Friday, September 15, 2006

Waxing Lyrical

Apparently the London theatre scene is shortly to be flooded, inundated or otherwise made awash with a surfeit of melodic euphoria. In other words, there’s going to be an awful lot of musical plays in competition with each other for the coming winter.

I can only assume that this lurch into the never never land of drama is a reaction to the generally miserable news from around the world, escapism by way of words and music.

And most of it would seem to be just that. The Sound of Music will have its all-singing, all dancing display of edelweiss (I may have got that a bit wrong, but you know what I mean) whilst the producers undoubtedly are aware that a large spoonful of sugar will make the most unpleasant of medicines go down, as Mary Poppins sails through the cardboard cut-out chimneys of a London backdrop.

About the only dissonant note to this happy cavalcade will be the arrival of Cabaret, and I really don’t know how they’re going to manage without Joel Grey. Personally I think doing without Liza Minelli can only be a plus but this wonderful musical with its sinister Nazi undertones is in sharp contrast to most of the rest on offer.

Of course, Les Miserables is still plugging away, as miserables as ever and I can’t remember a single tune from it – but many can it seems.

But spare a thought for the lyric writers and librettists, who always seem to get second billing after the geezer that wrote the music, most of which is acceptable, except in my case for Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name but three.

The Greeks appreciated them far more than present day audiences, perhaps because their efforts were not drowned out by the music. Aristophanes, for instance, had a great run and, in spite of poking fun at practically all of his contemporaries, was highly regarded even in the usually unduly sensitive political circles.

By the time we get to the Victorian era, the music was beginning to take over and W.S. Gilbert found himself in considerable competition with that reluctant tunesmith, Arthur Sullivan, who always felt that he should be writing for grand opera. I’m very glad he didn’t.

Gilbert’s lyrics are so elaborate that even with the advent of modern technology in the form of microphones (modern actors being born with delicate larynxes, it seems) audiences miss a great deal. He, or more probably d’Oyly Carte, solved the problem by handing out song sheets to the audience, a practice which I would urge the management of the Savoy to re-institute. A few years ago I took my daughter to a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore. Knowing the libretto, it was thoroughly enjoyable for me but I did feel that those who did not would have missed a great deal. However, she thoroughly enjoyed the show and, on returning to school in the United States, informed them that she had watched P.M.S. Pinafore during her vacation.

Few modern librettists and lyricists can match Gilbert’s skill, he was a latter day Aristophanes, and I suppose the words to most of the songs that will burst upon the London scene this winter will be eminently forgettable – as well as probably inaudible.


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