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Why Do People Sneer at Musicals?

 Monday, 5th June, 2017

Theatre critic Mark Shenton stands up for his passion...and ice cream.

We don't all like the same things, obviously. It's why, as a wise friend once remarked, there's vanilla and there's chocolate -- and why Baskin-Robbins famously promise 31 flavours (a marketing ruse first introduced in 1953, with a different flavour offered for each day of the month). Of course, some of us like vanilla AND chocolate and the other 31 flavours, too: it's not that I'm indiscriminate, it's just that I enjoy a wide variety of tastes.

Yet some people stubbornly seem to want to shut some flavours out, not just in ice cream but in theatrical tastes, too. As a theatre critic, of course, I have to cover the waterfront: a classical revival one day; a new play the next; a musical another day. And of course I don't just stick to London as I do so -- in the last few weeks I've travelled to Chichester and Brighton, Sheffield and Watford, Oxford and Kingston, to see shows, and will be going to Bath, Northampton and Scarborough before the end of June, too, as well as New York.

Of course, you could say I'm just doing my job, and so I have to do that; but I consider it a responsibility to get out and about and expose my theatrical tastebuds to as many different experiences as possible.

So I don't rule out anything from my theatrical diet. Of course, there are some things I inevitably prefer to others; my own speciality subject is musicals and I'll search them out anywhere. So I find it particularly galling when they are casually dismissed as not to be taken seriously.

And just the other week, I found an egregious provocation from Sunday Times theatre critic Christopher Hart who did just that. Reviewing a new (and thrilling) revival of the 1944 Broadway musical On the Town, now running at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, he wrote the following:

"A lot of people say they hate musicals. Actually, quite a lot of people say they hate theatre as well. Intellectually curious, well-educated, Booker-prize-reading people. Theatre just annoys them, and musicals annoy the veritable dickens out of them. In principle, I’m rather on their side with the musicals thing. I mean, men dancing? In costumes? I’d really rather be up a mountain, or in the pub, or watching programmes about Hitler on the Yesterday channel. Sitting and watching musicals, especially traditional, non-ironic musicals, is no occupation for a self-respecting person."

But then his stance softens: "And then, one evening, sitting there folded double in your little red-velvet midget seat, you find yourself pleasurably bouleversé by some unexpected delight. Hairspray? Loved it. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? Laughed myself silly. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, School of Rock? Seen it three times. So maybe people who say they hate musicals are much like feminists who say they hate men. They just haven’t found the right one yet."

Putting to one side that even bigger provocation to feminists -- and it's obvious that Mr Hart is simply trolling his readers into outrage, so why should I indulge him by becoming outraged? I simply can't let his easy dismissal of the genre stand. Yes, he does grudgingly admit enjoyment of a handful of musicals; and then proceeds to review a prize example of a Broadway classic from 1944, but which he won't even pay the respect of bothering to find out the names of the characters he is referring to as he describes the plot. "One element of slight complexity arises from the fact that one of the sailors, Chip or Chuck or something, wants especially to meet a girl from a beauty contest whose poster he’s seen on the subway." Actually, the character is called Gabe; the other two sailors are Ozzie and Chip (so he gets one of their names right, but not the one he is talking about).

But why, if he can't pay the show proper critical attention, why should a reader pay his words any attention, either? His review is a serious dereliction of duty. It's lazy -- and so is the idea that a musical can be treated less seriously than a play just because its a musical.