Rocketman

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I thought this was great, although it didn’t make for easy watching despite the fun fantasy musical sequences.  I love the fact that a “fat boy from Pinner” became an international superstar, and continues to be one after all the years; but I’m so sorry that he’s had to go through so much.  Life can be very hard: we screw ourselves up, and other people screw us up.  I felt as if everyone should have jumped up and joined in with the “I’m Still Standing” happy ending … although, being a bit of an old romantic, I wish it’d jumped forward and finished with his wedding to David Furnish, rather than everyone dancing around on a beach 🙂 . I also feel really old: I’ve got Elton John albums on tape, and I remember when Dexter Fletcher, who directed this film, was in Press Gang!

It’s quite an unusual film, because you’ve got the big musical sequences – and it can’t be easy fitting songs into someone’s life story, rather than making a film like Mamma Mia! or Sunshine on Leith where the story’s written to fit in with the songs – and the flamboyant costumes, but you’ve also got a real human being’s real pain.  I hadn’t realised he’d suffered from eating disorders, but his issues with alcoholism and cocaine addiction are well-known.  They’re all played out on the screen, all tied in with his difficult relationships with his parents, and with his one-time manager and boyfriend John Reid.  I believe there’s been some criticism of the way Reid’s portrayed in the film, but we can’t know what went on behind closed doors so can’t really comment on that.

The film did seem to emphasise the lows rather than the highs.   As I’ve said, I’d like to have seen it show him finding him happiness with David Furnish.  And, come to that, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Watford!  What about them getting to the 1984 Cup Final?!   It started off with a group therapy session, which rather set the tone.  He’s achieved so much: he’s sung so many iconic songs, sold so many records.  I’d like to have seen a bit more emphasis on the positives.   But, having said that, the film’s showing us how he struggled behind the flamboyant act and the brilliant music, and anyone who’s ever had issues with self-hatred and addiction and eating disorders will feel for him.  Well, everyone will feel for him, I hope.   And maybe anyone who’s opposing the teaching of LGBT equality in schools will see how Elton John struggled with being expected to hide his true self, and think twice about their attitudes … although they probably won’t, because they probably won’t go to see the film.

There is a happy ending.  We’re told that he’s been sober for 28 years, and we’re shown pictures of the real Elton John – Sir Elton John, I should say! – with his husband and children and doing his charity work.  Not all life stories of celebs who’ve struggled with themselves and addiction turn out happily.  All too many have ended in tragedy.  I’m so pleased that things have worked out for him.  I’m sure he still has his moments – I’ve seen him in concert twice, and the first time he had a tantrum and walked off early, although the second time he was wonderful – but hopefully there aren’t too many of them any more.

And what a singer, and what a pianist.  The music’s great.  The music’s always great!   And, if you haven’t seen it already – I’m a bit late to the party because I’ve been busy with tennis and days out!! – this is definitely a film worth seeing.

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The King and I – Manchester Opera House

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Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history?  Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot?  She even sorts out arguments over the Bible!   I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian.  OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time.  The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.

Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true!  Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!

OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines.  Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England!  Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.

As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.

A lot of musicals have very serious messages.  Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history.  OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt.  We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand.  And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s.  The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance.  And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.

It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”.  That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women.  Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person.  It’s a very important theme in The King and I. 

Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery.  Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery.  Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though!  Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK!   And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.

I’ve got off the point now.  It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand.  And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king.  He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.

But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.

It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.

It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.

A lot of that’s because of the music.  Music can make most things work.  We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters.  The costumes are wonderful, too!  The dancing’s wonderful.  And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king.  And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children.  Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well.  This does.  It really gets you.  Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production.  Cute kids!

And I still want that dress …

 

 

 

 

SIX The Musical

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This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)!   My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock  😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining.  And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”.  It was really good.  It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.

The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest.  Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing.  I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me.  Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre.   It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .

But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day.  That was a no-no.  “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be.  It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying.  There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit.  What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit?  Very irritating.  However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.

As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them.  People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all.  And the rhyme.  “Divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived.”  It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway.  It’s the best-known period in English history.  Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.

I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.

Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this!   At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly.  It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance.  And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s.  Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it.  Yep.  Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer.  Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe.  Poor Anne.

What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander.  She probably got the best deal of the lot.  And that is exactly how it came across in SIX.  Hooray!

Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story.  She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives.  OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing.  I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.

And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite!  Catherine Parr is mine.  My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men.  Thomas Seymour.  No, no, no!   Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her.  Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative!  But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists.  Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!

And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment!   She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions.  She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader.  Hostility from Europe?  Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.

Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had.  I’m just saying!

Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon.  Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history.  Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier.  Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman.  It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries.   Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost.  Yes, that’s all true.

But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter.  She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders.  She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well.  She was a tough cookie.  She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it.  Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?

Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?!  She had a Bjork hairdo.  And spoke and sang like a chav.  I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav.  Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither!   The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events.  No!  That was Catherine Howard!  I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.

I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs.  And the same with Jane Seymour.  She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music.  But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever.  The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry?  I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either.  I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.

I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway!  I take things too seriously.  Sorry!!  But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) .  And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point.  Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t.  There were a lot of kids there.  I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors.  OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope!   And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think.  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .

Evita: The Making of a Superstar – BBC 2

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I’ve got the worst singing voice in the entire known universe, but practically the first thing I did in Buenos Aires was sing (quietly) “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” outside the Casa Rosada. It had to be done!   It’s such an iconic song, from such an iconic musical – which, according to Suzy Klein on BBC 2, is Donald Trump’s favourite musical and was so admired by Maggie Thatcher that it led her to say she said she hoped someone’d write a musical about her.  Let’s not go there!   South American history isn’t widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries, but we’ve all heard of Eva Peron.  And we all know that song.

Our group went to a gloriously touristy Argentinian evening, involving large steaks and people (not us) dancing the tango. It also involved someone singing “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, which really surprised me.  OK, it was a tourist thing, but I wouldn’t have expected Argentinians to be into Evita.  Quite apart from the fact that it’s a British musical and Anglo-Argentinian relations aren’t exactly warm, it doesn’t portray Eva Peron very favourably.  The expression “scheming tart” was how one of the people interviewed on this programme summed it up.

And she really is still hero-worshipped by a lot of people in Argentina. Our local guide, clearly a very intelligent woman with intensive knowledge of Argentinian history, couldn’t praise her highly enough.  Many political leaders are greatly revered, but that’s usually because they led a country to greatness, or to independence, or saw it safely through a time of great peril.  Eva Peron didn’t do anything of those things.  She wasn’t even a political leader: she was just married to one.  She was, as we’re reminded at the very start of Evita, known as “the Spiritual Leader of the Nation”.  There aren’t too many other people seen in those terms.  Gandhi’s the only one who immediately springs to mind – and he certainly didn’t wear expensive clothes and go on glamorous Rainbow Tours.  To this day, many Argentinian households have pictures of Eva Peron on their walls.  Often next to depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The only other person who seems to be so adored in Argentina is Diego Maradona, and the least said about him, the better. And I see that the final of the Copa Libertadores, between Boca Juniors and River Plate, has had to be postponed because of hooliganism.  That’s actually quite relevant to Evita, because Boca Juniors have always been seen as the team of the poor/descamisados and River Plate as the team of the rich.

I’m not sure what story this programme was actually trying to tell. Was it the story of Eva Peron, the story of Evita the musical or the story of 1970s/1980s culture?  It seemed to be a bit of all three.  Maybe the same theme runs through all three – the cult of hype and image and celebrity.  But that’s one thing with a film or a musical or a pop group, and quite another with someone who has huge political and financial clout.

Tim Rice informed us that he first became interested in Eva Peron when he got some Argentinian stamps for his boyhood stamp collection, and wondered why they bore the picture of a woman who wasn’t a queen! And that, years later, he heard something about her on the radio, and decided to write a musical about her.  It’s certainly a great story – rags to riches, a tragically early death, hero worship, etc – but it’s still a strange choice.  The Perons wouldn’t have been well-known in Britain at the time.  And, even before the Falklands War, making a musical about Argentinian politics was hugely controversial.  Some people accused him of glorifying fascism.  And Eva Peron is a very controversial and divisive figure.  The musical couldn’t make that any clearer.

This was all very interesting, but the programme then veered off the subject of Eva Peron and on to the subject of how the musical was tied in with both the idea of powerful female leaders and the media obsession with celebrity. I’m not sure that either Eva Peron or Margaret Thatcher, whilst they had ambition and ruthlessness in common, would take very kindly to being compared to each other.  There are probably more comparisons to be drawn between Eva Peron and Diana, Princess of Wales, in terms of the “people’s princess” rubbish, but the programme didn’t so much draw comparisons between the two as say that the media were obsessed with the musical and its stars and that that obsession then moved on to Diana.  Er, it’s a great musical, but how on earth can you claim that Elaine Paige & co got the same level of media attention as Diana did?!

