Sunday, 5 September 2021

REVIEW: Breaking Into Song – Why you shouldn’t hate Musicals by Adam Lenson

Adam Lenson is a Theatre Director and Producer who specialises in musical theatre. As such he has showcased the work of hundreds of writers in his attempts to broaden the mix of what musicals can be. So this book, which seeks to challenge our expectations of musical theatre and demand more from those who write, produce and go to see it, comes from someone who is not an armchair critic, but who is doing something practical to address what he sees as the challenges and opportunities facing the medium.

The book is really an extended essay, pleading the case for musicals to be allowed the same artistic status as other forms of theatre, whilst also stating how musical theatre itself needs to change for this to happen. As an essay, though, it lacks supporting evidence. Lenson makes a lot of assertions. For example about ‘those’ musicals (without stating which ones), about writers, about producing theatres, and about audiences. 

A key element in his argument is that a significant proportion of people hate musical theatre in a way which they would not claim to hate paintings or hate films. So the subtitle (‘Why you shouldn’t hate musicals’) is an appealing tease, but ultimately perhaps misleading. Because this book isn’t aimed at people who hate musicals but rather more, it seems, at those who produce, write and enjoy them. It’s a stern ticking-off for years of complacency and repetition – as Lenson puts it re-papering the same room rather than inventing something new.

It’s a short book at less than 200 pages, but often repetitive. To be fair Lenson acknowledges this, but the arguments he makes would be more powerful with some worked examples and references. Simple repetition of his argument becomes at some points rather wearing. He also manages to get two-thirds of the way through before mentioning opera, a key part of the history of musical theatre. Yes, musicals are not operas, but to understand musicals and identify how they can grow, a more detailed analysis of where they came from would be useful. And if you’re looking for examples from shows you love (or hate) you’ll be disappointed. His dissection of the medium makes only passing references to a few shows, with the exception of Hamilton, the use of which shows how much better this could have been with more like that about other shows.

As the book progresses, though, Lenson makes some interesting and thought-provoking points. For example, that ‘a lot of musicals feel as if they were written by writers who have only ever watched musicals.’ There seems to be some truth in that, but supporting evidence and examples would have been nice. He also makes the case for musicals to be regarded as a medium, like paint, and not a genre. As he says, no one ever hated paint.

There’s an interesting argument made for the case for musicals in a post-pandemic world. Where life itself is under threat, he asks, just how much should we care whether there was ever any more musical theatre? 

Perhaps the best moments are near the end when Lenson talks at length about what adding the term ‘the musical’ to the title of a show does to perceptions and preconceptions of its style, quality and artistic merit – issues which other forms of theatre escape. You don’t see references to ‘Hamlet – the play’ for example. The solution, though, he says is not about changing the term, but changing what musicals are. He is not looking to demolish what we’ve already got. But he is looking for it to be much broader – with more shows that don’t rely on big spectacle, big casts, big budgets and big risks. Lenson ultimately makes a powerful case for making musical theatre evolve into something more collaborative, inclusive and varied than it is now.

Review by John Charles 

Rating: ★★★

Published by Salamander Street. Price £12.99
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