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Richard Jordan: I’ve seen the musical of the year – in Vienna

A scene from Schikaneder. Photo: Dean Van Mear
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Schikaneder is the best musical of 2016. It is also a major moment in Vienna’s Raimund Theatre’s history – a world premiere of a new musical, written by Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Christian Struppeck, directed by Trevor Nunn.

The story, which is about staging the premiere of The Magic Flute, is also the best backstage musical since Kiss Me, Kate, and there are echoes of the Cole Porter musical in the troubled romances of actors and managers.

The score highlights the musical writing talent of Schwartz. In past years, we have focused on Wicked and his work with Disney. But Schikaneder reminds us of the composer’s incredible range and versatility – and cements his position as one of the great musical writers of his generation. Yet while Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim have become synonymous with their shows, Schwartz remains a name more deserving of recognition.

Timing is everything in theatre and never more so when it comes to new musicals. The last time Schwartz worked with Trevor Nunn was on the ill-fated The Baker’s Wife at the Phoenix Theatre. Arriving in the midst of a boom time for mega-musicals such as Starlight Express and Miss Saigon, the more intimate shows inevitably suffered, having neither rollerskates nor a helicopter to offer.

Audiences moved away from blockbuster musicals after the 80s, preferring smaller contemporary musicals. That was before the arrival of Disney on Broadway with 1994’s Beauty and the Beast, which led to the spate of movie-to-stage adaptations that continues to dominate today. That may suggest a homogeneity that doesn’t represent the full gamut of work on offer in the West End or on Broadway, but it does beg the question: if you were looking to produce a musical about the goings-on backstage, wouldn’t you be better off hedging your bets and staging a revival of Kiss Me, Kate?

Schikaneder is actually a musical that would be well-suited to some of the UK’s larger stages: the National’s Olivier, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or Chichester, or New York’s Lincoln Center. But, because of Wicked, Schwartz is probably considered too commercial for any of them.

That’s a shame, because musical theatre’s survival is reliant on a multitude of styles and ideas being produced on the main stages. The Raimund is devoted exclusively to producing large-scale musicals and has succeeded in developing an audience who can identify with their many forms. It helps the work, too, which finds a platform from which to launch. It’s yet another reminder of what the UK and the US are missing out on by not having a national theatre for musicals.

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