It was an innocent enough tweet that Lyn Gardner sent out on Tuesday evening as she was on her way to the theatre: “Off to Street Scene at Young Vic Theatre. High hopes this is going to be a really good one.” It’s only human to have expectations; even theatre critics can never be entirely blank slates.
And that’s especially the case when a show has been done before, and comes already garlanded with awards: this is a production, after all, that won the 2008 Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical when it was first done, winning from a shortlist that included the still-running Jersey Boys and the Menier revival of La Cage Aux Folles, the latter of which would go on to be named Best Musical Revival in the 2010 Tony Awards when it transferred to Broadway.
So it’s difficult to now read Lyn’s review of Street Scene without noticing the disappointment of those expectations: “Despite a full orchestra and 80-plus singers, John Fulljames’s revival doesn’t quite deliver the sizzle the show requires, so it sometimes feels more heavy-going than it should.”
As it happens, I didn’t see Street Scene last time around, either, so I too am looking forward to catching up with it this time; but as I was in Sheffield on Tuesday for the opening of Othello, I’m not going to see it until next Wednesday now. Inevitably, I now have its new reviews joining my own prior expectations to factor in when I see it.
If I’m behind the game on Street Scene, I’m already primed on Rock of Ages that begins a run of critics’ previews tonight ahead of an official opening next Tuesday: I saw it on Broadway already. And I could have told you before I even went through the door then that it wasn’t exactly for me: I didn’t recognise the name of a single band on the playlist for this compilation of 80s songs, let alone a single song. But some of the New York critics, notably Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, had been charmed, referring to it as “a seriously silly, absurdly enjoyable arena-rock musical that thrashed open at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Tuesday night in front of a bobbing sea of cigarette lighters waved aloft”.
But of course theatre critics need to be open to new experience and be prepared to be challenged — and contradicted or reinforced — in what one was expecting. So I always try to arrive hopefully. I will freely admit that I really didn’t like Rock of Ages in New York, but I’m also ready to give it another go tonight: a new cast might bring a different perspective. And the fact that I’m already primed to know exactly what I’m in for means I am not expecting myself to be pulled along on a wave of Isherwood enthusiasm.
Just yesterday, I got very excited when a press release arrived announcing that this year’s Christmas musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory is going to be Pippin — one of my all-time favourite theatre scores, containing one of my desert island songs, ‘Corner of the Sky’. But then I read the release more closely: it was being described as a “high concept” production. It was also being directed by someone called Mitch Sebastian. A friend reminded me, and a google search quickly confirmed it, that Sebastian had directed a previous high concept staging of the show at the Bridewell in 1997. That was, hands down, the worst musical revival I have ever seen, before or since.
Obviously Pippin has a special place in my heart, but hopefully I am not like one of those Love Should Die lunatics so protective of their beloved Phantom of the Opera that they objected to Love Never Dies sight entirely unseen; in fact, in this case, I come with a slightly horrifying advance memory of what Sebastian previously did to the show. But if that is grounds to fear it, it is not grounds to judge it yet: Sebastian may, after all, have an entirely different take on it now. He will also, no doubt, have the composer Stephen Schwartz personally on hand this time, and there’s also the enticing prospect of the production recreating Bob Fosse’s original choreography.
So I’m trying to look forward to it now. For Lyn Gardner, there’s another burden of expectation: not the memory of past Menier hits like Sunday in the Park with George, La Cage Aux Folles or A Little Night Music, all of which transferred to the West End and Broadway), but of a big disappointment last year: she tweeted yesterday, “Menier has Pippin as Xmas treat. Hope better than Invisible Man, which was so bad my kids begged to leave at interval.”