Review - Pet Shop Boys musical Musik at Leicester Square Theatre
Musicals, like films, sometimes have sequels, though the history of them is littered with more failures than successes, as witness the heavily abbreviated runs of Bring Back Birdie (the sequel to Bye Bye Birdie), The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge (which closed out-of-town before reaching Broadway).
But Musik is something entirely different: it's a very ripe, clever and frequently hilarious cabaret spin-off from a 2001 musical that had a book by Jonathan Harvey and songs by the Pet Shop Boys that had a five-month run at the Arts Theatre. Its story was narrated by a former self-styled rock icon called Billie Trix, and was played by Frances Barber.
Now, Harvey, the Pet Shop Boys and Barber herself have reunited for this outrageous and courageous cabaret hour in which Billie Trix this time narrates her own life story, somewhat in the style of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical that originated Off-Broadway in 1998 and went on to become a film and eventually was revived in a hit Broadway incarnation in 2014. Like Hedwig, Trix is a German performance artist with a chequered past but a survivor's instinct.
"Times were tough, but I was tougher / I learnt that lesson well", she sings in her opening number, and goes on to elucidate: "I never knew my father/ or where exactly he was from/ Do you think he could have loved me/ the product of his sperm?"
Times are really tough tonight, but she soldiers on. She's being stalked by none less than Madonna, who is stealing her signature moves (like wearing an eye-patch as she does in the opening number). The reason Madonna has been canceling shows, she says, is because she's been coming to see her show instead, even though it is being housed in what she dubs a community centre.
There are a lot of celebrity cultural references throughout the proceedings, from Andy Warhol (who was inspired to paint soup cans by her) to Shania Twain, Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa and even Donald Trump (we find out a salacious anecdote about his penis) and Prince Harry (she wants to sleep with a prince who sweats, she tells us).
Harvey's script is an industrial-powered litany of name-dropping, but it is also often very, very funny; and the six Pet Shop Boys songs - four of them new for this show - are a riot of pastiche electronic disco. Barber is no singer, but she performs them with a ferocious determination.
I adored this cabaret. which has been directed by Josh Seymour with a contained sense of glee that keeps it from slipping into base caricature. Though Closer to Heaven has been twice revisited in London since its original premiere in productions at the Union and Above the Stag, its more lasting legacy may well turn out to be Musik, which could yet rival Hedwig as a piece of performance art with a little more development. It currently runs for barely an hour, which leaves you wanting more.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner