Osbert Merryweather is a goliath of a man. His piggy eyes are barely visible behind the drapery of fat that swings under his eyebrows and the hogcheeks that inflate upwards to meet them. The great jowls are a scrubland of stubbly patches where the pinguid finger has failed to navigate the razor between the crevices of the stack of chins: on first inspection, his chops appear to be a novelty toast rack, resting upon the giant tits that swell within the sweated translucence of his wheezing shirtfront.
Arriving at his club he announces himself to the porter who informs him that his stomach, having arrived a few minutes earlier, is already waiting for him in the bar. By the time he has gotten to the bar, his gut has moved through to the billiard room and is playing a game of snooker.
He is a man whose appearance and stench one cannot take seriously. Even the most gentlemanly company is reduced to struggling with a spasm of hysterics behind straining hands. One man laughed himself to death and had to be carried out into the street for ambulance collection. (Paramedics, you see, are not permitted to enter, being as they are improperly dressed.)
However, at a concert I attended, it transpired that Mr Merryweather was a rather excellent lyric baritone. He stood by the piano and waited for the laughter to subside. It took a while. Lady Argyle, herself partial to the odd mug of steaming hot butter, fell from her seat and wet herself, and it was some time before her micturate had all been washed up, as she pisses like a racehorse.
However, finally the ruckus died to a dull roar and the pianist was instructed to play. Da-d-d, da-d-d, da-d-d, bompety-bompety bom, bom, baaaaaah. He began to sing: Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?.. The room fell silent. Suddenly, this rolling valley of a man was no longer a laughable figure but a man on a horse. Then his son. Then the frightful Erlking tormenting the agued boy.
If you’re not up on your Schubert liede, that is his setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig, and I think I would feel confident (after a sherry or three) to argue that it is the greatest theatrical song ever written. The story is so subtly-coloured and constructed, the music so insistent, that you forget the singer, the piano, the godawful uncomfortable chair that concert-organisers seem to think are so popular. There is only the story.
The central idea of theatre is not, as many people say, that an audience suspends their disbelief. It is the job of the writer and the performer to suspend the audience’s disbelief for them. Had Mr Merryweather bungled his song, he would have just been a fat man singing. But he didn’t. We was every character of that story, and when the story is well-crafted the effect can be transcendent.
This is something most magicians overlook. I had a period as a magician in Sheffield, and no matter how good I got at sleight of hand I was always uninterested in the trickery of it. I was interested in the theatre. There is a knack to using marked cards that can be very satisfying. Even a simple coin vanish can be made extraordinary with a little theatricality. As Derren Brown explains in his (rather rare and hard-to-get-hold-of) book “Absolute Magic”, the magic happens not in the hands of the magician but in the mind of the audience.
For anyone who is interested in writing for the theatre, it’s a good book to read and a good principle to remember. It is especially important for composers of musical theatre. I will explain how this magic is created in the next article when we’ll look at why some moments are not only magic, but weepworthy. For now let us make a Roman holiday of a good example of a musical moment that fails to enchant: from “Love Never Dies” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The moment when the phantom (he’s called Erik, actually) has his mask snatched away by Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” is an excellent moment of theatrical magic. Both times. It happens once after ‘Music of the Night’ and once in the phantom’s opera. In “Love Never Dies” when he takes it off for Christine’s son in “The Beauty Underneath” is just terrible. In the original Phantom we have been wondering ‘what the Fuchs is behind his mask?’ Christine sees it first and her horrified reaction just makes us want to know even more. Then she does it again and we see, and in full view of everyone this violent, mysterious, tormented figure is reduced to a broken wretch. That mask means a lot.
In “Love Never Dies” however, there’s none of that. We must presume that most people who have sought it out are familiar with Phantom. So the mask thing has gone about as far as it can go. So when Erik abducts a small boy, taking him to an underground freak show and, affectionately fondling the child’s shoulders asks him ‘shall I show you?’ not only does it seem a bit like an old man offering to whack his weener out for a kid, it’s just not tense. He takes it off, the kid screams (as you would), and the phantom is a little bit dejected. The reason this fails is because no-one believes it. You can understand why poor old Erik wants acceptance from (SPOILERS – SPOILERS – SPOILERS!!!!!) his estranged son, but as a writer don’t make the mask the focus. It was the symbol that underpinned the whole first musical, it’s not going to last for another musical. And if you’re going to have him whip it off, you’ve got to make the scene mean something.
Preferably don’t make your scene about bearded ladies and set it to Webberian pseudo-rock. And once you’ve not done those things, also don’t just have the phantom scrabble about on the floor and then end the scene. That is all garbage. We don’t believe it, we’re not interested in what is behind the mask, the only thing we’d be interested in is the phantom’s shattered dream of having any kind of relationship with his son. That means you have to build up some kind of hope that they might be reunited, and that takes more than a few minutes of fancy sets and electric guitars. Then you need to break the phantom, and we need to care that he’s broken. That means the phantom needs to be a three-dimensional figure, his breaking needs to be a revelation of his character. But you can’t. Because that all happened in the original, and there’s nowhere left to go.
Though he has won all the awards under the sun and is worth about £700 million, he is not a theatrical magician. His trick, and a genius one it surely is, is to change expectation so that the audience do not expect a musical to be great theatre. For that you must go see some Chekhov or Pinter. Musicals are just fluff.
However, as I hope to demonstrate in my next article, a quick tour of Sondheim reveals there can be a lot more to musical theatre than catchy tunes and good lyrics: there can be real magic in the medium.
Robert Hainault is a columnist for Not So Reviews and he’s writing a musical at the moment
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