Letter From London: Musicals! Musicals! Musicals!

Streets full of musicals, please advise. As I write these notes from the West End, there are currently 19 musicals

Streets full of musicals, please advise.

As I write these notes from the West End, there are currently 19 musicals playing, or sort of playing-doing the best they can, swamping the landscape. Nineteen! From Grease to Buddy , from Cats to Saturday Night Fever , from Smokey Joe’s Cafe to Starlight Express , from sea to shining sea! There are so many bad musicals in London, you’d be just as happy taking a cruise on the Love Boat .

Standards aren’t what they were. (Standards never are.) Fiona Shaw is possibly the only actress in the land who isn’t currently starring in a musical. Even Julie Andrews is in town, playing the cut-glass voice of the 200-year-old parrot, Polynesia, in the dire animatronics musical adaptation of Doctor Doolittle . I prefer Fiona Shaw. I like her a lottle.

But even this supreme actress has been prissily criticized by some for taking on the role of that stylish Calvinist poseur, Jean Brodie, in Jay Presson Allen’s newly revised version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Royal National Theater, known as the National. There are purists who feel that Ms. Shaw-she of Electra , Hedda Gabler and Richard II , if you please-shouldn’t be playing anything so enjoyable as the fabled 1930’s Edinburgh schoolmistress whose modern ideas corrupt her “gels,” her crème de la crème .

But Ms. Shaw, the tragedian, has a secret talent-her innate sense of comedy and fun. The girl is a born comedienne! Miss Brodie’s secret, on the other hand, is that she has the soul of an actress. Her ideas about art, sex and the glamour of fascism are dangerous, passionate and loopy, but she “strikes attitudes.” She cannot help herself. She performs, therefore she romantically is. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie isn’t a great play; it’s a great role. And Ms. Shaw, an actress in her prime, is a pleasure.

Meanwhile, the National, about $2.5 million in debt, has been reduced to sending begging letters from Ms. Shaw to its patrons. The debt-ridden Royal Shakespeare Company has had to cut its costs so drastically that Cymbeline is compelled to lead an army of three into battle against the Romans. The villains in all this are the populist, anti-elitist Blairites, who prefer the Spice Girls to arts subsidies. The Blair Government, betraying the artists who helped get it elected, has cut back the subsidies-the lifeblood of English theater.

Little wonder that Sir Peter Hall has labeled the joyless Prime Minister and company “the New Cromwellians.” Mr. Blair has turned out to be at home in the narrow-minded tradition of English Puritanism. “Oliver Cromwell destroyed English art because he wanted to level everything in the name of Christianity,” Mr. Hall points out. “New Labor looks set to do the same in the name of egalitarianism.”

What could be less elitist than Oklahoma! The answer to that is absolutely nothing, unless we include the love duet between Doctor Doolittle and a needy seal. Trevor Nunn’s sparkling production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1943 Oklahoma! is a whopping success at the National-and helps its shaky finances. But should the National be producing such a commercially popular musical?

Mr. Nunn is a pragmatist who believes, in any case, that Oklahoma! is an American masterpiece. Debatable! Hokey Oklahoma! has been described, somewhat cynically, as a musical about love, death and a picnic. Its lovely score aside-“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love”-the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. But the confident new production, with choreography by New York’s own Susan Stroman, now joins the National’s previous triumphant productions of Carousel and Guys and Dolls -and more than saves the day. Then again, why is it left to the English to produce the landmark American musicals?

And the answer to that is they have no musicals of their own, unless we count Doctor Doolittle . Or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first new musical in five years, Whistle Down the Wind , renamed by one killjoy critic Piffle Down the Wind , at the Aldwych Theater. It’s a modest musical in its way. (There are no big special effects.) In its piety, it continues Mr. Lloyd Webber’s association with God ( Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ; Jesus Christ Superstar ) as well as with the Beast Within ( Phantom of the Opera ; Sunset Boulevard ).

Whistle Down the Wind began life as a novel by Mary Hayley Bell and became a delightful little British movie in 1961 with the novelist’s daughter, 12-year-old Hayley Mills, as the naïve village girl, and Alan Bates as the murderer on the run whom she mistakes for Jesus Christ.

The calamity of the musical version is its utter lack of innocence. There are many flaws in what should have been a sweet parable-not least of them two rebel teenagers actually named Amos and Candy. But Mr. Lloyd Webber, bizarrely distrusting English innocence, has therefore transferred the setting from 1950’s Yorkshire to 1950’s Louisiana Bible Belt country. Folks there are more God-fearing, presumably, and the American South enables Mr. Lloyd Webber to compose pastiche gospel songs of deadly Englishness. But if you cannot convey innocence-English or American-you may as well set the musical on the moon.

There is not a single authentic moment to be found in Whistle -not a genuine feeling or naïve emotion. We are given, instead, the usual horribly cute stage children (posing as white trash) singing “uplifting” songs such as “When Children Rule the World.” It’s unbelievable. But if children ruled the world, you see, “the grown-ups wouldn’t behave so bad.” And we are given, even more inappropriately, a clumsy tale of adolescent sexuality. The young child heroine, Swallow, is played by an actress who could pass for about 19 years old.

The director, Gale Edwards, has proudly claimed that Mr. Lloyd Webber’s musical contains the dark subtext of Tennessee Williams, the American freeway culture of Sam Shepard and a “Greek Tragedy like The Bacchae .” Something for everyone! The director needs help, obviously. If only Whistle Down the Wind had within its cloying show-biz posturing even two seconds of the openhearted innocence of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird . But Mr. Lloyd Webber’s poor musical fable about childhood, faith and redemption craves applause like a knowing, cynical preacher.

And Doctor Doolittle ? It’s not for me to ask, Is there a doctor in the house? I thought this cuddly animal musical was a little harsh on meat eaters. We do not go to Doctor Doolittle to receive a polemic on vegetarianism. As one of Leslie Bricusse’s always memorable lyrics goes: “He lives in a world of fantasy/ And that is a world I plan to see.”

But alas! ‘Twas not for me.

Letter From London: Musicals! Musicals! Musicals!