Theatre has changed a great deal in the last ten years much like art exhibitions. With the need to fill seats, to account for government arts spending, to grow audiences and break stereotypical ideas of the nature of museum or theatre-goers, to appeal to a wider age spectrum of the general public, these spaces of so-called ‘high art’ have had to make some big changes to the type of shows they put on. These changes are good on the whole. We see the V&A putting on an exhibition of outfits worn by Kylie Minogue for example – not something I would see but I know my aunt who is not a museum-person would enjoy it. We see Royal Academy putting on yet another Hockney show - whatever spin you put on it, it still simplifies to another Hockney show over, say, a lesser known artist. We see even the high and mighty Royal Opera House edge toward performances such as ‘
’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as they have mass appeal and instant recognisability. Cinemas keep the ‘blockbusters’ on for just that bit longer to get every last enthusiast who wants to see that film on the big screen. Theatre perhaps has had the most change of all, not all of it good. The famous West End has become home to a variety of musicals such as ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Jersey Boys’, ‘Thriller’, the list goes on and on. They are for the most part poor stories hashed together around very famous songs by even more famous singers such as Michael Jackson, the performers of Motown Records, Queen… I think I just saw the latest one start to advertise itself: the strangely titled ‘Rock of Ages’ starring a winner from Pop Idol and the guy who sings ‘I believe in a thing called Love’. It will have a line up of big rock ballads for people to sing-a-long to such as ‘The Final Countdown’. I find these musicals rather strange. Not musicals per se as much as cartoon plotlines as vehicles for well-known songs. This is not ‘Evita’ or ‘Cats’ territory, nor is it the stuff of ‘Bombay Dreams’, ‘Pricilla Queen of the Desert’ or ‘The Lion King’. These morph together a karaoke sing-a-long with puffed-up pantomime to be a genre in itself, profitable but for the most part vacuous. They are simply a ‘night out’ a la Strawberry Moons Nightclub disguised as a Swan Lake West End show. There are exceptions of course. ‘Mamma Mia’, for example, is one of them, said to be very enjoyable –the best of a bad bunch. My problem with this rising phenomena is that it is not worthy of the theatres it claims. It gets crowds in but at the price of watering down the artistry of musical/show theatre. I’m not getting all toffee-nosed about it all. I’ve been to the Vegas ‘Legends’ show (musical impersonators) and it was good clean fun. I am the last person to turn my nose up at singing along to the hits of MJ. I just am not sure whether I need to go to a theatre and pay West End prices for this experience. I also find the crappy stories a mockery of my journey into town and the amount of money I have paid for my seat.
These shows are made worse by the other revivalist musicals that abound like the ‘Sister Act’ Musical or the ‘Dirty Dancing’ Musical. Now I like these films (well I like Sister Act) but I just do not know why we need a musical of the film. At least these films have song and dance in them, I guess. What about the ‘Ghost’ Musical? What on earth do we need a Musical of the Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore film? Is there that much of a fan base? Is the whole idea for this category of revivalist theatre pinned to the hope that thousands of people want to sing along to ‘The Time of My Life’ or see the Righteous Brothers sexy clay-modelling scene played out on stage? I think so. I think these musicals are notionally conceived, the product of a one-line sales pitch: Wanna see a Patrick Swayze look-a-like lift a girl in the air like in the film but this time in real life? Did you like the film ‘Ghost’ in the eighties …? I think it’s simple as that. A similar one-line thinking is happening in mainstream film: Remember ‘Shaft’, ‘The A-Team’, ‘Miami Vice’, ‘Transformers’, ‘Starsky and Hutch’, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ on TV? Wanna see them again but with actors you might know on a screen 24 times bigger? On TV, Pop Idol and X Factor do the same thing. They are essentially a contest where viewers are not rating musical talent. If we are honest, the recognisability of the song is crucial to the show. They have replaced Top of the Pops with unknown singers (for the most part) impersonating/promoting well known singers. We never see original material in them.
As I said, there are exceptions worthy of note such as the sell-out ‘Fela!’ that just finished at Sadlers Wells, the story of Fela Kuti, the African musical legend. And of course, ‘The Lion King’ which continues to be enjoyed in the
West End like the first day it arrived. True crowd-pleasers with true art to their finish. They aim high and deliver. However surrounding these gems are such trashy, throw-away shows that don’t even deserve the title of ‘musical’ or ‘show’ in my opinion. They are ‘Hen Night Shows’. I must admit I am not a big musical lover but still I can see that there is a huge chasm between ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Legally Blonde – the Musical’. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.
Having said all this, I do think that there may be a few diamonds dressed up as rabbit droppings (so to speak) that do in fact bring in new audiences to the West End, widen the appeal of theatre and create new stage experiences with a high level of finish and fun (I’m not against fun!). ‘Shrek’ is one of them, I hear. It didn’t look promising to me but I have indeed heard great things about it if you catch a good performance. ‘Wicked’ the story of the good witch in Wizard of Oz is an inspired tale that captures the minds of young and old in a fun, upbeat, visual style. My personal favourite, The Lion King’, which I have seen five times incidentally, is still awesome to behold. A theatrical experience that draws new audiences from all over the world, an exhibition of the best outcome of an animated film being adapted for the stage. To this list I would like to add my most recent experience: ‘BATMAN – LIVE’. This live action comic book play is a first of its kind, following only minor attempts in theme parks and such like. Its only predecessor is ‘Spiderman – Turn off the Dark’, a musical which is currently playing Broadway. It was considered critically as a giant failure or comic (get it?) proportions.
