Home theatre

High culture. At the beginning of the year you may have gone to the theatre and seen, in Sydney, the eight and a half hours of Lipsynch. In Sydney and Perth you may have watched, as gold rained down on the stage and blood was sprayed over the actors, Cate Blanchett as King Richard II and Pamela Rabe as King Richard III in the two parts and seven hours of a Shakespeare rewrite called The War of the Roses. In Melbourne you may have seen Grace—the play chosen by the Melbourne Theatre Company to open its 2009 season. What better holiday entertainment, in a time of religious extremism, than an anti-Christian propaganda play? It features a strong, assertive, feminist-cliché atheist who denounces religion when her son “decides to become an Anglican priest”. You may wisely have decided to stay home.

Couch culture. Eighteen-year-old Patrick White complained (it’s indexed under “hatred of Australia” in his published letters): “The professional stage is peopled by provincial companies in musical comedy and American farce, things which induce one to stay at home.”

That was 1931. Now, from the comfort of the couch, you can enjoy Broadway companies performing musical comedy and American farce. No rustling sweets papers except your own, no queues at the ladies’ toilets, and if a voice at the other end of the couch interrupts—you can always chat and replay.

DVD on the home big screen is great for theatre, for films of actual stage productions. Beautifully huge, but irredeemably lower-class, plasma and LCD televisions with booming sound systems are wonderful for opera, ballet and theatre. For the cost of a seat at a capital city musical revival starring celebrities you either thought were in intensive care or have never heard of you could assemble a small library of rewatchable theatre DVDs—or could, before the Oz dollar began its current off-off-Broadway season.

Musical theatre is dying—which is the normal state of affairs and nothing to worry about. Musical theatre is either dying, experiencing a renaissance or, in the fantasy world of the publicity ladies, going through a golden age. In Australia we do old musicals, some newish dollar-eating musicals like Wicked and some local pseudo-musicals—things like the Keating! kitsch (available on DVD) and Shane Warne: The Musical. Surely only the looming depression will save us from Whitlam! or Our Ivan Milat: A Four Fingered Musical. An obvious candidate for this sort of reality with a backing band is Australian Idol: The Musical. It would write itself. Singer from the bush to Sydney Opera House stage. Vicissitudes to triumph.

The history of musical theatre has a lot to do with its present problems. Everything went wrong with Oklahoma!—which it is heresy to point out, for this is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical where everything is supposed to have gone right. Before Oklahoma! there were operettas with song and dance and silly stories then musical comedy with silly or irrelevant stories and lots of song and dance. Oklahoma! integrated song and dance with the story—with the book. Now the story was not interrupted by irrelevant musical interludes but told through song and dance. Where Rodgers and Hammerstein led the others followed.

At a performance of My Fair Lady in Hobart’s Theatre Royal, Freddy Eynsford-Hill stepped up to a quivering cardboard gas light and sang “On the Street Where You Live”. It was wonderful. The song was strong and powerful and it really felt as though the actor (he was a local doctor) would lift the roof off the old building. Of course, it ruined the play. There was no way that any Eliza could possibly prefer the desiccated Henry Higgins in his library, no matter how tempting his chocolates, to this strong, masculine, spotlit force of nature under his lamp-post.

The integrated musical became the standard way of writing musical theatre and produced the classic musicals—Camelot, Guys and Dolls, Anything Goes, Annie, Sweet Charity and all the rest. A repertoire of popular works which everyone, except sneering highbrow critics and black-browed intellectuals, loved.

On DVD there is a treasure house of this classic musical comedy material. Assembling a little collection you will find Barnum, Camelot, Pippin, Kiss Me Kate, Oklahoma! and a lot of Sondheim—Company, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd and Passion. You will find performances by the original stars in the Broadway’s Lost Treasures series or The Best of Broadway Musicals—excerpts performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and restored for video.

Coming soon—a film version has already been made—is a DVD of a stage performance of Rent—the 1990s, and now somewhat dated reworking of Puccini’s La Bohème, as the Act I synopsis suggests: “Mimi, an S&M dancer who lives below Mark and Roger, knocks with a request: LIGHT MY CANDLE. The attraction between her and Roger is immediate, but Roger shies away and shows her the door. Mimi knocks again. She has lost her stash. Roger helps her look and Mimi eventually finds it—in Roger’s back pocket.” This is mainstream musical theatre. It won a 1996 Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award and recently closed after playing for twelve years on Broadway. A study guide for school teachers is available on the internet.

Rodgers and Hammerstein have become an embarrassment. They are too melodious, too treacly for modern tastes. Though they touched on contemporary social issues such as racism—“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” —their liberalism is a bit weak for modern tastes and they are too sentimental and far too populist. Revivals of the R&H standards, especially by directors influenced by Trevor Nunn, recast them as dark journeys into our souls. Oklahoma! may begin “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” but hold on for the nastiness of “pore” Jud in the smokehouse. It is impossible for contemporary theatre activists to do old plays without inserting their own corrupting and destructive relativism.

