If you give a documentary an all-encompassing title like The Story of Musicals, but then only devote three hours’ worth of airtime, it’s inevitable that some areas will be glossed over.
BBC4’s documentary series, which finished last night (but is currently still available on iPlayer), started two weeks ago by relating how the West End moved from its post-war tradition of receiving Broadway transfers, with vibrant new practitioners — Joan Littlewood, Lionel Bart, Sandy Wilson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc. — taking the Great White Way on at its own game. The second show concentrated on the 1980s blockbuster musical, as Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miserables, Starlight Express and the like eschewed jazz hands in favour of crazy costumes, customised theatres and/or barrel loads of existential revolutionary angst.
Last night’s episode raced through the last two decades, charting the rise of the jukebox musical, notably We Will Rock You and the rather more critically acclaimed Mamma Mia!.
And while it’s always great to see such a fundamental part of the West End — nay, British — cultural life getting recognition from the box in the corner, there did seem to be some glaring omissions. So many that one has to wonder what the selection criteria were when deciding what to cover.
As the various conversations I had on Twitter after each show demonstrated, many people felt that the title itself — The Story of Musicals — was misleading. “The Story of the West End musical” might have been more appropriate, although it did make frequent hops over to Broadway. “The Story of the British Musical”, then? Maybe — but shows like The Lion King, despite the input by Elton John and Tim Rice, were driven predominantly by American creative teams.
One would hope that the emphasis was on shows that caused some sort of shift in the way musicals were made and/or received. By that token, The Lion King deserves its place, since it in effect caused the creation of Disney Theatrical, a company which has become a major production force. Similarly, Mary Poppins deserves inclusion because Disney had to join forces with Cameron Mackintosh — but Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid and Aida (the latter two never even making it to the West End) don’t even get a rostrum camera shot of their posters. Likewise, the many musicals which have been and gone, which had creative merit and not a little commercial clout (The Witches of Eastwick, say) get glossed over because the West End landscape was much the same after they closed as before they opened.
But if the selection criteria really depended upon how much of an impact a show had on the genre, did Chess deserve the screen time? And why was there no mention at all of The Rocky Horror Show?
And why, in a show called The Story of Musicals, did we spend what felt like two of the series’ three hours of screen time in the company of Andrew Lloyd Webber in almost hagiographic detail, without once mentioning the ambitious attempt to craft a sequel to the perenially popular Phantom in the guise of Love Never Dies? Musicals are, after all, not renowned for having sequels, so regardless of the technical and production difficulties that plagued the West End run, at least the enormity of the task Lloyd Webber gave himself could at least have been recognised.
To that end, some looking toward the future would have been nice, too. The story of musicals is one that is ongoing. With two West End shows now passing the quarter century mark and several others showing no sign of leaving the West End any time soon, where is the opportunity for West End innovation going to come from?
And one last thought — if you call your series The Story of Musicals, then frame your storytelling in such a way that the words “Stephen” and “Sondheim” never so much as get mentioned, shouldn’t that ring alarm bells?