Setting New Scores

Fringe audiences are spoilt for choice when it comes to musical theatre in 2016. Sean Bell casts an eye over this year's offering

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 16 Jul 2016

Once upon a time, in the Bronze Age of the 1970s, a critic sat in an Edinburgh theatre, along with precisely one other audience member. The show was billed as a "rock 'n' roll reinterpretation of Shakespeare". At the time, this was considered ominous.

The curtain rose to reveal a performer standing alone, electric guitar at the ready. "If music be the food of love..." he began, and let rip with a mighty power chord.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," muttered half the audience, who promptly got up and walked out.

As a general rule, musical theatre is considered divisive. To its admirers, it delivers an experience so unique it cannot be truly replicated in any other medium, an artistic conceit so versatile it can endure and evolve over centuries (remember, music and song have been elements of theatre since ancient Greece), and in more recent decades, a genre so successful it can, at its best, please critics and audiences in equal measure.

Conversely, its detractors tend to focus less on the potential of musicals, and more on those that invariably dominate the cultural landscape, often to the detriment of smaller, less populist work: bloated productions reliant on superficial spectacle, offensively huge budgets and similarly ridiculous ticket prices – the stage equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. Cats. Phantom of the Opera. Even, most recently, the all-conquering Hamilton, now on course to invade London next year.

As with any sweeping generalisation, both views are unworkably simplistic and riddled with exceptions. With that in mind, anyone approaching this year's Fringe in the hope of exploring contemporary musical theatre should do so with nuance in their appraisal. Edinburgh may host its share of big shows, but the city still fiercely guards a reputation for placing the overlooked and the experimental over the traditional and the predictably profitable. And it seems difficult to deny that the sheer variety of musicals on offer seems greater than ever before.

There are musical adaptations of existing works, such as Reefer Madness, a satirical reinterpretation of the notorious anti-marijuana propaganda film, and The Addams Family, which hopes to render the iconic brood not only creepy and kooky, but catchy. Musicals aiming for a pop sensibility include the Tony award-winning American Idiot, based on the eponymous album by punk stalwarts Green Day, and Carmen High, a retelling of Bizet's opera in a modern high school setting. Perennial favourites return with fresh stagings of Cabaret, Bugsy Malone and Little Shop of Horrors, while children's theatre gets a dose of song with shows like Freckleface Strawberry, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan's Great Adventure.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most ambitious-sounding productions originates from the CalArts Festival and Venue 13, whose frequent collaborations have one of the strongest records at the Fringe for producing challenging, innovative and often gorgeous new theatre: Dead Awaken, a "four person concert drama", reimagines Ibsen's final play through neosoul and hip hop. Brian Carbine, Dead Awaken's director and composer, describes its conception:

"I have always been a fan of Ibsen, especially his more obscure works like Brand, Rosmersholm and When the Dead Awaken. I feel as though I was called to his last play – there is something so mysterious, so painful and human about it.

"I also knew I wanted to incorporate music in a serious way and that is what led to my partnership with Preston Butler III (Dead Awaken's co-composer and lead performer). We began writing music that was inspired by the themes of the text, knowing that we didn't want to create music that narrated the story. We were more interested in how the lyrics could shape and guide an inner life for these four characters. I think they are love songs, each different, but fuelled by desire, loss and passion."

"Preston and I call the style of music in Dead Awaken hip hop and neosoul," Carbine says, in describing the production's musical inspirations. "Which I love because they are two distinct genres that are known for their ways of fusing together different styles. I think we did the same thing. We were inspired by artists that experiment and redefine – Erykah Badu, Kanye West, Disclosure, Moses Sumney and James Blake to name a few."

When I ask him if, in style and content, musical theatre has become more diverse and adventurous in recent years, Carbine replies that "recently, someone reminded me that Jonathan Larson's Rent is over 20 years old! I still think of that work as such an important shift in musical theatre and moreover, a benchmark for the way I envisioned becoming a theatre artist at a young age. He put new kinds of bodies and new kinds of stories on stage – ones that reflected his way of seeing the world, his contemporary landscape.

"I believe that musical theatre continues to diversify and shift in form," he continues. "Certainly what Lin-Manuel Miranda [the creator of Hamilton] has done is unprecedented for people of colour on the American stage. But he also managed to move hip hop into the mainstream musical, where many had tried and failed. But I want to see more people experimenting and taking risks. One of the most exciting things I have seen recently was The Great Downhill Journey of Little Tommy at the 2015 Fringe. Concept album turned rock concert performance with live animation – that was contemporary musical theatre for me. New sounds, new forms, new directions."

In a Simpsons episode from a bygone era, one scene revolved around the idea of a musical version of Planet of the Apes. The joke was that such a concept was inherently funny; that a movie about post-apocalyptic simians was so obviously unsuited for musical reinterpretation, any audience would immediately recognise it as absurd.

Looking back on it now—"I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z..."—were someone to actually stage Planet of the Apes (Simpsons edition), I doubt it would be treated as absurd. In fact, I have a suspicion it would be a resounding success. Whether the shows mentioned here triumph or not, we have now reached a point where no idea is fundamentally unfit for the musical; previously ironclad conventions have been shattered, and musical theatre's range of reference, subject matter and style is now greater than ever before. No open-minded theatregoer, musically inclined or not, should regard that anything other than an inspiring development.