Musical theatre is not for everyone, but I confess a weakness for it. Possibly this was inherited from my Mother’s love of film musicals (what you are marinated in as a child does seem to influence later likes, one way or another). Having easy access to the West End helps; and being short enough to fit into the tiny seats at the back of the balcony in the cheapest seats available also helps make it affordable (usually the train into London costs more that the theatre tickets if you can cope with a restricted view and are prepared to book well in advance). Unless you really hate the form most of the productions we’ve seen have been at least diverting for a couple of hours; most are instantly forgettable. But that’s entertainment, I could say that about many books or films. Yes, enjoyed that, but unlikely to be front of mind in a week. Then again, sometimes you get something a little more interesting, which provokes some conversation after the final curtain call and has you playing the original cast soundtrack in the car.
The two most recent musicals we have seen could not be more different (although oddly they are connected as a young friend of ours is credited on both). The first one was the transfer from Sheffield Crucible of ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ based on the music of the musician Richard Hawley. It was about as gritty as musicals get, with loss and death as well as laughs (that’s not a spoiler as you are warned about the themes when booking!). But in the main it is love letter to Hawley’s hometown of Sheffield and the people and that is what shines through. It is also beautifully and innovatively staged and cleverly put together narratively to tell three stories in three time zones in a way that connects them satisfyingly like a good whodunnit. We thought it was brilliant and well worth its standing ovation from the packed National Theatre audience. It’s finished now, but its too good not to get a staging again somewhere so catch it if you can.
Still going on at the time of writing, although possibly a more acquired taste (pun intended) is The Great British Bakeoff: The Musical. I will admit that when this was announced I was a little skeptical. The Lovely Wife had somehow managed to get me addicted to the TV show (normally I hate these things) but I did not think it was something that cried out for musical. And yet; the reason that GBBO is not as excruciatingly embarrassing to watch as some of its ilk is that it is unashamedly, joyously positive. Everyone is trying their best, there is no attempt to make anyone look a fool and as each series progresses the camaraderie on screen means you end up rooting for everyone. And this is basically what the musical version has captured; they have sat down and written down every Bakeoff cliché and distilled the basic DNA of the TV show, and then dramatized it – albeit in caricature. It works to some extent although it is no classic. The songs are only variably catchy (and often extremely corny), and the production uses every trick in the book to manipulate your emotions, often in a completely unsubtle way – for example, a song about the sadness of childlessness is immediately followed (just in case you are not already suffering from damp eyes) by another character talking to their (generic stage school acted, just the right side of annoying thankfully!) cute ‘daughter’ about how much they both miss the now dead mother – but the cast are likeable and are treating it seriously and deserve respect for that. In the end you know where it is all going to pan out but you do not really care, because its all about wish fulfilment and a statement of humanity as you wish it was, but know it isn’t. If ‘Standing’ is a hymn to the resilience of real people through hardship and heartache, the GBBO musical is fantasy escapism for a world that can only exist within a tent (or in this case the theatre stage) and when a lot of the auditorium got to their feet to applaud and cheer, I think it was saying thanks for making them feel good for a few hours rather than recognition of quality. And that is just fine to me. Sometimes it is good to have something to chew on, sometimes you just want to go for the cake. I think a balanced diet can be heartily recommended.