The laziest piece in theatre journalism — one designed to provoke a reaction — is the one regularly trotted out by someone or other that says something like this Telegraph headline that ran on Friday:
Yes, I get it: it’s not for you.
Here, Tristram Fane Saunders — whose specialities are comedy and poetry — reasons his objections logically and even blames his “irrational dislike” of the genre on himself:
It’s an irrational dislike: the fault is mine, not theirs. Diagnosing it, I’ve come to understand there are two things that bother me about musical theatre: the music and the theatre. By the theatre, I mean a certain acting style, a kind of teeth-first American extroversion common even when the cast are all British. I can just about cope when there’s a TV screen separating us. (Musical theatre teeth, like Hannibal Lecter’s, are safest on the far side of a thick pane of glass.) But if I’m trapped in the same room as the performers, I come out in a cold sweat of introverted embarrassment-by-proxy: aren’t they ashamed to be so confident?
As for the music, my problem is this: music in musicals somehow always sounds like music from musicals. Even when it’s billed as another genre, it morphs into musical-ese. A zealous friend once convinced me to see a revival of Tony-winner Spring Awakening: “You’ll like this one! It’s a punk rock musical!” Within 20 minutes, I had fled the theatre feigning an attack of food poisoning. My excuse may have been a lie, but the nausea was real.
But still, I can’t help feeling myself trolled. Because of course you’re trying to get a rise out of me — and yes, you’ve succeeded (I’m writing this column and amplifying it).
As London Mayor Sadiq Khan wisely noted earlier this week in the Evening Standard around the cults of Covid Denialism and Anti-Vaxxers,
“We must not make things worse by engaging and debating with those who are spreading the lies and ‘fake news’. We shouldn’t give them the oxygen of publicity. I completely understand the impulse to call out the terrible falsehoods we see on social media and elsewhere. I’ve felt this impulse myself many times in recent weeks. But I’ve managed to resist because all the evidence shows that it’s much better to push truths and positive messages, rather than accidentally amplify lies by sharing or responding to them, which only gives extreme voices and conspiracy theorists an elevated profile.”
So perhaps that’s a lesson. There’s no point trying to win over a hater of musicals: it’s simply their loss.
Besides, one of the joys of being human is that we all enjoy different things. And what we enjoy changes as we change, too. After a lifetime of missing out on most television (mainly because I was in the theatre every single night), I’ve been catching up, and have really started to love it. My current obsession is Call My Agent, a hilarious French series set in a Paris talent agency that’s absolutely unmissable.
But here’s the thing: I was telling a friend, who works as a producer in television and so knows first-hand how tedious and frustrating dealing with agents can be, told me he only made it part-way through a single episode. It wasn’t for him. (By the same token, I only made it through a single episode of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You before I gave up; but friends — and critics — I trust have loved it, so I’m going to give it another go).
No, we don’t all have to like the same stuff; but at least I’m demonstrating an openness to be convinced otherwise.
And perhaps all we need is a ‘gateway drug’, like Hamilton — not so much a musical for him, as a “verse drama”.
As Tristram Fane Saunders concludes his column,
“The only genre of music I’m less predisposed to like than show tunes is hip-hop. And yet, a couple of years ago, I did actually find the lovable snake – and it was a hip-hop musical, the much-hyped Hamilton. A rollicking history play in rhythmic, spoken verse, it’s quite possibly the closest thing America has to a Henry V. It got past my internal anti-musical alarm system by sneaking into my brain through the door marked “verse drama”. It’s not a musical, I thought, it’s a poem – and everyone likes poetry, surely?
No? Oh come on, you just think you hate poetry. Let me recommend a book you’ll definitely like. This one doesn’t bite, honest…”