James Swanton vs. Musical Theatre

This has been a challenging entry.

Overwhelmingly, because I have little natural talent for music. However, I’d maintain that music is instrumental in my technique for building a character. An intuitive grasp of rhythm is vital to even the most tuneless character voices, but it also goes deeper than that. I learn lines to a self-dictated musical pulse: I have to be able to hum a character before I can speak them. Whenever I forget a line, I can very often make out its echo, somewhere at the back of my head.

It’s the emotional impulse gone walkabout. Brian Masters discusses the persistence of this ‘innate sense of music’ in his tremendous book Thunder in the Air:

When Garrick and others are lauded for being ‘natural’, it is not meant that they are vulgar, common or ordinary in their speech. What is meant is that they contrive to convey natural emotion through the internal music of the lines, and not let the lines artificially imprison the emotion in a straitjacket of form. All the best actors are singers in speech. Gielgud said, ‘It’s like swimming, you know. If you surrender to the water you keep up, but if you fight it you drown.’

If the best actors are singers in speech, then I’m probably correct in labelling myself a hummer. All the same, I’ll warrant I’m free enough to discuss music in terms of the dramatic thrill I find in it.

Nevertheless, reducing ‘music’ to ‘musical theatre’ brings back all the old embarrassment. As a child – supposedly more liberated, more free – I recall genuine humiliation whenever a character started to sing: restlessness, burning cheeks, a fair measure of sweat. Repulsion always draws me back, though; I no longer feel embarrassed when stories are told through song. But I still have reservations about admitting to that. I rarely share music, instead preferring to prize it up in secrecy. It’s the emotional straitjacket again. Something I find intolerable in musical theatre is the bizarre connoisseurship of emotion. It’s typically the most emotionally wrecky renditions of songs that command the greatest praise. As though having your bladder next to your eyes is of any intrinsic value. Fine performance that it is, Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in the film of Les Miserables has become this obsession’s most recent focus. I still find myself preferring Patti LuPone’s near-monotone rendition in the Original London Cast. It’s not a copy or a reproduction; still less is it Patti LuPone (no mean achievement). It’s a character, a creation – it rings with emotional truth, and you go with it.

Furthermore, I find the culture surrounding musical theatre to be deeply unappealing. I dislike the prescriptive way that so many people discuss musical actors, as though [insert Wicked alumnus here] has coined a perfect characterisation, which no one else can get at. Again, it’s usually to do with ’emotion’. Those who fall short are damned – and it’s especially unsettling that it’s most often aspiring musical performers who mete out these death blows: ‘Person X is DREADFUL!’ – ‘Person Y can’t sing to save their LIFE!’ – ‘Person Z sounds like a cat being STRANGLED!’ Ultimately, it’s no more than a matter of taste. Preferable by far are feckless good manners.

But the fact that such sniping behaviour sits alongside an extrovert desire to join in – to sing the songs, to dance the dances, to dream that Boylie dreams of dreams… I find that utterly bewildering. It seems enviable at first: the necessary actor’s state of creating, freely and willingly, without the least self-consciousness. Yet it’s a false energy. It springs from such burdensome insecurity that it’s nothing other than self-conscious: a kind of ‘Look at me! Look at me! Acknowledge me as good!’ Degeneration of talent is the only result.

Joining in is surely the point of most worthwhile music. I’ve often found myself infected by a musical, much as I would by a play, book or film. The desire to share it can be overwhelming. On this occasion, I plan to share. Here are five of my favourite songs from the theatre of the musical. Let’s hope they excavate something half-interesting in me.

Les Miserables

Ah. Another opportunity to trot out my deathless thoughts on the Thenardiers. It’s still my number one misguided ambition to play Monsieur at some future point. I listened fanatically to Alun Armstrong’s rendition while rehearsing Return to the Forbidden Planet, my only really serious assault on musical theatre (way back in 2007). Armstrong has remained one of my absolute favourite actors.

‘Beggars at the Feast’ is indispensable on several counts. It’s the moment at which Les Miserables best supports the parodies of themselves that the Thenardiers have (inevitably) become. Far too often, an actor will perform their response to something, rather than the thing itself. Because the Thenardiers are incidentally funny (quite different to comic relief), many actors transform them into clowns. As much as I love Gary Beach and Matt Lucas as Thenardier, neither of them creates a rounded character. Instead, they offer up lightning-quick assembly-lines, festooned with different scraps of comic business. It’s all very entertaining, but a few steps down from the filth-encrusted, Hogarthian devil tailored by Armstrong.

However, ‘Beggars at the Feast’ capitalises on and even celebrates this one-dimensionality. It permits the Thenardiers to step outside the drama and celebrate themselves as the ridiculous, over-the-top monsters the world would have them be. The song encapsulates a moment that defies rational dramatic constraints, as characters and audience unite in delirious conspiracy. The outrageously tasteless costumes – two putrid flourescent wedding cakes – only heighten the fun. And it’s the fun of the subject that really powers ‘Beggars at the Feast’. No song has expressed the joys of flamboyant villainy better. Yet it’s also shabby villainy, fleapit melodrama – akin to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop or the works of Tod Slaughter. It’s simply fantastic; exactly what I look for in theatre.

