A Younger Theatre’s Elinor Walpole recently wrote an article describing the panel discussion she took part in, debating whether musical theatre can be relevant in today’s society. This blog is a response to Walpole’s article, who admits that she is a “self-confessed sceptic” with regards to musicals. I loved the article and found it really intriguing, especially as I come at the argument from the point of view of someone who trained in musical theatre; it has been my life for the past four years.
The main reason I found the piece so fascinating is because, like most things, I forget how the genre is seen from the outside. The most interesting line for me is at the end when Walpole states: “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.” On one level I very much agree with this, as nothing is written in a vacuum, so today’s issues will always be found in any type of theatrical work. That might manifest itself overtly in musicals such as Rent, which highlighted the growing HIV/AIDS problem, or West Side Story, which reflected the tensions amongst the youth of America in the 1950s. Then there are shows where the connections are subtler, such as Wicked. Many people I have spoken to over the years say it reflects events such as 11 September, with the ideas of freedom fighters and race relating to Wicked’s storyline, where a young girl is discriminated against because of the colour of her skin and then rebels against the system.
Yet there is one personal opinion that I believe is worth voicing – theatre, as well as holding a mirror up to our society, is also used as escapism, and I think musical theatre in particular is a big exponent of this. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! opened halfway through World War Two; whilst it deals with a lot of dark themes, its story of farmers and cowboys was miles away from what soldiers were facing in Europe. Many soldiers saw the show on their way out to the front; in a scene from the TV mini-series Band of Brothers there is a moment where some of the soldiers sing the title song to keep spirits up. A more recent example is Mamma Mia. The ticket sales for the Broadway show rocketed in the wake of the 11 September attacks, as everyone wanted to escape the reality outside. Meryl Streep, who starred in the film version, mentions in an interview how she took a group of children to see the show to cheer them up in the month following the terrorist attack: “Everybody was really dimmed spiritually after 9/11. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with the kids?’ So I took all these 10-year-olds to see a matinee of Mamma Mia! They walked in and they sat there with their heads in their hands. Dimmed is the word – they were sad all the time, you know? The first part was really wordy, and then Dancing Queen started up. And for the rest of the show they were dancing on their chairs and they were so, so happy. We all went out of the theatre floating on the air. I thought, ‘What a gift to New York right now’.”
At the end of the day, if a piece of theatre gives you a cathartic response then it is a success. Personally, I use musicals as a form of escapism, and if I want hard-hitting, gritty and realistic theatre I will go to the Royal Court or see a fringe show.
I would love to hear other people’s views on this!
Image by Benjamin Thompson.