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Breaking Into Song - why you shouldn't hate musicals.

A book by Adam Lenson.

Like most musical theatre enthusiasts, the monkey bookshelves sag under the weight of books about them. The glossy hardbacks about the greatest hits, really glorified souvenir brochures. Biographies and autobiographies of creators and stars. “How to” write, design, star in, direct, produce a show. The theory of musical theatre and its history. Books by the hundred.

What it has never read or even heard of, is a book of musical theatre philosophy thinking critically about what the form means. Now, a man who directs them and operates a production company to nurture new shows, has written a series of essays on just that.

The title is slightly disingenuous. While due consideration is given to just why musical theatre doesn’t engage some and obsesses others, the main theme is that the form is, can and should be so infinitely adaptable that at some point everybody will find some show they can love.

Thirty-three short pieces expand on this by considering how shows can be created from both artistic and commercial perspectives. Artistically, there should be better systems for sharing resources. Commercially for sharing the risk and rewards.

What everybody wants to know, though, is how to write another “Les Misérables,” “The Sound of Music” or “Hamilton” – allowing the creators to retire wealthy and the original producing teams some security in an insecure and high-risk world. Lenson’s answer is time and space. Let the “poopy baby” grow up in a nurturing environment and the adult may prove a breadwinner for decades to come.

How to make that baby appealing so that it is fed is considered. Even more important, what to feed it and how to make sure it grows into a loveable character? “The Triangle” is his answer. Balance is all, and this chapter is probably the most interesting idea I’ve ever read on the subject. Simple, yet perfect and so obvious it is no wonder it has been missed until Liz LeCompte shared it with Adriaan Van Atkin and thence with the author.

From the audience side, the old argument of ticket price is considered a major a barrier to engaging with the form. There is a strong argument that pop fans pay far more for a concert without flinching – musical prices are reasonable by comparison. Those who want to see them generally find a way. A comparison of musicals and operas suggesting they are apart and need to mix both audiences and techniques adds weight to the notion that ticket price is possibly the least of the factors - class perception is all.

Adam Lenson’s revival of “The Rink” at Southwark Playhouse in 2018 remains one of the most stunning afternoons I’ve spent in a theatre. Knowing the intellectual weight of the person behind the show, as demonstrated by this book, is a fascination. There’s far more to musical theatre than cloning a global hit, far more assistance needed to discover new forms for combining music, words, stories, and emotions. 

Given the ideas set down here, if enough people read this book, we may just be at the starting point of a new beginning which proves a revolution in the genre – and not just a mere student uprising.

5 stars.

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