Why musicals need escapism escapes me

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There’s something vaguely Sisyphean about taking issue with the opinions of mainstream reviewers, especially he of The Sunday Times parish. Every time you think a certain progression in critical consensus has been reached – wham – you’re back writing another blog post on the subject.

But a particularly eyebrow-raising take on the Tony Award-winning revival of Oklahoma! (currently playing at the Young Vic) provided one spark too many to be ignored. “The songs shine but where’s the escapism”, Quentin Letts moans as he grasps at a two-star conclusion. (Cards on the table, I loved this production). Letts continues: Oklahoma! can offer fantasy escape. This reinterpretation, first seen in America, denies us that relief. It insists on whacking us with Issues.”

Letts’ assertions are faulty on two fronts. Firstly: Fish’s production is chock full of fantasy – erotic, romantic, lip-biting fantasy that washes across the production like the smoky haze of the dream ballet. It’s galvanising – a trembling tension rippling across the room. You can feel the audience lean in as Curly quietly tries to seduce farm girl Laurey. Love – caustic, tantalising, amusing and tempting in equal measures is guzzled down by the cohort of young dreamers living in a state yet to be born. At the same time, massive, spectral ghost-like sequences, helped enormously by a wall-sized projection, allow the characters and their desires to glare down from the side of the auditorium – as unavoidable to us as they are to the forlorn love-triangles that are at the heart of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show.

The Chichester cast of South Pacific
© Johan Persson

Secondly, and much more importantly, since when did musicals need escapism? For one – some of the most exciting, novel and bold blockbuster new works confront deep and pressing issues (sorry, should that be Issues with an eye-rolling capitalisation). Taking a look across the West End – the new revival of Cabaret gives us a haunting portrait of an acquiescent society’s slip into totalitarianism. Dear Evan Hansen nobly presents issues around the young grappling with their mental health. Victor Hugo crams more issues into Les Misérables than a Newsies paper boy does into his leather satchel. Come From Away finds humanity in humanity’s darkest hour. Staring reality in the face can give musicals their most powerful punch.

What’s all the more striking is that all Fish is doing in Oklahoma! is fronting issues that Rodgers and Hammerstein weave (relatively opaquely) into their text. Not a single word has been changed in his revival. As for the production “whacking us with Issues” – does Letts need reminding that this was a pair writing (in their time shockingly) about topics like fascism, racism, domestic abuse, suicide, the disillusionment of youth and xenophobia? Finding shows of theirs without “Issues” is nigh-on impossible. One of the most impressive things about Daniel Evans’ revival of South Pacific, opening last year and now, excitingly, set for a victory lap tour alongside a London run, is how urgently it seeks to find the realities underpinning Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work.

So yes – musicals don’t need escapism – but perhaps some critics need to escape their cookie-cutter expectations.

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