By Lissy Lovett
I was watching Legally Blonde a few weeks ago on TV and it seemed like it was missing something. It took a little while to work out what it was but then it hit me – there weren’t any songs. Legally Blonde: The Musical opened at the Savoy Theatre in London a good year and a half ago, and although the critical and commercial response was good overall, there was a certain amount of snobbery in there too. It was viewed, along with Dirty Dancing, Grease, Sister Act and others, as just another way to entice middle-aged women into theatres. The argument runs that women of a certain age (surely the biggest spenders in the West End) remember the original films fondly, and head to the shows in droves to try to recapture their youth, bringing their friends and families with them.
So here we have a class of musical that’s commercially successful and very often fabulously well staged, acted and sung, which is nevertheless dismissed by many people writing about theatre. The most often expressed reason for this dismissal is that the musicals are not original: they are based on films, and crowd-pleasing mainstream films at that. Dare I say it, but I think they are sometimes also discounted for being based on films that tend to be popular with women, and often “things women like” is synonymous with “things we look down upon”. From time to time there will be an article in The Stage or in The Guardian where the number of “original” shows and/or straight plays is compared with the number of remounts and film adaptations, either between the West End and Broadway or between now and 50 years ago. The subtext of these lists is always that having a greater number of brand new shows is better, and a higher number of straight plays something to be proud of. The list writers suggest that musicals and film adaptations are not as good as brand new work and plays where no one sings. The articles will say things like, did you know that in the 1950s, The Entertainer starring no less than Sir Laurence Olivier was playing at the Palace Theatre, instead of – gasp! horror! – Priscilla Queen of the Desert? Golly, everyone must have been so much more clever and cultured then than they are now.
I say this is all rubbish. There is no intrinsic reason why an adaptation of some existing piece cannot be good in its own right. Nothing exists in a vacuum and every new show will have myriad influences, some of which are easy to spot and some less so. Nobody has a pop at Shakespeare because he nicked his plots from someone else. Nobody says that books should never be made into films, or plays, or TV series. You’ll not hear anyone say that War Horse is only an adaptation of a book so why would you bother seeing it? And I bet when Spielberg’s film of War Horse is released that the general consensus will be that it was better on stage. We’re happy enough in other spheres to have plots, characters and jokes shared. Why not with films and musicals?
Also, the lifeblood of a good musical is the songs. They’re like the best Shakespearian monologues or the snappiest bits of Sheridan’s dialogue because when they’re done right they are exactly what you need to hear in that moment, and can reconnect you with humanity or make your heart reach to heaven. They’re the key. The plot and setting is only really the framework for the songs, dialogue and characters. I’m not saying that plot is completely pointless, of course, but it isn’t what you’re humming on your way home. There aren’t any real new plots anyway. I’ll admit an existing brand, like The Wizard of Oz or Flashdance might draw you in to a show, but it’s the characters, gags and songs that will make you come back a second, third or fourth time. And some of these songs are amazing.
I defy anyone not to cry a little tear at the end of “Ireland” from Legally Blonde. Hairdresser Paulette has despaired of finding a good Irish man. She sings to Elle that since she’s pretty and young, she’ll still be able to get to her Ireland even if it’s too late for Paulette. During the title song, Elle stares at romantic and professional disappointment and a return to California, and sings for every belittled woman: “Some girls fight hard, some face the trial, some girls were just meant to smile”. You might not think that these are the best lyrics ever, but I think they get it just right.
And Sister Act is one of my favourite shows of all time. I was genuinely surprised that it closed at the London Palladium and I’m looking forward to catching it on tour. Its songs are amazing. “Sister Act” itself is a rousing anthem to female solidarity and “The Life I Never Led”, sung by the character Mary Roberts when she realises that she wants to leave the convent, is the theme song for all of us who fear that we’ve somehow let life pass us by. I’m always particularly drawn to strong female relationships at the heart of a story, and here Patina Miller playing Delores and Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior didn’t disappoint. There was a real rapport and generosity between them.
So I’m standing up here for musical adaptations of films. Some of them are rubbish (Priscilla, I’m looking at you), but the best of them are amongst the finest examples of stagecraft we’ve got and have given me some of my best nights out. If the fear of hormonal women and a happy ending drives everyone else away, then there’s more room in the stalls for me and my friends. I couldn’t get in to see Ghost: The Musical when it opened in Manchester. Will I see you there now it’s in London?
Lissy Lovett (@lissylovett) doesn’t really like films all that much