The song and dance, man

by robertmcnicol

I’ve been meaning for a very long time to write a long piece about the musical. And when I say “long”, I really mean “book”. But I haven’t got around to that. And today’s an auspicious day. Two of the finest talents in the world of Musical Theatre share a birthday – that’s right. My cousin Henry shares his special day with Sondheim (yay!) and Lloyd Webber (boo!). So instead, I’ll content myself with some meandering wonderings on the disparate contributions of these two collossi.

Let’s start at the top with some mud-slinging. Lloyd Weber is man amongst the richest hundred or so in the UK. He – very occasionally –  sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. He has a “foundation” that has – thank the Lord – saved three whole works of art for the nation. Except they’re selling one of them. He personally owns six of London’s least comfortable West End theatres, where he puts on his own shows and cashes in on other people’s. He has successfully infiltrated the BBC with his Saturday evening entertainments that provide him with the perfect platform for advertising whatever forthcoming show he’s developing.

Can the man write a tune? Oh, probably. Let’s not begrudge someone just because they’re wildly, inexplicably successful. It’s just that most of them are poor songs coupled to sappy lyrics and unoriginal storylines. Musicals that bash you around the head with their clunking fists of obviousness, their sheer determination to do precisely what’s been done before except with songs that just never go anywhere. Take the chorus from “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina”. You have to wait nine – count ’em – nine whole bars before you get anything resembling a proper chord change. No wonder the tunes rout their way into your brain – there ain’t nothing going on underneath!

So, a Conservative stage show impresario who writes dull tunes, is crap at philanthropy and doesn’t believe in competition. There’s a conflicted guy, surely? And yet he always looks so happy, that toad hall face grinning inanely at the camera…

Let’s turn our thoughts to a better place, to a better man. Sondheim is 80 today. No glossy titles, just a string of awards including a little something we like to call a Pulitzer. Here’s a man who clearly cares deeply about musical theatre. His first major success was writing the lyrics for West Side Story. He followed that nonsense up with another rum egg – Gypsy. And then he started writing the music too, and things really got going.

I know what you’re going to say – he can’t write a tune. Or at least not one you can hum. It’s all too clever by half. It’s depressing – you don’t see a musical to be told that marriage is really hard work! HE’S NEVER USED A DANCING CANDLESTICK!!

To which I say, “bunkum and bollocks”. He writes great tunes and complex ones. Company is a great. Yes, he there should be more anthropomorphic tableware in musical theatre but maybe not in a Sondheim show.

And he seems like an actual nice guy. He’s a patron of Mercury Musicals, one of the few rays of hope in the dire landscape that is the UK Musicals scene.

So, happy birthday to these two fellows. Musical theatre wouldn’t be the same without them – for better or worse.

UPDATE: Radio 3, from the BBC, has Mr. Sondheim as their composer of the week. Enjoy.

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