Back in the early 1990s, a friend of mine working backstage in the West End was given to answering the phone with an overly chirpy: “Hello, Piccadilly Theatre: house of hits…” He was, as you’ll have guessed, being sarcastic since the Piccadilly was, for quite some time, the home of major musical disasters.
The rot set in with Mutiny!, which managed a year due to the box-office draw of its star David Essex, but the moment he quit it died. Mutiny! was Essex’s baby, since he also wrote the (unloved) music and co-wrote the lyrics. And if you’re wondering why you haven’t seen a revival, consider the horror of “Breadfruit, breadfruit, breadfruit trees / Food for the slaves of the West Indies.”
And it was there you might have seen Metropolis, which boasted magnificent visuals – the set was by design guru Ralph Koltai – and not much else despite a score including The Machines Are Beautiful and Elitists’ Dance. If anyone has memories of either, I eagerly await your blow-by-blow account.
Metropolis was followed by King, the vast, disastrous Martin Luther King bio-musical, which lost millions and countless members of the creative team en route to production including its co-lyricist, the redoubtable Maya Angelou, who walked before opening night demanding (unsuccessfully) that her name be taken off the credits.
Even Cameron Mackintosh couldn’t keep his Moby Dick afloat there for more than 15 weeks. Mind you, that was three weeks longer than the limp Robin, Prince of Sherwood, directed and produced by Bill Kenwright, that made Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights look like the last word in dramatic rigour. You had, as they say, to be there.
In between came the wholly unlikely Which Witch, the Norwegian self-styled “operamusical” derived from Malleus Maleficarum, the 15th-century Catholic treatise on witchcraft. My favourite fact about it? It featured a second act number entitled 2,665,866,746,664 Little Devils.
It boasted lyrics by Kit Hesketh-Harvey of Kit and the Widow fame – “Maria, quick, arrange your dress / Curtsey to his Holiness” – and a first-class production team with sets by Richard Hudson, costumes by Mark Bailey, lighting by Mark Henderson, orchestrations by Martin Koch and choreography by Will Tuckett, who remembers it as “bonkers” and “dreadfully earnest… we tried to camp it up, mind, but some hills you just can’t push a show up”.
Sadly for him and all concerned, the last line of the programme synopsis – “The pyre is prepared…” – proved prophetic: after nine and a half weeks and ghastly reviews (“A fiasco sans frontieres”) it shut up shop after 76 performances, a fact we know because that one was recorded. And, to the delight of musical theatre completists, it’s on YouTube.
This being 1992 when videoing live theatre was in its infancy, the quality is low. It probably served its purpose as a sales tool for the producers who wanted the show to have future life. And for the rest of us, the chance to see a show otherwise lost to the memory of those who saw it is hugely welcome. The quality of the filming notwithstanding, it’s a record and that was the condition to which most filmed performance aspired.
Everything changed in 2009 when London’s National Theatre used five multi-video cameras to record/broadcast a company led by Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Racine’s Phèdre.
Hytner had been nurturing the idea ever since the final matinee of his 1998 Lincoln Center production of Twelfth Night starring Paul Rudd was broadcast across America. Three years later, when tossing his hat into the ring to become the National’s artistic director, he told me about a conversation with PBS.
“They said: ‘Think of it as a live sports event.’ And as soon as you do, the absurdity of theatre on TV disappears. Of course, looking at the tape, there are things that make you cringe, but going out live it was terrific. And two million people watched it. We should think about that.”
More than 2.5 million people have watched the latest NT Live broadcast
Which he did. More than 2.5 million people have watched the latest NT Live broadcast of Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching between monster and creator.
Unsurprisingly in the coronavirus era, the theatre-meets-screen hybrid model is a hit, but it doesn’t appeal to all. The more consciously theatrical presentations also tend to work less well.
Even in the most successful ones, what’s achingly missing is human interaction. That’s the essence of live theatre and what make it powerfully distinct from TV and film. The loss of sharing the same space as both actors and audiences is palpable.
But it’s not fatal. And it’s early days. Filmed theatre may still have a way to go. And with live theatre not an option for the foreseeable, it’s considerably better than nothing.