Theatre in Chennai is not just about acting; it's also about learning to groove while carrying a tune. Yes, we're talking about musicals.

Musical theatre isn't really a foreign concept. Traditional Tamil theatre, a prominent actor-director explains, combines the very same elements found in English musicals. It's not just a music concert, it's not a dance programme and it's definitely more than just a play. It's easy to forget yourself when watching one; to get absorbed in the complex moods it can create even as you tap your feet to the music. But the sudden and unexpected spurt in the number of musicals is worth noting. 2009 was a record year for the format with about six different productions and their repeat shows jostling for space. Less in 2010, but there still were quite a few. Freddy Koikaran calls it the “resurgence” of a dormant trend and likens its popularity to the film industry, because it offers everything an audience loves: story, music and dance.

Why copy?

But questions remain on the quality of these performances, and why they're mostly rehashed Hollywood films or Broadway-West End-inspired productions. Are musicals finally gaining lost ground? Or is this just bad karaoke on stage?

Hans Kaushik, director of the 2009 (“Shylock: Merchant or Menace”) and 2010 (“Rip Van Wrinkle”) Little Theatre pantomimes, attributes the pattern to a ripple effect; some do it watching others do it. “It's a positive sign for theatre. It bodes well now that lots of groups are working on this format.”

The biggest challenge in staging a show with song, dance and dialogue? Casting. “A musical is an all-round experience for both the actor and director. It's difficult to cast especially if you're an actor like me; I can't sing or dance to save my life. So we have to choose the actors, the music and the choreography very carefully.”

Michael Muthu, director of the “Jesus Christ Superstar” (JSC), “Pirates of the Curried Beans” panto, this year's “Over the Rainbow” and Mellow Circle's recent “A Christmas Carol”, agrees that good casting is the crux of a successful musical. “You can count on two fingers the number of people who can sing AND act”.

While the quantity has increased, he rubbishes the quality of what makes its way to stage masquerading as musicals. “It's one big, huge compromise. Just because there's a little music and dance, you haven't performed a musical; you've only attempted one. Honestly, I haven't seen a decent musical in years.”

Aysha Rau of Little Theatre who gives the city, among other things, its much-loved Christmas pantomime (this month will be their 16th production) says that musicals adapted from the West cannot match the production values of the originals. “It's a big comedown, especially for those who've watched them at Broadway.”

The musical format, occasionally, tends to trivialise plots, with shaky stories held together only by good music and neat choreography. Even the more ‘serious' ones become breezy entertainers when they reach the local platform. Something theatre-goers have clicked tongues about in the past.

Again, Mike emphasises that this isn't the fault of the form per se. “Emotions in a musical are very real, more than in a play. If it seems trivialised, it's just been done badly.”

However, Jeffery Vardon (“Cats”, “Mamma Mia!”, “Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours”, and also “JSC”) counters that the focus on plot and story doesn't really shift to mere entertainment; musicals as a genre require less acting and more emoting through song and movement. He's learnt from experience that audiences primarily attend his shows to watch the Hot Shoe Dance Company perform; and not necessarily for seasoned actors.

On the contrary...

Clearly, divergent views exist. Which leaves one other common denominator that's pulling quality down. As any producer would gladly explain, as the scale of production increases, sets become gigantic and the costs prohibitive, budget constraints unfortunately dictate how good a show finally is.

To Mike, the Broadway-West End influence is inevitable. Their pieces are “very well known and very well written” and it's difficult to come across an Indian piece of similar quality. Freddy (“Grease”, “Chicago”, “Night at the Musical”, and currently working on “Dirty Dancing”, a “pseudo-musical”) agrees. “Creating an original script requires a very different skill set than what an actor/director would have; more so in musicals as they also involve composing and choreographing music. There are very few playwrights here whose works are widely accepted; most of them struggle just to get audiences. That's why Andrew Lloyd Webber is so revered.”

A rare exception would be the performances at the Little Theatre where everything you see on stage is scripted, composed and choreographed locally. Freddy predicts that this can be done more if the right collaboration happens, now that “lots of bands are doing original music.”  And it's probably happening already. Although plans are still nascent, Jeffrey is looking to the same format to stage “Shakuntala”, with Bharatnatyam replacing all that jazz.

 But doubts still linger on how good, professionally, these shows are. Freddy links the quality of any production to the effort that goes into staging it; significant now as several groups blame poor performances on increasingly short prep time. “But, as a viewer, that's not my problem.

For me it's a question of ethics. If I expect people to shell out money, I'm obliged to do the best I can.” Aysha concurs. “A badly rehearsed production is simply an insult to the audience.”

Tanya is a III Year B.Com. student at Stella Maris College.

Keywords: Musical theatre

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