It seems that there is always a new musical.
That is, it seems that there is always a new musical based off of some existing property, where the source is often a non-musical entity. I am a lover of theatre from a young age, taking in my first professional theatre shows as a child of seven years. I’ve been seeing Broadway shows since the single digits, and yet, I find myself pulled in two different directions by musical theatre. There are some shows that I’m unreasonably fond of, like In the Heights, Tim Rice’s Aida, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, Wicked, The Scotsboro Boys, and Spring Awakening. In fact, there’s a good list of the best recent musicals over on Buzzfeed (I deem it good because it includes almost all my favorites).
But there is many a musical that is just bad because it attempts to cover a weak or hackneyed story with music and spectacle. Now, certainly this is doable; it’s possible to include enough high notes and bright lights to distract most audience members from the fact that your show is garbage. Musical theatre however, really requires more, not less. An emphasis on spectacle over content can really be the death of a show, like Spider-Man, where other musicals that are just plain bad, like Leap of Faith. That’s not to say that the success or failure of a show is necessarily tied to its goodness or badness.
In fact, I’d go so far as to contend that it is popularity, not quality, which supports not only many musicals, but the musical as an incredibly popular art form. Broadway productions can turnover impressive amounts of money for producers and investors, but they can also lose a lot of money. With Broadway, as with theatre in ingeneral, many of the most important decisions will be determined based on financial concerns not artistic ones.
Which brings me back to where I started: it seems there is always a new musical yanked up from existing property and placed on either the Broadway or West End (U.K.) stage. If that property is bad, then I worry that not enough can happen between that property and the stage to make a good production. If that property is good, then of course the concern is that its onstage realization will be cheesy, with poorly written lines forced to fit even more poorly written songs.
Case in point: there is an upcoming production of a Bend it Like Beckham musical at the Phoenix Theatre in London that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of months. I went into this process with the same worries I describe above. Surely you remember Bend it Like Beckham, the 2002 film about soccer that was really about the clash between an immigrant’s cultural heritage and Western society, between 1st and 2nd generation members of the same family? Bend it told the story of the Bhamras, a Punjabi Sikh family who immigrated to London from India, and their daughter, Jess, who wants to play club soccer against her parents’ wishes.
It starred a young Parminder Nagra (of ER and The Blacklist), as well as a young Keira Knightley. It was a fun, empowering, movie that involved a clash of cultures that wasn’t embarrassingly racist. Everybody, myself included, seemed to think that it was good.
But the question remains, does Bend it have a place on the stage? This is the heart of the matter: an exclamation, “I love this; let’s make a play” is insufficient. It represents are without argument, without motive and that is bad only because it wastes the considerable power of art, and may lose the admirable and effective motivations of the source, replacing them with nothing. The well-known Gurinder Chadha, who directed the film and scripted the musical, has had her own reservations:
She had until now resisted the suggestion Bend it Like Beckham be given the musical treatment. She added: “I thought that I’d leave it and I went to see Billy Elliot, which I loved. As time went on I realised how significant I thought [Bend It] had been in terms of race relations in this country, the presence of the Asian community and how very little came after it in the same way that celebrated who we are as a nation.
She would further comment on the notion that changing the medium requires a re-evaluation of the material, saying ” that her intention was not just to “regurgitate” the film on to the stage but to grapple with the themes it dealt with—“inclusiveness and the very human warmth about who we are as a nation”. Those are motives and ideas that I can respect. You can watch her articulate them very well in an interview with her and Howard Goodall here:
From a creative standpoint, it would seem that the production is in good hands but, as they saying goes, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. There are so many pieces that go into to creating a good musical, from selecting the right theatre, to good costumes, to taking care of actors and their voices, to sets, lighting, sound, etc.
Some of the best and worst theatre productions of all time have been musicals. It’s not my intent to suggest that non-musical theatre is artistically superior in some fundamental way, nor is it my intent to imply that Bend it Like Beckham is doomed to be a failure simply because it is a musical. Rather, I see a musical as a challenge to rise to. Many people can act well. Many people can sing well. Distinctly fewer can do both well, and if you saw the film versions of either Mamma Mia or Les Mis, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
I have high hopes for Bend it, in general. I’m optimistic about artistic success, and slightly more worried about success at the box office. As I mentioned, so many crucial theatre decisions are made by the dollar rather than the director (though I suppose I should say “pound”). In a theatre-artists wet dream, good art and profitable art are usually the same thing, and it’s tempting to hope for both in every show you see or work on. I feel this especially strongly for a show which features so many artists of color. You’re welcome to take a first shot at figuring whether the show will be good or not by watching this video of the opening number, “UB2”:
They’re done a good job of documenting their process, which is hopeful, since marketing is so crucial to the success of a production. You can find a couple more videos at their Youtube channel, and I suspect that a few more will be forthcoming.
Bend it Like Beckham opens on May 15th at London’s Phoenix Theatre, with some cast shots here. The show will feature Natalie Dew as Jess, with Lauren Samuels as Jules. You can find tickets at this link, and get a little more of the reasoning behind the show here:
Our ambition, is to create a totally new British musical, with a different musical language. A musical that speaks to us of today, the last 30, 40 years of Britain and of where we are as a nation. The Asian influences that are there are basically Punjabi West London – those that I have grown up with – fused with West End musical influences.