Friday, July 16, 2010

More on "Oliver"

I said I'd write some more about the musical, Oliver, which I saw again the other night. The last time I saw it, it was also done by the Taieri Musical Society. At that point a friend of ours played Fagin (singing about his cheap insurance of jewellery in a not-particularly well-guarded box) , and one of his older sons - he's now 27 or 8 - was in the kids' chorus.

Anyway, just some thoughts about Oliver as a musical, especially in the light of my trying to write a musical myself. It primarily consists of a bunch of set pieces: there's a minimum of dialogue, and a good number of songs that are intended to make you go out of the theatre whistling the tunes - and to buy the original cast LP when it comes out a few weeks later.

Some of the songs merely create atmosphere - Oom Pah Pah, for instance; others offer insight into characters: I shall scream, or Fagin's solos, or even As Long as He Needs Me - which is also in the vein of a show-stopper. Few of them carry the action forward in any way, something that one of the interviewees in Talking Theatre, by Richard Eyre, says annoys him. I can't remember which interviewee it was, just at the moment, but he complained that many of the most popular musicals come to a halt when a character sings - he even cites Oklahoma in this regard, even though it's often thought of as being a musical that changed the genre from merely having songs for the sake of having them, to having songs because they were part and parcel of the story. R&H musicals vary in this regard; some of the songs do move things forward; some of show-stoppers.

Stephen Sondheim's musicals tend to incorporate character, forward movement and plot into the songs, which is why his musicals don't often produce 'hit' songs; they're too integrated into the scheme of things. I'm not sure whether it was the same interviewee as I mentioned above who applauded this approach (though it may have been) and who also said that there comes a point in a musical where the passion is aroused to such a degree that singing is the only option.

Well, that may be a bit extreme. In Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the characters sing most of the time; there are scattered sections of dialogue, some of it stand-alone in the sense that it's not underpinned by music, but for the most part the music pushes things along as much as anything else. So does that mean that the characters in Sweeney Todd are particularly passionate, or that Sondheim works to a mostly music format? As does Lloyd Webber, whose musicals are almost entirely sung - for better or worse.

The musical I'm writing started out in this way, but the more my collaborator and I worked on it, the more it seemed that some scenes were better driven by dialogue. Things will continue to change, but at present the opening two (shortish) scenes are mostly sung, then there's a mostly dialogue (again shortish) scene, and then there's a long scene where singing is spasmodic, but where there'll be an undercurrent of music accompaniment. And so the rest of the piece goes. The music will occupy the sort of space that it does in movies, but there'll also be songs of the kind that are Sondheim style rather than R&H style, or Oliver style. My aim is to make them catchy and the sort of tunes that grab you on first hearing, but they're not likely to be regarded as 'hit' songs.

I was interested to see that Oliver almost falls apart at the end. Even though the plot is working like mad to keep us interested in Oliver's fate at the hands of Nancy and Bill Sykes (who has the worst song in the show: My Name! - what does it mean, for goodness' sake?), the show ends with Nancy's murder, lots of running around by various extras, Bill's appearance on the bridge with Oliver, his rather off-hand shooting by a policeman (at least so it appeared in this production) and then....not the restoration of Oliver to Mr Brownlow (that happens fleetingly) but a last scene with Fagin, who's suddenly becoming the most interesting character. There's no rousing final chorus, oddly.

I think the problem is that Oliver gets less and less interesting as the show progresses - he's tossed about like a prop between various adults, and they take up the slack. Nancy certainly becomes one of the main characters, even though she arrives on the scene relatively late, and Fagin, who also doesn't appear until well into the first act, gets to appear to be the star of the show. As it happens, the two singers in this production were both capable of stealing the show - Nancy with her singing, and Fagin with his characterization. I suspect that was the same in the original London production, which may be why things are tailored in this fashion.
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