Gutenberg! The Musical!

Monday, 9 January, 2006

Jermyn Street Theatre is one of my favourite venues. Just round the corner from Piccadilly Circus, it’s not only got a great location, but provides a cosy and intimate space for small-scale, low-budget productions. Currently on offer is Trevor Brown’s production of ‘Gutenberg! The Musical!’ written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who developed the show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. King and Brown are also the sole performers – playing a considerable cast of characters – with Michael Roulston ably assisting at the piano.

‘Gutenberg! The Musical!’ focuses on the inventor of a revolutionary technique for producing printed text. Around the middle of the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg (or Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, to give him his full name) invented a technique for printing text with movable type. Gutenberg’s printing press made text more widely available because it was cheaper to produce. Gutenberg used his process to print about 180 copies of his famous bible, some 48 copies of which have survived to the present day. A pretty unsuccessful businessman by all accounts, Gutenberg would be amazed at the price that a copy of his bible would fetch today – one antiques web site I spotted suggests the unbelievable sum of $100 million dollars if a copy of the ‘Gutenberg Bible’ ever appears on the open market.

‘Gutenberg! The Musical!, doesn’t simply focus on the invention of the printing press, however. It introduces a maniacal Monk who’s hell-bent on keeping the masses illiterate in order to maintain his status and power. And thrown in for good measure is a romantic sub-plot between Gutenberg and an adoring admirer, ‘Helvetica’.

One of my gripes about West End productions is that they rarely start promptly. In fact, I would estimate that less than 5% start at the advertised time. How refreshing then to experience a production (small-scale though ‘Gutenberg’ might be) which started bang on schedule!

Doug Simon (played by Anthony King) and Bud Davenport (played by Scott Brown) have written a musical about Johann Gutenberg, and give us a ‘talk-through’ of the show with the hope that a West End producer in the audience will sign them up for a run. The device allows the characters to describe some scenes in their musical while acting-out and singing songs from others. King and Brown don baseball hats to indicate character changes, and employ basic props such as a toy cat, pencils and a cardboard box as the newly invented printing press.

In ‘Gutenberg! The Musical! King and Brown are lampooning the musical genre, as well deriding enthusiastic, but deluded, writers. Still the biggest box office draw in the West End, musicals are (from one perspective at least) an odd kind of theatrical entertainment, since characters performing seemingly mundane activities suddenly burst forth into song. And these days, almost any subject seems to be ripe for converting into a musical – even the invention of a printing press!

To some extent, King and Brown succeed in mocking the musical genre, but it’s not sufficiently vitriolic to do the job effectively. There are some good lines, for example ‘the West End would be amazing practice for Broadway’, and ‘historical fiction – fiction that’s true’. And there’s a neat running joke about locations: ‘The roof is of dirty thatch’ which is repeated for almost every situation. But in general, the jokes are too few and too mild to strike home, although the songs have suitably bad lyrics, and are well sung.

At the start of the second act, King and Brown ridicule second acts, cataloguing famous musicals with (in their opinion) bad ones. ‘Second acts are boring’ they claim. But, ironically, theirs had much in common. Having started to show some promise in the first act, the material in the second half really never got off the ground, petering out rather quickly, rather than rising to a crescendo.

King and Brown produce enthusiastic performances, and their singing skills and timing were entertaining and engaging, but the show needs more satirical ‘bite’ in the dialogue and the visual humour needs further exploitation, to make it more wholly palatable for the British sense of humour.

(Peter Brown)

Photo of outside theatre by Peter Brown

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