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Richard Jordan: We need to judge musicals on their own terms not against the classics

Manu Narayan, Jay Klaitz, Mitchell Jarvis, Tad Wilson, Paul Whitty and Sawyer Nunes in Gettin' the Band Back Together at Belasco Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus Manu Narayan, Jay Klaitz, Mitchell Jarvis, Tad Wilson, Paul Whitty and Sawyer Nunes in Gettin' the Band Back Together at Belasco Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus
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For whatever reason, some musical theatre shows are virtually written off before they have even opened. It can’t be because the premise seems terrible, as applying that logic would knock out a large part of the populist musical cannon.

Gettin’ the Band Back Together, which ended its short-lived Broadway run a couple of weeks ago, is the latest example. I caught the show just before it closed. The theatre was rattling with empty seats and before curtain up the audience looked fed-up – they had most likely booked their tickets before the damning reviews were published.

What happened next surprised me. The audience, which had started out so deflated, was soon laughing – for the right reasons, I should stress – and continued to do so throughout the performance.

Was this a case of ‘failing-show syndrome’, where audiences enjoy a production because it beats the low expectations set by negative reviews? This syndrome can lead to some patrons rooting for the underdog, engaging even more than they would have normally. It can also then create a group of passionate supporters, who are sad to see a badly reviewed show close.

This appears more endemic to musicals than plays, with some even going on to achieve cult status. The legendary 1988 Broadway flop Carrie attracted curious theatregoers, and its cult status eventually led to an Off-Broadway revival a quarter of a century later.

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A friend still fondly recalls going several times to the original London production of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street in its last week at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1980. It was a legendary flop but found devoted supporters.

When I produced a revival of the musical in London many years later, I met and got to know Denis Quilley – the original Sweeney of that production. He shared with me a tape recording of its closing night at Drury Lane, made through the sound desk, with an ovation at the end that could match any hit, and at which he gave a curtain speech.

He told me how Sondheim was devastated by the failure of a musical he had intended to be his love letter to London, and it took him some time to come back from it. Months after it had closed, Quilley met with Sondheim again at a dinner party where he came along with the same tape and played a still-bruised Sondheim the recording, with its audience ovation at the end, and said to him: “Now do you realise you wrote a hit West End musical?”

Mark Allen, the composer and lyricist of Gettin’ the Band Back Together, starts his playbill biography with the line: “Broadway… finally!” It captures that euphoric feeling of having spent years of his life trying to get a musical onto the Great White Way, but, considering the show’s reception, it’s also a stark reminder of how quickly the dream can turn sour.

It reminded me of the short-lived 1992 West End musical Moby Dick. It was the debut of composers Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye, who had worked for years to get a show on in the West End only for it to last a few months.

It received poor reviews and small houses, but also built a fan base that returned multiple times. The slogan emblazoned on its posters declared: “Stuff Art, Let’s Dance!” and those who saw it in that spirit – rather than looking for the next Rodgers and Hammerstein – had a great time, which its hastily made live cast recording superbly captures.

‘An original comedy musical is possibly the hardest art form to get right’

Both Gettin’ the Band Back Together and Moby Dick boasted casts that exuded energy and performed as if they had just won best musical at the Tonys and the Oliviers.

Of course that’s what a cast is expected to do. But I have seen plenty of shows that are facing closure performed by a dejected and depressed company that has understandably lost its spark. But it’s the exuberance of these shows in the face of adversity that lingers long in the memory, and they gather fans – a select group perhaps – that keep the shows alive after the final curtain has come down.

These two particular shows were never going to be Sweeney Todd or Carousel, but neither did they set out to be. An original comedy musical is possibly the hardest art form to get right, but when we come to judge musicals, perhaps this is the inherent problem. As an art form, we frequently band them all together under one umbrella.

This is in marked contrast to drama, where there is a clear distinction between classical revivals, new plays, comedies and thrillers. You would never see The Play That Goes Wrong compared with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Yet works such as Oklahoma, Passion, Bat Out Of Hell, The Bodyguard and Gettin’ the Band Back Together, are all frequently lumped together under the term “musical”. In reality they’re impossible to compare. Ultimately the question is: is the show any good? But that will always be subjective.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we judge musicals, recognising the variety of audiences they attract and judging them on their own terms – not that of musical theatre as a whole.

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