Another virtue of ‘Beggars at the Feast’ is the clash of form and content: here is squirming evil, but enchantingly delivered. The message is atrocious, endorsing anti-Semitism and homophobia, wanton thievery and grave-robbing. Yet it’s made beguiling by that quirky, pock-pock-pock! Oktoberfest music. This tension is why ‘One Day More!’ works as well as it does: the wicked and the saints are mixed together as one – but the orchestra renders all majestic. It’s the story of humanity, moving for its variety rather than any extremes of morality. That ‘Beggars’ is preceded by some of the musical’s wetter songs – mostly involving Cosette and Marius, straightforwardly ‘good’ people I can’t get a handle on – enhances the ecstatic release.

‘Beggars at the Feast’ is much more than a glorified reprise of ‘Master of the House’ – which, for all its brilliance, stops the plot dead in its tracks. ‘Beggars’ is a pointed dramatic finale. That it allows the Thenardiers to depart in a blaze of diabolical glory is perversely edifying. ‘Go away, Thenardier!’ cries Marius at the wedding feast. Luckily for audiences, he never, never will.

Jekyll & Hyde

Jekyll & Hyde is far from perfect. The plot may be lifted from the superlative 1931 film, but it’s strangely unbalanced in its stage presentation. Too many of the songs are redundant, or have little feel for the atmosphere of the subject (‘This is the Moment’ and ‘A Dangerous Game’ are particularly off-centre). The majority of numbers are also bizarrely staged – sabotaged, I assume, by the Broadway obsession with choreography (I always get a laugh from the crazed, overzealous hand motion of the man singing ‘though we love the facade!’ towards the end of this song). Nevertheless, I find ‘Facade’ to be curiously powerful – even if it is a thinly disguised version of ‘At the End of the Day’ from Les Miserables, with those very words cropping up at one point.

The premise of ‘Facade’ is sublimely daft: the citizens of London enter onto a bare stage and sing, with unbridled self-righteousness, about how nobody is what they seem. I suppose you could argue it’s Brechtian (sorry, all), what with such lines as ‘the ladies and gents ‘ere before you’ being addressed to the audience. But that’s probably assuming too much. Despite its direct address, the song feels massively impersonal (Brecht again? oh, do shut up). I find impersonality rather effective when a legend’s being extolled – as when Sondheim’s characters drop their personalities to unfold ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’. Wildhorn earlier tinkered with a ‘Ballad of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (which must be heard to be believed), intended to take the place of ‘Facade’. It was scrapped, but its quality of detachment remained. ‘Facade’ exists as a massy artefact: monumentally impersonal, as cleanly divided from the audience as the carpet that borders the stage.

The message of the song is probably what saves it. Because it is such a confused message: is a facade a good thing or a bad thing? Well… it’s both. And it’s neither. No, wait, it depends on the situation. But should it? I mean, really? Oh, crumbs. ‘Facade’ equivocates beautifully unclearly through its five-minute length. It’s as evenly split as Jekyll and Hyde themselves. And, in many ways, the clumsy execution is to the betterment of the number. Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics get very silly at times: rhyming ‘coat of paint’ with ‘be what they ain’t’ is unacceptably bad. And yet I like how Bricusse sometimes trips up through overreaching; it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Many lines come off superbly: I’m particularly fond of ‘Nearly everyone you see – / Like him, an’ her, / An’ you, an’ me – / Pretends to be / A pillar of society’. I’m also willing to let slide ‘There are preachers who kill! / There are killers who preach! / There are teachers who lie! / There are liars who teach!’. The words trip by so quickly that the simple patterning is quite necessary.

I also get a kick out of the bellowy solos from various bewigged and behatted Victorian gentlemen; the early explosion of ‘And I’m certain… LIFE IS TERRIBLY HAAA-AAA-AAARD!’ deserves special kudos. Who these people are is besides the point – it’s what they represent that matters. Their bombastic power displays, emerging as they do from retentiveness, mirror the (ultimately liberating) challenges of this song. Composer Frank Wildhorn excels with this sort of bloodthirsty, straightforwardly rousing piece. His ‘Madame Guillotine’ in The Scarlet Pimpernel is similar overlooked – and good.

Der Glöckner von Notre Dame

It’s well-known that Disney makes a killing from flashy stage versions of their most popular films. It’s less well-known that The Hunchback of Notre Dame received this treatment – in a German stage musical, performed on the former site of the Berlin Wall. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz saw fit to crowbar in a Hunchback-specific ‘One Day More!’ for the occasion. I am thankful that they did: it’s just terrific. I firmly believe that the Hunchback contains the most underrated music in any Disney animation. In ‘Esmeralda’, quite a lot of it gets a look-in: we have a bit of ‘Out There’ from Quasimodo, some hellfire-tinged words from Frollo (rough translation: ‘the flames grow tall and sharp as fleur-de-lys!’) and a final lapse into the almighty ‘Bells of Notre Dame’. There are also flashes of ‘Trommeln in der Stadt’, which is relegated to the choir in the film. One of the virtues of Glöckner is that it expands on these more overlooked moments in the score.

