“With a scowl and a frown / We’ll keep our peckers down,” Noël Coward teased in “There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner,” his song about the British habit of gourmandizing grief. He added, “Hurray, hurray, hurray / Misery’s here to stay.” That was back in 1952. Nearly 70 years later, it’s no joking matter. Catastrophe has become the world’s daily bread. The earth is a furnace; doom, as well as carbon emissions, is in the air. At a London bookstore recently I noted these titles well displayed together on the main table: Tell Me How It Ends, Sorrow of the Earth, A Time to Keep Silent, A Short History of Truth, Night, How to Be a Fascist.
Our culture is in danger, but one of those dangers is scaring ourselves to death. Courage wants to laugh. No wonder, then, that the major theatrical events to emerge in London after 17 months of debilitating lockdowns are musicals, whose job description is to risk delight, to be an occasion for gladness. The musical’s all-singing, all-dancing high jinks, which are often dismissed as escapist, nonetheless confront the winded theatergoer with an almost forgotten reality: the capacity for joy.
The big magic of the musical’s enchantment—the word has its root in the French for “song”—was on scintillating display at the June opening of Hairspray (at the London Coliseum until September 29), a revival of the 2002 production. Here, set in 1962, the heroine is fat, her mother is in drag, and the Black characters are the solution, not the problem.
The plot is about the successful integration of a Baltimore TV dance show; the fun is seeing underdogs become top dogs in the American sweepstakes. The sly subversiveness of John Waters’s original film, where the unacceptable is made irresistible, is far better told as a ravishing West End show masterfully directed by Jack O’Brien, with witty choreography by Jerry Mitchell. At the Coliseum finale, as the fun machine cranked up and pinwheeled before the audience like some astonishing Roman candle, the cast belted out, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” its driving anthem of resilience:
’Cause you can’t stop the motion of the ocean, or the rain from above
You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreamin’ of
But you cannot stop the rhythm of two hearts in love to stay
You can’t stop the beat!
You can’t stop the beat!
You can’t stop the beat …
No wonder the major theatrical events to emerge in London after 17 months of debilitating lockdowns are musicals.
On that promise of paradise—which plays as a dream of both sexual joy and of social justice—the curtain came down. The coronavirus-tested, masked audience roared. The hallooing lasted a full three minutes—an eon in theater time. The audience wouldn’t let the actors off the stage.
Released from fear, from the mundane, from the solitary confinement of lockdown, the audience’s exhilaration was a kind of collective exhalation.
Gratitude was palpable: not just for what the audience had seen but for the fun of sharing it with others. Even my eight-year-old granddaughter, Martha, was on her feet. I whispered to her to look up. Martha craned her head past the dress circle, the upper circle, the balcony. Every single paying customer in the 2,359-seat auditorium was standing and cheering. A wonderful sight. I was surprised by tears.
With the emergence of the “through-sung” musical, “showstopping” is a term that has almost gone out of theatrical parlance. Nowadays, when plot rather than personality rules the musical, songs are engineered to advance the story, not to stop it. The musical has been re-invented to carry heavier intellectual baggage; the ecstatic is no longer a requirement. These days, if it happens at all, it’s the director, not the actors, who is responsible for whipping the audience into that unique zone of delirium. The reason is simple: there are few contemporary performers with the candlepower to deliver that particular old-school kind of wallop.
That thought came to mind at Kathleen Marshall’s slick revival of Cole Porter’s 1934 musical, Anything Goes, at the Barbican, a cruise-ship capriccio which features such classics of the American songbook as “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the eponymous satirical masterpiece, “Anything Goes.”
Back in the day, the genre was called “musical comedy,” and for a good reason. The stories were folderol, so thin that comedians had to bring the weight of their personalities and their own seasoned hokum to support the songs being shoehorned between the fatuous carryings-on.
Here, in order to give some heft to an evening in danger of sinking Porter’s delicious wit under the story’s lame jocularity, Marshall has imported a musical ringer, “Friendship,” an inspired tongue-in-cheek showstopper (six choruses) from Porter’s Du Barry Was a Lady (1939), first performed by Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr, my father as it happens.
Playing the louche nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, a role originated by Merman, Sutton Foster is reprising her Tony Award–winning 2011 Broadway turn. Onstage, Foster is a performing workhorse who certainly earns her keep. She has a lithe athletic body, a good voice, and charm to spare. She plays the round-heeled singer on the square, posturing about passion but without really exuding sexuality. “Friendship” requires attitude, not ardor, which is Foster’s stronger suit.
Her partner in this duet is the loosey-goosey musical veteran Robert Lindsay, hamming it up as Moonface Martin, a gangster on the run who manages to stow away with a machine gun in a violin case, like you do. Taken out of its original context, the song doesn’t make much emotional sense, but then again, the show is a holiday from logic. (“It’s De-Lovely,” from Porter’s 1935 Red, Hot and Blue, is more successfully routined into the proceedings.) The frenemies square off in a flyting match:
She: If you ever catch on fire, send a wire.
He: If you ever lose your teeth and you’re out to dine, borrow mine.
Both: It’s friendship, friendship,
Just a perfect blendship,
When other friendships have ceased to jell
Ours will still be swell!
Lahdle-adle—adle-hep, hep hep.
The production acknowledges the song’s theatrical pedigree—Foster and Lindsay exit with a vaudeville hook pulling them offstage—but technically they don’t have the chops to deliver it. They put the song over, and the audience enjoys what it gets. But what it’s getting is the musical equivalent of Ping-Pong, not tennis.
