.. a different view of life, to show that there is freedom in love and sex, freedom from the constraints of society and the freedom to take drugs. It was the first musical of the hippie peace and love generation. It is still poignant today, as the social comments are still true. Corporate wealth, challenged in Hair, still rules in society today. Strong language and nudity ensured a measure of shock value.
‘..It (Hair) finds in the vocabulary of life a language which is free from clich, which has a coinage that is funny, surprising, and rich.’# The characters speak of sex, masturbation and drugs. All taboos in previous Broadway shows. They confront the audience and ask why we find these words abhorrent. It is the bourgeois middle class theatre audience that expected these constraints. While being entertaining, Hair also had a strong message about their disapproval of the Vietnam War. The song ‘3-5-0-0’ is a song about the average number of American casualties every month in Vietnam.
It is easy to just mistake it as a ‘nice song’ on first hearing it. Because of its irreverence and contemporary attitude Hair was received favourably by both critics and audiences alike. It tested musical stage conventions and opened up new ground for future projects. It proved that escapism could also work when social questions are asked and the audience is confronted with honesty and ideology. The audience does not view a recognised history or the status quo lifestyle, but witnesses something new and exciting.
Hair was heaving Broadway into a new era. Although it now seems deeply conservative and highly sentimental, in its time it was groundbreaking. After the success of the first rock musical Hair, the path was paved for a new, British, inspirational one. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice provided just that. Their British rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, (Appendix 1 – D) had already been a huge success worldwide before it triumphed in the West End.
It ran for eight years in London. It encouraged other ‘rock operas’ onto the stage. Its religious theme was new and refreshing on Broadway and in the West End theatres. It is the story of the last seven days of Jesus’ life, seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot – his betrayer. The quite ridiculous charges of blasphemy undoubtedly helped publicise the musical, aiding its success.
The real blasphemy for many when it was first released was the association of Jesus with the sin of rock music. Yet in America, a few years later, churches were formed that no longer sang the traditional hymns but sang gospel. Maybe, if Superstar had been produced only a few years later it would not have been as popular. The majority of the ticket sales was to curious people, wanting to ‘see what all the fuss was about’. At the premiere of the Broadway show there was a group of protesters outside the theatre.
A Rabbi was exclusively complaining about the content of the show, i.e. the lyrics. He represented the American Jewish Committee. They compiled a document which concluded that the show ‘unambiguously lays the primary responsibility for Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion to the Jewish priesthood’, and found evidence of anti-Semitism in nearly every line. It received mixed reviews. Clive Barnes, an Englishman writing for the New York Times, criticised most of the show, ‘[Mr Rice] does not have a very happy ear for the English language. There is a certain air of dogged doggerel about his phrases that too often sound like a deflated priest.’# This was not the most flattering of reviews yet it did not hamper the success of the show.
However, Douglas Watt from the Daily News gave a much pleasanter review, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar, .. is so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph.’# The main criticism of Superstar was the comparison of Jesus with a pop star on the decline. Yet this was an effective tool in conveying the message. The questions the characters in the show were asking Jesus, were questions that a large portion of society have wondered themselves.
Evita (Appendix 1 – E) followed the unlikely, if real-life, drama of a woman of doubtful virtue who became the wife of a virulent fascist who rose to become his country’s dictator. Despite the real-life Evita Peron’s many shortcomings, she was greatly admired by many of her countrymen and women. Similarly, despite Tim Rice’s suitably acerbic lyrics, Evita became a paean of praise for a woman who had little to her credit other than the strength and determination to bring about her largely immoral ambitions. It’s success was echoed in the USA where it became one of the earliest amongst a wave of British stage musicals that helped reverse the transatlantic tide. Tim Rice believed that the only way to capture the melodramatic, almost unbelievable, glamorous and ruthlessly populist characteristics of Eva Peron was through a musical.
The subject matter, Eva Peron, was not new but it was fresh to theatre goers. Here there was a true ‘real-life story’. People empathised, hated and loved Eva Peron after Evita. Otherwise, she would have remained unknown to millions of people. The only people opposed to the musical (the film version) were the Argentineans themselves.
They objected with the idea of Madonna, a woman – they thought – of little virtue, playing their national heroine. Strangely though, their lives are not dissimilar. Both were born into an underprivileged household. Both had a huge drive and ambition and they both fought their way to the top. Many different musical styles were embraced in Evita. Plain chant, aria, rock and much more. This contrapuntal mix of styles added depth and interest. The political lyrics for Peron are still appropriate for today’s political parties.
