Pop stars in musicals and a trip to the opera

Friday Briefing: Popstars in musicals and a trip to the opera

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Popstars and musicals

It's a well-documented fact that, where Broadway and movie musicals once provided the world with pop hits in the 30s and 40s, the rise of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s created its own momentum. Musical theatre eventually spun off in its own direction distinct, and eventually distant, from the pop world with occasional exceptions, like when Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" became a chart hit for Judy Collins in the mid-70s, or Andrew Lloyd Webber seized the opportunity to advance-promote Evita by releasing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" before the stage show even materialised.

But the musical theatre world spied an opportunity to reintegrate with pop, and realised that if you can't beat them, conscript them, by harnessing the power and familiarity of pop music into musicals that folded existing pop soundtracks into them, whether in brand-new story musicals like Mamma Mia! or biographical showcases of the artists whose work is being celebrated like Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), Beautiful (Carole King) or the current Tina (the Tina Turner musical), amongst so many others. Biographical musicals, of course, rely on the pop star being celebrated being a big enough star to attract audiences to see the show without them being in them; it was probably a miscalculation to celebrate the career of Cher, for instance, when she still tours. For the same reason, a biographical show celebrating Madonna would be superfluous to requirements right now.

A few bold pop writers also seized the opportunity to write original musicals themselves, most notably Elton John (who collaborated with Tim Rice on the film score for The Lion King that then made its way to Broadway, and then followed it with the success of Billy Elliot, adapted for the stage from a non-musical film). The best part of its global success is that Elton doesn't need to be there personally to have his name emblazoned on the marquee. And he is yet to step into the show to play Scar.  

But the history of popstars writing their own musicals has been more chequered. On Broadway, Paul Simon flopped out with The Capeman; so did Phil Collins with the Disney-produced Tarzan. In the West End, the Pet Shop Boys failed with Closer to Heaven (but some of the songs and one of its characters have recently been recycled into a one-woman show for original star Frances Barber, called Musik, closing this weekend). Take That stars Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams have both dabbled with the form, the former with The Girls (adapted from Calendar Girls) and the latter with The Boy in the Dress (for the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon last Christmas).  Next week, the Bryan Adams scored musical version of Pretty Woman arrives in London (opening at the Piccadilly on Monday).

But popstars who write musicals have another ace up their sleeves: if the box office wanes, they can always step into the show themselves to give it a boost. Sting did this on Broadway for his wonderful Tyneside-set musical The Last Ship (and is currently doing so again in a US visit of the recent UK touring version,  playing in San Francisco now until March 22). And right now in London, Sara Bareilles is doing a magnificent turn in the title role of the musical Waitress she scored, reprising a performance she has previously given on Broadway.

I caught up with it again in London this week, and was blown away by her; she's (happily) a warm and natural actor as well as a fine, fierce vocalist. And it was a special treat to see and hear her singing her own songs (though fans will have already heard her do these songs on her own album recording of the show's score). But seeing it again also reminded me of what a great score she had crafted, not just for her own voice but those of others. I really hope she sticks with the form now and writes another show.

Taking a busman's holiday...

This week I took a busman's holiday, as I occasionally like doing, to see an opera at the English National Opera. It's not just that the London Coliseum may very well be my favourite London theatre, with its immense sense of majesty and occasion but also informality; I don't feel, as I invariably do the Royal Opera House, ill at ease and as if I don't belong. This is truly a people's opera house, not least because the doors have been flung open to other events like regular presentations of musicals that make fans of other genres at home here, too. (I'm looking forward to the residency of Hairspray here in April).

But seeing a stupendous production of Carmen here was to see this opera house coming into its own for exactly what it is here for. It helps, of course, that this be one of the greatest musical scores ever written that's in a class of its own. But also this production, which has been in the rep of ENO since 2012, provides a revolutionary take on such a familiar story that brings it into new focus.

Yes, some spectators are still finding it shocking - in the interval I was near the exit doors, and watched the front of house enquiring of departing patrons if they were coming back and many said they were not - but it's bold and startling. I bow to my opera critic colleagues in their musical appraisals of the show, but reading The Spectator's Richard Bratby actually gives me hope that some of them are also appreciating its controversial director Calixto Bierto's choices, too. "In Act Two, José slapped Carmen, and then powered on with his Flower Song as she lay trembling on the floor. Too much, too soon was my instinctive response; but then Bizet's fate motif echoed through the orchestra, pointing the way to the opera's brutal final scene, and it had to be conceded: you could quarrel with Bieito's pacing, but you couldn't dispute that this was a meaningful response to music and text. At this rate we're going to have to start taking him seriously."

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