Can musical theatre be relevant in today’s society?

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Last week I took part in my first-ever panel discussion, at Theatre Royal Stratford East. The discussion took place after the performance of A Clockwork Orange (which I was seeing for the second time, and I have to say it had grown on me more since my first viewing) and was on whether musical theatre was relevant in today’s society. As somebody who is a self-confessed sceptic when is comes to musicals I was very honoured to be invited to give my views on the subject.

Theatre Royal Stratford East is famous for its musical theatre initiative and its goal to open up the boundaries of the genre to include new voices and more contemporary and experimental styles. A Clockwork Orange certainly lives up the theatre’s mission statement by incorporating jazz, rap, performance poetry and perhaps more spoken dialogue than an audience would expect from a ‘typical’ musical.

The debate was chaired by Mark Shenton, renowned critic and blogger for Sunday Express, The Stage and Playbill. The panel was made up of Steve Pope, Editor of The Voice, Britain’s biggest Black Newspaper; Vincent John, Chair of Newham Community & Police Forum (NCPF) & Newham African Caribbean Resource Centre (NACRC); Andy Barnes, Perfect Pitch Musical Theatre; and me.

Mark Shenton and Andy Barnes had a lot to say about pushing the musical forward into the present day by developing new writers, to create work that would hopefully become the classics for this generation, rather than rehashing the same canon of stage musicals from a bygone era or succumbing to the commercial stage versions of popular films or rock stars’ back catalogues. Bringing the drama and edge back to musicals is important, and though I didn’t completely go for A Clockwork Orange I had a lot of respect for it. I think it stayed true to this mission and had the interesting twist of turning protagonist Alex’s love of music from the novel into a love of words, which is an interesting choice for a musical but one which I think worked very well. It served to make Alex’s suicide attempt more about an identity crisis than, in the original, a simple inability to stand being forced to listen to the Beethoven he once loved.

For a lot of people ‘musical theatre’ is a label that might turn them off from seeing a certain production as in a lot of people’s minds the thought of issues being rounded off with ‘tits and teeth’ and ‘jazz hands’ is simply repulsive, or the thought of people spontaneously breaking into song ruins their engagement with the narrative rather than making them feel like they’ve got a more emotional insight. In discussing this with a friend of mine he said he was put off by musicals as they often have gimmicky names that lead him to think that all the drive of the piece is in the title and couldn’t possibly be sustained throughout an entire performance. Although there are musicals where more subtlety and subversion is employed, it’s a tough gamble for the ticket price and sometimes a risk too far for the more ‘serious’ theatre-goer. I myself would have been unlikely to have taken the risk with A Clockwork Orange except that I was curious to see the treatment of the source material and the rather imposingly iconic film, and of course, as I was reviewing, the only loss I could have sustained was my time.

One point that I was trying to make in the debate that may have been misconstrued is that many musicals definitely are relevant to today’s society, especially in work such as A Clockwork Orange, but they have to battle against other forms of entertainment that are equally relevant but more accessible. The example I gave was downloading films and music videos. This is not to say that young people are inherently lazy audiences – certainly not. If I thought that then A Younger Theatre and its team of dedicated reviewers, bloggers and investigative journalists simply wouldn’t exist! And it’s not to say that younger audiences would never see a musical and might not even prefer seeing a musical to downloading a film, but that the very special experience of seeing something live is more of a demand to make with your time and you have to be in the right mood to give back as an audience, whereas with film (particularly viewed in your own home) nothing is required of you at all, you don’t even have to be dressed and you can pause whenever. And of course, the reality is that it is often down to the ticket price. If you’re not sure that going into that theatre for two hours for at least £15 is going to be worth it then you simply won’t do it when you can watch something at home for free.

There isn’t really a simple answer to the debate, and many more interesting points came up in the debate that were handled with far more poise by the other panellists! However I think the point that came home was that a lot of pioneering work is being done in Theatre Royal Stratford East and other theatres like it, and by organisations such Perfect Pitch, to push forward and redefine the musical theatre genre for today. There will also be a place in many people’s hearts for the grandiose West End productions and Broadway-style musicals, however I think it’s fantastic that a more edgy scene is emerging and offering a different style of musical for audiences, and that more multicultural musical theatre is finding its way onto the stage. I think perhaps what’s required is to emphasise more the genre or style crossovers in musical shows that will allow people like me, who might accept a hybrid but not a straight-up musical, to dare to take the plunge. As long as musical theatre is seen to be responding to important issues and events, as indeed in many cases it always has, then there will always be a place for it in society.