‘One has no rules, is not precise One rarely acts the same way twice One spurns no device Practising the art of the possible One always picks the easy fight One praises fools, one smothers light One shifts left to right It’s part of the art of the possible.’# The power of Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webbers musicals is their universality. Rice and Lloyd Webber, proved that it is possible to take any subject matter, even as obscure as the story of Evita (to the mass population), and make it a box office success. Their perseverance and trust in their own talent ensured a musical of great standard and ground breaking new storyline. They were, together, a huge theatrical force. The most successful musical ever, Les Misrables, (Appendix 1 – F) was not universally well received on its premiere.
But the benevolence of the producer ensured another huge success for British musical theatre. Cameron Mackintosh is the biggest producer of musical theatre. He has unique conviction, knowing that the success of the show does not only depend upon its marketing but on the quality of its pre and post production methods. ‘The universal aspect of Les Misrables has less to do with political upheaval or revolution than with the eternal truths about human nature and our beliefs in God.’# It is laden with irony and arduous subject matter. The audience leaves the theatre with a heightened sense of view. Everything around them now seems more exciting. This is the effect of highly charged emotional musicals. It could be called an ’emotional roller coaster’.
The beautiful music and lyrics of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a typical example of the disheartening part of the story. There’s a grief that can’t be spoken There’s a pain goes on and on Empty Chairs at empty tables Now my friends are dead and gone Here they talked of revolution Here it was they lit the flame Here they sang about tomorrow And tomorrow never came. On March 12, 1987, the American version of the smash London hit Les Misrables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schnberg, with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, opened at the Broadway Theatre. In addition to winning eight Tony awards and other major awards throughout the world, Les Misrables has touched the heart of its international audience as few shows in history have done. This power derives from the timeless reality of the titanic novel upon which the show is based, Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misrables.
More than 130 years later, wars and revolutions still litter the world, and Hugo’s words still describe the undying message of his novel. The musical is telling us the story which happened over a hundred years ago yet the audience can still relate with the plight of the characters. Les Misrables reminds us that we are each part of the same human family, and that whatever our outward differences may be, our longings for individual liberty and peace are the same. Says Caird, We saw it from the start as a very big project, and we knew that the only way we could work on it was to go back to Victor Hugo’s book and start again .. We decided to specify and dramatize the wretchedness of the times in order to give some focus to Hugo’s anger..
I approach the material as if doing a play by Chekhov or Shakespeare, says Nunn, Nothing is allowed through as a simple matter. Of the writing process, Boublil says, It was a real, total collaboration. Not only on the writing but also on the casting process. We really made a new team of writers, and we made a new show. This seems reminiscent of West Side Story, the first collaborative show. Each successful musical since then has been a collaborative effort and has grown in success each time.
Musicals are now more eager to tackle subjects that were formerly only touched by straight plays, off-Broadway, and fringe productions. The mass audience is ready to be entertained and intellectually challenged in conjunction. Commercial musicals are encouraging the majority of ‘non-theatre goers’, the children of computer games, the internet and television, to experience a once bourgeois form of entertainment. Nothing can replace the immediacy of the theatre and the sense of occasion at every performance. The musical is a most powerful conveyer of emotion. As the songwriter Yip Harburg says’ ‘Words make you think thoughts, music makes you feel a feeling, a song makes you feel a thought.’ # Appendix 1 – Dates A – West Side Story Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 26th September 1957 Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 12th December 1958 B – Cabaret Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 20th November 1966 Palace Theatre, London, 28th February 1968 C – Hair Public Theatre, New York, 17th October 1967 Shaftsbury Theatre, London, 27th September 1968 D – Jesus Christ Superstar Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York, 12th October 1971 Longacre Theatre, London, 23rd November 1977 E – Evita Prince Edward Theatre London, 21st June 1978 Broadway Theatre, New York, 25th September 1979 F – Les Miserables RSC’s Barbican Theatre London, 1985 Bibliography Acting out America Lahr J. (1972) Penguin Books American Musical Comedy – A Chronicle Bordman G. (1978) Oxford University Press Changing Stages Eyre R.
& Wright N (2000) Bloomsbury Ganzl’s book of the Musical Theatre Ganzl K. (1988) The Bodely Head Oh, What a Circus Rice T. (1999) Coronet The Hollywood Musical Feuer J.(1982) The Macmillan Press The making of West Side Story Garebian K. (1995) ECW Press The Twentieth Century Performance Reader ed. Huxley M. & Witts N.
(1996) Routledge Theater Essays.