The magic of the musical

Tom Sutcliffe reviews The Book of Mormon and reflects on the quality of modern musicals

he Book of Mormon, a musical about Latter Day missionaries with a garbled message, swept into the West End after a year selling well on Broadway. It is written by the team that gave us the long-running hilarious satirical TV cartoon South Park, and its arrival makes a good moment to consider what has happened to the musical in the last half century. The West End and Broadway are as full of musicals as most great American cities are of churches. Musicals have made Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Cameron Mackintosh incrediblyrich. But are the musicals that L ondon has had running for years any good compared with the best of operettas and musicals in the days when a tune really was a tune, when people like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could really dance, and when singers like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin could be heard and their words understood in a large theatre without the aid of electronic amplification?

Past decades

The first musicals I saw in the late Forties were Perchance to Dream (with Ivor Novello’s best-known hit song ‘We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again’) and Song of Norway. I first saw West Side Story and Oklahoma in the cinema. But in the Seventies, especially after wildly enjoying the blithe vulgarities and witty bizarre displays of the Easter show at Radio City Music Hall in New York on my first visit to the Big Apple in April 1972, I spent quite a few years after I joined the Guardian in 1973 checking out and writing up musicals. I met Arthur Laurents and Sondheim when they were working on a revival of Jule Styn’s Gypsy with Angela Lansbury at the Piccadilly Theatre, and wrote about them. Gypsy Rose Lee was a stripper whose career in Vaudeville was developed by her dominant possessive mother. I was very impressed with Sondheim’s Company, Follies (which I saw in New York in 1972), A Little Night Music and Pacific Overtures. I wrote with my friend Paul Sheren (whose Yale doctorate was on Edward Gordon Craig’s staging of Macbeth) the first extensive survey of Sondheim’s output in 1974. I interviewed the team behind A Chorus Line in 1976. I don’t think the songs in any of those works are as good as the best written in the Thirties and Forties by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, or Richard Rodgers.

But nothing from Jesus Christ Superstar until today can compare with what adorned our theatres from 1920 to 1970. Lloyd Webber’s musicals are opportunistic and sentimental, exploiting thoughtless political myths and naive fables without endowing them with original or convincingly truthful songs or circumstance. Seeing my son Walter’s production of Kiss Me, Kate at Theater Magdeburg (in German) has confirmed my sense that Porter’s work really is one of the great classics of the musical theatre – though revivals need to respect it properly and understand its ‘taming’ Shakespearian game.

Raucous and funny

The Book of Mormon is energetic, raucous, funny and charming in short bursts. Nothing it says about the church of the Latter-Day Saints is false, though it certainly does make the Mormons’ determined wish to evangelize seem absurdly unrealistic. The Jesus who we see in the cutaway explanatory scenes looks as if he’s been dreamt up by Margaret Tarrant. The clean-limbed young men’s chorus who launch us into the story (about an ill-matched pair of young Elders who get the short straw and are sent to a Uganda backwater to spread the word) are a much feebler cliché than the auditioning hoofers who involve us in A Chorus Line. The central characters are cardboard thin. The hopelessness of the Ugandan villagers’ situation is explored fitfully in a politically incorrect way that is not put to any genuinely comic or otherwise useful purpose.

Exactly what the missionaries want their converts to understand is never clear, and the successful but incoherent message cobbled together at short notice by the very New York Jewish-seeming Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) to win adherents is used mainly to imply that all religions are probably made up in much the same way. The real Mormons are unworried about the publicity they are getting from the musical. The missionaries in it seem well-intentioned even if their job is impossible, even if Elder Cunningham plainly comes from a different planet.

Not clever enough

Will the show run, considering it has not had very good reviews in London? The music is not worth listening to. The text is not clever enough to be deeply funny. But the piece is probably no worse than many other musicals that have earned their backers a decent return in recent decades. It keeps some very decent young hoofers off the streets. It is tacky but adequately slick. Why is it not better considering how good South Park has managed to be over the years? It takes a lot more narrative continuity and character to pull together a show in the theatre than to endow a short-winded cartoon series with funny situations, images and lines. South Park depends on naughty hints and blasphemous moments. The Book of Mormon has to fill over two hours with entertainment based in human life performed by real people. What it terribly lacks is surprises. You can see everything that happens coming a mile off. Surprises are of course the fuel on which all religions depend. Theatre too. ND