By Graham Whalan (submitted on 8 July 2020)
The future of the performing arts seems bleak indeed. Some have asked whether they even have a future, referring to the worldwide impact of the coronavirus as an ‘Extinction Level Event’.
Whilst at the time of writing lockdown measures have begun to ease, live performance in theatres remains banned. It is widely agreed that the 5-step ‘roadmap’ of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden for their return is of no help at all and, although the more recent announcement of a £1.57bn rescue package offers more hope, many uncertainties remain, with some even damning it as ‘too little, too late.’
I have no solutions, no great insights, but just a few thoughts. First let’s consider the value of music and song. At the most basic level they are a source of rich entertainment, a diversion and a temporary escape from life’s daily routine, a morale-booster. Back in 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, in fear of the impact of bombing raids, the Government initially ordered that all theatres be shut down for the duration. It was soon realised that the impact of music, song, and dance on the nation’s morale was such that it was far better for them to remain open, and the ruling was duly relaxed. Although at the present time live performance remains banned, it is no surprise therefore that, through social media, many individuals have offered musical performances to keep spirits up. So we have had new songs offered up by aspiring singer-songwriters, evening concerts from established performers streamed live (both amateur and professional) and, most notably, in a recent TV series The Choir: Singing for Britain, choir-supremo Gareth Malone made highly creative use of modern technology and brought people together in song. The resulting ‘virtual choir’ was a major success, relieving loneliness, boredom, and the crippling sense of isolation for many. ‘There is a need in people to make music,’ he observed.
Talking of TV, I recently happened to be watching an episode of the mock-umentary comedy series The Office in which David Brent points out that life is basically a series of peaks and troughs. He then offers the optimistic thought that, ‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain,’ before going on to ask, ‘Do you know which ‘philosopher’ said that? … Dolly Parton.’ Sardonic it may be, but it set me thinking about the many other song-writer ‘philosophers’ whose lyrics, within the medium of musical theatre, have been inspirational, encouraging and, above-all, optimistic. Musical theatre is in fact awash with them. The spirit of optimism, the strength of the human spirit against adversity and hope for a better world are constant themes.
Going back to Edwardian times, the standard plotline in Georges Edwardes’ Gaiety Girl musicals was that of the poor girl of humble origins triumphing over adversity. Later on, in the early 1920s, the character Blair Farquar in the Jerome Kern musical Sally exhorts the heroine to ‘Look for the Silver Lining’, whilst a few years later the character Jill Kemp, in Mr Cinders, advises that, ‘Even when the darkest clouds are in the sky, You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry, Spread a little happiness as you go by.’ In more recent times, there is then of course the ultimate note of optimism in Annie who reminds us about the constant promise of Tomorrow – it’s ‘always a day away’ she says, when ‘bet your bottom dollar, there’ll be sun.’ The list goes on. ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ sings Patsy, King Arthur’s trusty servant in Spamalot; when times get tough, hang on to your dreams advises Bloody Mary in South Pacific; ‘Climb every mountain’ says Maria in The Sound of Music; and dare to dream ‘The Impossible Dream’ says Don Quixote in The Man from La Mancha. These are all very strong messages of hope and aspiration that we now need to take to heart more than ever.
I also like the fact that, right in the middle of the dark days of a war-torn world, when morale was particularly low and the future seemed bleak, spirits must have been cheered by the up-lifting and hopeful opening song of Oklahoma! – Oh, What a Beautiful Morning – first heard on a Broadway stage in 1943. Two years later, in 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein would again hit the spot with arguably the greatest inspirational song ever written, You’ll Never Walk Alone, which featured in their follow-up production, Carousel. At a time when many were grieving the loss of loved ones, its central message that, in death, they continue to watch over us, is powerful indeed.
Aside from the professional world, the closure of theatres has of course been a major concern for amateur groups. Over several years all have risen to the challenge of keeping pace with the professionals, and the production values of their shows have become increasingly impressive. In the current crisis many are now very fearful for their future and, while there will be inevitable losses, I am taken back to Gareth Malone’s observation that, ‘There is a need in people to make music.’ I would suggest that, equally, the impulse to perform is too strong to think that any amateur group will just pack up and call it quits. Just think of their enduring value to both their local communities and to all those involved – fostering and encouraging local talent, helping to develop and nurture both personal and social development, promoting a sense of community, connection and belonging, providing opportunities for self-expression, and affording an outlet for the release of creative energy.
These are all more than compelling reasons why the arts and, in terms of my focus here, why musical theatre must and (I’m confident) WILL survive. I have no solutions. I have no idea how the future will pan out. But, as I’ve said, messages of hope and inspiration are, one might say, part of Musical Theatre’s DNA. I also know that the world of the performing arts, both amateur and professional, is brimful of creative and imaginative people whose urge to perform will never be quashed and who, no matter what, will always find ways forward. Perhaps we’ll see even more imaginative use of social media, or perhaps some theatres will be able to make more extensive use of cabaret-type seating. Across the country already, industrial-size car parks are being converted into drive-in theatres, so perhaps there will be there will be a greater emphasis on open-air performance, and street theatre. Of course I am very much aware that there are still many obstacles, and the scale of this crisis should never be under-estimated but, as Elphaba reminds us in Wicked, much is often possible, even against the worst of odds: ‘Some things I cannot change, But till I try I’ll never know.’