They say that you get the face that you deserve: Freddie Tapner has a beam carved onto his features. We are standing in a spacious church hall in south-west London, and Tapner is leading Louise Gold through some slippery phrasing; crowded around the piano, he is ever eager to leap in – cajoling, teasing and slowly leading Gold towards synchronicity (a tricky task, given the absence of the four other members of this particular quartet). Gold is diligently recording the troublesome phrase – a succession of elongated scales – on her mobile phone for later practice; she then makes the mistake of stepping out of the room for a moment. Quick as a flash, Tapner leans over Gold’s phone (atop the piano and still recording) to scorn the singer’s efforts. His wicked grin recedes as Gold returns: his features settle angelically once more, crows’ feet the only visible sign that mischief was completed; the accompanist struggles a little more to regain his composure.
I am currently observing rehearsals for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s forthcoming production of Candide, and, as is typical of the company’s approach to its work, it is the most enormous fun. Indeed, the difference between most other organisations and the LMTO is the fact that it has been consciously constructed around an epicentre of enjoyment: enjoyment is the LMTO’s – and perhaps Tapner’s – raison d’être.
The company is barely two years old: founded by Tapner (‘almost by accident’) after a remarkable reaction to a tentative Facebook post of his, it began life as a way for some of London’s finest musicians and singers to play through a musical score for the sheer hell of it. The play-throughs prospered, and, a mere 12 months after his original post, the LMTO performed publicly for the first time, producing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair to critical acclaim. A performance of Alan Menken’s A Christmas Carol quickly followed at the Lyceum Theatre, starring Robert Lindsay and arguably cementing the life cycle of the LMTO: at the time of writing, the company has just enjoyed their 26th monthly play-through, with a production of Mack and Mabel scheduled for late September.
Clearly, as their stacked diary suggests, the LMTO lack neither for keen performers nor enthusiastic audiences – nor even dutiful assistants who spend most of their time scribbling down puns for forthcoming articles. The world of musical theatre is witnessing an unprecedented resurgence in popularity; the proliferation of the jukebox musical, coupled with the emergence of original pieces for both stage and screen, will have done much to boost appreciation of, adoration for and addiction to the genre. In the face of Disney’s new decision to adapt their classic cartoons into live-motion films, coupled with the triumph of Hollywood musicals like La La Land and Les Misérables, as well as NBC and ITV’s televised live musicals, it would be easy to misremember the genre as one that has continuously been culturally influential over the past century: sadly, matters haven’t always been so golden.
A different church hall, equidistant between Pimlico and Victoria: I’m now perched at the back of this morning’s chorus rehearsal, marvelling at their harmonising gymnastics – they’re only warming up. Again, the sense of inclusion and warmth in the room is unmistakable; indeed, if any group best encapsulates the LMTO’s prevailing mood, it would be these twenty-four young professionals. Individuals affably query direction from their chorus leader, while a singer’s rare mistake is met with collective geniality; nonetheless, the professionalism in the room is tangible and their rehearsal rigorous.
Their efforts are infrequently punctuated by the subtle refinements of our staging director, Shaun Kerrison: calm and utterly assured, a rare rhapsody from the previous session lodges in my mind. As he explains the unique quality of Candide, he refers to ‘the era’ (1943-57) as a period in the history of musical theatre that would be ‘unthinkable now’, encompassing the pinnacle of Rodger and Hammerstein’s partnership, Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) and Candide (1956) itself, and the nascence of Sondheim as the composer and lyricist bar-none of the later twentieth century. Kerrison remarks how one can scarcely imagine the universality and cultural dominance of the American musical in this period – its sheer pervasiveness shadows even our own current renaissance.
Sandwiched between these two peaks in musical history, the intervening years are unsurprisingly cast into a comparatively subdued light: the rise of affordable television did much to unseat the musical from its position as a prevailing cultural medium in the latter half of the twentieth century, while, given the political and social upheavals of the 60s and 70s, the traditional musical form would begin to look rather staid and conventional: a medium for the establishment. Although it is true that the musical has never lacked for audiences, the pendulum had swung: the medium was no longer central to the American cultural experience. Even Stephen Sondheim fretted that ‘we live in a recycled culture … I don’t think that the musical will die per se, but it’s never going to be what it was’, while Denny Martin Flinn went as far as to pronounce the mortification of the stage musical upon the closure of A Chorus Line back in 1990. Dominated by either the revival musical or traditional pieces, Broadway was facing a crisis, both artistically and financially: the stage musical could be mounted for close to $250,000 in its ‘Golden Age’, but current productions cost dearly ( e Producers was thought to cost $10 million) and they require runs reaching close to a decade even to consider making a profit.
Closer towards the dawn of the new millennium, swathes of theatre artists were afflicted with AIDS – figures such as Howard Ashman, co-creator of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and e Little Mermaid – leaving Broadway comparatively deplete of inventive and genre-busting pieces: the exception to prove the rule, Jonathan Larson’s Rent – a rock re-telling of Puccini’s La Bohème that iconically captured the reality of AIDS in 90s New York – only further hints at what might have been. An unhappy marriage of factors contributed to an inestimable cultural stasis: what is left to be determined, however, is how the decline in the pervasiveness of the musical form has been arrested, before being subsequently restored to contemporary cultural supremacy.
