Musicool: how musical theatre went from naff to rad

Too trendy for musicals? Damn right you are! But there's been a revolution in the genre, thanks to Hamilton, Damon Albarn's wonder.land and many more

Let’s face it: musicals have always seemed like derivative pap. I used to be irritated that the characters in a musical could sing and dance their way out of their problems. In trouble? That’s OK, because you’ve got three years of jazz-tap under your belt. “Stupid!” I railed on street corners in the West End. “Infantile!” I yelled at a nice couple heading into Hairspray.

But in recent years a strange thing has happened. Perhaps inspired by the success of The Book of Mormon, co-written by the creators of South Park, the humble musical, traditionally a celebrator of conformity and the status quo, has become a platform for rebellion, covertly sweetening a message of anarchy with gooey sincerity. Don’t learn it the hard way like I did. Instead, let me take you through the musicals that changed my mind. Relax. Let it happen. You’ll be happier this way.

Six

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Henry VIII’s wives have returned from the dead, no longer the girls from next door, but instead the ones who live Tudors down. They proceed to compete in an X-Factor style battle over which one of them will lead their new band (roll with it, OK?) and their uplifting showmanship makes for a joyful, keytar-wielding experience the likes of which we haven’t seen since Bill and Ted. Clever lyricism (from the song ‘Don’t Lose Your Head’: “He doesn’t want to bang you / Somebody hang you”) and genuinely catchy tunes make this a rare combination: sincere and cool.

Why it’s cool: It’s like watching the Spice Girls on mead.

The Girl from the North Country

Bob Dylan is a bit like yoga. Everyone who has tried it won’t stop telling you how amazing it is, and in doing so manages to put you off of ever trying it. Instead of berating you about what you listen to, The Girl from the North Country sneaks some Bob Dylan into your drink and before you know it, you’re a convert. Beautiful acting, singing that informs the plot instead of replacing it and music that penetrates the mind and soul all come together here. Like people who compare every festival to Glastonbury, your new role as a musical lover is to say, ‘Yeah – but I still prefer The Girl from the North Country.’

Why it’s cool: OK, so the thing about Bob Dylan is…

wonder.land

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wonder.land, co-created by Damon Albarn, is an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but replaces the rabbit hole with a website. Sounds cool, right? Well, actually, the songs aren’t particularly catchy and the dialogue plays like panto. What’s really cool is that for ages Gorillaz albums have had an intriguing but vague narrative linking the tracks together. By using author Lewis Carroll’s well-known trip, Albarn finally satisfies a long-standing itch for a narrative arc. Albarn’s entry into the musicool canon signalled that it was no longer fair for indie darlings to malign the medium. Instead experimentation was the order of the day.

Why it’s cool: Imagine if your favourite band wrote a musical (and your favourite band happened to be Gorillaz).

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 

This macabre musical follows a cast of characters in a crumbly cityscape, coming off like the work of a disenchanted art student obsessed with black magic. At its core is a wall of eerie, mechanical animations that look like old-school cartoon Mr Benn meets the Soviet Union. This innovative use of media makes for a stylish spectacle, replacing the happy-clappy shininess of traditional musicals with ghoulish silhouettes. They even give you a little bag of sweets on your way in. Forgetting the warnings about strangers and sweets, I scoffed mine, before we were informed that eating those sweets dampened independent thought. You won’t see anything like this anywhere else – and that’s not just the liquorice talking.

Why it’s cool: They gave me some weird (pretend!) edibles.

Urinetown

Credit: press

Haha – urine! Proof that you can write a musical by coming up with the title first, Urinetown is superbly cool because it does something that modern musicals do better than any other genre: it rebels. Predating Mormon but having premiered in London in 2014, Urinetown is ridiculous nonsense about a dystopia where there is so little water left that everyone has to share vast public toilets. Those who defy mega-corporation UGC, (or Urine Good Company – some puns are so good that you use them twice) get sent to Urinetown. Seeing an anti-capitalist uprising in a sewer makes for a great show, but what really stands out is the prologue, a bleak reality check akin to the dark sci-fi of the 1970s.

Why it’s cool: Rebellion never felt so puerile (and therefore, y’know, fun).

Hadestown

Credit: Getty

Fictional towns are great for musicals. There’s Urinetown, that tiny town from Footloose (which became a not-cool musical in 1998) and now there’s Hadestown, wherein wet and wimpy protagonist Orpheus bungles an attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from beyond the grave. And if you think that’s a spoiler, it’s based on a Greek myth from around 8AD, so you’re a bit late. Hadestown contains zero irony, but it’s cool for what it is: New Orleans folk tunes, played like political rallies in the middle of an industrial Hades.

Why it’s cool: It’s steam-punk Mardi Gras!

Caroline, or Change

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if art changes society, or if society dictates the art. Set in civil rights-era America, Caroline, or Change juxtaposes the riot of change in people’s hearts with the practicalities of revolution. The uprising can hardly be seen in the domestic sphere, with the political upheaval taking place out in the wider world, as Caroline faces an ethical quandary that propels the simple plot. A wide variety of superbly performed American music, from jazz to Christmas carols, expresses deep pain, but more crucially provides a vehicle to examine our own world. Where musicals might once have been a medium to escape the trials of our lives through entertainment, here we see their evolution as a furtive challenge to the status quo.

Why it’s cool: This is loud music for a quiet revolution.

Hamilton

Hamilton
Hamilton (CREDIT: Getty/Theo Wargo/WireImage)

Initially I feared there was something a bit ‘down with the kids’ about Hamilton, a history lesson performed exclusively in rap. I was worried it would be like one of those modernised Shakespeare plays, where they make Hamlet an estate-agent, so that we can relate to him at last – but there’s no need to fear. By using hip-hop as a device for dry political discourse, Hamilton offers linguistic jousting that demands your attention and verbal gymnastics that have you bobbing and weaving in your seat. The perfect example of how musicals have got better, Hamilton marries earnest sincerity with radical action and rebellion. And these days, we need a little of both to get by.

Why it’s cool: Hamilton is the quintessential musicool. Here’s to many more.

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