Monday, 25 March 2013

AAA Musicals (News, Views and Music Issue 187 Top Six)

Good news! That awful Spice Girls haven’t-got-a-clue-what-the-plot-is-because-we’ve-stung-a-lot-of-songs-together-randomly musical ‘Viva Forever’ might be about to close! Phew! I thought we had another Mama Mia on our hands there but at least the music was good in that one (even if it was ruined – ruined!!!! – by poor song choices, awful actors trying to sing and a storyline so weak it would have made a soap opera weep). Before I get too carried away, however, it’s worth noting that there have only been five fully fledged AAA musicals to date (plus one planned that’s so bonkers it’s well worth talking about again...) and none of them have exactly been runaway successes...Ah well, at least these AAA groups used their brains when writing all-new musicals (barring one based on a concept album with a great deal of extra material) instead of just copying plotlines! (All of these are listed in chronological order!)

The Beatles “Pilchard” (Planned 1963, never completed)

Sadly this idea never got past the drawing board, but back in the early days of the moptops whenever John and Paul were asked what they were going to do when the ‘bubble burst’ often said that they’d probably write a musical together (‘A full West End production with our words and music – we were thinking of starting it in Liverpool but someone’s already beaten us to it with ‘Maggie Mae’). On one occasion (talking to the NME in August 1963) Lennon said that the pair had even come up with an idea which would have been like a lot of the nonsense prose from his books about ‘Jesus coming back to the Earth today and living in the slums’. Only this character was named ‘Pilchard’ for reasons best known to the band. The pair were serious, though, talking about putting on any sort of musical play in interviews until 1966, although the ‘bigger than Jesus’ comments meant that this idea itself was dropped rather hastily from interviews that year.

The Beatles “John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert” (1974)

Some four years after the Beatles break-up another Liverpudlian was on hand to have a go at crafting their story, only this one – disowned by the band themselves but given some kudos when it was revealed Brian Epstein’s successor Robert Stigwood had had a hand in the production – was more like ‘The Rutles’ than The Beatles’ true story. Willy Russell was still a few years away from ‘Blood Brothers’ when he wrote this musical, premiered in Liverpool though it moved quite quickly to London’s West End and he was making quite a name for himself in the North West at the time. Officially this is a ‘play’ rather than a ‘musical’, but we’ve included it in our list because it does involve an awful lot of music (15 songs), most of them from late in the Beatles’ career which had never been heard on stage before (in the ‘missing years’ when the Beatles had stopped touring and tribute acts like the Bootleg Beatles hadn’t go going yet). The plot – what there is of it – runs like this; Bert is a huge fan, has a hallucination when watching a Wings concert that he’s actually seeing the Beatles perform and gets into a tussle outside with a load of punks (telling them to go and see a ‘real’ band). Intrigued by a picture of the band in leathers, the punk gets Bert to tell him their full story... Review of the musical were mixed (not least an undercover George Harrison, who was so annoyed by the musical he walked out at half-time and refused permission for the production team to use his songs), but the musical ran for some time and even won an award for the ‘best stage production of 1974’, presumably because it was about the only year in the 1970s no one was doing ‘Godspell’ (now there’s a truly great musical in the AAA tradition...) A cast album is available, but without the visual elements simply sounds like a poor Beatles’ covers album.

Ray Davies “80 Days” (1988)

Sadly Ray Davies’ big dream of making a musical ran into so many statistical and artistic problems that it closed within weeks, long before the company had a chance to settle down and show how good this musical could have been. Loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ (although told from Verne’s point of view and mirrored in flashback by the events in the novel), it’s actually less about plot and more about class and rule-breaking, the Victorian setting giving Davies full reign to prick pomposity and champion the underdog (as in all the best Kinks songs). Ray recorded several demos for the work (a full hour of which are available on Youtube), but without getting the success he wanted a cast album was never released. None of the songs are up to his best work but some are well worth digging out (‘One Empire’ is such a Kinks-like song its amazing to think it only existed in 1988, not 1969 during the ‘Arthur’ album about the decline of the British Empire and ‘Ladies Of The Night’ is Ray’s catchiest song since ‘Lola’). Kinks fans know some of the songs better from their appearance in the 1988 album ‘UK Jive’ (although the lovely ‘Loony Balloon’ is the only one taken from the musical for definite), although even that album’s hardly well known and – shockingly in this day and age – hasn’t appeared on CD since its release in 1988. San Diego critics liked it though, awarding it the ‘best new musical of 1988’, so perhaps a revival is due about now? Interestingly the ‘book’ (or ‘adaptation’ given that the story already comes from a book) was by Des McAnuff, who also worked on the next entry on our list...There is apparently a Kinks version of ‘Mama Mia’, titled ‘Come Dancing’ and with a plot linking many Kinks songs around, but I don’t know much about it!

