Some settings/backgrounds for musicals. The Vietnam War (Miss Saigon), Nazi anti-Semitism and homophobia (Cabaret), poverty and crime and domestic violence (Oliver!), pogroms in Tsarist Ukraine (Fiddler on the Roof), destitution and the failed June Uprising of 1832 (Les Miserables), the Cold War (Chess), the Anschluss (The Sound of Music), corruption and excessive populism in politics (Evita), ethnic tensions and gang warfare (West Side Story), racism in the Deep South (Show Boat), war and racism (South Pacific). And I haven’t seen Hamilton yet, but I believe that that contains plenty of socio-political messages too.
I was just thinking (sorry, this is all going to be more than a bit gloomy), whilst watching Miss Saigon last night, about how some of the world’s best-known musicals are centred on deep-rooted political and social issues – many of which are, regrettably, still relevant today, many years after whichever part of the past they’re set in. Yes, all right, all right, not all musicals are like that! There are plenty of jolly, cheerful ones, like Mamma Mia and Anything Goes. Even I can’t really find too much of a significant historico-political message in Cats or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It would be seriously pushing it to say that Annie Get Your Gun was about feminism, Starlight Express contained subversive messages about progress (the electric trains being defeated by the old steam trains!), Mary Poppins was about the suffragettes or Grease was about the problems of peer pressure. Phantom of the Opera has a historical setting but isn’t really a historical story. And no-one ever points out that, when they make a state out of this territory and call it Oklahoma, “they” will be taking away the last bit of what was supposed to be “Indian Territory”.
Then there are the musicals which do make a point, but maybe not in such a profound way as those like Miss Saigon and Cabaret. Rich-poor/class divides in Annie, Dirty Dancing and My Fair Lady. Family tensions over tradition and religion in The Jazz Singer. How far is The Wizard of Oz an allegory about the problems in rural America during the 1890s? Chicago is, obviously, about the issues of the Prohibition era. And then there are the ones about Bible stories. But I was thinking about the ones that really do go deeply into political and social issues.
One of the most profound political statements of all time – it is, honestly!! – is that political leaders need to remember that it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right. No, that was not said by a philosopher or political theorist: it was said by “Mrs Anna” in The King and I, when talking to the Siamese Crown Prince Chulalongkorn about slavery. The real Anna Leonowens was quite a mistress of fake news, but that’s beside the point! The King and I deals not only with slavery but also with the horrific treatment of a woman given to the king as a gift, and with the political and cultural implications of Western attempts to gain influence in the Far East. I love what she says about how it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right, though. That line really should be better known than it is! Chulalongkorn, when he became king, actually did abolish slavery in Siam … but, even in the 21st century, the practice of slavery, whilst no longer legal anywhere (although Mauritania didn’t abolish it until 2007) still exists, notably in the forms of human trafficking, and of the enslavement of women by groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.
That was really what I was thinking – how most of these issues haven’t gone anyway. In fact, they’re rather dominating the news at the moment. Not Vietnam as such, but the Vietnam War is the ultimate lesson in how getting involved in a civil war in another country tends to end in disaster – especially if it’s, in part, a Cold War proxy war. Yes, horrendous things are happening in Syria, but getting involved militarily really isn’t going to help. And, as has been pointed out several times in recent months, the Cold War, sadly, seems to be back with a vengeance … even if it hasn’t started taking over chess again yet.
Then we’ve got governments which seem to lean worryingly far to the right in both Poland and Hungary, and the increasing involvement of the Freedom Party in Austria … where The Sound of Music was only shown on TV for the first time a few years ago. The 25th anniversary of the senseless, evil murder of poor Stephen Lawrence, and Tom Daley’s speech about the appalling lack of LGBT rights in many Commonwealth countries and elsewhere are important reminders of the fact that racism and homophobia remain significant problems in society; and some worrying speeches were made in the House of Commons last week on the subject of anti-Semitism, which of late seems to be rearing its ugly head more and more.
