Friday, 3 July 2009

Putting It Together- Connecting stories

The Man and Swallow- Paedophilia anyone?

So I've started a proper Summer job which unfortunately keeps me away from London for most of the week and thus unable to see much theatre. But it does provide me with a fifteen minute walk to and from the office each day (and by office I mean my employer's loft conversion). Accompanying this fifteen minute walk is my mobile phone/mp3 player, now with 8 gb of memory and my entire music collection. Hence we arrive at my favourite pastime which I have christened bus directing in honour of my year of commuting into College from the edge of Shepherds Bush- nearly an hour's journey with sometimes two changes of bus. Combine an mp3 player full of musical cast recordings and daydreaming and I start blocking musical numbers in my head. If you're lucky you may even catch me dancing along as I walk, I usually have to remind myself that this is not normal practice, especially not in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside. I've been increasingly feeling that I don't belong here in conservative, middle class middle England. My dress sense is too bohemian, I walk with a headphone permanently plugged in my ear, I don't want to talk about the weather, or the Gypsies that want to move onto some wasteland at the edge of the town and I don't care that Andy Murray is in the semifinals of Wimbledon. All in all, I miss London.

Anyway, back to the theatre-talk. As I was walking home today I was listening to Whistle Down The Wind. I know I've always had a distaste for Andrew Lloyd Webber but the combination of a return to the Rock Opera style and the insertion of a part I'd love to play (Swallow) means I'm drawn to it. And here is where the connections start; it appears I seem to only like Lloyd Webber musicals that have had a concept album. Perhaps this is because he is writing the musical for the love of the art form and not to make money from the populous. A concept album allows the music to be perfected and a greater depth to be achieved from it- Jesus Christ Superstar was the same.

Batboy- *sigh* the memories...

I was thinking about the storyline of Whistle Down The Wind and realised how it was almost identical to Batboy!-The Musical- a forbidden relationship between a teenage girl and the outcast of society, religious townsfolk in the deep South up in arms about said outcast and blaming him for their woes, and a climatic finish resulting in the death of the outcast after a terrible secret has been revealed. This theme can be seen throughout theatre, for example The Phantom of the Opera places the outcast in the society of an opera company. Parallels can even be drawn to West Side Story (and hence Romeo and Juliet) where Tony and Maria are pacifistic outcasts of a violence-driven society.

Of course the idea of "borrowing" stories isn't new but does give an insight into which shows will work- by keeping to similar themes, book writers are playing it safe and keeping to what they know works. Every so often you do get a completely new plot line, every story has to start somewhere, but these are few and far between. In the 2008-2009 Broadway season (Sorry West End, I didn't really keep tabs on you last year) I can only think of two shows based on original stories- Title of Show and Next To Normal, and I shouldn't really count Title of Show as it takes the age old "show within a show" idea.

I think we owe much of this theory to our friend Vladimir Propp. Propp's theory is the basis of all storytelling, the idea that there are 12 basic plots each with specific plot points to be followed. See, although I'm a Chemistry student I'm not completely inept in the teachings of media and drama. As a child I spent my Saturdays playing "wanky improvisation games" and my sisters both took Drama A level so I picked up one or two of the theories and laws from their textbooks (I know, I didn't think Drama had textbooks either).
The Wild Party- the version where Mandy Patinkin doesn't pretend to slap Toni Collette

Back to Mr Propp. The basic format has 31 plot points (which I am not going to divulge here as I frankly can't be bothered to list 31 things you could easily find on wikipedia). So perhaps we aren't cheating by recycling story lines but in fact have actually run out of original plots. There are only so many times you can alter the 31 parts of 12 different things, in fact (runs to a calculator) there are 2.48 x 1033 combinations. OK, that was more than I expected but still, we have to remember there are 6 billion people in the world. Lets say at any point half the world is telling a story and even if it takes 10 minutes to tell that story that's 157680000000000 stories within a year. As wikipedia tells me that humans have been around for 500, 000 years that's going to be a huge number that I don't think Windows Calculator can cope with.

The Wild Party- the version with less sex but better music.

I digress. I think my main point is that, although a recycled story is inevitable, it doesn't have to be obviously recycled. I'm talking to you jukebox musicals and film-based rip offs. Batboy and Whistle Down the Wind manage to take the same plot and take it in two completely different directions. In 1999, Michael John La Chiusa and Andrew Lippa took this one stage further, both using the same source material; The Wild Party, an epic poem setting in the Bohemian 1920s. One was a great, accessible show taking musical themes from Salsa to Jazz whilst keeping the depth of a story about sex, drugs, violence within the 1920s. The other was a sultry, dark tale of underage rape and heightened emotions set to a more authentic 1920s style score.
This is where theatre should be heading- making the exciting out of the mundane and taking the ordinary to the extraordinary.

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