All the talk about the hype was actually quite sad. OK, obviously you’ve got to have publicity, to get bums on seats and make money, but it all seemed so cynical.  Much as it annoys me when anything isn’t historically accurate, I love the interplay between Eva Peron and Che Guevara in Evita. It’s so well done.  That bit where they dance together, and he goes on about how she’s conning everyone and she goes on about she can’t really do anything else within the Argentinian system, is just incredible.  It says so much about Argentina, and South American politics in general.  So I was rather upset to hear that the reason for including Che wasn’t to make some great political point but a) to appeal to the public by bringing in a household name and b) to provide a glamorous and romantic male lead role in which an attention-grabbing good-looking bloke could be cast.  OK, Antonio Banderas would be reason enough to watch the film version, even without the music and the history, but … well, it all sounds so cynical!  Boo!!

As I said, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what story or whose story the programme was trying to tell, and it this point it went back to Argentina and discussed the “Evita Movement”, set up in 2004 as a sort of social protest movement, and also commented that Eva Peron now has admirers from all social classes. I like that.  Whatever you think of Eva Peron, you’ve got to love the line “But our privileged class is dead.  Look who they are calling for now”.  I think that’s only in the film, not the stage version, isn’t it?  Great line.  And the line about “No we wouldn’t mind seeing her in Harrods, but behind the jewellery counter not in front” is a reminder that, long before the invasion of the Falklands, the privileged class was very Anglophile and there was huge British influence in Argentina.  There still is.  Harrods might have closed down, but there are still red postboxes in Argentina, and the uber-iconic Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires serves extremely nice scones.  Take that, Peron!

Lovely, lovely city, by the way. Beautiful buildings.  Great food.  Everyone talks about football all the time.

They then flipped from Eva Peron to Madonna. It does say a lot that Madonna was so absolutely desperate to play the lead role in the 1996 film version of Evita.  Like Bridget Jones J , I pretty much know all the words to The Immaculate Collection.  A lot of people who grew up in the ’80s will do!   You want celebrity, hype, image, and someone who really made the most of what they had?  Madonna.  I can’t imagine ever being friends with her, if I knew her personally, but what a woman!   Really, it was quite a risk for her to become involved in something that was very controversial at the time, because filming took place in Argentina at a time when, in addition to anger over the way Eva Peron was portrayed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, both Britain and America were very unpopular there.  The programme showed us some of the “Fuero Madonna” and “Fuero Ingles” graffiti that appeared in Buenos Aires at the time.  It wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but the Argentinian government actually produced its own film about Eva Peron, as a direct response to all the controversy.

I can’t believe that the film’s 22 years old! I’ve seen it more often than I’ve seen the stage version (which is now 40 years old!), because cheap and easy to watch a DVD in your own front room, so I know it better than I know the stage version.  I’d never thought that much about the reasons for the differences between the two, but, as this programme pointed out, the portrayal of Eva Peron in the film is much softer and much more appealing than in the stage version.  “You Must Love Me” was a new song for the film, and the portrayal of terminally-ill Eva practically being propped up on the balcony of the Casa Rosada really tugs at the heartstrings.  Was it a sop to Argentinian sensitivies?  Well, the programme didn’t really go into that.  It just said that it was inaccurate, because the real Eva Peron was making feisty, rousing speeches right until just before the end.

It didn’t really answer any questions. It didn’t go into the real history of Eva Peron’s life and Juan Peron’s rule of Argentina, which is now all so confused, between the myths of Eva and the myths of the Evita musical, that it’s very hard to know what to think.  Even putting the myths aside and trying to rely on actual sources, historians can’t agree on exactly what was going on.  What was going on with the money from the Eva Peron Foundation?  Was Peron a fascist?  No-one seems to be sure.  But not too many people in the West talk like this, or even in Argentina, talks this much about General Galtieri, or about any of the umpteen other very questionable people who ruled Argentina or other South American countries during the 20th century.

Musicals and history are an incredible combination, when you think about it. Look at some of the subjects covered by the most popular musicals of all time.  The June Rebellion of 1832.  The Anschluss.  Pogroms.  The rise of the Nazis in 1930s Berlin.  Criminal gangs in Victorian London.  Gangland conflict in New York.  The Vietnam War.  The Second World War in the South Pacific, also covering racism.  The miners’ strike.  Pretty weighty subjects.  I assume that the word “superstar” in the title of this programme was meant to refer to Eva Peron, not Evita the musical, but the image of Eva Peron outside Argentina, certainly in the Angophone world, has largely been determined by Evita.  That says a lot about the power of musicals.  It’s quite frightening, actually!   Imagine if someone did make a musical about Margaret Thatcher, or Donald Trump, or any of the other controversial figures of our times.  Maybe not …

Miss Saigon and other musicals – some musings, on a nasty wet day

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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!