David Hare has set the cat amongst the pigeons with a recent article in The Spectator.
He is hardly the first person to do so, but the leading playwright has angered (there is no other word) some theatregoers by penning some controversial thoughts under the headline “Musicals are killing theatres”.
From the furore, you would imagine that this was a long, fully argued article. Instead, his piece was little more than a throwaway coda of under 150 words at the bottom of a column. However, it contains an impassioned cry for the future of playwriting.
The playwright doesn’t mince his words. “Musicals have become the leylandii of theatre, strangling everything in their path. It’s a crushing defeat to see Wyndham’s without a straight play. Is it our fault? Are dramatists not writing enough good plays which can attract 800 people a night? Will well-known actors not appear in them? Or did producers mislay their balls during lockdown?”
The responses have not been as brief. The Guardian group alone has published two full-length columns addressing the subject. Michael Billington was generally sympathetic, in his article headlined “Musicals are having exceptional moment—but classic plays are vanishing from UK stages”.
They might be having exceptional moment, but the three that he cited, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls and Cabaret are all revivals of works that are all over 50 years old.
In The Observer, David Benedict was more combative, suggesting that “the best musicals are the equal of great plays, so why the snobbery?”
Coincidentally, as well as accepting that many lesser musicals are nothing to write home about, he cited the same three revivals as Billington but, in addition, at least identified a couple of contemporary musicals Operation Mincemeat and Pride and Prejudice* (* sort of). With all due respect, it seems unlikely that either of these will be regarded as a classic in 50 years’ time.
Oddly, Benedict also derides praise by Hare for Hamilton. That is because the latter’s view, expressed after his original article caused controversy, is primarily based on a view that the difference between great musicals and great plays is that the former need not be worthy. Indeed, Benedict seems unhappy that Lin Manuel Miranda’s miraculous creation is “a groundbreaking work about serious matters”.
This gets to the crux of the matter. Despite exceptions such as Hamilton and Come from Away, not to mention our own Everybody's Talking about Jamie and Billy Elliot, far too many musicals, even those that are highly regarded, have plots that are little more than froth. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that in any artistic form, the making of a classic that will endure relies on something more than glitz.
It may be snobbery, but jukebox musicals such as We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia are undoubtedly entertainments but do not even aspire to high art. When compared to serious plays by writers such as David Hare but also among so many others James Graham and Caryl Churchill, that address the problems of the nation, the problems of the world and/or the kind of personal difficulties faced by Jamie and Billy, most of the musicals currently occupying West End theatres are sorely lacking.
The same has to be said about far too many straight plays at the moment, where due to financial constraints the dream scenario is a solo revival with no sets and a star name willing to work for an Equity minimum wage.
With the financial problems currently facing the National, it may only be a matter of time before we regress to the days when Sir Trevor Nunn felt he had little choice but to block up one of the large stages with long-running musicals in order to finance the theatre and its more imaginative work on other stages. That would be a crying shame.
The dream scenario should be a varied mix of imaginative new musicals, revivals of the greats whether musical or otherwise, classical theatre and new writing, inevitably supported by more popular musicals that provide much-needed work and income to the sector. Regrettably, in the current economic climate, that outlook seems like little more than a pipe dream.