Monday 23 September 2019

Declan Lynch: 'Is there a law against the Abbey Theatre putting on a musical?'

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria in ‘West Side Story’
Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria in ‘West Side Story’
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Stephen Sondheim, who is 88, took a break from writing his latest musical to keep an eye on the revival of his show Company, which is currently getting raves in the West End, and is due to return to Broadway next "Fall".

So he is now mainly known for two things, being the writer of Send In The Clowns, and being the oldest man in the world still "showing up", apart from Michael D Higgins.

But in truth, Sondheim is probably the genius of 20th Century music who is least known and appreciated outside of his domain, which is the theatre - and since there's an awful lot going on in the world outside of the theatre, that is unfortunate.

It was the late Philip Chevron of The Radiators and the Pogues who taught me about Sondheim, because Philip rated him up there with Bowie or any of the other giants of rock 'n' roll - though Sondheim himself was not so keen on certain aspects of his work, such as the lyrics of West Side Story, which he wrote when he was in his early 20s.

He still finds it hard to forgive himself for writing what he calls "self-conscious" lyrics, which most of us have found perfectly fine, little knowing how they tormented their creator. "I don't mean they're terrible, I just mean they are so self-conscious," he said.

He gave the example of I Feel Pretty - which he is fond of quoting to demonstrate this point of his, about how embarrassing he finds his contribution to one of the most spectacular entertainments in human history: "The street girl is singing, 'It's alarming how charming I feel'. I just put my head under my wing and pretend I'm not there."

Somehow Philip Chevron at least managed to let him off with that one, and Phil would ponder the mystery of how the musical theatre of Sondheim can be so revered in New York or London, while our own National Theatre carried on as if there was a law against musicals.

You would think we'd be mad for it - it's got music, and it's got theatre, and we are supposed to be fairly adept at both of these. But then the genre was perhaps considered too potentially entertaining for the Abbey, which historically regarded its mission as one of such gravity, that there was an instinctive distrust of anything that might involve people enjoying themselves too much.

Though Sondheim, in his more demanding works, showed that he was no slave to the box office either, no panderer to popular tastes - or indeed to any tastes at all.

I was thinking about all of this as I was enjoying A Riot Of Their Own, the documentary on RTE1 about Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, over here from Scotland running the Abbey, and apparently doing it very well - the clue was perhaps in the title, which is taken from The Clash.

I guess I just liked the kind of energy they were bringing in this programme, and it seems I am not alone, because in 2017 the Abbey had its highest ticket sales in 10 years.

And they did Jimmy's Hall, which had a lot of music in it, without proclaiming it "a musical".

Maybe there is a law against it.

Sunday Independent

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