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Rock Stoned

October 5, 2011

“No Turn Unstoned.” An old joke describing a reviewer’s work. What surprised me following the opening of “Rock Of Ages” at the Shaftesbury Theatre last week was just how many angry people wanted to stone those very reviewers.

Having done the mathematics, I concluded that even if every cast and crew member working on the show were adopted (which would allow them to claim 12 rather than 6 parents and grandparents each) there still wouldn’t be enough to match the number of comments posted. Thus, I feel there is a strong fan audience out there – some militant.

There’s two points I want to make about those missile launchers: first, get a sense of perspective about life in general. Reacting violently because somebody doesn’t enjoy the same thing as you do is the root of insanity. Second, provide examples to back up your arguments. That isn’t just examination rubric, it’s the foundation of convincing debate.

For myself, I too saw the show and was negative in my assessment of it. I found the immaculate staging and top cast and crew innocent – I’d gladly see all of them in any other project they’d care to attempt. The fault, for me, lay in the structure of the show itself. For me, and many professional reviewers and regular musical theatre fans, it just didn’t work.

Stephen Citron wrote an amazing book, “The Musical From the Inside Out” which gives a pretty good overview of how stage musicals are usually constructed. How they ensure each song elicits the required response from an audience, how the story should be paced and how the songs are integrated to build a satisfactory evening.

Knowing this formula or not, it’s generally what musical theatre fans expect – whether the show is ‘original’ or a bunch of existing pop songs hung together “Jukebox.” There are many successful examples of the latter type, and they keep everybody working in the West End Theatre world (myself included) going, thank you. So, no snobbery from this quarter.

“Rock Of Ages” failed on two counts, I’d say, for some musical theatre fans – like me. The first, and most important, was in the story. With such strong songs, so powerfully performed, the story had to be strong to carry them. Instead, there were no “twists” or surprises. What upset a lot of reviewers too was the misogyny of the script and the ‘lewd joke,” “song,” “lewd joke,” “song,” “unfunny ironic reference,” “song” etc pattern of the evening. All these were delivered without “buttons” either. The “button” is the moment the audience knows the song is over and should clap. Combined with the (absent here) clear ordering of songs into the “I want” number early in the show and the “11 O’clock” number 2 songs after the interval, there was little to signal the progress of the evening. It’s a subconscious thing, this rhythm, but it’s absence is noticed.

Second, and the bigger failure, was the manner in which the songs were treated. We seemed to get not only ‘short’ versions of many – which isn’t ever really good for a song, I think – and they weren’t really ‘serving’ the story. Some of the lyric, and the mood, were relevant, but not enough, I’d say.

My guess is that it is these two things that got many reviewers’ radars pinging that this show was very different. The reaction to that resulted in the now famous ‘pile of waste matter’ review.

In short, this show is “Pure Theatrical Marmite.” It may find an audience outside the conventional theatregoer, which would be fantastic if it brings new people in… but don’t castigate us of the ‘old guard’ either – we’ll certainly enjoy the unexpected if it is well done, but if we feel it isn’t, you can’t really blame us for speaking out… that’s a freedom worthy of defence. And anyway, it’s all just ‘rock and roll.’

4 Comments
  1. Sarah Louise permalink
    October 5, 2011 9:33 am

    Interesting review ! I too saw the scathing reviews ..I have to admit ..I actually did enjoy Rock of Ages !! Ok..it is not going to win any prizes but it was entertaining and I loved the music, I agree that that it will probably attract an audience that do not usually frequent the theatre! It could be that I enjoyed it more as I won the tickets so did not have to worry about the cost! We were sat so close that I thought at one point Shane Ward was going to land on my lap . Justin Lee Collins just could not shrug off the Bristol twang with his american accent…ha ha!! What I did NOT like, was the constant disruption by the staff selling beer throughout the performance !! This just accentuated the fact that it was a different audience base and they were catering to that specific audience! Can you imagine that happening in Les Mis ?! I think it will have a longer run than the far superior Lend me a Tenor or Betty Blue eyes… sign of the times !

    • Steve Rich permalink
      October 5, 2011 9:55 am

      Glad you liked it. I agree the combination of winning tickets and the prospect of Shane in your lap might sway your feelings a little though 😉

      The beer selling / ushers as cheerleaders to show us when to wave our “lighters” drove me mad too – my full review at http://www.theatremonkey.com/SHAFTESBURYbooking.htm picks up on that.

      I did read that Ambassador Theatre Group now have a drinks licence to sell wine from coolers in the auditorium during the interval. If Cameron Mackintosh reads about that, and you take the Miz French theme, throwing in the need for the show to make a profit to it’s logical conclusion, we might yet see Thernardier and Wife coming off the stage to dispense alcohol…

      Back on “Rock Of Ages” I agree it could run longer if it is found by the right audience. My guess is that if the film is a hit, that could happen.

  2. Clive permalink
    October 8, 2011 10:57 pm

    Judging from the reactions of those people that I have been to see this show with and of others that I know who have gone, you are right – there is indeed a strong fan audience out there.

    Of course we can’t all agree on everything, what a boring world it would be if we did! I also think most of us expect reviewers to have views which may often be at odds with our own and I certainly don’t blame them for offering an honest opinion, whatever it is. However there is a difference between a balanced review (such as yours) and one which does leave the reader wondering if they were at the same show. Your overall view of this show may be very different to my own but we seem very much in agreement when it comes to the performances and technical matters. Now I’m not saying that everyone should agree on these whether or not they like the show, however I find some of the comments in the review that you referred to a little strange.

    You mention providing examples to back up arguments. Quoting from one of the comments posted in response to that particular review:
    “I was also there at the Dress Rehearsal night (Monday 26th September) ………that was definitely far from being the best! …………as mentioned earlier (not 2 but) 3 understudies (Sherrie, Staycee Jaxx and Joe Primo) were on stage this evening; considering that 2 of them had never rehearsed their new roles, I reckon they did an excellent job! They also encountered all the glitches a Dress Rehearsal can promise, with lots of sound problems! If theatregoer87 is right and Mr Spencer went to Dress Rehearsal night only, I would strongly suggest him to go again (please) when the full original cast in on stage! I am not expecting him to like the show but at least he may change his mind and give some credits to a pretty talented and professional bunch of actors/dancers and singers!”

    IF he did slate the performance of someone not even appearing when he went then that is at the very least sloppy journalism.

    I agree with your comments about it attracting an audience that do not usually frequent the theatre. However it is also not incompatible with the ‘serious’ theatregoer, variety is good!

    Long may the theatre raise this level of opinion and passion! But also yes, let’s have reasoned debate and not just belittling the opinions of others.

    • Steve Rich permalink
      October 10, 2011 1:16 pm

      Thanks Clive, wise words indeed.

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