The musical – usually the preserve of songwriting vets like Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, um, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – has recently become an unlikely repository for rock stars’ grand ideas. It must be the notion that they need more than a mere album to contain their lyrical flights of fancy, or that their songs are so evocative, man, they’re like mini-plays.
Blame ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson for getting the ball rolling with Chess in the mid 80s. Now we’ve got Massive Attack’s 3-D (Robert Del Naja), Elbow’s Guy Garvey and The Avalanches pouring their enviable mad skills into King Kong: The Musical, opening next year. But it’s just a naff medium, isn’t it? Can rock’s finest really make the musical cool again?
Yeah yeah, the “again” might be pushing it, but in its post-war golden age, the musical was the only pop scene going, churning out classic songs and standards that have endured for more than half a century. Oklahoma! might not seem hip now, but who doesn’t whistle ‘The Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ in the shower every morning. Oh. Just me. Moving on...
Boundaries started to blur with rock musicals like Hair and Godspell in the late 60s and early 70s, and then Lloyd Webber’s chart-aimed efforts a few years later, before Ulvaeus and Andersson brought real pop royalty to the table. But any momentum towards respectable cachet was lost when Ben Elton waddled in and desecrated the works of Queen and Rod Stewart for West End notoriety. This led inexorably to Rock Of Ages with – oh dear – Shayne Ward and – oh dearer – Justin Lee Collins.
Clearly it’s time to for rock to claim the West End. The proper West End. The opera path is well trodden by the great and pretentious, with Damon Albarn’s forays sticking in the mind, Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart less so – but that’s not as much of a risk. Sure, it leaves you open to ridicule from some stuffed shirts but it’s nothing like the gamble of putting on a populist musical. Rufus Wainwright should stop gadding about with operatic studies of Parisian divas and get down to rebooting The Sound Of Music. Then we’ll see what he’s made of.
The patron saint of the new breed of musical is Baz Luhrmann who reanimated the whole thing with Moulin Rouge. Now we’ve got Prince and Lady Gaga throwing new songs at his forthcoming Great Gatsby movie. That might not be a musical per se, but if major artists are writing songs especially for it, it’s close enough.
Back to the stage, and Garvey and Del Naja will inevitably bring a bit of atmosphere and grandeur to King Kong – and if The Avalanches’ contribution is brand new material then that’s an entirely new level of excitement, and a compelling sign that there’s more to musicals than Dickensian orphans or spontaneous mass tapdance routines.
Of course, there’s always the odd fly in the ointment like Loserville – the new musical from Busted’s James Bourne starring Gareth Gates – or the rock opera Jessie J’s threatening, but nothing’s going to happen if people don’t have a go. So, come on Polly, come on Noel – let’s have a showtune or two.