If plays are tricky to pull off successfully, musicals are famously even tougher: all the stars need to be in alignment, and I don’t just mean those with star billing. The fact is that musicals typically have many more moving parts than a play, from the number of personnel involved behind-the-scenes to their invariably larger scale.
So no wonder it’s a kind of miracle when all the elements coalesce, as they do for new shows like Matilda and London Road in London, or Once on Broadway: they’re so hard to make work that when they do, it makes the thrill even greater.
There’s also a rather more intangible quality that can’t be manufactured but has to be conjured: chemistry. And the whole thing can rise or fall by it. I was struck by this again while seeing Chichester’s dutiful but flat Kiss Me, Kate last week; everything that could have been put in place for it was there, from a director in Trevor Nunn who understands musicals as comprehensively as he understands Shakespeare (the source material for the show), to a crack creative team that includes choreographer Stephen Mears, designer Rob Jones musical director Gareth Valentine at the top of their game. Add in a stellar cast and it all should fizz and delight. In fact it only fizzles out, at least in my view.
I have to declare upfront that my colleagues and I have not necessarily all shared the same view; both Libby Purves and Quentin Letts awarded it five stars in the Times and Daily Mail, while Dominic Cavendish, Henry Hitchings and Christopher Hart were both four stars in the Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and Sunday Times. On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more with Susannah Clapp in yesterday’s Observer, who perceptively wrote, “It could be called Trevolution: that peculiar pace at which a Nunn show unwinds. At its best it brings a long array of new detail. At its worst it’s sluggish and wit-dispelling. Kiss Me Kate is Nunn at his worst…. It’s smooth and expansive, but both action and music are too sumptuous and too slow.”
Of course, Kiss Me Kate is a known quantity: we have something to judge it against, from the previous versions of it we’ve seen (though Henry Hitchings told me he’d never seen it onstage before). With new musicals, the challenge to work out if and how something works is even bigger in terms of knowing where to apportion credit or blame.
Last week I happened to see three new musicals at various stages in their creative development, and it was fascinating to watch them in the light of what I’d seen happen to Cole Porter’s ready-made masterpiece. But none of them were in fully-fledged, West End ready productions; so there’s still possibly some way to go for each before we can know for sure what their creative teams have got.
A workshop presentation of a new British-written musical version of Peter Pan, held at the Lyric last Thursday lunchtime, was full of potential and nice, bright melodies by composer Jimmy Jewell, who also co-wrote book and lyrics with Nick Stimson. But though it featured a terrific cast of young West End talent — including the wonderful Louise Dearman as an endearing Tinkerbell, whose own belter of a voice is the closest we’ve produced in England to Streisand yet — the raw bones of a concert staging leaves plenty for your own imagination to complete the journey with, whereas a full production is likely to be far more literal.
On the other hand, a far more solid physical production of Chaplin, a American written biographical musical that had been announced for Broadway 30 years ago but never made it there and was finally getting its first complete outing at Guildhall School of Music, left the show itself paradoxically more exposed.
A new, unrelated musical, also called Chaplin, is currently heading to Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre, where it begins previews next month; but seeing this earlier one, with music by Roger Anderson, lyrics by Lee Goldsmith and book by Ernest Kinoy, makes me think that Broadway didn’t miss too much first time around. The storytelling is pretty much by numbers; and the numbers themselves are pretty ordinary. One of them is called ‘I Wouldn’t Change a Thing’; I would change lots about the show, especially an incredibly cumbersome first act, then a rushed second one. But I wouldn’t change a thing this gutsy production, wittily choreographed by Bill Deamer and played with determined enthusiasm by its youthful student cast to put life where there isn’t much.
From an unproduced Broadway musical to an aspiring but sadly uninspiring off-Broadway one: Bobby Cronin’s Daybreak, given a basic but appealing enough production at the fringe Tristan Bates Theatre here, is a cliche-ridden, earnest and sentimental musical that feels strenuous in its gloopy sentimentality about a married man finally facing up to his inner gay. Cronin, whose work has previously been showcased in Britain in a cabaret evening of his work at the Charing Cross Theatre, writes standard-issue New York cabaret type songs; though a cast of four, none of whom I knew, put them across sincerely enough, I’m afraid I can’t be a crony for Cronin.