There’s no accounting for taste, they say: in reviewing as much as in the exercise of artistic policy, taste is always ultimately subjective. Someone may prefer Ray Cooney to Pinter, Lloyd Webber to Sondheim, or Hammerstein over Hart. But the exercise of that taste should, at least, be informed. Theatre is also a broad church, and it is the job of an artistic director, as it is of a critic, to serve as broad a constituency of his potential audience as it is possible to do, while still staying true to himself.
So the news that reaches me, via the Westmorland Gazette in the Lake District, of the artistic director and chief executive of the Brewery Arts Centre suppressing an amateur company’s desire to stage Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel there is very alarming. “We look at the artistic quality and social value and make a judgement accordingly,” the Brewery’s Sam Mason told the paper. “It’s my judgement – that’s what I’m paid to do.” And according to him, “Carousel is too fluffy and has poor musical content.”
Fluffy? A tale of marital abuse and violent death that results from a botched robbery attempt? As for music: a score that contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most searing and heartfelt numbers, from ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin” and “If I loved You” to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Billy Bigelow’s incredible Soliloquy are amongst the high points of musical theatre writing, ever.
But not according to Mr Mason. When he wrote to the Kendal Amateur Operatic Society’s to inform them of why he deemed the choice of show unacceptable, he got himself into a convoluted discussion about the merits of particular musicals and their suitability for production at the theatre. Amongst the first category he sought to exclude were shows that “nearly every other school/amateur company is producing around the country”, and gave as examples of this “canon of somewhat clichéd productions such as Hello Dolly, South Pacific, Annie, Oklahoma!, The Boyfriend etc etc” Then there’s a second category of regularly produced shows, but which (according to him) “have a somewhat higher artistic, musical or social values such as Fiddler on the Roof, Blood Brothers, Cabaret and maybe even Guys and Dolls (in terms of musical quality)”. A third category comprises musicals that are “less frequently performed which are also interesting for our audience”, like Barnum, Scrooge and Blitz.
According to his letter, “Carousel, The Sound of Music and 42nd Street fit into the first category mentioned above and would offer nothing new or interesting to our audience.” He has, he admits, allowed Kendal College to produce Guys and Dolls at the theatre later this year, but only because “they have assured me that they will do so with a contemporary and challenging interpretation”.
Mr Mason, as chief executive of the Arts Council funded Brewery Arts Centre, clearly sees his role as being guardian to the gates of the type of show that audiences there can be exposed to, as well as to give interesting lectures in his opinions on the particular merits of different musicals. But the question really is whether it’s his personal fiefdom to play with or whether the wishes of the local community, who have themselves chosen to put Carousel on, and that the theatre should serve count for nothing. Instead of changing their choice of show, the group concerned have had to change their venue.
As the chairman of Kendal Amateur Operatic Society (the unfortunately acronym’d KAOS) replied to the theatre, “If Carousel was good enough for the National Theatre in London in 1993, it should be good enough for the Brewery now.” And it’s not as if the audience for it has exactly been saturated by exposure to the show over the years: the last production in Kendal was in 1984.
But the exercise of Mr Mason’s taste to what KAOS can and can’t put on in his venue also has commercial implications for the society: suggesting that the society searches for “more challenging musicals, or musicals which have at least been written in the last 20-30 years and haven’t been seen that frequently”, he even admits the possible consequences: “I would be willing to discuss helping support such an initiative by negotiating your hire fees if you feel the type of show I’ve outlined would not attract such a large audience.”
Artistic directors may have utlimate jurisdiction over their own venues, but it seems sheer folly when they seek to extend that jurisdiction, based on misinformation, onto the choice and tastes of others.