The Sound of Musicals – BBC 4

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Word PressThis was so much better than Tina and Bobby, which was on at the same time and got all the press attention! My one problem was that there were only three episodes, so a lot of my favourite musicals didn’t get a mention because there wasn’t time. Any chance of a follow-up series filling in some of the gaps :-)?

It started off with musical comedies, mainly in London. I associate these with the Edwardians, but they were still going strong into the 1920s. I would have expected a mention of Cole Porter, actually, but he didn’t feature in this series: I suppose only so much could be fitted in in three hours. Then on to the “integrated shows” that we know and love today, starting with Show Boat. This was on at the Lowry last year, and I must have been practically the first person to buy a ticket for it: it’s hardly ever on anywhere, and you can’t even get a decent DVD of it (the ones for sale on Amazon either don’t work on British DVD players or else have got reviews saying that the quality’s appalling). Yes, all right, it’s rather dated now, but it’s 90 years old! And it was really cutting edge at the time, tackling the issue of racism in the Southern states of the US. All right, I know I’m supposed to be thinking about it in terms of breaking the mould of musicals by integrating the songs and the story, but I’m a historian, not a musician. I am often told that I’ve got the worst singing voice in the world. Thankfully, though, the people in the series all had very good singing voices 🙂  .

Next up was Oklahoma!, with even greater focus on the characters rather than just the music and the dancing. I think that Oklahoma! was also meant to jolly people along during the Second World War – all those beautiful mornings and surreys with fringes on tops and girls who can’t say no!   I don’t really get the dream ballet sequence: it annoys me. So does that weird song about Judd Fry imagining that he’s dead. But it’s a good story. And, hey, it’s a historical story!   So too, of course, is Annie Get Your Gun, which was also discussed in quite a lot of detail. And Carousel – you know, the musical that includes that song, the one we don’t sing in Manchester 😉 – covers some quite disturbing social issues, and gets the audience very involved with the characters; and this was explored in very interesting detail.

All very American. It was interesting to hear more about the songwriters. Obviously I had a vague idea about who they were and why they came from, but I’d never really stopped to think about them as a group before, nor about just how American the musicals of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were. But then the first episode ended with a very, very British musical – My Fair Lady. It would have been nice to hear more about the music and less about how poor Julie Andrews struggled to get to grips with the role, but never mind.

I was rather put out that The Sound of Music didn’t feature, especially as the series was called The Sound of Musicals. Is it the best-known musical ever, or do I just feel like it is because I’ve seen the film ten billion times and been to Salzburg three times J? And surely it classes as ground-breaking in that earlier musicals didn’t really involve children? Oh well. No room for The King and I, another favourite, either. Nor South Pacific, although that one gets on my nerves a bit. Emile annoys me. But, hey, you can’t get everything into three hours.

Instead, the second episode opened with West Side Story. That one really is New York, New York. However, it’s not hard to imagine how, in the 1950s, a musical about gang violence wouldn’t have appealed to traditionalists, and it was a brave move to write something like that. Changing times, and a huge dose of reality. It’s one of two musicals – Phantom of the Opera being the other – which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway, incidentally.  I really want to go back to New York … preferably during the US Open …

Nor had I ever realised just how much research went into trying to make the music authentic. It was years before I realised that Edelweiss wasn’t really an Austrian folk song, LOL (er, and I actually have a pressed edelweiss which I bought in Austria, because I will always think of the edelweiss as being one of the symbols of the country!), and that the March of the Siamese Children wasn’t actually what traditional Thai music sounded like! But the music on Fiddler on the Roof is far more authentic, and the interviews with people who’d been involved in the research were fascinating.

Concluding the second series were A Chorus Line, the musical about musicals, and various minor shows. I was sorry that Grease wasn’t mentioned … but rather less sorry that the irritating Annie wasn’t mentioned either.

The third episode covered the “blockbuster” musicals of the 1980s onwards. Yes, I know that not everyone likes these, but I love them. They are amazing!   How can anyone not like Les Miserables, or Phantom of the Opera? The music is incredible. Cats isn’t as good, but I love Starlight Express; and the music in Miss Saigon and Aspects of Love is incredible too. The subject matter’s brave as well: the Vietnam War’s still a sensitive subject, and Jesus Christ Superstar … well, enough said. And I just had to caterwaul Don’t Cry For Me Argentina when I stood outside the Casa Rosada last year: Evita is amazing. The musicals where it’s all music and hardly any words are just spoken are fantastic.

I’d have been quite happy had musicals stayed like that … but, as Neil Brand pointed out, it can feel now as if everything’s getting rather Disneyfied. Don’t get me wrong, the stage show of The Lion King is absolutely superb, but it’s not in the same league as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. The programme did include some interesting interviews on how producers went about translating shows from cartoon films to the stage, though. Oh, and there was The Rocky Horror Show. Two bars of The Time Warp and I feel like I’m 12 years old and at someone’s birthday disco! That song always got played as birthday discos. Well, it did in the late 1980s, anyway!

Right near the end of the final episode, there was a tantalising glimpse of Hamilton. I really want to see this! I don’t actually know what the music’s like, but I want to see it for historical reasons. I assume that a lot of it’s about the Hamilton-Burr duel, but presumably it also covers a lot of about Hamilton and Jefferson and their differing views of America’s future. That was the personification of the commerce versus agrarianism, free soil versus slaveholding and North versus South division that faced the US in its early days and really dominated American politics up until the Union broke up in 1861. It’s probably well worth remembering, in the light of current events, that the American authorities have always had to deal with some very divisive issues; and that a big part of the idea of giving so much power to the executive was in the hope that, whilst it will always be very difficult for any government to deal with are issues on which opinion is fairly evenly divided and there are very strong feelings on both sides, the president would try to encourage consensus and compromise. Neither of those words seem to be featuring very prominently in American politics at the moment.

Anyway, enough politics! Google informs me that Hamilton is due to open in London at the end of November, although unfortunately there don’t seem to be any plans at the moment to take it round the rest of the country. I suppose they’re waiting to see how things go. Actually, it also says that it’s a “hip-hop musical” and I can’t bloody stand hip-hop, but maybe it’s still worth seeing for the historical element!

It’s also being advertised as “an American musical” … which takes us neatly back to Show Boat and Oklahoma! et al. Three very interesting hours. Neil Brand took us from the 1910s right up to the 2010s so sadly I don’t suppose there are plans for any more episodes of this … but it would be great if there were 🙂 . It’s been an excellent series.  Really enjoyed it.

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