again. In the case of The Light Princess, I even put my money before my opinion in order to have an unsullied one, when I bought a ticket for a preview as I didn’t want to arrive on the first night with my head full of the noisy opinions of those who had already seen it.

Of course even this is not a risk-free option; I now arrived at the first night with my mind cluttered with some of my own opinions. But I also think that musicals are such complicated beasts that they’re impossible to fully absorb on a single viewing, and so demand further exposure before rushing to judgement.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen three more new musicals – two of them in the US – that I may yet need to see again.  In London, the unashamedly crowd-pleasing elements of The Commitments are clear for all to see; unlike The Light Princess which aimed high and therefore had further to potentially fall, The Commitments is a scrappy, cheerfully chaotic show that only acts as a springboard for a collection of soul classics.

It duly succeeds in its limited ambitions. As a lover of original musicals, I may have wished for something else, and indeed in my review for The Stage compared it to shows that do offer something more original in Jersey Boys and Once. But as I also concluded, “It is, at least, a significant improvement on the soon-to-depart Rock of Ages, for which it deserves thanks.”

In the US, meanwhile, two more original musicals by two of the brightest composers working there now coincidentally opened on the same night last Sunday, and I caught them both the previous Thursday. On Broadway, Andrew Lippa, previously represented there by his score for the musical version of The Addams Family, returned to score a new stage adaptation of the Tim Burton film Big Fish, which actually turns out to be a small fish in a big pond of musicals.

There’s much of great beauty in the show, particularly the design work of Julian Crouch, Lippa’s frequently lovely melodies and the terrific leading man Norbert Leo Butz; but it feels both muted and strenuous amidst Broadway’s splashier values. (If I’d seen it somewhere more modest like Playwright’s Horizons, it might have resonated more).

As Dominic Maxwell, the new chief theatre of The Times who was also out in New York last week put it in his Broadway round-up,

I waited in vain for this diffuse story of a straitlaced son and his dying, story-spouting dad to take off…. Big Fish isn’t a stinker. It’s just awfully ordinary. Which, for a show with a budget of $14 million (£8.8 million), with tickets that will cost anything up to $200 (£126) a pop, is no good at all. This is the downside of Broadway: a lot of spectacle, a lot of talent, all in service of a story that doesn’t convince you it’s worth all that bother.

By comparison, there was a lot more fun to be had across the Hudson River at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, where I travelled earlier the same day I saw Big Fish to catch Jason Robert Brown’s long-gestating Honeymoon in Vegas at last reach the stage. I’ve been hearing Brown playing songs from this score in his concert shows for years, it seems; and its lovely to see him having fun, too, with a story that is a polar opposite to his more earnestly personal and reflective work like The Last 5 Years or Parade.

It needs a better, more enhanced production than it is currently getting; but there’s a highly enjoyable show in there. Meanwhile, the busy Brown also has another new show, The Bridges of Madison County, already lining up for a Broadway bow in  January, and I can’t wait to see it.

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