A recent report in the Manchester Evening News actually used the word “Dickensian” when referring to poverty, homelessness and poor quality housing. Les Miserables is to some extent about “rich young boys”, but a lot of the rich young boys are killed … and the outstanding characters are Jean Valjean, forced to steal a loaf of bread in order to feed his family, and Fantine, forced into prostitution when she loses her job. There was a report on Sky News only this morning about the increase in rent arrears, evictions and the use of food banks – linked to the problems caused by the introduction of the universal credit system. Incidentally, which of the working-class characters in Les Miserables “make it in the end”? The Thenardiers, who are thieves and con artists! That’s quite a (les) miserable(s) thought, really.
That’s Paris. Oliver! is set in London, and West Side Story in New York, over a century apart, but both involve crime and violence, although Oliver! has more in common with Les Miserables in that it shows the lives of the desperately poor – I don’t really like the word “underclass”, but it is relevant in these cases. Gang warfare in West Side Story, crime and violence in Oliver! … it’s not knife crime as such, but it’s all coming from the same direction.
Then there’s Evita. Actually, Eva Peron is still hugely popular in Argentina: I went there in 2016, and she’s still such a heroine there. So, is “bread and circuses” politics, as the Romans would have put it, what works after all? It’s interesting that “Lula”, the ex-president of Brazil, is attracting considerable support ahead of his corruption trial. There are certainly some parallels between him and Eva Peron. Plus ca change …
But what is noticeable about a lot of these musicals, apart from Les Miserables, is that there is a sense of hope there, and that that’s usually the American Dream. Strangely, that’s more in the later musicals than the earlier ones. Simon Schama said, in one of his BBC history programmes, that Somewhere Over The Rainbow was the ultimate American Dream song, and it is, and that was 1939, but The Wizard of Oz wasn’t actually about American Dream stuff. There isn’t much of an American Dream in Show Boat, and Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chico etc in West Side Story have found out that the American Dream really isn’t all it was cracked up to be. I’m not trying to be critical of America, by the way: I love America! I’m just saying how things come across in the musicals.
“There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.” Well, An American Tail‘s a musical, isn’t it?! Going to America isn’t mentioned in The Sound of Music, but we all know that it was where the (von) Trapps ended up. Tevye and his family, in Fiddler on the Roof, escape the pogroms and move to Chicago. In Miss Saigon (immigration laws having changed since the days of Tevye’s family and the Mousekewitzes), The Engineer is desperate for a visa to enable him to get to America, and Kim kills herself so that her ex, Chris, will take their son to live with him in America. Chris and his friend John both talk about how they genuinely believed that, as Americans, they were going to Vietnam to “do good”. That feeling’s kind of gone now. As I said, I’m not trying to criticise America: you could say the same about believing in spreading British justice across the globe, if that featured in musicals. Whatever propaganda might appear on TV in Turkey or Russia or elsewhere, how many people actually believe that interference by other countries in Syria is just about trying to “do good”?
Ugh, this has got really doom and gloom-ish! I think it must be because, although Miss Saigon was brilliant, there was a ¼ hour delay because of a technical hitch, so my mind started to wander, at a time when I was a bit fed up because we didn’t know if or when things’d get going again! The next musical I’m due to see is the new stage version of An Office and a Gentleman, and that should be cheerful and uplifting – and, hooray, it’s full of lovely music from the 1980s, the greatest musical decade of all time! Ah – speaking of the 1980s, how about Billy Elliot? That’s set during the miners’ strike, but it still manages to be cheerful and uplifting, at least at the end. Mind you, your chances of being saved from poverty by your artistic talent are probably not really that much greater than your chances of being saved from destitution by a long-lost rich grandfather (Oliver!), parent’s guilt-stricken ex-boss (Les Miserables) or random other benefactor (Annie). West Side Story’s probably more realistic. Oh dear, down the path of doom and gloom again …
I suppose one of the things with musicals, and with books, films, plays, etc – and it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest books ever written, such as Gone With The Wind and War and Peace, are set in troubled times – is that they personalise the issues, and that that makes you think about them in a different way. The characters may be fictional, but there were Kims, Fantines, Nancys, and all the others. And there still are, even if in different places.
OK, doom and gloom waffle over! Well done if you’ve actually bothered to read it all – which I don’t suppose anyone actually has! It’s just so sad that, over forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the world’s still stuck in this relentless cycle of wars and refugee crises. And that, over 180 years after Oliver! is set, both poverty and crime on the streets of London, and elsewhere, are actually getting worse. Right, doom-laden rant definitely over now. I’ll try to find something more cheerful to write about next time!