The show is a holiday from logic.
Marshall, who is also the show’s choreographer, finally achieves maximum liftoff with Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” a gospel number improbably set in the ship’s nightclub. At the song’s climax, in order to drive the audience crazy with pleasure, Marshall has Foster emerge from an ensemble that shimmers and sways behind her like red-and-black sea anemones. The thrilling stage picture earns the roaring surrender of the crowd. Foster basks in the volley of applause, then winks at the audience. “They’ve seen the light,” she says, and goes back to the soi-disant plot.
The real light of Anything Goes shines in Porter’s lyrics, that voodoo that he could do so well. In the playful elegance of his word hoard, his proliferating wit, and the lushness of his sound, Porter’s songs became part of Broadway’s show of opulence. From childhood, Porter contrived to let song precede him, at once a dandy’s display of perfect equipoise and a way to keep the world both at attention and at arm’s length. “He used work as a weapon to shield himself from a boredom whose threshold was extremely low,” once said Moss Hart, who collaborated with Porter on Jubilee (1935). “He could withdraw and disappear before one’s eyes with an almost sinister facility.”
Song enlivened Porter as well as the public. At a time of national collapse, in the midst of the Depression, Porter, an unabashed hedonist, didn’t challenge the status quo in song; he made it irresistible. The witty hyperbole of “You’re the Top,” for instance, blends boldfaced names and brand names into a gleeful pop landscape of American abundance.
You’re the top!
You’re a Waldorf salad.
You’re the top!
You’re a Berlin ballad.
You’re a baby grand
Of a lady and a gent.
You’re an old Dutch master,
You’re Mrs. Astor,
The song is a sort of piñata of delights which sparkles as brightly today as it did when it was newly minted. At the time, “You’re the Top” was a new kind of love song, which caused what Porter called “a national game” of parodies, none better than Irving Berlin’s:
You’re the burning heat of a bridal suite in use,
You’re the breasts of Venus
You’re King Kong’s penis,
Grateful for Porter’s eloquence and frivolity—his determined refusal to suffer—the London audience leaves Anything Goes as mostly happy campers. Plato called song “spells for souls for the creation of concord,” and Porter’s certainly proves the refreshing point. However, the songs are more memorable than the hardworking production, which, for all its well-reviewed glitz and gags, can’t get proper traction. Its success is finally a succès d’estime—that is, a success that runs out of steam.
If Porter’s approach to catastrophe is to sail away from it, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s camp solution in Cinderella (book by Emerald Fennell and lyrics by David Zippel) is to steer straight into the culture’s sense of doom. In picture-perfect Belleville, where everyone’s “a chiseled god with a ripped and rockin’ bod,” disaster has struck: the behemoth public statue of the town’s fallen, well-hung Prince Charming is desecrated by graffiti and a bra put over the prince’s pumped pecs.
The donkey onto whose tail the townsfolk pin this annihilation is someone so hated they elevate her to almost mythic anathema. “A hag no one’d shag,” “snarky and snide,” they sing in “It Must Be Her,” which concludes “Her head should be hanging in shame.”
“Did anyone say my name?” Enter Cinderella (Carrie Hope Fletcher, she of the power ballad), looking like a Goth cartoon right down to her Dr. Martens. Mouthy, independent, disdainful of bourgeois life, this Cinderella is all ugliness and agency, a pariah with pep. “I face life with no fear / And more than sky high IQ / … I hope I’ve upset you / Well, forget you!”
Having strip-mined the fairy tale of all of its psychology—no mourning, no sorrow, no sibling rivalry, no rescue, and not many cinders either—Fennell paints her Cinderella with the shellac of feminist shibboleths. It turns out that Prince Charming (Caleb Roberts) is not actually dead; he’s also available for marriage and arrives hymning the power of love. (“Love is redeeming, what we’re all dreaming of,” he sings.)
But, in this politically correct moment, it’s the love that formerly could not speak its name. The stepsister is beaten to the altar by a buff chorus boy. All this up-to-the-minute tosh is well designed and costumed by Gabriela Tylesova and directed so smoothly by Laurence Connor that Gucci should wear his shoes.
And underneath it all is Webber’s lyrical, romantic power noodling. Since this is a through-sung musical, Zippel’s lyrical effort is more descriptive than poetic; he’s glib but not insightful. In this show, the Devil, in the shape of the squabbling stepsisters (Georgina Castle and Laura Baldwin) and the blackmailing stepmother (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), has all the best tunes and the best lyrics. But Cinderella is mostly a torrent of unmemorable sound, a sort of Tower of Babble.
At the finale, the shy, un-macho Prince Sebastian (Ivano Turco, making his impressive stage debut), who has always fancied the feisty, funky Bad Cinderella, finally gets together with her. They back into romance and into a sort of pragmatic arrangement, which plays as a happy ending. They don’t call it “love”; they call it “company.” If he’ll wash his own socks, pay his own way, defer to her, Cinderella agrees to the partnership. “Do you ever shut up?,” Sebastian asks Cinderella. “No,” she replies. “Good,” Sebastian says. On that pussy-footing note, the curtain falls.
On the night I saw Cinderella, the audience gave it a standing ovation. If you’ll stand for that, you’ll stand for anything.
John Lahr is, among other things, a columnist for AIR MAIL