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David Benedict: What makes a good musical? The book, the book, the book

Kate Graham, Sara Poyzer and Ricky Butt in Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre, London Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre: everyone knows the music, but who wrote the book? Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg
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Musical theatre quiz: hands up who knows the names and jobs of Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi. Hint: their work has been on display in Theatreland non-stop for 20 years. Okay, here’s a second hint: Catherine Johnson has been doing the same job for 20 years and counting… The answer? They’re writers of long-running wonders The Lion King and Mamma Mia!. Yet almost nobody has heard of them because they didn’t write the songs, they wrote the books.

It’s the same in opera: you have to be an aficionado to recognise the name Luigi Illica, but he was responsible for the librettos (ie, the book) of evergreens La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. And then there’s the widely disregarded Francesco Maria Piave, who wrote, among others, the much-loved Rigoletto, La Traviata and La Forza Del Destino.

Their relative anonymity as opposed to their composers – Elton John, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Puccini and Verdi – is all the odder since one of the most truthful sayings about musical theatre is that there are only three things you have to get right: the book, the book and the book.

It’s not just a question of typing dialogue, it’s about creating a skeleton strong enough to hold everything up, a show’s dramatic raison d’être. A good composer can knock out a tune for a song sung by someone crying out for attention, love, help or happiness, but if the drama surrounding it, and supporting them, isn’t there, no one will care.

It’s a tough, thankless job. To his dying day, Arthur Laurents was peeved that despite having written both West Side Story and Gypsy, not one but two of the best musical books ever written, almost no one outside the industry knew his name. Gypsy is so strong that it builds its central character to a gut-spilling mad scene worthy of many an opera. And while one could argue that Shakespeare had a hand in West Side Story, it’s Laurents’ book that persuades audiences that Tony and Maria are utterly in love with one another via just 10 seemingly simple, extremely short lines.

Trying to get a book to work from conception through rehearsal and into production in front of an audience is a long-winded, often laborious, process, hence the other legendary adage: musicals are not written, they’re rewritten. Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown – she wrote the music, lyrics and book, a triple rarely seen since Meredith Willson’s 1957 hit The Music Man – is a notable case in point. After a National Theatre run, it recently opened on Broadway and is currently garlanded with 14 Tony nominations. But that’s the result of umpteen revisions and reincarnations from its debut as a staged concept album as far back as 2006.

Hadestown review at National Theatre, London – ‘stunning new folk opera’

Once a show gets to Broadway, development doesn’t stop. The prosecution calls Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with its mind-stretching, record-breaking 182 previews over five months prior to its official opening. Happily, the standard preview period is significantly shorter: four weeks, around three of which are usually taken up with often extensive rewrites before the show is ‘frozen’ ready for the press.

If only opera could operate like that. It doesn’t even have the luxury of a single preview in which to iron out problems; rehearsals happen then, at the very first performance, the press appears. Which is one reason – of many – why so many operas have dodgy dramaturgy. With their vast orchestral, vocal and stage requirements, they’re so cumbersome that there’s little time to rewrite and/or to finesse the material. Change a speech in a play and it’s only the actor who ends up learning new material. Change an aria or a chorus number and music, words, orchestral players and singers are all involved. As a result, operas open cold, usually representing a creative team’s best guess at what will work.

That can often be misguided. Take Benjamin Britten’s operatic debut Paul Bunyan, recently revived by English National Opera at the beautifully rebuilt theatre at Alexandra Palace. For all the jauntiness of Britten’s choral, sometimes folky score – richly sung by the ENO chorus and soloists – the vast new space cruelly exposed the forced quirkiness of the libretto by WH Auden, who was a much finer poet than he was a dramatist.

Contrast that with Deborah Warner’s recent Royal Opera production of Britten’s Billy Budd. It derived much of its power from her understanding of the dramatic strength of EM Forster and Eric Crozier’s libretto, written when Britten was far more experienced, with six operas under his belt. Yet even Billy Budd gained from a major round of second thoughts nine years later when Britten turned his original four-act drama into the now standard, more compelling, two-act version. Maybe, if he’d had previews back in 1951, he’d have had the chance to get it right first time.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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