Musical theatre is often dismissed as being cheesy and lowbrow by some puritans; home to whimsical exposition and unnecessary dance breaks in place of actual plot and substance. This view stems partly from the ‘Golden Age’ of musicals – the likes of Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady feature often two-dimensional characters in unrealistic scenarios, coupled with large songs that appear out of nowhere and do not drive the plot. But musicals are so much more than just tap shoes and costumes; it is simply not the case that they carry any less meaning than straight plays.

In Michaelmas, I co-MDed Brickhouse Theatre’s production of Funny Girl. In almost every sense, this is a ‘classic’ musical. With luxurious orchestration and generous dance breaks, the show follows a larger-than-life comic and her turbulent personal life – and of course, was written entirely by men.

Funny Girl appears to epitomise what some people want to dismiss musicals as; fleeting, padded, and stylised over having any substance. But Fanny Brice was one of the most complex characters ever to tread the boards of Brickhouse. She handles betrayal, rejection, and sexism and overcomes it all by thrusting her comedy into the world and hiding behind it. Of course, there are filler songs and dance breaks – it’s unavoidable in a musical of the time – but to claim this makes the show less meaningful is wrong.

To claim that these productions are less serious or fulfilling than traditional theatre does a disservice to their creators

New popular musicals have shown a shift towards more serious topics. Come From Away deals with the aftermath of 9/11; Dear Evan Hansen follows a young man with anxiety; and Hamilton is teaching kids more American history than any school lesson I attended. These shows do not tiptoe round their subject matter – they tackle it directly, baton in hand.

Recent student musicals at Cambridge have explored every aspect of the genre; from the delightful antics of Joe Venable’s Cymbeline, to harrowing scenes of mental illness and recovery in Helena Fox and Geraint Owen’s Rust, and a bittersweet view of loss in Arthur Roadnight’s Those Left Behind. These musicals could not be more different, both in musical style and subject matter, and yet they all tell important stories.

Arthur collected inspiration from over thirty people whilst researching for his show. The music of Those Left Behind blended beautifully into the script, as if it were part of the set. Written largely in a singer-songwriter style, the show allowed itself only one moment of ‘classic’ musical theatre in the form of a rousing dance number, Style. Otherwise, the songs were woven into the very fabric of the show, accentuating the emotions and driving the plot without ever feeling overpowering.

I had the privilege of AMDing Rust both at the 2019 Fringe and its subsequent ADC run. The reviews speak for themselves; Helena and Geraint created one of the most beautiful and raw shows I have ever had the luck to be part of. Geraint’s score is gorgeously understated – again, there is a ‘typical’ MT song, Habit, which provides some much-needed emotional release from the heavier themes of the show, but the songs of Rust do not need loud bangs or flashing lights; Helena’s lyrics speak louder than a script could.

Cymbeline is rather different in terms of subject matter. Condensing Shakespeare’s four-hour original into a one-hour ADC late was quite a feat, but Joe managed it marvellously. Almost every song was upbeat and catchy; much more ‘conventional’ in that sense. But it was also fresh, vibrant, and genuinely hilarious, with songs that covered multiple plot points in a matter of minutes; a far cry from the image of a big band oom-pah-pah-ing their way through endless exposition.

Legally Blonde UK tour in 2018Twitter/Palaceandopera

One final example of a musical that has a deeper meaning than its production posters would suggest is Legally Blonde. Often seen as a chick-flick, it is a big-budget flashy musical to a T. From a literal exercise class onstage to a solid few minutes of Irish Dancing, this show has all the bells and whistles associated with the genre, and follows a privileged girl as she goes to Harvard to chase a boy: not the most progressive of storylines.

These shows do not tiptoe round their subject matter – they tackle it directly, baton in hand

And yet in the opening number there is an unusual key change that is jarring at first. This sudden tonal shift runs through the show (which is incredibly harmonically complex), until it feels distinctly characteristic. Just when everything falls apart, we hear this shift in the music, under very simple lyrics. As Elle grapples with an assault and heartbreak, she doesn’t say much at all – the music expresses all the loss, futility, frustration, and fear she feels far more eloquently and compellingly than any words could. The show may be light-hearted, but the severity and tragedy of Elle’s situation in that moment shines through the music effortlessly.

To claim that these productions are less serious or fulfilling than traditional theatre does a disservice to their creators, and to those who inspired and fed the plots. To say that a light-hearted musical is worth less than a light-hearted play is ridiculous. Some musicals are frivolous. That does not make them less worth watching. Other musicals deal with incredibly serious themes, and the music adds an energy that is impossible to get in a straight play.


Mountain View

What’s on in Week Three: Theatre in Isolation

When you see a really good show, regardless of its musical status, you come away happy, sad, or anywhere in between. You come out wanting to go back, or wanting to run away, or just wanting to sit alone for a while and contemplate. “Good” shows can do so many things; they make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us think. I have yet to find a play that made me think as much as Rust did. I have never seen a standing ovation occur so quickly as it did after Come From Away. Musicals mean something; they make us feel just as much as plays do – and if they include a tap dance to boot, so be it.