The spoken and written word is such an integral part of human life, interwoven through the fabric of our modern world. We use it to communicate and connect with one another, or to express our innermost emotions. It doesn’t matter which language-form it takes; all around the planet, mankind are setting themselves apart from every other species of life we share it with through the medium of words. It’s something that we take for granted, using it every day without ever really stopping to consider and appreciate the power they hold – and what a power that is indeed.
Those three words. Three tiny, simple little words can fill you with a joyful sense of unbridled bliss… and no, they’re not fame, money and chocolate! Whispered softly in your ear or perhaps spelt out in rose petals on the bed, the words ‘I love you’ are perhaps the three most beautiful words in the entirety of the human language. At the opposite end of the spectrum however, there are words and phrases which can bring on a dark mood blacker. Intolerance for race, religion and sexuality are fuelled, not only by caveman attitudes, but the words people use to incite hatred and inflict pain. Sometimes it’s subtler than lashing out with those offensive utterings that we all know are unacceptable though.
Certain words have been twisted into having negative connotations and have become derogatory terms. As a redhead, I had to endure people using the colour of my hair as a way to try and put me down all throughout my teenage years – I’m proud to be a ‘ginge’, but even now I still hear that innocuous adjective shouted at me with derision.
There are so many words today which are used with a disparaging tone and one which really gets my goat is ‘musical theatre’. Somewhere along the way, ‘musical theatre’ became a derogatory term, something lesser than other art forms when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many within the Opera world (not all) look down on musical theatre. It is considered to be cheap and simplistic and often accused of covering a lack of any real depth of emotion with its abundance of ‘razzle dazzle’. This attitude is merely one of snobbery, based entirely on an elitist view of the world. They’re not the only culprits who class musical theatre in the ‘second-rate’ category however.
I no longer watch it, but when I did, I was struck by how many times a singer on The X-Factor was criticised for being ‘too musical theatre’. Too musical theatre? Forgive me, but seriously, what is that supposed to mean? I would much prefer to listen to the album of a musical theatre performer than to that of a ‘two-minute X-Factor wonder’. In terms of vocal ability and quality of voice, there are very few artists currently in the ‘pop’ charts who could favourably compare with the men and ladies in the West End. I am bored to tears of seeing women put more importance on looking sexy on stage than actual singing, miming along to their tracks as they writhe about in barely-there outfits… An injection of musical theatre is exactly what is needed in actuality.
Performers are often labelled as one-trick ponies, unable to sing any other kind of music genre. What poppycock. Just look at the range of shows currently running in London’s West End: Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia, Backbeat, The Phantom of the Opera… each as different to one another as could be. Ramin Karimloo grew up singing in Rock bands – he’s now deemed the leading man in the West End. To say that if someone works in musical theatre then that’s all they can do is short-sighted and just plain wrong.
Musical theatre is a physically and vocally demanding industry. I suspect most people have no idea as to the extent of work that goes into each performance. So when it’s looked on as a fall-back option for someone whose pop career has stalled, I find myself grinding my teeth in irritation. Not only is it an insult to the industry, but also to the hundreds of musical theatre-trained performers who are having their years of hard work demeaned by people who think you can walk into the job just like that. Musical theatre is not the easy, ‘safety net’ to fall back on. A pop star doesn’t have to perform eight shows a week, every week. A pop star doesn’t have to sing, dance and act all at the same time (as we’ve clearly seen). A pop star also doesn’t have to cope with all the pressures and demands that musical theatre life brings on the kind of money it offers in return.
The ever-eloquent Stephen Fry wrote a wonderful blog on the subject of musical theatre back in April of this year. An avid opera fan, he confessed to the misguided notion of thinking that musicals ‘just weren’t my kind of thing’, but extolled their virtues after visiting shows such as Betty Blue Eyes, Departure Lounge, Legally Blonde and Avenue Q, which re-ignited a love for them. He wrote a paragraph that perfectly expressed why musicals are such an important and valid art-form:
“An evening at the musical theatre is a celebration of talent. It simply astonishes me, indeed often moves me to tears, how many men and women we have in this country who devote themselves body and soul to our entertainment. Eight times a week for months on end there are boys and girls out there doing things that I could never do.”
It’s a love that continues to grow, as Fry becomes more and more involved in the world of musical theatre. He hosted The Great British Musical in April and can regularly be spotted in attendance at productions all over the place, recently showing up at The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and one of the performances on the Sister Act UK tour.
A musical is so much more than a night of glittery, camp entertainment, as so many seem to think. I’ve laughed till I’ve cried and I’ve cried to the point of dehydration; there are particular musicals that I’ve fiercely connected with and that absolutely have depth and meaning to them. The people who stand on that stage night after night and give the kind of performances that they do should be commended and exalted on a vastly wider scale than they currently are. The level of talent available there is staggeringly high and unrivalled, in my opinion. More appreciation for this art-form is something which is sorely needed and it starts by trying to change the ‘second-rate’ name-tag it’s been labelled with, so the next time you hear somebody refer to musical theatre in a derogatory manner, grab them by the ear and march them straight to the nearest theatre. The tide is starting to turn but, like anything, it takes time. Let’s do what we can to speed it along by standing up and proudly declaring our love of musical theatre – if you can say it with a song and dance number then all the better!
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
6th December 2011