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When musicals go bad

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Why is it that musicals frequently get treated without the proper respect they deserve?

No other art form suffers from the stigma musicals often have directed towards them and frequently this is from the arts industry itself. Of course they can be an easy target for mocking by those who will be amused by the idea of actors playing cats or trains on stage and throw scorn on the saccharine ballard that sticks in your mind for weeks afterwards – but, thanks to their frequently populist style, musicals can also go to places and reach audiences that no drama could ever manage to achieve: take Next to Normal, South Pacific and Of Thee I Sing as three such examples.

When go wrong, though, the fallout can be both colossal and legendary partly because of the enormous expenditure involved to produce them and also because they are very hard to get right. It was Cameron Mackintosh who famously said that “musicals do not get written, they get re-written.”

For Peter Michael Marino, the book writer of the 2007 West End flop Desperately Seeking Susan (based on the 1985 film with songs by Blondie), that expression could not be more pertinent as he tells the experiences of the show’s journey to the stage in his entertaining solo show Desperately Seeking the Exit currently playing London’s Leicester Square Theatre.

It should be essential viewing for any musical theatre scholar. While his honest account is frequently hilarious, he also captures the obvious pain and heartbreak of seeing your work pulled apart and failing. Often in the crash and burn moments of any theatrical disaster that become the subject of backstage gossip, we forget the human side and those months and years of work dedicated by individuals to bringing a show to life, only to watch it close weeks later. For Marino, it was clearly a devastating and brutal experience for which his solo show has perhaps helped serve as therapy.

[pullquote]The book writer is often overlooked or not treated with the respect they deserve[/pullquote]

Frequently forgotten and yet the critical aspect for the success of any musical is the book. The book writer is often overlooked or not treated with the respect they deserve. As with Desperately Seeking Susan, when things are not working on a musical, the book often ends up getting re-written by committee – even if it is not the actual problem.

Maybe this is because when things are not working those involved can easily target the book and meddle with it while (in all likelihood) being less equipped to attempt re-writing score or lyrics.

Seemingly, it sees everyone become an expert and from then on it can easily turn into a spiralling path. This is the reason why the book, as the soft target, often gets blamed – but as Marino illustrates in his insightful and cautionary tale, musicals can make people crazy.

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