How can anyone who loves music hate musicals?

The Evening Standard has a column today by David Sexton which caught my eye: How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals?  It can be found here.

I would like to use this blog to respond to Sexton’s article from a point of view of someone who loves both music AND musicals. Musicals have a rich tradition dating back to the end of the nineteenth century, where they existed as operetta and revue. They have been adapted from the works of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Bernard Shaw and many others. They represent a huge and influential section of the culture of both the United States and the United Kingdom, and international versions of the biggest Broadway and West End musicals draw audiences in around the world.

Musicals were the first film genre to be created at the birth of the ‘talkies’, and even in the silent era, films were made of operas such as La Boheme and operettas such as The Merry Widow. Sexton claims that one of his main objections to the musical is the unreality of people bursting into song and dance, which they would not do in real life. We can perhaps assume that he discounts science fiction, westerns, and the whole development of CGI effects on both screen and stage for similar reasons?

The assumption that the ‘minority’ (as Sexton will have it) who enjoy musicals are incapable of music appreciation and suffer from an absence of good taste only exposes an ignorance of the musical form and its rich history. Many of our best composers have worked in the musical form – how can anyone doubt the quality of Jerome Kern’s melodies for ‘Show Boat’, or Ivor Novello’s Ruritanian fantasies? Why shut your ears to the wide-ranging work of Richard Rodgers, whether working with Larry Hart or Oscar Hammerstein? Other craftsmen come to mind – Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan, and, more recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude Schoenberg.

I particularly find Sexton’s distaste of the works of Lloyd Webber worth comment. He dismisses a career of forty plus years as ‘inflated tastelessness’, which makes me wonder if he has ever sat down and listened to the scores of ‘Evita’, ‘Aspects of Love’, or even the rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. A critic who can locate nothing to enjoy across the whole works of a composer – Sexton also dismisses Stephen Sondheim for being ‘clever’, so we should assume that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t – can only find themselves the poorer in their professed love of music.

What do human beings do when they are happy? They hum tunes, they sing, they revel in the joy of life. Musicals may tug at the emotions at the extremes, but I challenge an audience not to find ‘West Side Story’ as valid in plot and complexity as its source, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or to fail to appreciate the joy of the classic Hollywood set pieces such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. TV shows such as ‘Glee’ have experimented with the links between drama and music and brought them on to the small screen – and stage musicals have become big business, with lighting, sets and sound closer to that of the film world. They are sensational spectacle, attracting large and diverse audiences.

I love musicals. I love those who perform in them now and who have set a pathway before them. I revere the composers and lyricists as much as I do the classical greats. I see no difference. I see all art forms as escapism, and do not regard musicals as a ‘low’ form of art. In some ways, I pity the ‘silent majority’ who dislike musicals, if indeed they are in the majority!