At the ballet? No, one of the best musicals.

There's something about the immense freedom of watching a good musical that takes me to imaginary worlds. I make no exaggeration when I say a musical directed well fills me with joy.

An admission

I have always loved musicals. Not every kind of musical, you understand. I need to see barnstorming performances that make you sit on the edge of your seat. I remember Robert Lindsay as Fagin in Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver’. The irrepressible Imelda Staunton as the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee in ‘Gypsy’; the tip tapping of feet that was infectious when Velma took to the stage in a production of ‘Chicago’ on The Strand.

I love cheesy musicals. Think, Grease.

Lionel Bart’s Oliver! From age 12 I was hooked!

But above all, I enjoy the classics. I was taken as a boy to ‘Oliver’ on Christmas Eve 1994. It was at the London Palladium and I was a mere twelve years’ old. I was smitten. With the actor who played Oliver, no doubt, who would have been around my age, and with the actor who played the Artful Dodger too. But, of course, smitten by the staging and the entire production.

As soon as we heard ‘Consider Yourself’, I wondered why I had missed out on this genre of theatre for the first eleven years of my still very short life. As soon as ‘Who will buy?’ was sung, by the ensemble cast, I was a boy transformed.

My musical sensibility

There’s something about the immense freedom of watching a good musical that takes me to imaginary worlds. I make no exaggeration when I say a musical directed well fills me with joy.

Sondheim is a genius and my favourite lyricist of all. The Master captures something other-worldly – be it gothic, haunting, bittersweet, truthful, or arch.

I first had the pleasure of watching Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in Cambridge. I was an undergraduate there. This was before Johnny Depp had popularised the lead role.

Oh my gosh. What a treat. The overture sets the right tone.

The crisp, cutting (no pun intended) enunciation of every word and lyric makes my heart start to beat that little bit faster. The beauty of Mrs Lovatt’s ‘A Little Priest’, and ‘Down by the Sea’. The drama she invites you to watch as she and her erstwhile partner cook up their plans for new pies; the brooding sense ‘there will be blood’ and as a spectator, you better expect plenty of it to be spilled: I was hooked.

I saw a West End production of Sondheim’s classic years later with my Dad and I could see he wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to eject him from his seat. He was bothering me with his frown. Musicals are to be ridden on like carpets; not to be sneered or winced at.

Surprises and discoveries

As much as I respect, often find myself thrilled by and genuinely enjoy ‘straight’ theatre, it’s musicals that give me a proper fix of serotonin.

Last year, I had the genuine pleasure of watching Sondheim’s ‘Company’ and ‘Follies’ for the very first time, both in London.

The pathos of Follies resonated, hugely. Here were ageing stars – once starlets – returning as ghosts to the place that in the 1920s and 30s first gave them a name. And which following McCarthyism, years on the bottle, and decades married to the wrong partner, for some of these characters is a name now covered in muck.

Ageing stars return to where they started their careers as starlets in Follies

The fact Sondheim can mix humour with confessional songs about the pain of relationships or love found and often lost, is testament to what a great he was and (thankfully) still is.

The most recent production of Sondheim’s ‘Company’ switched the lead role so it’s no longer played by a 30-something bachelor, but a 21st century woman, bored stiff of her partnered friends moaning about their lives.

The comparisons with Bridget Jones, inevitable but lame, were unhelpful in my opinion; nevertheless, the reviews in the press described this surprise new choice of casting as a masterstroke and it was. How powerful and canny a move that was. I couldn’t stop playing ‘Ladies who lunch’ for days.

Even Graham Norton can deliver

And you can surprise yourself seeing productions you never thought you’d particularly like. I once went on the spur of the moment to see Graham Norton in a performance of the lead in ‘La Cage aux Folles’. What a revelation he was!

I always dismissed ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ as a show about yokels, for yokels. What an idiot I was!

Fiddler on the Roof is political

Andy Nyman in the recent London staging was superb. I was crying by the end of the moving ‘wedding’ song, ‘Sunrise, Sunset’. I defy anyone not to feel a bit teary by the end of ‘Far From the Home I love’, when Tevye looks at his middle daughter through new eyes’.

Liza Minelli won many awards for her rendition of Cabaret’s ‘Sally Bowles’

Sheila Hancock in a 2006 production of ‘Cabaret’ had a good friend of mine and I in fits of laughter – even against the backdrop of the Nazis burning books. (She wasn’t meant to of course).