Now before I start describing the success of ‘BATMAN – LIVE’, I would like to make a rather large admonishment. I am a self-proclaimed Batfan of the highest order. I have been collecting comics, books, paraphernalia and figurines in regard to all areas of Batman since 1989 when the Tim Burton film first came out. In fact in my bedroom is my pride of joy – a glass cabinet displaying everything I have collected over the last twenty-four years. I like ‘The Animated Adventures’, the new futuristic cartoon takes on Batman in the future such as ‘Batman Beyond’, the 60s camped up television series, the Christopher Nolan re-creations and most of all the Tim Burton gothic masterpieces. I can even find positive things to say about the Joel Schumacher monstrosities that were ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’. My being a fan, makes going to ‘BATMAN – LIVE’ a potential failure of the highest echelon (disappointing a Batman fan, like disappointing a ‘Star Wars’ fan, is a knife in the heart) or another successful rendition of one of the greatest revenge heroes of our time. There was a lot at stake.
I loved it. A fun mix of the television series, the original batman comics and the animated adventures, with a dash of Joel Schumacher’s pop kitchness, this show demonstrated the great variety within the ‘Batman’ mythology. The show, though spring-boarding off the success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy (the new one is coming very soon), left aside the dirge of Industrial Gotham and Burton’s dark, moody ideas for the metropolis, to show the city as an alternative New York, colourful and character-ful rather than mean and foreboding. The city is still important to this vision of Batman -don’t get me wrong. We view the streets of
Gotham from above, miniature buildings lit on stage with full sized Gothamites moving among them. Then we move in closer to set pieces colourfully described in the surroundings of Arkham Asylum, the Iceberg Lounge, the Gotham Circus, Wayne Manor and the Batcave. Perhaps the most impressive feature is the integration of an IMAX style screen behind the stage. The imagery on this screen sometimes gave deeper perspective to the action on stage (for instance a background to the action at the circus gave the performers before us a sense of a larger three-dimensional reality i.e. the comics coming alive like a pop-up book). Sometimes this screen provided comic book imagery during fight scenes or further enhanced ideas such as a character falling or jumping from great height or else provided, with the turning of comic book pages a scenes change, imaginary time passing and the introduction of new characters. It reminded me of the ‘Batman’ logo interrupting the sixties show now and again before the customary narration: ‘Meanwhile in Wayne Manor, trusty butler Alfred is….’ It was a very hi-tech version of this interruptive insignia.
The acting was over the top but then how else could one play characters such as The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, let alone Batman and Robin? The script for most of these characters was poor but the delight of seeing these figures alive before us was so great that it did not matter. Textual spotlight had been given to The Joker anyway, being the most famous adversary of Batman. The Joker, played by Mark Frost, had all the best lines and also all the best set pieces. He was played somewhere in between the character in the sixties show, the original comics and ‘The Animated Adventures’ – a psycho clown with a devilish sense of humour. It was great to see this rendition of the character after so much praise of the late Heath Ledger’s version of the maniac. It was nice to see the character simplified again to a menacing madman with a penchant for circus-inspired crime. It was wonderful to see the lesser-known, Harley Quinn, Joker’s girlfriend on stage, an enjoyable comedy counterpart to the psychopath, fairly unknown to most unless you read the comics.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was Batman himself. Even Robin came off better (and I hate Robin). His entrance was disappointing, Batman swinging forward in what was meant to be slow motion onto the edge of a building to confront Catwoman. I wasn’t against the use of wires. It worked well in other places, particularly the circus scenes and Catwoman’s burglary scene (which looked satisfyingly straight out of the comics incidentally), it just didn’t work here and made Batman look like he was about to sit on the loo as he was unbalanced for his landing. It wasn’t the elegant arrival for which we had hoped. Once there it became obvious that his suit was not right either. A metallic grey (probably to make him stand out against the black), he just didn’t look like The Dark Knight we all know and love, and that criminals fear. This was a great shame that was only made up for by the later fights scenes, and the awesome scenes in Wayne Manor and the Batcave -not least by the elegantly designed ‘hoverboard’-style Batmobile. Still, Batman was the hero we all came to see, young and old, and so this was a measurable disappointment.
‘BATMAN - LIVE’ proved two things to me. The need to bring new audiences into the theatre, or at least to the stage, can be a good thing. There were definitely kids there that will grow up with an appreciation of live action because of this performance. I remember the first impactful piece I saw: Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. I think of it even now and remember the excitement of being in the audience as a child. The second thing it proved was that there are so many areas to be explored in terms of stage spectacle that still have credibility and novel vision, yet on the surface perhaps look superficial as ideas. This show couldn’t exist without ‘Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger’, ‘The Matrix’, popular animation and of course the Batman franchise and yet was closest to comic books, a form never before merged with theatre in this way. It brought a whole new dimension to theatre in the way that ‘Starlight Express’ did a long time ago. In that it was worthy of its spot at Birmingham NIA and the O2 Arena in
Central London. Why wasn’t something like this in the West End? Surely it has more to offer on paper than a musical version of the film ‘Ghost’? Perhaps this is the problem. It has more to offer than the ‘one-line selling pitch’ I discussed before. But this is what theatre is all about, right? That’s for you and I to decide as the paying public, I guess.