“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.