Talking of Nazis, is there a funnier musical than the Mel Brooks’ classic, ‘The Producers’, which a childhood friend and I watched with the widest smiles, in large part, thanks to Nathan Lane’s skilful comedic timing.

Musicals make you cry, can change lives

And that’s the thing about musicals, they can transport you, but they also forge wonderful new bonds of shared song and laughter through family members, loved ones and friends. They can make you reflect, generously, on your own life.

Billy Elliott made was so incredibly cathartic for me, recently bereaved losing my Mum to cancer. The edginess combined with sensitivity of a mid-2000s production was spot-on. When Billy soars in flight to the Swan Lake overture, a boy who is living through the spirit of his own deceased Mum, I couldn’t help but cry.

Musicals are political of course. Cabaret, is. It’s a forewarning, if one remembers its roots in Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, of populism gone mad. In ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, the final song – ‘Anatevka’ – is a tribute to the resilience of the Jewish diaspora, which wherever it has settled, soon enough in history is forced to move on.


It’s not all quite so serious. There are moments of sheer pleasure. There’s unadulterated sexy stripping off of clothes and lustful apparitions of midnight lovers.

The silky smooth dancing, the sultry performances, the urgency of creative new choreography. 42nd Street, An American in Paris, Chicago, Dirty Dancing, Fame, Hairspray, Hair, Showgirls… you name it, musicals have it all.

I can’t wait to see Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, planned for release this December.

The 1960s version chronicles a period when choreographers were deadly serious – as serious as the warring Jets and Sharks, anyhow. Jerome Robbins was meant to be quite a fierce man, but again, another genius of musical theatre. Gay, Jewish. Like Sondheim. Heroes of mine.

A Chorus Line

Which brings me to perhaps my favourite musical of all. It really shouldn’t be. Really.

The concept is so simplistic; it shouldn’t work. On any level.

And it does.

I went with my cousin to see a new Antonio Banderas-produced version in Barcelona this week, at Teatre Tivoli. A tangential sidetone here, but how odd to see the same theatre advertising that – for one night only – UK comic actor, John Cleese, is in a show there from April about how this is the last chance to see him before he is dead!

Anyway, back to Michael Bennett’s classic.

It starts like this – for me at least…

One night when I was a kid I got to stay up late, I think against any real knowledge of my parents sleeping upstairs. And what did I stay up so late to watch? Predator 2? Terminator? No. A Chorus Line. I found it the most absorbing piece of television and even then knew, how peculiar that was, since the conceit was so damn ordinary: seventeen people competing – standing in a straight line – to be in a Broadway show.

In Spanish, there’s extra potency to Diana’s songs, battling out of the Bronx as a Latina woman, battling to earn the right to be cast in a Broadway show.

This is a tale of human life. Put another way, its a story of life’s ordinariness, at least when you look at a stranger from afar and observe only superficial details.

Willy Wonka
My favourite chocolatier, Willy Wonka

But in another sense, it’s an honest account of life’s extraordinary habit of taking us to the most difficult places – childhood trauma, body dysmorphia, internalised homophobia – and its ability to then deliver us from our own insecurities.

One song I play a lot these days is ‘At the Ballet’ which is perhaps the kindest, most searingly honest account of our parents’ misdeeds and the long-lasting affects on our adult selves’.

‘Dance Ten, Looks Three’ is saucy. The final showpiece turn, ‘One’ is the most rousing example of musical theatre taking seemingly disparate characters and showing they work best together in unison, in a chorus line.

You can probably tell I love musicals…

That’s not to say I haven’t seen bad productions. There are also musicals that are simply bad; poorly conceived. Many of the musicals to appear in Broadway and on the West End Stage this past decade or two have been derivative and lazy. Taking old movies and trying to use them as a money spinner.

Musicals based on popstars and pop bands don’t often work out very well. ‘Tina’ (about the life of Tina Turner) was a disaster. The directors made Tina Turner seem shrill. Although she’s hardly tall in real life, in the recent London production, they made her diminutive in every sense of the word. A lost opportunity. A terrible shame. ‘Private Dancer’ shouldn’t feel like cabaret!

There are exceptions – Jersey Boys was joyous fun.

Above all, I love musicals because they speak universal truths.

There’s no greater truth that we all need to feel loved. And in musicals like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ you see how heartbreaking it can be to be denied that love. When Tevye initially abides by his traditions and rejects his third daughter for marrying a gentile, emotionally exiling her, one’s heart misses a beat. What is he doing?

Only later do we see the slightest glimpse of love in his eyes, there’s redemption. He feels better for compromising on his principles. We feel better because he shows love.

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