The National Theatre, once the country’s conscience, has sold its soul to the
musical. Director Peter Gill rails against a dangerous outbreak of the follies
Twits in toppers
WHEN I recently went back to the National Theatre after an eight-year absence for my new play Cardiff East one of the first tannoy messages I heard as I was sitting in the canteen was: "If anyone wants two tickets for the Saturday matinee of Miss Saigon, will they please contact the stage door".
It wasn’t as if, eight years ago, there were many calls over the tannoy offering tickets for the new Edward Bond play in the Pit. But over the next weeks I was to learn that the musical is well and truly part of life at the National Theatre.
I was glad to be back working with old friends in familiar surroundings; many things remained unchanged and some things had changed for the better. But one thing that had certainly changed was the National itself; which had become a seasoned musicals house.
It is, for example, a locus for the Sondheim Syndrome. I soon found out that the best way of answering, "Do you like Sondheim?" was to say "Yes," and quickly change the subject. This is the only way to deal with the problem. And I know other people have found this to be the only satisfactory method of dealing with this difficult question. To waver was to be lost. This will involve listening to many more CDs than you bargained for offering contrasts between many different versions of the same song, discussions about the merits of different productions, worries over the unfortunate weaknesses in certain of the books. It’s no good to say you quite like Sondheim, or some of it, or such and such a song or show or that if you think he’s such a great composer why doesn’t he do his own orchestration, or what does that woman mean by "Send In the Clowns"?
This will release all kinds of reactions: accusations of elitism, lack of soul, lack of a sense of fun, and cries of, "Isn’t this opera for people like me?" and looks of violent disappointment that when you were young would have made you want to leave home. I have never had much to do with Scientology but I was reminded of the old days of the Workers Revolutionary Party. The methods of persuasion are much the same. I think that there is a Little Red Sondheim Book. They are quite ruthless. So, say "yes". It’s better for everyone.
Very few other artists have this effect. Wagner and Tolkein do, and strangely enough, Howard Barker. It’s the same with some people when you say you don’t all that much like The Wizard of Oz or the films of Powell and Pressburger.
I rehearsed Cardiff East alongside Guys And Dolls and Lady In The Dark. Sharing the repertoire with one musical can be exhilarating; sharing with two is exhausting. First of all there is the racket. When John Gielgud. was taking a stage rehearsal of Don Giovanni, which opened the English National Opera’s tenure at the London Coliseum, he was vainly trying to make a point to someone on stage and couldn’t make himself heard. "Oh, do stop that dreadful noise," he said to the orchestra, as he made his way through the auditorium. Recently Harold Pinter was thought by some at the National Theatre to be rather quaint when he objected to watching a run-through of his new production of The Homecoming while "Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat" was blasting through the walls of the adjacent rehearsal room. By the time Cardiff East had moved into the same rehearsal room, Lady In The Dark was our neighbour.
The first time you hear Kurt Weill’s witty choral quotation from The Mikado coming through the brick wail it’s amusing. After the 20th time you start thinking of ways of making the punishment fit the crime. I have since heard that the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, which went into Rehearsal Room Two after us, was some form of retaliation. I suppose it never dawned on the powers-that-be to spend some of the Lottery money currently being used to improve Denys Lasdun’s classic front of house on anything as dull as sounding-proofing a rehearsal room for the sole use of musicals. The lack of soundproofing between the Cottesloe and the Lyttleton and the Olivier auditoria above is notorious to sensitive ears. Now, in addition to the Jubilee Line, which for some reason makes a sound like an amplified heartbeat (which I think audiences accept as a directorial nonsense) you can hear not one but two musicals on the right night. Certain passages of the forthcoming King Lear in the Cottesloe won’t go well with "Jenny Made Her Mind Up" and "I Love You a Bushel and A Peck".
But the musical also makes itself heard far beyond the rehearsal room. When I recently went to a meeting about taking Cardiff East to Cardiff, the National was in uproar. It was during the technical rehearsals for Lady In The Dark, technical rehearsals which incidentally took a week. That’s another thing about musicals. They’re so unwieldy. You try getting a full week’s technical rehearsals for a four-hour uncut Hamlet in the Olivier and see where it gets you. It transpired that the technical day in question clashed with a memorial performance dedicated to Jack Tinker – late theatre critic of the Daily Mail, a diva worshipper whose death was marked by the dimming of the lights in the West End. The memorial was to be held at the London Palladium and produced by Cameron Mackintosh.
