views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

A Million Miles from Broadway by Mel Atkey
Friendlysong Books
13th October 2013


Living with the bright lights of the West End, us Brits might not be as ready to link musical theatre to Broadway as those living in North America. But many of the current shows are imports - Rock of Ages, Book of Mormon - and the shows that aren't are simply jukebox musicals with little to no redeeming features (I'm looking at you, We Will Rock You). With that in mind, it's clear we can be just as dazzled by those bright lights as others are with New York. Canadian Atkey seeks to redress the balance with a discussion of the development, offerings and futures of the musical around the globe.

The tone, at first, may take some getting used to. It swings between the academic and colloquial, a mixture of historical fact, sociological analysis and personal anecdotes akin to a broadsheet newspaper reviewer. His melancholic description of a visit to the Lapin Agile, or his views on the first time watching the Umbrellas of Cherbourg for example. But this soon all comes together, the passion offsetting the drier passages, giving it the feel of an informative BBC Radio 4 documentary.

And it's certainly informative, teaching you a lot. You may know your Howard Goodalls and Kurt Weills, but how much do you know about Japan's Takarazuka company's five troupes? Atkey knows a lot, and wants to tell you - the mixture of titillation (are they homoerotic? Are they puritanical?) with bald fact is so readable that the bigger-picture relationships of Japan and the West go down easily. Equally discussions of Viennese theatre is very interesting, especially its roots and subsequent quashing under Nazi occupation. There are lots of historical quotes across the book which he uses skilfully to give weight to his points and his wide-ranging focus, dropping little snippets of related ideas everywhere like breadcrumbs helps weave the book into a cohesive whole rather than making it feel erratic.

With these stories and analysis, it's not all praise, though. He seems to have a deliberately contrary stance on the French musical as a form, which is worthy of applause. A bit of controversy is good for the soul and his painting of a brighter future is never far away - made explicit with a rally cry in his conclusion. Struggles also go on within Atkey's own head, caught between an Old Broadway and a dirty shame of pop culture (and pop music) sensibility. This allows for some fun cattiness which I'd have liked to have seen even more of.

For example, being a Brit I'm going to notice some London omissions more than, say, Australian, but given his focus on rock and roll, some discussion of jukebox musicals such as We Will Rock You, Let It Be and Viva Forever (I believe in production at the time of writing) would have been welcome - after all, Mamma Mia! gets a nod. He highlights Hair, Spring Awakening and others as a development of rock and roll - and I rarely agree with him more than when he rants "the pop power ballad became, in theatre, an overwrought catharsis in which sheer volume was equated with emotional intensity". But surely, given how ingrained Queen, The Beatles and the Spice Girls are into the British consciousness, and how they represent a further, lazier, genesis of Atkey's bugbear here, they'd be worth a mention. Depending on where in the world you read this, of course, your mileage may vary and it's in no way a criticism of the book overall.

And it's difficult to talk about the development of new musical theatre across the globe and the struggles therein without comparison to Broadway or the West End. It always seems to be there, looming in the shadows - but Atkey does a good job of shining a light on this, and deftly batting it away to focus on the bigger picture.

On the downside, the book could do with the input of a copy editor. This would help it twofold. Firstly, it would curb Atkey's oversights in drop casual references to songs and without attribution. Even I struggled, trying to jog my memory to place references at times. Secondly, they would be able to clean up the small typos, minor errors and large number of sentences that start with "of course". These bug the piece and lead to Atkey creating the delicious new musical Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert in the introduction.

Make no bones about it, this is a particularly niche book. But for armchair enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of musical theatre within a geopolitical framework, it acquits itself well. If you can overlook its few niggles and let Atkey's words sweep you along, it's an intriguing and informative work that will help you see the musical in an entirely new light - and make you hopeful for the future.

A Million Miles from Broadway, published by Friendlysong Books, is available in both traditional and electronic formats from Amazon and iTunes.

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