Pete Townshend “Tommy” (1993)

‘Tommy’ had already been adapted into a bonkers film and a rather dull all-star-with-orchestra performance by the time this musical appeared in 1993. Although I only know this fifth (counting studio and live performances) version of it as an audio not visual experience its fair to say this is the weakest. ‘Tommy’ is such a wonderfully vague and spiritual peace (leaving the listener to do most of the work) that any adaptation that pins the story down is asking for trouble and the addition of extra material into the score (written by Pete some 35 years after the rest) only works marginally better than it did in the film soundtrack. It’s odd, too, to hear so many powerful Who songs done in such a ‘musical’ type manner, with choirs and weedy instruments (although actually they still sound a lot better than the album Ray Davies did backed by a choir!) and promising as many of the youngsters are you badly miss Roger Daltrey’s voice. All that said, the plot is much easier to follow than any previous version (with dialogue passages for the first time and a ‘set’ cast of characters who stick to one person, instead of playing half a dozen as Pete, Roger and John all did on the original).There’s one valuable addition to ‘Tommy’ as well in the new song ‘I Believe My Own Eyes’, sung by Tommy’s mother in between the recitatives ‘Go To The Mirror’ and ‘Smash The Mirror’ that really heighten that scene. Whether hearing that one song is worth sitting through a laughable attempt to recreate The Who’s roar on career highlight ‘Sparks’ on what sounds like a school orchestra, though, is up to you!

Pete Townshend “The Iron Man” (1995)

The second half of Pete’s autobiography ‘Who I Am’ (out at the end of 2012) is obsessed by Ted Hughes’ story of the same name, giving us far more detail about it than his own vastly superior solo albums. For me personally Ted Hughes is a huge con – a load of empty symbolism that’s ripped off other people (Pete Townshend included) and has nothing new to offer except a load of crows popping up every now and then (already done far better by Edgar Allan Poe and ravens). Therefore I’m not really the audience this musical for impressionable youngsters was aiming at and to boot I’ve only seen snippets of the show and a few musical nuggets out on Pete’s ‘Scoop’ demos. I can’t say my interest had been piqued though – this idea about a boy wearing a robotic suit to school so no one else can hurt him is stolen whole-heartedly from Isaac Asimov and isn’t up to the often rickety story of ‘Tommy;, never mind the superb ‘Lifehouse’ and ‘Quadrophenia’. Pete recounts in his book that he’s struggling with putting the musical on and asks some big names for help (including Tom Stoppard), who politely decline getting involved because there’s just ‘too much wrong’ with the work. Frankly that’s the fault of the original work more than Townshend’s music and the whole project is a waste of his immense talent. Rant ends.

Paul Simon “The Capeman” (1998)

Paul Simon’s musical was some 20 years in the making and while the best on this list in some ways (the story about a teenage Puerto Rican rebel gone bad, whipped up by the press into the murderer of the age and everything wrong with society, is a good one that needs to be told), is so uninspired and had so little in common with Paul Simon’s work that its no wonder it closed so early and with such a loss of money. When Paul, bored with music, tried making a film (‘One Trick Pony’ in 1980) the results were fabulous, if poorly received (personally I think it’s one of the three greatest things he ever did). That project worked because, while obviously fictional, Paul was writing about what he knew or might have known in some alternate reality (a musician down on his luck and with a fragile marriage watching other younger, hipper acts passing him by). With ‘Capeman’ he only knows the story by press reports and the difficulty of making the central character likable whilst still everything the papers made him out to be is a strain too far. It doesn’t help that Paul’s never written for the Puerto Rican genre before (despite a commercial success with the African ‘Graceland’ and an artistic success with the largely Brazilian ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’) and then writes an entire 90 minutes of the style, none of which sounds anything like his past work. The revealing DVD documentary of the show (with the cast falling out with the creators) reveals what a gulf there is between the two cultures, although thankfully the casting of Marc Anthony in the lead role is a good one and the split use of the ‘cast’ and Paul Simon himself tackling the songs on the ‘soundtrack’ album at least shows what the show was like and what it might have been like as just another Paul Simon album. I long for the day ‘Capeman’ gets a revival, actually, by a theatre director whose given free reign and doesn’t have to please so many people – songs like ‘Trailways Bus’ are too good to lose on a project this bland and there’s not that many tweaks needed to make this work, although its never going to be anyone’s favourite Paul Simon project I don’t think.
That’s all for now for the answers you seek, perhaps next time we’ll write this in Greek, anyway don’t forget to take a peek, when we come back again next weeeeek! Thankyou! *Applause*

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