Shhh… Today is my birthday…
I intend the celebration to be somewhat muted. Except tonight. Tonight I’m going to the theatre to see 42nd Street.
And as I tread over to the wrong side of fifty I can’t help wondering why I find the theatre such an entrancing place to spend an evening. Is it simply the romantic novelist in me or am I in good company?
Since I was a young girl I’ve always loved musicals. I enjoy ballet, opera and plays too but particularly love musical theatre with the combination of songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance. It’s been fun over the years – impersonating a nun to go and see the Sound of Music and wearing a Basque and heavy eye-liner to join the camp frivolities of the Rocky Horror Show. Nevertheless, it’s dressing up to the nines which gives me most pleasure and perhaps it’s because I can’t afford to go very often that it’s a treat when I do.
Even thinking of theatre buildings evokes my romantic side, from Amphitheatres, introduced by the Romans and Elizabethan timber-framed open-air theatres to the modern day Art Deco splendour of the RSC Stratford or the Barbican in London. However, my most memorable experiences of theatre stem from my time as a young girl at the wonderful City Varieties in Leeds. (Some of you may remember it as home of the BBC television programme, ‘The Good Old Days,’ a recreation of old-time music hall.)
Imagine the musical halls you’ve read about in stories; an intimate, doll’s house interior; rectangle shaped with boxes separated by cast-iron columns along the sides at circle level; seats and plinths covered in plush red fabric and gold gilt; swags of red velvet curtains everywhere; illuminated interiors showing off dramatic, sculptural decoration; carved plaster forms conveying deep shadows and pronounced surfaces; the rich sitting apart from the rest of the audience in prominent box positions enabling them to be seen and admired in all their finery and jewellery – the ladies in their long evening gloves, opera glasses posed to look at performers more closely and fanning themselves to keep cool in the heat of the theatre…
You see, I told you I was a romantic when it comes to the theatre!
I’m pleased to say Leeds City Council and the Lottery must be too as the music hall recently underwent a £9.9million refurbishment to preserve the Grade II listed theatre that was built in 1865. They have preserved it, largely unchanged.
Since I’ve embarked on my writing ‘apprenticeship’ I find it interesting the parallels (as well as the differences) between the written book and plays or musical theatre.
When reading, we only take in one impression at a time. In the theatre, however, we respond simultaneously to the words, the movement of the actors, their expressions, their voices, the silences, the sound effects, the lighting, the scenery, the costumes, the gestures, the groupings of characters, the rhythms, the space, the atmosphere, and so on. All elements carefully selected, unified, and honed by the collaborative effort of actors, director, playwright, designers, and technicians.
The principals of a good book and a good production are much the same because the first job of every play or book – musical or not – is to tell a good story. In the same way as a novel, a musical book must keep the story line clear and easy to follow, create characters that are easy to relate to, without resorting to stereotypes.
If you’ve seen a musical, you’ll be familiar with the two-act format with an intermission in the middle. There’s a common theme through them all when I think about it…
With Little Orphan Annie, we’re left wondering if she’ll find her long lost parents. Les Miserables, you can’t help musing how will the many characters we’ve met in Act One get through the imminent revolution. And as Liza Doolittle dances off with the scheming linguist Zoltan Karparthy in My Fair Lady, will her secret be exposed and Professor Higgins’ work ruined?
The first act does not have to end with a cliff-hanger, but we’re curious to see what happens next and want to return to our seats to watch Act Two. It’s much the same when we write – we try to hook or make a page turner at the end of each chapter and encourage our reader to continue.
The end of Act Two is even more important. It is what audiences walk out with, and a powerful final scene can make up for a lot of shortcomings earlier in the show. Having a great song helps – many shows reprise their strongest ballad – but in the same way as the book writer wants to pack a punch at the end, bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion and tie up all the ends, the play/musical writer must structure the production so that the last scene packs a genuine wallop.
For example, thinking back to orphan Annie, can you not help but cheer when her long-lost pooch, Sandy pops out of a gift box on Christmas morning. And is there not a tear in your eye when the Von Trapps escape to freedom over the Alps as a chorus of nuns sing “Climb Every Mountain” in the Sound of Music?
Over the years, as the discerning theatre goer has expected more, so musicals have adapted and nature rules the stage in all of its often tempestuous glory. More and more plays and musicals have become a kind of melodrama. The theatre goer wants to be convinced. The play and set up have evolved to present an illusion of reality with moveable props and scenery, flying, trap doors etc.
More and more focus has centred on characters, just the same with writing novels. We have to like the main characters. We have to care. There’s usually a main protagonist who’s strong of character and often succeeded because he or she was true to his or her feelings or gut emotion. It’s always clear in a melodrama who’s good, what is good and who and what is bad or evil. With the most popular theatre, there’s generally a sense of poetic justice: good guys win, bad guys are defeated. Even if a good guy dies or whatever, he or she still manages to make the world right.
For me, what makes good musical theatre is the soul and heart a performer puts into the performance. Top of my list is Phantom of the Opera, closely followed by Les Miserables. Isn’t it the same when writing a novel? The best novels are written from the heart, with soul, with a huge dollop of romanticism..
So what’s your favourite musical theatre performance?