They’ll Be There For You

In confusing times, we're retreating to the comforts of our youth. George Sully examines four musicals riding a surge of nostalgia

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
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Friendsical: A Parody Musical About Friends by Dale Wightman
Photo by Dale Wightman
Published 24 Jul 2019

Ah, the 1990s. An innocent time, before Y2K, before memes, before Fake News. A decade in which the number of websites on the internet increased from one in 1991 to three million in 1999. A decade which served as formative, impressionable years for many 30- and 40-somethings today.

It’s no surprise, then, that those millennials (i.e. those born between 1980 and 1994) in creative careers have been drawing inspiration from that beloved decade. And there’s plenty of great source material: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Oasis, Titanic, Shania Twain, Forrest Gump. The list goes on. This Fringe alone there are several productions—all musicals—reliving nostalgic properties like Friends, Cruel Intentions, and the Spice Girls.

Matt Brinkler, executive producer behind Wannabe: The Spice Girls Show, can see the rationale. “The Edinburgh Fringe has always led the way with finding what’s hot in the industry,” he says. “The '90s are huge at the moment. Everyone born in the '80s is coming to a point where they want to relive their childhood.”

The writer and director of Friendsical: A Parody Musical About Friends, Miranda Larson, agrees. “When you have a love for a TV show, movie or book, you always want to access that world. Return to it,” she says. “A stage show is a great way to do that.”

Sneaking in at the end of the decade is 1999’s Cruel Intentions, which has inspired Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical – an American production celebrating the 20th anniversary of its source film with its UK premiere this year.

And this show rides pretty close to its source. “The original screenplay is our script,” says Jeremy Meadow, the show’s artistic producer. “Plus a whole hit parade of '90s songs, including Britney, Christina Aguilera, R.E.M., 'N Sync and of course the wonderful ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ by the Verve, which played such an important part in the movie.”

By contrast, both Wannabe and Friendsical are synthesised, amalgamated stories.

Wannabe tells a fictional narrative as a framing device, with the musical format giving “an opportunity to modernise and create a new version of iconic music,” says Brinkler. (Though he cautions they are not associated with the West End’s Viva Forever!, which is strictly a plotless jukebox musical.)

He acknowledges its straight-faced shamelessness, wanting to pay tribute to the band’s “iconic outfits”, “memorable personalities” and “innovative videos”.

Wannabe brings aspects of all those things to the stage together with a great energy," he says, "but—and this is a big ‘but’—without pretending to be the real deal. We promise audiences a show with an extremely talented cast.”

Friendsical, on the other hand, uses its music for narrative shorthand. “We are fitting 10 years of content into one show, so songs are a great device,” Larson explains. “For example, we have a song that charts how Ross and Rachel get together and then break up… all in three minutes!”

But, like other beloved '90s properties, Friends has not survived the march of progress unscathed. Famously problematic by today’s standards, the era-defining comedy fares badly when considered in terms of gender roles, attitudes towards sexuality, and consent. But many argue for a ‘time capsule’ perspective, defending the preservation of an artefact—scratches and all—and focusing on the show’s good points.

Larson thus sees Friendsical as “a joyful celebration of a TV series that is adored worldwide, rather than an opportunity to investigate whether all of its contents are still relevant today.”

And while technically not from that decade, 2001’s Legally Blonde feels, tonally at least, like a late '90s film (and is based on the original author’s experiences at Stanford in the '90s). But it’s arguably spawned one of the more progressive nostalgic revivals this Fringe.

Legally Blonde the Musical is a production by MA students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Jane Hensey, Head of the Masters Musical Theatre programme, asserts its relevance. “This piece is a carefully woven story of justice and empowerment that tells the story of a woman working against presumptions and prejudices in order to get what she wants,” she explains. “This is as relevant now as when Reese Witherspoon brought the character to life on film in 2001.”

And again, the format enhances this. “Legally Blonde has one of the most iconic pop-rock scores,” she says. “As a form, musical comedy can disarm an audience when that lightness and humour also has something deeper and more relevant to say.

“Using humour to address inequality and the unfairness of modern society is something we still really respond to as audiences, especially in Scotland.”