Popular texts are approached not with affection but from a sense of hectoring superiority. The last amateur production of South Pacific I saw started with a prologue, which lasted longer than our Vietnam War, and included a taped Roosevelt speech and an explanation of the war in the Pacific possibly cribbed from The Second World War for Dummies. The love story between Lieutenant Cable and Bloody Mary’s daughter, Liat, was depicted as a love story between a man and an under-age girl. When Cable warbled “Younger than Springtime” the audience cringed.

From integrated musicals the spinning world of musical theatre bought forth Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Mis and all the great behemoths that have lumbered onto and, usually, quickly off stage after consuming vast amounts of investors’ money. Watch a Disney DVD at home and then pay too much to see it bought to life on a stage. The book to read about musical theatre is Mark Steyn’s Broadway Babies Say Goodnight.

Modern musicals are constructed by financiers, script doctors and scenic engineers with writers far too sophisticated to indulge in what their grandparents would have happily bought from Mr Hallmark. Constructed, that is, by people who are not good with the “Some Enchanted Evening” stuff and embarrassed by it while thinking that they hold the secret of manufacturing popular culture which will be snapped up by the plebs. The stage needs more entertainers like Roger de Bris—the over-the-top dumb Broadway director, “I, for one, for instance, never realised that the Third Reich meant Germany”, in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. He turned the worst play ever written (about Hitler) into a successful musical with “a line of beautiful girls … and chorus boys in very tight pants”. Exactly what’s needed to turn the dull Whitlam life story into a successful musical.

A promising trend, which we also see in Australia, has performances of musical theatre done by theatrical casts (not opera singers, who don’t seem to get it) in front of large orchestras. By discarding wads of unnecessary dialogue and highlighting the music, they create entertainments that are a joy to watch and rewatch. The trouble with rewatching filmed or staged musicals on DVD is that you quickly become bored with the talking bits and only wait for the song and dance. Perhaps this is a way forward for musical theatre. Good entertainments which have been treated like this and are currently available on DVD include Sweeney Todd, South Pacific and Candide. It could be that chamber musicals with small orchestras and casts (and minimal sets) could bring musical theatre back within economic control and restore some artistic freedom.

Musical theatre could be revived with very big showbiz productions without storylines or by relearning that simplicity works.

One of my memorable theatre performances was Brigadoon performed by an amateur cast. On a Saturday afternoon during a Melbourne Moomba I chanced upon an open-air stage set up somewhere near the Yarra. The cast were doing a final run through the play before their evening show. In casual clothes and on a summer’s day the performance was enchanting. It was marvellous. That night I returned for the real thing. It was awful. The cast were smothered in thick makeup and wore horrible theatre costumers’ bottom-of-the-trunk peasant outfits. The lights were bright and the garish Scottish village looked like sideshow alley. Everything fresh and touching that had been there in the afternoon was gone.

Another moment when stripped-back theatre was effective happened fairly recently during rehearsals of For the Term of His Natural Life: The Musical (Don Gay and Mark Hulsman). It was a Sunday in a primary school assembly hall late in the rehearsal schedule and the full orchestra of bored adolescents was present. Three men, including an off-duty policeman, were playing singing convicts. A typically busy afternoon and the hall was crowded. Some of the unneeded cast were watching what was happening, others were being fitted for costumes or quietly and intently going through their lines or grabbing a coffee—that sort of thing. Then the three men began a song called “Blue”. Everyone in the hall froze. There was silence, except for the song. It was a shared moment of rapt attention. The song is touching and moving and is built on a subtle orchestration. Some of the listeners were damp-eyed. The emotion had an intensity that is not often truly captured in theatres. When finally on stage with costumes and sets I am not sure it ever reached the pure moment of shared feeling which occurred at that particular rehearsal.

Master Paddy White was dismissive of American farce, and an excellent example of the species is available in The Man Who Came to Dinner. It is the 2000 Broadway revival starring Nathan Lane. The Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman script is entertaining and very funny and a history lesson of what theatre was like in the 1930s. At the end of Act II Lane is centre stage in his wheelchair doing a radio broadcast. The stage suddenly becomes more and more crowded with people as family members, staff, a church choir, and a doctor come on. Then there is a scream, double doors are thrown open, a nurse rushes in followed by a live penguin. Curtain. They don’t write plays like that any more. Watch the DVD and then go and read, or reread, Moss Hart’s biography, Act One. Second-hand copies are not hard to find and it is as fresh now as it was when it was published in 1960 and as entertaining.

Feet culture. At the moment there is a heat wave and next week I’m off to Melbourne to see the first play presented in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new theatre. The play stars Guy Pearce. A publicity article, by a lady from the Age, began by talking about what nice feet he has: “As Pearce sinks into an old couch at the Melbourne Theatre Company and slips off his Birkenstock sandals he reveals an oddly entrancing pair [of feet]: pale, poised, smooth and elegant. Not your typical blokey set, his feet are strangely evocative.”

I can hardly wait.

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