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In or out?

One of the key resources that we intend that Screen Plays will produce is a database of information about all of the stage plays produced for British television since 1930. (Tomorrow, incidentally, is the 81st anniversary of the transmission of the very first stage play adapted for television, Pirandello’s The Man with a Flower in his Mouth.) As is appropriate at the start of a project we have been discussing our criteria for what we will include — and what will be left out. With most productions this is relatively straightforward: plays by Ibsen and Chekhov ‘in’, original television dramas by Potter and Plater ‘out’. But we have one part of our possible brief that is posing us problems: musical theatre.

Radio Times listing for Me and My Girl, 1939
Radio Times listing for Me and My Girl, 1939

Take the case of Me and My Girl, broadcast with Lupino Lane from the stage of the Victoria Palace Theatre on 1 May 1939. Among its famous musical numbers is ‘Doing the Lambeth Walk’. Leaving aside the broader ontological issues, strictly for the purposes of our database, is this a play or not? And what about Oklahoma!, directed for television by Trevor Nunn in 1999? In or out?

Our inclination, I think, is to include such musicals, but a further difficulty of definition is posed by the boundary between musical theatre and opera. If we include Me and My Girl should we also feature Madama Butterfly? Manon? Even Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg? Quite clearly, Puccini, Massenet and Wagner seem to belong to a separate tradition — and so not appropriate to database of ‘theatre plays on British television’. But how to allocate individual works to one side of the line or the other?

I am not sure that he provides the complete answer to our concerns, but Anthony Tommasini made a fascinating contribution to precisely this discussion in The New York Times at the weekend. His article ‘Opera? Musical? Please respect the difference’ worries away at the boundary and makes a plea for composers to recognise which side of the line they are working.

The genres of opera and the musical are, he suggests, ‘too close for comfort’.

The differences, though slight, are crucial. So what are they, exactly? To begin with, in no way do I see the matter as a lowbrow-highbrow debate. Opera is not by definition the more elevated form. Few operas are as overwrought as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. And there is no bigger crowd pleaser than Leoncavallo’s impassioned Pagliacci.

Nor is the distinction dependent on musical complexity. Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, currently enjoying a vibrant revival on Broadway starring a disarming Daniel Radcliffe, is a more musically sophisticated piece than Carlisle Floyd’s affecting opera Susannah, the story of a sensual young woman in rural Tennessee who is unfairly branded a temptress by her community. And you cannot argue that operas tell stories only through music, whereas musicals rely heavily on spoken dialogue. Lots of operas, and not just comic works, have spoken dialogue, including Carmen and Fidelio.

Tricky, no? But his answer is a convincing one.

Here’s the difference: both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.

Tommasini elegantly develops this argument with apposite examples, and his essay is well worth your time. And while his piece doesn’t necessarily offer a musical-or-opera ‘Tommasini test’ for each individual work, it does provide a rationale for why we should (probably) include musicals in our database and not opera. Both Me and My Girl and Oklahoma!, after all, are generally recognised as musicals, as are almost all familiar works in the repertoire. But quite obviously ‘words come first’ in plays, just as Tommasini argues they do in musical theatre. Which is why, quite simply, they should be ‘in” and all of the operas we know and love should, since ‘music is the driving force’ be ‘out’.

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