Archive for May, 2011

Follow up to Chandler post

May 17, 2011

Since writing about Cleveland Street I’ve had two comments from people who saw the show and broadly endorse what I said, and one saying they didn’t see what the fuss was about, and writers were too-touchy creatures.  More disturbingly, one of the cast has emailed me the reviews of the show which show a broad appreciation, with reservations, of a show which is “only a bit of fun”.  The most disturbing thing is how much attention it had, which only goes to show the power of a TV name and having enough money to employ a professional PR company. 

It also raises the disturbing possibility that both critics and audiences have lost any sense of what a musical might be, and therefore any touchstone by which to judge.  Have Sondheim, Flaherty and Ahrens laboured vain?! That would be pretty much the death knell of the form, and leave it as much of a minority taste as the 12-tone Second Viennese School of composers.  I really don’t want to think about that.

BTW, for completeness, and to show my beastliness to the full, I remembered something from the original “Cleveland” review about the horrible stage cockerney, to-be-sure Irishry and ooh-la-la Frenchery of a kind I thought had died in Hollywood in the 1950s.  Again I think this is is the fault of the script rather than the hapless thesps.


Cleveland Street – the Musical

May 16, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I went to see “Cleveland Street– the Musical” because a friend, the talented Joe Shefer, was in it, and another friend had worked with the Director and Musical Director, and rated them highly.  Frankly, I hated it, and the review I wrote for the theatre website Remote Goat reflected that.  It was particularly hard on Glenn Chandler, book writer, lyricist, and the man with the money behind the show; but it was difficult to find anywhere else to lay the blame.  Glenn contacted the website and alleged that I had an axe to grind and couldn’t be dispassionate, and the administrators pulled the review within 24 hours of its appearance.  I had an email correspondence with Mr Chandler, who repeated much the same thing and accused me of a lack of professionalism; however, I cannot for the life of me see see why a practitioner of a trade cannot also be a critic of it; critics and dramatists have done it from Robert Greene in 1592 to George Bernard Shaw to Nicholas de Jongh.

I do not like censorship; I don’t like websites bowing to pressure from companies or people who do have a vested interest in what appears; and I don’t like anyone accusing me of a bias in order to avoid accepting legitimate criticism.  The “Cleveland Street” website has a few very selective excerpts from its reviews; my own company, Homo Promos, always publishes full reviews on its website, whether good or bad.  My own view is that alternative views, criticism and even personal polemic do nothing but good for the theatre, and give it as a medium the oxygen of excitement and a sense that it matters.  Puffs and poodles do nobody any good in the long run.

So I am reproducing the review here, insofar as I can remember it.  I wrote it straight onto the website and retained no copy of my own, never imagining it would get the reaction it did.  Just so you know, I have written musicals for over 30 years, and most recently provided the book and lyrics to “La Ronde” (music by David Harrod), which closed at the Rosemary Branch on 3rd April.  Since then it has been nominated for an Off-West End award for Best Musical of 2011.  “Cleveland Street” opened at “Above the Stag”, a venue which I greatly respect, on 26th April, and continues to May 29th.   If you feel that this disqualifies me from having a disinterested opinion, you will discount the following.  It was written with a passion which comes from the twin convictions that musicals are a vital and serious art form, and that you have to sweat blood in order to produce a good one.  OK, so here goes:

“Anyone who wants an object lesson in how not to write a musical could do worse than visit Glenn Chandler’s vanity project, “Cleveland Street– the Musical”.  This is a musicalisation of a gay scandal of 1889, the first after the Labouchere amendment criminalised a variety of homosexual activities.  In it, aristocrats frequented a brothel in order to have sex with Post Office Telegraph boys, who were also not above making a little on the side while delivering telegrams to the gentry.  The game was blown accidentally during the investigation of another crime, a couple of boys were prosecuted and got comparatively short sentences, the brothel-keepers fled, the aristos escaped, and the most seriously harmed character was the editor of a radical newspaper who tried to cover the story.  The case was given spice by the allegation that one of the clients was a grandson of QueenVictoria, but this is, at best, Not Proven.

Mr Chandler is responsible for the book and lyrics, and produced it with his own company, so it is clearly his vision that we see.  In another life, he is best known as creator of “Taggart”, the crime series which trademarked the connection between “dour” and “Scot”, and started upping the ante in body counts for TV sleuths.  In addition Mr Taggart has written several TV plays about Victorian crime and criminals, and so is clearly an expert on the period.  Would that he were as expert on musicals.  Would that he had had the humility to acknowledge his ignorance and actually bothered to learn his craft.

The first lesson he fails to learn is that you have to provide a reason for people to sing, and that the songs should in some way relate to, and forward, the action.  Here they burst into song for no reason at all, and often to the detriment of the action.  For example, the brothel keepers are told that they have three hours to leave the country with the police hot on their heels.  So what do they do?  They burst into a nostalgic, slowish-temp song about the joys of living inParis. 

The second question he fails to answer is, “Whose story is this?  What is their journey?  What do they learn?”  There are half a dozen principal characters – far too many – none of whom seem to develop, and we end up being interested in none of them.  In this we are not helped by a wordy and wandering script.  I find it strange that someone who has spent years – decades – in TV drama isn’t able to transfer the skills of concision to the theatre.  If this was going to be filmed none of the scenes here would have got beyond the first script conference.  And the gap between the different standardsChandlerapplies to two media really indicates the contempt in which the form of the musical is being held – somehow it “doesn’t matter” as it’s “only” a musical.  A few – too few – smutty jokes can’t rescue it.

Sloppiness is also evident in the anachronisms in all departments: trousers with zips (debut in 1893 inChicago), the use of the word “homosexual” (not heard till 1896, and then in a textbook), the appearance of a tango in the score (first tangos in Europe heard inParisin the early 1900s).  The busy cast work hard, but there’s not a lot they can do with the material.  The overbusy direction by Tim McArthur has all the hallmarks of a director who doesn’t trust the material either.

The music is by Matt Devereux, a potentially talented composer who is hampered by the straitjacket of banal rum-ti-tum rhythms and incompetent lyrics.  The words are clogged, which is why we can’t hear half of them, the rhymes are inept  or forced (mission/depression; oyster/choice, sir), and the song structure shapeless.  Mr Devereux seems to have taken as his model the Victorian parlour song, which is provided by an onstage trio of piano, cello and flute.  However cello and flute anre under-used in the arrangements, and a more full-blooded Music Hall idiom would have provided more energy and variety.  That said, the composer still manages a few unexpected twists and turns.

The wasted opportunity of “Cleveland Street” is sad, because there is a good show struggling to get out here.  There are compelling themes of class, power, sex and money, and a more Brechtian approach with a strong Music Hall framework, as in “Belle” or “Poppy”, could work well.  It has to be said that the audience on the night I saw the show were enjoying it.  So could it pass muster as a harmless romp, a kind of “Carry onCleveland”?  For some, maybe.  But for anyone who cares about musicals as a serious and transporting form of theatre, or indeed about gay history as a means to explaining us to ourselves, it emphatically is not enough.