This meant that Maria Friedman, the leading lady of Lady In The Dark, was desperately needed simultaneously in two theatres. Now, Cameron Mackintosh is a very generous benefactor to the musical life of the National Theatre, so there was not much guessing where she went. Whether she had any say in the matter no one knows. I shouldn’t think it was important.
When I went down to see how my colleague Francesca Zambello, the director of Lady In The Dark, was coping without a leading lady I found her managing very well. After all, she had that chorus of The Mikado to rehearse, and anyway she’s an experienced American opera director well used to the ways of sponsors who never give lunch quite for free.
For the subsidised theatre, the musical has proved to be a mixed blessing. In some notable instances it has proved an invaluable money spinner and has also been seen as a lively fillip to a repertoire which has to some people seemed too worthy. But it has also colluded with the prevailing political climate, with its attendant cuts in subsidy to put commercial interests ahead of artistic ones, and in the name of populism has created an invidious elitism of a different kind — encouraging a softening of the repertoire without broadening the social mix of the audience.
London has become very Metropolitan and chic, like Paris in the Fifties; it likes vacuity spiced with a little sophistication. This will do well for a certain commercial theatre and certainly for a certain kind of art theatre, but for a serious theatre there is not much hope. Arguably, the two most important events in the subsidised theatre during the 1980s were Les Miserables at the RSC and Guys And Dolls at the National Theatre. The first played a straight run at the Barbican for three months without disturbing the repertoire at Stratford. It was a continuation of a strand of RSC work exemplified a few years earlier by Nicholas Nickleby and has arguably done a good deal to make the subsequent activities of that company financially viable.
In the February/March 1982 booking period of the National, Guys And Dolls joined The Orestela, Hiawatha, The Hypochondriac, The Mayor Of Zalamea and Much Ado About Nothing in the Olivier Theatre, like a glass of champagne, making for a total repertoire in the three theatres of 13 productions. In 1997 it will play alone in the Olivier in a straight run for much of the year in a repertoire which at present comprises, seven productions.
Salad Days still remains one of the only successful new musical to originate in a subsidised theatre. The likelihood of seeing another on one of the main stages in the near future is remote. Carrie and Jean Seberg were too costly for particular individuals to make that very likely. And you must remember there have been only a dozen or so successful musicals in London since Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in 1968. They may have been acclaimed, even brilliant, and certainly they have earned a lot of money but they haven’t been many I am not denying the perception that coach loads of the working class go to see them. It’s just that it isn’t true. For one thing they are too expensive. The musicals, particularly in the subsidised theatre, are programmed, as everything is, to satisfy Middle England.
Some people see the musical as a unique important and modern theatrical form and make you feel that to take a different view is a kind of heresy. It’s rather as if you were rejecting the old canard about the death of the music hall being the death of the truly live theatre. But to say that is to forget that the music hall was a popular medium and musicals are not. They are the descendants of Viennese operetta which were entertainments for a bourgeois audience, the "culinary" theatre Brecht was taking about. With very few exceptions – Guys And Dolls being one – musicals are essentially unsatisfying. The songs are often ravishing and have added to the cornucopia of great popular songs that are unique to this century. But the musical form always seems to promise something it can’t deliver. Constantly titillating. The notion that they somehow cheer you up is lost on me. Their almost total reliance on victim songs makes me think that people who enjoy musicals don’t know how unhappy they are. Then there is the excuse of the depression theatre. Musicals are for a cheerful night out to take your mind off the cares of the recession. For whom? For people who have nothing to worry about in the first place.
The memorial for Jack Tinker at the Palladium was by all accounts a triumph. The piece de resistance came when the London theatre critics joined the cast of Guys And Dolls in the chorus of "Sit Down! You’re Rocking The Boat". Some of them, of course, went on to review themselves. "How Jack would have loved it," they said.
And he would have. As well as outing the West End Wendys, who largely make up the critical establishment of the London theatre, it helped to ensure that – regardless of all the magnificent things he has done during his tenure as director of the National – Richard, Eyre will be remembered as the man who brought us Guys And Dolls.
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Last modified: 2012-03-15