Wednesday, 7 October 2009

There's no situation that a Hammerstein song can't improve

What Would Barbra Do? by Emma Brockes

Anything with a subtitle of: “How musicals can change your life” was always going to attract my attention, and after an article about The Wizard of Oz by Emma Brockes concluded with a footnote mentioning this very book, I ordered it quickly from Amazon.

The initial idea was that it would form part of my holiday reading list. Fortunately, when it arrived I dipped straight in – and then couldn’t wrench myself away. I say “fortunately”, because it would have been a tad embarrassing to be sitting on a French beach, trying to look sophisticated and bursting into hysterical laughter every few minutes. And this – particularly at the beginning – is laugh-out-loud funny.

For Brockes, one of her most dominant early musical memories is of her mother, standing at the garden gate and singing her over the road to a house where she went babysitting, voice ringing out in a less-than-perfect homage to Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

But where Brockes found it cringeworthy at the time, it didn’t put her off musicals.

And Andrews is at the heart of another story early in the piece, when the author was sent to interview her for the Guardian.

Having planned to ask lots of searching questions about the actress’s allegedly difficult marriage to director Blake Edwards, she suddenly found herself thinking: ‘But this is the woman who saved the Banks family and beat the Nazis!’ So what she actually found herself doing was conveying a generalised message to Andrews, from countless of her own friends and acquaintances: ‘We love you!’ to which the star thanked her with a hug.

On return to her office, she conveyed this fact to her colleagues – setting off a string of people arriving from throughout the building to try to get a little of the “Julie dust”.

No less hilarious is her encounter with Lemmy of heavy metal giants Motorhead, and his reaction to her admission of her musical tastes.

Light as a feather to read, but with some more penetrating points – so a bit like much musical theatre – this is perfect stuff for anyone who loves shows. And I admit to being utterly delighted to read that she, like me, detests Andrew Lloyd Webber and loves Stephen Sondheim.

Brockes makes the point that musicals have a history of raising subjects, in a popular format, that otherwise could scarcely be discussed. Having written about this years ago, it was good to see that the argument has more currency than just my own comments.

Consider: Show Boat, which is generally understood to be the first modern musical, dealt with racism in a way that other popular culture of the day (1927) would have run a million miles from. And alcoholism and broken relationships too. And it was also the first racially integrated cast in a Broadway show.

Fast forward to Rogers & Hammerstein: racism, ageism, imperialism, jingoism, poverty, rape, domestic violence … the list of subjects in their shows is extraordinary, particularly when we apply the context of so much other popular culture (and that's without thinking about The Sound of Music).

Kander & Ebb gave us a show about the rise of Nazism (and Cabaret is one of those musicals that even the people who dislike musicals can appreciate) and then Chicago, which was penned in the 1970s, but could have been written to reflect the utter amorality of our celebrity-obsessed culture and the ability of the rich and famous to buy ‘justice’ (see OJ as just one example).

And how fabulous too, that Brockes thinks that my beloved Music Man is better (or at least far more fun) than West Side Story, which is very much of the same period. As a slight aside, it’s fun to note the power of musicals – The Music Man was actually banned in a few parts of the US because it’s gentle digs at small-town attitudes didn’t sit well with some local authorities.

As Brockes says, there is no situation that cannot be improved by a burst of a song by Oscar Hammerstein. For her mother, when dying, such songs remained important. And as someone who, when feeling low, puts on a playlist of favourite show songs and always feels spirits being lifted, it’s difficult to disagree.

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