This is the first part of an occasional series of as yet undetermined length that will, if you collect all the parts, give you the information you need to mount a top-notch, long running and above all profitable musical.
A question that many men and women ask themselves as they shave in the morning is “what is a musical?” For the answer we have to go back to the very roots of music itself. Archaeologists now believe that the cave paintings at Lascaux in France are in fact costume designs for an early musical entitled “Hunt!” The Roman ‘Toga’ musicals of the Justinian period are well known but then came the Dark Ages, a time, unimaginably, without a single musical. The Goths, Visigoths, Franks and Huns apparently didn’t have a show tune between them. Luckily Christianity made a comeback and while most musical works of these times were strictly religious, it is known that St Bede started work on his musical masterpiece 'Historia Ecclestiastica Gentis Anglorum' (later retitled ‘Venerable!’) but sadly died having only just finished illuminating the title page. Through the Middle Ages we have the Mummers though no one is quite sure what they did, but they seem to be the direct ancestors of today’s Morris dancers and therefore should be cursed through all eternity.
Music theatre, as we know it today, starts with opera and in any chronologically arranged opera guide first up is Claudio Monteverdi and if you haven’t listened to any Monteverdi you certainly ought to, it’s excellent.
Opera in it’s origins was not quite the upmarket, merchant bank sponsored, bean feast that it is today. Operas were popular entertainment, put on by commercial producers, the musicals of their day, true the aristocracy had their boxes where they gossiped, played cards and had sex, but the lower classes, who might well have brought their dogs with them, filled the rest of the house eating parsnips and betting on the length of the overture. By the eighteenth century we have arrived at the theatrical format that we now recognise, an audience in the house, an orchestra in the pit and the performers on the stage. This set up has survived for several hundred years because it works, it gives optimum conditions for the audience to see and hear the story being told. From opera we progress through operetta, a bizarre Austrian art form which involves men in tail coats improbably not realising that the woman that they are dancing with at the ball is their kitchen maid, and the English form of operetta, Gilbert & Sullivan. Like all right minded people, I have an unshakeable contempt for G&S which has only survived for a hundred years as an excuse for the English middle classes to have extra-marital sex under the pretext of attending rehearsals for ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. Thus we arrive at the 20th century and the West End’s first major hit, Chu Chin Chow, a musical comedy, that opened in 1916 and ran for more than 5 years, holding the longest run record for 40 years until Salad Days came along. (There is an organisation committed to the revival of this old warhorse: The Campaign for the Revival of Chu Chin Chow c/o Col Oswald Dutt-Parker, Little Simla, Vicarage Rd, Godalming GU21 8TZ, which deserves all our support). So, fully formed, the ‘Musical’ bestrides 20th century entertainment like a Colossus, a popular and classless form which sends the audience out into the night reassured that life is good and that the combined cost of the baby sitter, parking, interval drinks, souvenir brochure/mug/T shirt and dinner on top of the ticket price has been worthwhile.
We should give some thought as to why we are bothering to do this. The answer must firstly be money, secondly money and thirdly to get to work with a lot of good looking women in sequins and not much else. Occasionally I ask producers why they are doing a production and often I get “Ted, we are going to redefine the Modern Musical” or “People are ready for a new look at Titus Andronicus” or some such guff. One of my favourite comments came from the producer of the execrable ‘Winnie’ , the Churchill musical, after its early closure. As the broker’s men were removing his office furniture he said “Ted, the British public aren’t ready for a show about greatness”. This from the producer of a musical the high point of which was the entrance of the ensemble ladies clad in Union Jack knickers sitting astride the gun barrel of a Sherman tank. So let’s cut the crap and face the fact that putting on musicals is a business and we do it for money.
So we know what a musical is and why we are doing it, but what about the subject matter? The overwhelming global success of musical theatre in recent times has meant that the people who have thought “What is a musical?” while shaving will later in the day will have the further thought “Blimey that would make a great idea for a musical”. This can happen while they are writing a shopping list, queuing at the building society or putting air in their tyres at the petrol station. The US National Security Agency have proved that on average, worldwide, no less than 8,597 “great ideas for a musical” are had per hour by members of the public. Reassuringly the NSA estimate that less than 3% of these constitute “a real and present danger” to the USA. These concepts based on the biographies of much loved pets, DIY projects, camping holidays in the Dordogne and so on are generally too wacky to attract the interest of commercial producers. More conventionally the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens and other classics have all been mercilessly plundered. I have done musicals based on ‘Jane Eyre’:
The name is plain
‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’
“Keep on travellin’
and I also worked on ‘Which Witch’ which has it’s origin in a 1487 guide for witchfinders (and do you know what? I still have the CD and very occasionally I play it). The comedy jailers scene in this piece is particularly rewarding and the executioner’s song ‘I Can Make You Burn’ as performed by Jan “Null Point” Teigen would stop any show. I personally believe that as long as a show has a strong emotional core and that as long as it can be contrived to include scenes with ladies in sequins and not much else, any subject will do.
The purpose of this section will be to illustrate in a very practical way how a hypothetical musical might be put together. This will be a nuts & bolts guide. Follow these easy steps and success can almost be guaranteed.
In order to illustrate the theory that anything can be turned into a musical I propose to loosely base our hypothetical production on the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 1989 Skoda Favorit. The working title for the production will be “Maintenance!”