Exhibition: Re:Imagining Musicals – Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Of all the show business subgenres that fall under the purview of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theatre and Performance galleries, musical theatre is one of the showiest.

The V&A’s latest exhibition to sit alongside its permanent galleries is Re:Imagining Musicals, looking at both the craftsmanship behind musicals and also how changing tastes and styles have transformed how the genre has treated the same topics.

For example, Six: The Musical is here, with costume designer Gabriella Slade’s work for the wives of Henry VIII represented by her design for Catherine of Aragon. Alongside that are other representations of the Tudors in musicals – a poster for Leslie Bricusse’s 1978 musical Kings and Clowns which starred Frank Finlay, and album artwork for Richard Rodgers’s Rex.

In another display, the enduring legacy of The Wizard of Oz includes references to stage adaptations of the MGM musical, alongside the model set for Hope Mill Theatre’s revival of The Wiz and Kerry Ellis’s Elphaba costume from Wicked.

Most of the exhibits in this new gallery have never been displayed before. With exactly 100 items on display, it includes many beautifully-designed record albums from the Bennett-Muir Collection, illustrating how the love for musical theatre extends beyond the stage.

Some of the key items on display are illuminating. A rehearsal score from the original production of A Chorus Line shows just how much a performance number could change before being shown to the public. It’s something the world of digital sheet music, in which whole sections of songs could be removed at the stroke of a backspace key, struggles to maintain.

The most visually striking elements of the exhibition are the costumes. Rosalie Craig’s red dress from Marianne Elliott’s revival of Company, cut simply and beautifully in a simple shape by designer Bunny Christie, stands proudly against a restored dress deigned by Cecil Beaton and worn by Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady. The concept of people whose desire is to perform sees Jamie New’s denim-and-diamante outfit from Everybody’s Talking about Jamie rub shoulders with an original outfit from A Chorus Line.

Dotted throughout are small scale models of people who work in all fields related to musical theatre, which have been scanned, 3D printed to the same scale as a model set and hand-painted. Finding each one is a delightful little touch.

Beyond that, though, it is easy to feel that the pickings here are slightly slender. While there are many pieces of interest, the space as a whole feels slightly sparse. It feels like viewing the whole gallery is going to be a quick experience.

That’s a shame, because if you linger around any specific piece for any period of time, the ambient sound shifts to some interesting nuggets about the piece from someone involved, such as a member of Spit Lip talking about how their marketing for World War II comedy Operation Mincemeat managed to sneak portraiture of Adolf Hitler across London, with a briefcase positioned as the toothbrush moustache under an abstract line representing the dictator’s hairline.

The exhibition may be slight, but could yet provide some inspiration for the next generation of musical theatre practitioners. Re:Imagining Musicals only scratches the surface of the medium, and of the V&A’s collection. As an exploration of the Theatre and Performance Galleries, though, it’s a great starting point.

Opens on 15 October, and continues until 27 November 2023

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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