Adam Lenson’s book, Breaking Into Song: Why You Shouldn’t Hate Musicals makes its case right from the title page. Lenson – with an extensive background in show development – is well placed to suggest that when it comes to musicals, we’ve got them all wrong.
Lenson’s book takes aim at the preconceptions we have about musicals: gooey, sentimental shows where characters break into song at opportune moments. Instead of the genre being at fault (it would be hard to accuse Avenue Q of being sentimental), Lenson states “musicals ask audiences…to allow themselves to get overwhelmed”. The musical may feel like too much, but that is entirely the point.
Breaking into Song also pulls apart prejudice within the industry itself. Looking at director Sam Mendes’ work at the Donmar, Lenson examines Mendes’ decision to amend the term ‘musical theatre’ to ‘music theatre’. Casting actors in leading roles, rather than musical performers, Mendes’ move to distance himself from the connotations of ‘musical’ is a deliberate and political act. Lenson argues that many in the industry view ‘theatre’ and ‘musical theatre’ through different lenses. Theatre is serious, intentional and worthy. A musical becomes more legitimate, the closer it aligns to a play.
The book makes compelling arguments for meaningful change in musical theatre, both structurally and artistically. While Lenson is passionate on the page, you wonder if an online series could better reach the younger generation Lenson needs to convince. With ticket prices spiralling (see Anything Goes), Lenson’s idea of making theatre of all shapes and sizes would be more accessible for new audiences. Lenson’s powers of persuasion when it comes to reframing musicals could also play well online. A book about musicals will attract people already interested in musicals, but communicating to those who think musical theatre is not for them, could have long-term implications for who is watching it and making it.
Lenson’s series of essays illustrates a desire for quite radical upheaval, but this is exactly what’s needed. In the final chapters, Lenson discusses digital theatre, and the possibilities beyond its emergence as a pandemic stop-gap. While larger theatres, such as the National, made their back catalogue of filmed productions available for an audience desperate for culture, smaller companies were able to utilise the technology to launch new shows. The digital experiment was exactly that, but shows such as The Color Purple translated to screen without losing that theatre feel. This, says Lenson, is also where theatre could find a home. As well as answering the needs of audiences who can’t readily access venues, smaller costs could mean projects becoming workable for creatives.
Breaking Into Song looks to a future that theatre hasn’t imagined for itself yet. Bold, inclusive and willing to adapt, Adam Lenson’s blueprint for musical theatre above all looks at sustainability. After a pandemic that put the theatrical world on pause, Lenson’s ideas are not only about sparking joy, that burst of song, but required reading for an industry that needs to diversify if it is to survive.
Breaking into Song: Why You Shouldn’t Hate Musicals (£12.99) available in print and digital formats.