Opinion: The musical marmite effect - Love it or hate it?

28 Nov
Posted in: Features
Author: Dawn Bush
Marmite musicals: love them or hate them

You know the Marmite musicals - the ones that people either passionately love or passionately hate? How can the same musical be both a must-see and a must-avoid? Musical Theatre Appreciation Society's Dawn Bush gives her view...

I had the privilege of being at the final night of Groundhog Day. My experience set me thinking about the effect, fondly termed in the UK as "Marmite", that is rife in musical theatre – seemingly far more so than in straight/comedy theatre.

Many times, people have posted in the Musical Theatre Appreciation Society something like, “Name your favourite musical, and why.” There usually follows a passionate, sometimes heated, exchange of comments, as people rush to get their particular dream musical to the top of the list, the top being decidedly mythical as it’s all about the last comment posted. I love to read these, mainly because I love to see people’s passion awakened, and although I might not agree with your choice, I rock your right to defend it – I especially love it if you can do it articulately.

But how is it that opinions can differ in such a variety of ways?

Ok, personal taste comes into it. But even with personal taste, a brilliantly executed musical can win over the hardest heart. It rarely seems to be middle ground, either. People comment about “loving” something; whereas others will comment “eurgh, can’t stand it!”

I thoroughly enjoyed Groundhog Day. I wondered how they were going to compete with the movie, and was pleasantly surprised – I didn’t think all of it worked, but certainly it was very cleverly done. The atmosphere was electric. I suspect the audience was made up predominantly of people that had seen it before (I heard several people laughing slightly before the jokes) and everything conspired to make it a really good evening. However, when it came to the curtain call, and people all around me stood up, I wasn’t with them in heart. I stood because I couldn’t see past all the people standing up.

Let me now go to Cats (a Marmite musical, if ever there was one.) If I have an all time favourite, this is it. I saw it numerous times when it first came out and once when it was revived at the Palladium. On reflection, I think that much of my enjoyment of the repeated viewings came from remembered experience. When it opened, it had a truly star-studded cast, including world-famous ballet dancer, Wayne Sleep. It was in an intimate yet modern space – no-one was far from the stage at the New London  Theatre – and it was ground-breaking in its idea of poetry-turned-musical. It had much the same effect as Hamilton has today – it had never been done before, people said it wouldn’t work. But it did, overwhelmingly so.

The conclusion of my ponderings is this. Theatre – and especially Musical Theatre – is a living, breathing thing. You will never get exactly the same performance twice. If you go to a matinee, the actors may well be conserving energy. If you go halfway through a run, they may be tired. However, they are professionals, so the performance will still be excellent: but it may lack that extra spark that makes it sublime. Combine that with weeks – sometimes months – of built up expectation and disappointment can rear its ugly head in spite of your best efforts. That’s why people get so heated over the theatrical pizza-eaters. It’s a delicate, organic thing. A bad mood, an audience that doesn’t engage, or the stink of someone else’s pot noodles can all damp the spark and make or break the magic. But occasionally, you will be at a performance where everything falls into place.

I took my daughter to see Shrek the Musical on a Saturday matinee. We looked forward to it for weeks, but when the day came the “star” was off, it was low on energy, there was no spark and despite the cleverness of it, the whole thing was a vast disappointment. A few weeks later, I took her on a whim to see Top Hat - no “stars”, no big build-up - just before it closed. It was colourful, energetic and exciting. We hadn’t expected much, and we came away bursting with joy, longing to be dancers and musical theatre stars, dancing away to the train home with that warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts.

The conclusion of my ponderings brings me to this advice, which you can take or leave at your leisure: when you decide you hate a show, remember that was your own experience, and tread softly.  You may be treading on someone else’s joy. Or as the poet Yeats so aptly put it: