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Pop Goes The Show Tune

March 9, 2011

For musical theatre fans, Stephen Sondheim’s book “ Finishing The Hat” is a must. This great composer gives us an insight into his creative process, and also shares his thoughts about the genre. One remark in particular struck me, and got me blogging this week.

As Sondheim notes, until the 1950s, most “pop” music (short, back then, for “popular” to distinguish it from “classical” – rather than as now where it is short for “not containing a tooth-loosening drumbeat”) songs came from the stage. Back then theatres were filled not just with plays and musicals, but performers taking their variety (vaudeville in the USA) acts around the country week in, week out, spreading the music.

The coming of “rock and roll,” with the use of bands in variety bills to fill theatres, killed that off. The spread of television also required many more acts to fill its countless hours, and had marketing / programming folk trying to reach lucrative audiences – mostly, the young. An act which could be endlessly recycled on stage could never be used again once seen on television; and, as musical theatre doesn’t really work so well on the TV screen and rock attracted the network’s desirable audience anyway, so theatre music was squeezed out.

As an exercise, I tried all day to think of a theatre tune, written in the last decade specifically for the stage – not used in a film first, nor taken from a musical that’s older – which went on to become a pop chart hit. I drew a blank. Then I put on one of my newly arrived CDs…

A perk of the job is the odd free or tax-deductable purchased disc to review, plus the use of ‘work time’ to do so. Last week Helena Blackman’s debut album “The Sound Of Rogers & Hammerstein” arrived. Yesterday, ““My Parade” by Stephanie Fearon had the postman gainfully employed. This pair of albums ‘finished a hat’ for me, which I then put on to think…

For those who don’t know, Both Blackman and Fearon are graduates of the Andrew Lloyd Webber ‘cast a West End show by television’ school. Blackman competed to be Maria, while Fearon thought she could be Dorothy. Neither won, but both have since worked constantly in professional musical theatre – and that is no easy feat, as many musical theatre performers will attest.

What I found wonderful was the fact somebody was willing to invest money in these performers to put out albums at all. The discs themselves contain show tunes – Helena’s classic songs in modern style, Stephanie’s an all-modern selection. While neither may challenge fellow ex-musical theatre performer Jessie J in the music charts, the fact remains that two high-quality albums have been released at a time when no business is really up for taking huge commercial risks.

I rather take heart from that. Television has finally given a little back to where it sprung from, as a way of pushing a pair of theatrical stars forward a little and maybe making my favourite genre of music if not fashionable, then at least worthy of note again.

It’s probably just me who finds it irritating that “cast albums” are relegated to a few inches of shelf space in most record stores (the few left – all gone because they neglected cast albums of course) and that the sheer lack of interest means they are never dusted either. Hopefully, these two young ladies will lead the fight back. If you, like me, would like a return to the popular show tune as a mainstream entertainment form, buying both albums might just be a good start to show record companies that demand is there.

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