The catch of musical theatre
It has often been asked which is the most single important aspect of a musical, with many differing opinions as to what the answer is – if indeed there is one. Some will argue that the score is most important, and they may have a point; the term musical is mostly made up of the word music, after all. Others may point to the book as the most important part of a show and its chance of success as it does tend to be the keystone of a production, holding the whole thing together. Jukebox musicals are the exception to this rule of course. Then there’s the cast, choreography, staging, design, costumes, special effects and so on to take into account, all of which have a part to play in any musical, and cannot be underestimated in terms of importance.
I would say that each is equally important. The best musicals are the ones where all aspects of the show work together in perfect balance, rather than having one stand-out feature such as the songs or the book, with the others playing the supporting role. However, one mustn’t forget the power that comes with a show that has ‘the catch’.
What do I mean by this? Well, every show has to have some kind of angle that will appeal to the theatre-going public and put those bums in those seats. It’s all well and good for the writer, composer, lyricist, etc. to create a piece of work they’re proud of, but to make it in the West End, the truth of the matter is that it has to be commercial too. The producers have to be able to sell it to an audience, and for that, they need ‘the catch’.
Some musicals use star casting as their ‘catch’, but this is a temporary answer to a long-term problem as it tends to attract people who want to see the celebrity more than the show itself, so when said celebrity eventually leaves the production, they also leave a hole that the show may ultimately fall into, resulting in its disappearance from the West End. The best ‘catch’ is the one that is built into the show. It’s the one that people go home talking about, the one they tell others about, the one they forever remember in association with the show, and the one that makes them go back. Long-running musicals Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera are great examples of shows in which every aspect works, which is of course why they’ve been around for so long and remain two of the most popular shows in not only the West End, but all around the world. They have a ‘catch’ as well though. Les Miserables has many memorable moments, but the revolve is one of the most iconic components of the show and used to great effect throughout. A revolving stage isn’t unique to Les Miserables alone, but mention it and any theatre fan’s mind will immediately jump to Les Mis. It’s a great ‘catch’, as too is the awe-inspiring moment the barricade comes together. That set piece is probably as iconic as the revolve, both of which are the products of creative genius and have been helping to make Les Miserables the huge success it is for nearly 30 years now. Phantom isn’t far behind in terms of longevity in the West End either, and if you were playing the game of word association with this musical, one word which would inevitable crop up would be ‘chandelier’. The audience’s excitement begins even before the start of the show, when they enter the auditorium to see that huge covered chandelier on stage. Even when it’s raised into the roof, they’re always aware its there, and anticipation builds throughout the 1st Act as they wait for that iconic moment. The chandelier drop. ‘The catch’. I went to see Phantom a few weeks ago and couldn’t wait for the drop as I was sat in the third row of the Stalls, almost directly beneath the chandelier. I’m sure many people deliberately book those seats for that reason…what a ‘catch’ hey?
All the big shows have a ‘catch’ of some kind. The helicopter in Miss Saigon, anyone? I was having a conversation about musicals with someone yesterday, and he was telling me about the only show he’d been to see. It was years ago, and even though he’d really enjoyed it, he couldn’t remember the name of the show, only that it was ‘that one where they go around the theatre on skates’. Instantly the connection is made, bam! Starlight Express. A cast that perform on skates…it was a completely unique element to a show. Starlight Express also had one of the most spectacular sets in the history of musical theatre, as the actors skated around a track that extended into the auditorium and even took them up into the Dress Circle at times. The skates and the race track are examples of one of the best ‘catches’ of all time.
People love it when the on-stage action spills over into the audience, like in Cats, where the cast interact with the audience during parts of the show as they move around the auditorium. I still remember how excited my daughter was when we went to see Shrek The Musical and Nigel Lindsay ran right through our row in the Stalls in full Shrek get-up as he made his way to the stage via the auditorium to stop Fiona’s wedding to Lord Farquaad. I also remember my daughter’s gasp during Matilda, when ‘Amanda’ falls from the roof after the Trunchbull launches her by her pigtails.
These are just a few examples of ‘catches’ in shows that stand out in the memory of the audience and help make their visit a wonderful experience, one which they’ll hopefully want to repeat and also encourage others to try for themselves. And that is exactly what the business of show is all about at the end of the day, right?
By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25
Thursday 18th June 2015