When you think of the theatre what comes to mind?
Is it memories of performing amateur dramatics in a church hall? Or, maybe, it's some of the fantastic and, perhaps, not so fantastic shows you have seen. As you think about the question are you visualising a classic Arthur Miller play, a Shakespearean drama or a lavish musical? I, for one, immediately think of London’s glittering West End with its bustling streets and colourful, luminous advertisements. These eye-catching visuals are hard to ignore, their dazzling aesthetic enticing you into theatres to watch shows as bright and bold as the LED lights adorning their buildings (and their stage sets). This is just one, comparatively small, instance of the ‘mega’ that makes the ‘megamusical’.
As it stands, the megamusical is perhaps the most enduring and commercially successful genre within the contemporary theatre scene. Differing from a ‘normal’ musical, a megamusical is an almost entirely sung-through performance with a huge-scale production in which the spectacle of elaborate set, costume and props can often dwarf a plot’s importance. Megamusicals with their near Hollywood-style marketing and various identical international productions are the real money-maker of both the West End and Broadway – think Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. London's commercial West End figures between 2012-13 totaled an utterly staggering £403 million.
Now while I may have done a theatre degree and in my time seen a wide range of clever, wonderful and downright bizarre theatre I, just as many other people, love watching a good megamusical. Although, unlike a lot of people who watch megamusicals, until recently I had never seen the same show more than once. The idea may seem odd to someone who does not visit the theatre very regularly: why pay, sometimes extortionate amounts, to watch the exact same thing? But if you run a theatre circle it is very common to know people who have seen a certain show fewer than half a dozen times.
Thus, when Miss Saigon, a show I had previously seen at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, arrived at the Birmingham Hippodrome on its UK and Ireland Tour I snapped up two tickets. While I was excited to see the show again, the adrenaline wasn't the same as the first time, an observation I attribute to the fact that I have since listened to the Miss Saigon's soundtrack repeatedly. Despite this however, seeing the production for a second time my heart again ached just as much when Chris describes Kim as the ‘April moon.' I still felt goose bumps during the rousing song ‘The Morning Of The Dragon’ and I was again in awe of the huge helicopter on stage.
In summary, I was, yet again, enthralled.
The biggest argument that a megamusical cannot generate a truly emotive and authentic theatrical experience stems from the fact that each production, no matter where you see it in the world, is completely identical. However, I do not mean this in the sense of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, whereby the plot is exactly the same while the set design and interpretation of the text differs production-to-production. With a megamusical it is not simply the book, score and lyrics that are the same world over but the set, props, costume and even the choreography. In essence, if you were to erect three stages side-by-side each with a running performance of Wicked (one from New York, London and Seoul), then they would appear as carbon copies of each other. It is on this topic that in his acutely critical work, Theatre and Globalisation, Dan Rebellato describes how the theatre has ‘been affected by the globalisation of the economy just as everything else has’. (Rebellato, 2009) He goes on to explain how this can be seen ‘in the franchising of international ‘megamusicals’, such as The Lion King, which are given near-identical productions in dozens of different theatres across the world’. (Rebellato, 2009, 9) The main problem with this type of theatre being that it loses its liveliness and its responsiveness to an audience in place of smooth, manufactured reproduction. This why I was so surprised at my own reactions to watching Miss Saigon, for while the moments that made me gasp and cry felt finite they will be repeated again and again, exactly the same in every performance that will follow.
Although the idea of globalised theatre may be new to you it is not that far removed from many other globalised commodities, if we are considering theatre a commodity of sorts. Perhaps most recognisable of these global franchises is that of Coca Cola and McDonalds, the latter being so notable in this way that it is no coincidence that megamusicals are colloquially also dubbed ‘McTheatre’. But truly, the similarities between megamusicals and McDonalds are almost striking, for 1) they are franchises that create products that are sold identically all over the world and 2) the aim of these products is to provide a familiar experience. Would we buy a McDonalds at the airport on holiday if a Spanish Big Mac looked and tasted different to what we have in England? Probably not and same goes for the theatre. For, simply put, megamusicals are enduringly popular because we know what we are getting with them; there are no nasty theatrical surprises hidden between the buns.
By way of conclusion we must come back to the question: can megamusicals be considered an authentic piece of theatre? The answer is yes … or no … or maybe – it depends who you are really. If that doesn’t make sense let me put it in another way, do you consider a McDonalds an authentic meal? Now, the clean eating, gluten free vegan might say no that question in the same way he might stick his nose up at The Lion King but lose his mind with excitement over Pina Bausch’s latest piece. A large portion of general population might then be happy to say that, yes, they do love tucking into a Maccies and watching The Phantom of the Opera. In my opinion, authenticity is in the eye of beholder, I mean there is always going to be someone who is watching a show for the very first time without a frame of reference. If there wasn’t, the West End would long out of business.
Written by Sophie Perry
Rebellato, Dan. Theatre & Globalization. Theatre&. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009.