The greatest shows
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
Five brilliant musicals that have that all-important ‘moment-of-ecstasy’ factor
Michael Billington

WE all love a musical.’ So said Sheridan Smith as she introduced a recent BBC1 programme with the modest title Musicals: the Greatest Show. I wouldn’t argue with Miss Smith’s claim and it was cheering to see peak-time television advancing the cause of live theatre. However, after 80 minutes of non-stop boosterism, I couldn’t help thinking what a strange image the programme gave of musical theatre.

We got endless songs wreathed in self-pity with only occasional reminders—as in a George III number from Hamilton and Dancing Queen from Mamma Mia!—that the musical can also be a source of gaiety and wit.

After this orgy of emotional angst, it was a relief to turn to a repeat on BBC4 of an interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber originally broadcast to coincide with the publication of his autobiography, Unmasked. The composer spoke openly about his bohemian childhood, his precocious passion for theatre and his working relationships with lyricists and directors. Two things stuck in my mind. One was his observation that Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific is ‘the greatest song ever written for a musical’, which revealed his respect for tradition. The other aperçu was that ‘the architecture of a musical is the most important thing’. I remembered his making the same point to me, shortly before the opening of The Phantom Of The Opera, when he told me that structure was the key to musical success. Everything Lord Lloyd- Webber told me that day has stayed with me. He stressed the vital importance of the libretto, the need for the music to be right for a particular moment, the essential cohesiveness of the score—he pointed out that the whole of Evita is based on a tritone. I would add one other ingredient to the composer’s list: a moment of ecstasy where music, choreography and the drama combine to give us the kind of experience that a straight play can rarely offer.

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