The Food of Love: Thatcher’s musicals?

billy elliot1

As I’m sure you’ll know, music within the theatre had an integral part to play in responding to the death of Margaret Thatcher. The decision to keep the anti-Tory retaliation ‘Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher’ in a performance of Billy Elliot in the West End on the evening of her passing was put down to an audience vote. I’m sure that the performance of the number that night was a clear manifestation of what the musicologist Nicholas Cook termed “negotiating cultural identity”. A song that is lyrically sardonic, with jive-like beats and major key melodies and harmonies lending an ironic twist, being sung by young and old: a poignant symbol of Thatcher’s impact on countless generations. The bitter humour makes it understandable why the audience chose to keep the song in. Furthermore, the story is being told not on behalf of a whole nation, but from a particular sector of society: workers involved in the 1984–85 miners’ strike, affecting the British coal industry.

But perhaps the agenda is more subtle. In his book State of the Nation, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington argues that “it seemed apt that the musical should become the dominant form of the 1980s since it represented Thatcherism in action: what it celebrated was the triumph of individualism and profitability.” It appears reasonable then that these values are not only embodied by the ‘song-and-dance’ templates, poster, ticket agency or hotel advertising, or even the goal-driven narratives, but also the architecture of the music. For instance, I see the score of Cats as producing order out of chaos, opening with uneasy, fugue-like passages which are resolved in ‘Memory’ – Grizabella’s desire to recommence a new life – and finally concluded in a triumphant orchestral and chorale-like wall of sound as she is the chosen feline to take the ‘Journey to the Heaviside Layer’. Les Miserables, without a doubt, takes on a similar structure: the gritty minor toil of the prisoners’ opening chorus, followed by an overwhelming range of numbers varying in mood and genre as Jean Valjean searches for the man inside himself. The climactic ‘One Day More’ and ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ are permeated with the idealism of living for tomorrow, for the future, enhanced by the simple yet soaring melodic phrases. And while the gospel-infused ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ from Starlight Express sings the praises of steam-powered engines, there is undeniably a secondary message of the ability to achieve your destiny.

Of course, this is not the case with all musical theatre pieces. It would be a generalisation and historically inaccurate to frame every number within Thatcherist beliefs. Nevertheless, in light of recent events, it is fair to say that music has an extraordinary capacity to be able to say whatever you want it to, whether politically implicit or explicit.

Image: Billy Elliot