Two days before our sole performance at Cadogan Hall: our principals have taken centre stage as we stagger through a run of various solos and duets. Tapner has taken to the piano: having opened the day by claiming that this would be ‘the biggest day of [his] professional career’, he has averted a derailed session by dismissing the under-par rehearsal pianist, struggling through Bernstein’s fiendish score. It is a brief but seismic reminder that, for all the evident and unfeigned enjoyment in the room, this is a professional company.
Listening to Anna O’Bryne soar through the spectacular aria ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ quickly allows us to forget a potentially uncomfortable interlude; ironically, her talent to induce obliviousness reminds us that, on a macro-level, distraction is considered as one of the key causes for the boom in musical popularity. In a climate of economic instability, political dissatisfaction and growing paranoia, many have held up the musical as a much needed antidote for the travails of today, framing the few hours spent at a show as an escape from the relentlessness of reality. Few could argue with this thesis, and yet it would be erroneous to assert that the musical genre is one that typically avoids contemporary issues: indeed, very few musicals merely glitter.
As a traditionally liberal and inclusive medium, the history of Broadway musicals grappling with heavy contemporary issues is remarkable. Bernstein’s West Side Story explored racial attitudes to immigrants in the melting-pot of 50s New York; Hair channelled the spirit of anti-establishment views in the 70s; Rent threw a spotlight onto the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. This willingness to comment and engage with the defining cultural issues of the twentieth century goes a long way to explaining why these shows are among the most popular of all time, their musical innovation notwithstanding. While it is easy to bandy around the word zeitgeist, it is readily apparent that each of these phenomenally successful productions has captured at least some essence of its contemporary climate: indeed, it is telling that Bernstein explicitly instructed for the cultural references in Candide to be updated for each new production.
The very same rings true for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the hip-hop, race-blind musical that simultaneously explores both the history of the Founding Fathers and immigration in the United States, and which is currently grossing $1.9 million weekly; in an age of increasingly polarised views of race in America, it is little wonder that Hamilton has caught the liberal imagination with its passionate defence of immigration, thus catapulting the stage musical back into the public domain. (In contrast, Manuel’s emphasis on cultural inclusion may well explain the seemingly inexplicable struggles of another optimistic and innovative show, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Nominated for a season record of 12 Tonys for 2016-17, it is currently lurching into collapse, haunted by a tone-deaf decision to replace their black lead with a white Broadway legend (Mandy Pantinkin) in order to boost sales.)
A final day of rehearsing: while the chorus continue to nip-and- tuck their pieces, flashing through the show, the sheer variety of the music becomes increasingly unambiguous. From Bach- esque chorales to Latin rhythms, Bernstein’s piece is stylistically eclectic: it is unsurprising to learn that he was working on West Side Story concurrently with Candide. The show hardly feels like something from 1956, an era of the smooth, traditional sounds of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Cole Porter; rather, by flitting from culture to culture, style to style, Candide is a multi-faceted, many-splendid thing, and a timely reminder of the importance of innovation in the musical tradition. Just as many of Broadway’s unparalleled shows have been socially progressive, they have been equally broadminded with their music: Show Boat integrated the spiritual; West Side Story incorporated tritones and Latin percussive beats; and Jesus Christ Superstar thrust the musical into progressive rock. Each seminal production has added to the collective musical vocabulary of Broadway, but none more so than Hamilton, which – like Miranda’s In e Heights before – has melded the acerbic, assonantal conventions of 90s hip- hop culture with more traditional forms of the Broadway song. The fresh sound has proved hugely attractive for a younger audience – a devout social media following conceals the fact that extortionate ticket prices have kept the Broadway stage the preserve of older generations – thus hinting at the importance of musical assimilation and innovation in keeping the medium contemporaneous, if not alive.
Show night has come and gone, and I am slowly pulling up tape from the stage at Cadogan Hall. The performance was an unqualified success and, standing ovation earned, the cast have slipped away into the torrential downpour outside, before vanishing every which way into the city. Members of the audience, interviewed upon their sodden departure, label the show as a ‘unique experience’, and there is something in that. While every performance of a piece can assert uniqueness and authenticity, any production of Candide may have greater claim than most other shows, given its complex history: for it has been rewritten, reshaped and revised near-constantly since its premiere in 1956, making it rare for the average theatregoer to watch the same version twice. The relentless reworking of the show, married to Bernstein’s insistence that the cultural references be updated, creates a rare beast, but one that uniquely displays the factors that have proved so essential to musical theatre’s development over the past fifty years.
The show’s consistent modulation between the philosophical doctrines of optimism and realism serves as a timely reminder that, even though reality might keep breaking through, the genre of musical theatre is one that requires a certain Panglossian approach: to survive and innovate, the medium needs optimists and visionaries. Lin-Manuel Miranda is undoubtedly such an optimist and such an innovator, but it is perhaps his emphasis on cultural inclusion – both on a thematic and musical level – that best explains the surge of popularity that has met Hamilton. We might well be standing on the verge of a so-called ‘platinum age’ of musical theatre: maybe this time, it’ll stay.
Ollie Thicknesse is a postgraduate Classicist at St Catherine’s; his first poem (published at the tender age of 8) was cruelly truncated to a single line concerning bats and their love of blood.