Musical medicine

Imelda Staunton in “Gypsy” – Photo: Johan Persson

When I’m dying forget the nurse, just situate a cocktail pianist next to my old bed. I’d like “Isn’t this a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain?)” from Top Hat, please, and “Bill” from Showboat, and “My Defences are Down” from Annie Get Your Gun. Perhaps “Two Sleepy People”. My favourite place in the world is the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel in New York where such songs are played and sung every night. “I love it here,” I always tell the barman as he delivers martinis bigger than my head, “It’s where I’d like to take my last breath.”

“Not tonight, please, madam,” he unfailingly replies.

There isn’t a time I wasn’t in love with musicals. As a child I’d balance my Philips tape recorder on the TV set on Sundays, when there was usually an Astaire-Rogers or MGM matinee, recording the songs to listen to later, writing down and learning all the words. It was a whole language of romance and glamour for me – things that are a bit thin on the ground when you are six. The idea that some sensations went beyond the power of words and demanded to be sung made a great deal of sense to a sensitive child who had several thousand more feelings than she could shoulder.

Before long the inside of my head was papered with show tunes for every eventuality: love songs, hate songs, the “turn that frown upside down” songs which also featured heavily at my thrice-weekly dance lessons and quickly became a speciality. “Grey skies are gonna clear up… Put on a happy face… Smile though your heart is aching… Make someone happy… ON a wonderful day like today”. By my late sevens I could turn round your mood in half an hour.

I sang songs that mourned the fleeting nature of fame as greedily as those extolling the health-giving benefit of toiling the land. I crooned tunes about the strict gentleman’s code of the small hours’ barman. I sang about getting away and not getting away with murder. Judy Garland’s shimmering films taught me that all feelings, however painful, are to be prized.

“Would I routinely risk my health for Cole Porter? It turned out I would”

Last summer as lockdown lifted I found I couldn’t stop going to Anything Goes. Would I routinely risk my health for Cole Porter? You know, it turned out I would. Covid had chilled me, it had chilled us all, but I always emerged from that show piping hot. Sutton Foster (“and her in her 50s,” muttered the matrons, Waste Land style) ended the first act tap-dancing at breakneck speed, brimming with pneumatic bliss, her high kicks exceeding 180 degrees, sliding into the splits as casually as lighting a fag, all while singing her heart out (possibly her liver and kidneys too) against a backdrop of crimson ostrich feathers. There was joy and passion, but there was also steeliness, for, whatever it pretends, the noble art of entertainment requires great rigour.

Decades of practice in draughty rehearsal rooms. Skimpy dinners. Going on with bad legs, bad health, bad faith, heart broken or riven with grief or sorrow or even boredom, all of which must be concealed. “This is life”, Sutton Foster’s Reno Sweeney seemed to be saying, “it’s yours for the taking – you put your best foot forward in your character shoes or Oxfords with their stainless Teletone taps and you go all-out.” All-out, as standard, is often the message of the American musical. The stars are pioneers in search of frontiers. Something’s coming, something good. There was steam rising from the audience by finale-time and three separate standing ovations. I’ve always thought glamour was a kind of moral stance and Sutton Foster proved it again and again.

The consolations offered by great musicals run deep. In the last year of my mother’s life repeated trips to Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton kept my head above water. The long hospital days were cauterising. I lived off instant coffee and chewing gum. The universe has invented such strange ways to torment us: piped birdsong in the underground radiography department might have seemed like a good idea in the meeting but in reality it was harrowing and sort of post-apocalyptic. But the cast-iron belief of Gypsy’s Mama Rose that showbusiness was the highest calling in the land – now that was medicine. The thorough intimacy of the stage mother and her protégé offspring might not have impressed Winnicott but I’ve always held it as a gold standard of parent-child relations. It would have been too much for my mother if I had serenaded her with Rose’s songs that kept running through my head, but I wanted to:

“Wherever we go, whatever we do / We’re gonna go through it together 
We may not go far, but sure as a star / Wherever we are, it’s together..”

And even more desperately: “You’ll never get away from me / You can climb the tallest tree/I’ll be there somehow.”

A show like Gypsy – sometimes termed the King Lear of musicals – fractures your heart a little, messes with your head, hurts you where you are already hurting, and then somehow, yet in the nick of time puts you back together and ties you up in a bow. That’s a lot to go through in three hours, but it was just what the doctor ordered. How people can think of musicals as fluffy, slight, easy listening I do not know. Most of the great musicals touch on areas of eternal human suffering such as domestic violence, addiction, the miseries of war, acute family dischord, racism and class inequality. Three courses of catharsis, with matters of life and death hanging in the balance, and an ice cream. Who could ask for anything more?

When Gypsy ended, Daniel Evans’ spectacular production of Show Boat came hot on its heels to comfort me. It was the way the characters responded to each other’s suffering that moved me most. When the men carried giant bales of cotton in from the fields, sun-beaten and drenched in sweat, their pride wounded by inadequate pay, the womenfolk mopped their foreheads and the backs of their necks with such tenderness. It was a profound sort of greeting that fully recognised the back-breaking nature of their work and the courage required. It was almost like something from the Bible. In the final act, when the disgraced hero Ravenal and his understanding father-in-law are reconciled, the auditorium brimmed with the weight of their humanity. “Now you, you was meant to be a gentleman – the big mistake you made was ever trying to make a livin’ – nobody ever expected it of you…” In that moment you couldn’t help seeing all the parents and children in your life reaching new levels of understanding and forgiveness.

And this month we have a daring Oklahoma! at the Young Vic in which searing injustices in American history are addressed with style and verve. There’s My Fair Lady in which a spirited Eliza turns her back once and for all on Professor Higgins. Legally Blonde – an exhilarating show – which examines the way kind people tend to be underestimated (tell me about it), has just opened in Regents Park. South Pacific, which was produced last year at Chichester with such dignity, is set to return. As is Anything Goes, with a new cast who will, I expect, be differently good. I look forward to hearing again my favourite lines sung by Moonface Martin, public enemy number thirteen, and never fail to knock me out:

“Be like the bluebird who never is blue
He knows from his upbringing what singing can do.”
Bluebird, c’est moi.

“Loved and Missed” by Susie Boyt (Virago) is published in paperback on 15 June

Arts & Culture

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