On its own terms, ‘Esmeralda’ is a rollicking good march. In some respects, it’s similar to Menken’s Frankenstein-inspired ‘Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast, or Menken and Schwartz’s evergreen ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. Both are dark Disney. But the abiding lesson of my childhood was that dark Disney was good Disney. And yet the Hunchback also moved me profoundly – I was simply overwhelmed by the soaring Gothic beauty of the film. This song brings that back to me afresh. The staging alone is remarkable, with gigantic Expressionist flats rolling in and out. Retaining Clopin as a grizzled, peddlar-like storyteller ensures that the individual characters stay rooted within this epic context. It’s also a nod to Victor Hugo’s use of single characters to stand for huge ideas – the profound sense, for example, in which Quasimodo is the cathedral.

The Hunchback has had a few other musical treatments, most notably France’s Notre Dame de Paris. Within, Esmeralda is eulogised in the song ‘Belle’. ‘Belle’ became an international pop hit, but it’s altogether more fragmented than the florid, swirling number found in Glöckner. ‘Belle’ also has a disconcertingly pervy quality to it: one person’s European passion is another’s trouserless man in a too-long raincoat. Thanks largely to her ghostly voice, the gypsy girl never becomes a prop in ‘Esmeralda’. Quite the reverse: she contributes to the piece’s romantic atmosphere.

Jane Eyre

My musical tastes run towards the funereal. ‘In the Light of the Virgin Morning’ appeals to the depressive in me. The musical Jane Eyre bears comparison with Jekyll & Hyde: both based on great works of English literature; both compromised by structural flaws. In fact, both stories are dark and sheltered enough that they’d probably be best served as chamber pieces. Some of Paul Gordon’s lyrics are very tangled, and don’t quite squeeze by on the basis of the musical’s period setting. I’m thinking here of the laboured exclamation ‘The estate has an ancient beauty / Mother must appraise’, as well as the corkscrew twist in ‘If only I could love the man, / But I’m not quite sure I can’ (too many one-syllable words acting as filler).

Despite these reservations, this song comes off miraculously. The counterpoint is simply gorgeous, exuding atmosphere rather than blatant showiness. The lines bestowed on Jane are uniformly heartbreaking. ‘He doesn’t need me’ (as well as its gender-specific variants) constitutes the saddest declaration of unrequited love I can imagine. It’s so simple a construction, yet so eloquent: a disordered love laid bare. Powerful emotions are always best expressed in plain words, but it’s such a fine line between banality and bathos. Set to music, I find Jane’s words almost unbearable. The same melody returns in ‘The Voice Across the Moors’, where it proves equally affecting for St John’s dismal proposal of marriage: ‘Jane, you were formed / For labour, not love’. Another fine song is ‘The Graveyard’, which calls on God in a manner that tugs at the heartstrings. The softness of the piano in all of these numbers creates an undulating, lyrical beauty. I haven’t words for it, but it’s good.

Little Shop of Horrors

I principally adore this song for its ending. It’s similar to the finale of ‘Thank Goodness’ in Wicked: it climbs to an insane fever-pitch of white-hot excitement, with orchestra and singers going at a maddeningly fast speed. It’s cranked up to its loopiest extreme on the soundtrack for the 1986 film, from which it was regrettably cut. So this entry is more on the basis of contagious excitement than anything else. I don’t know how to describe it in musical terms, but it really gets the blood pumping.

As time has gone by, I’ve also come to love Howard Ashman’s lyrics. They really are glowingly cynical. There’s a pleasingly rough-around-the-edges quality to them, which exudes a polish entirely absent from the overworked preciousness of Jekyll & Hyde and Jane Eyre. That’s not to say extensive work didn’t go into them. But the invisibility of the work is what gives the words such boundless confidence; exuberance, even. I’m also fond of the parade of grotesques who step in to deliver the verses. They open up a very flat world in a very pleasing way. They also inhabit the American Gothic territory familiar from the desolate opening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, casting a light on the abundant gloom of the twentieth century.

Every song in Little Shop of Horrors is pretty damn good. With the glowering exception of Sweeney Todd, it’s the most technically perfect entry in the thriving subgenre of the flesh-eating horror musical. At any rate, it’s much more fun than Sweeney Todd. ‘Dentist!’ is another favourite song – and another of those characters I’d misguidedly love a crack at.

(If I ever get round to a sequel, I’ll offer up my thoughts on a further five songs. I also swear to do so less long-windedly!)

1 Comment

Filed under Essays

One response to “James Swanton vs. Musical Theatre

  1. rich burke

    thanks, for theme about the grotesque in acting, vaghtonov, eugene under stanilavky expelled same beliefs, that an actor could really throw his faith in this style for acting: so thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s