On a frosty festive evening in late December 1996, 24 million people, families, couples, and individuals alike, bundled around their television sets to see David Jason’s Del Boy finally become a millionaire. The nation was united, and newspapers were packed with joyful features about the well-earned happy ending for the loveable rogue trader from Peckham. Fast forward to today, and no comparable UK sitcom exists, but the BBC’s flagship crime drama, The Bodyguard, draws in under half of those numbers each week. The nation clearly no longer finds a cultural feeling of collectiveness over traditional television series, so we turn to cinema. A great year for film was 2008, with the release of two of the most popular movies of the 21st century: The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia!, helping UK cinemas to admit an average of around 14 million viewers per month. Compare this with Gone With The Wind in 1940, which alone managed to attract 35 million, well over double the previous figure. So we have not found our societal togetherness in cinema either.
The evidence is clear: it is very difficult for any activity to unite a society over a long period of time. Perhaps religion, but its influence is steadily waning. Football? That is, and always has been, an exclusive, albeit popular, pastime. But one activity has passed the test of time with flying colours, storming into this millenium as boldly as it did the preceding two. Its ability to adapt to cultures, audiences, and eras proves this activity is worthy of our highest admiration. Man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, the ingenious concept of the musical has carried us faithfully through time, from the ancient days of oral poetry in classical societies, to today, in which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heart-wrenching adaptation of the historical tale of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton has taken the political music world by storm.
In October I went to the Mayflower Theatre to see my favourite musical Wicked as part of its 2018 UK tour. When I first went to see this spellbinding performance as a child some years ago in London, the bursting bright colours and beautiful technical aesthetic of floating bubbles and flying broomsticks captured my stirring imagination. As I prepared to see the show for a second time, there was inevitably some underlying apprehension in me about whether, as an adult, I would now feel somewhat left out of the enchantment of witches, munchkins, and talking animals. I needed not be worried: of course Wicked is beautiful and heartwarming for a young audience member, but for us, it transforms into the most intensely political yet personal production in the history of musical theatre. It is a story of corruption and injustice in the dystopian land of Oz in which a lying despot rules with an iron fist. The crackdown on talking animals and the rights of munchkins is a modern allegory for oppression and inequality, and the isolation and bullying of the luminous green Elphaba is a metaphor of acceptance and diversity. In our time of ‘fake news’ the Wizard of Oz’s spreading of ‘alternative facts’ about the cause of the flying monkeys is more relevant than ever before. Other difficult issues tackled in the show include disability, sexuality, and race.
But Wicked does not stand alone in the political venture which has kept musicals timelessly pertinent to audiences of all backgrounds. Modern Broadway musicals take on tough issues that are often taboo in more plainly political spheres – racial politics is the topic of Hamilton, suicide and male mental health is tackled head on in Dear Evan Hansen, acceptance of difference is explored in Shrek the Musical, fatal eroticism in Chicago has captured audiences for more than forty years, and historical racism is brought to our attention in the comparatively new Motown the Musical. The eternal poignancy of musical theatre, combined with the adaptability of its form, keep the flames of Broadway burning strong in theatres throughout the world. For example, in recent years there has been a shift towards musicals celebrating the lives and talents of real-life musicians, see Tina: The Musical and Dolly Parton’s upcoming 9 to 5. Some have expressed concern at this shift towards celebrity culture in theatre, with appearances of Miranda Hart and Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie, and Love Island’s Amber Davies set to star in 9 to 5. Some have argued that this degrades the unique brand of talent required for musicals, but, whatever one’s opinion, this craze for celebrity is inevitably just a brief phase in the perpetual life of theatre, and we shouldn’t be worried.
One concern that often keeps people from musicals is the claim that they are just not ‘realistic’. Without spending too long on this opinion, I would question the realism of having twenty cameras stuffed in your face when filming for television, or the realism of green screens and CGI used in film. To enjoy theatre, audiences must accept the alternate magical realism that has engaged spectators for centuries. Musicals have lived through world wars, genocides, economic crises, and revolutions (and musicals have been made about each of these topics), and not only do they provide a welcome escape from the harrowing realism that often cripples the positivity in our psychology, but offer us that aforementioned alternative, replacement reality: how can we question the depth of emotion as the tragic and fatal victim of the Vietnam War Kim sings ‘I’d Give My Life For You’ to her soon-to-be orphaned son? Who would question the reality of the heartbreak and mourning felt by Molly as she sings ‘Unchained Melody’ to her murdered husband in Ghost?
Musicals have a staying power with foundations set deep in time and space. They have the unique ability to take us to the other side of the world and back again in a heartbeat, and can even take us out of our world. They can teach us about French civil wars or the American Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade or the strike of the newsboys at the dawn of the twentieth century. We should listen to musicals: they can change the world.