There’s a special circle of theatrical hell reserved for really bad musicals. Well, actually, there are probably three or four circles of theatrical hell reserved for really bad musicals, simply because there have been a lot of really bad musicals, and really bad musicals are excruciating.
This morning, I received in the mail the newly-released cast recording of one of the all-time worst bad musicals. It even sounds like a bad joke – Out of the Blue, a musical about the bombing of Nagasaki. It played at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End for about ten minutes in 1994, during which time I was lucky(?!) enough to see it. It was, of course, truly, magnificently awful – the musical bomb to end all bombs, written about the bomb to end all bombs. They tried to stage the detonation of the bomb over Nagasaki via, basically, three very large flashbulbs and dry ice. The central female character was a radiation sickness victim who got a number in which she begged for help in committing suicide. The best (worst?), of course, was saved for last – the finale was a big, bombastic chorus about how we can achieve anything if we “Only Believe”. Yes, in a musical about the bombing of Nagasaki in which a central character dies of radiation sickness. There were even lines about how children are our future. Of course, as with any well-known musical Hindenburg, it has a fan website. Go there at your peril.
So if it’s so bad, why did I buy the recording? I’m a musical theatre and cast album geek, but I’m not a completist – I’m not (and have never been) one of those people who has to buy every new release. There is, though, something intriguing about this show. Partly it’s that the cast recording sat on the shelf for sixteen years before any record company released it. Partly it’s the cast – the material is awful, but the singing is beyond reproach. And partly it’s the sheer, absolute wrong-headedness of the enterprise. Like the musical version of Carrie, the subject matter means that the show sounds like a punchline before you’ve even heard any of it (for the record, I also saw “Carrie”, and it was far better than “Out of the Blue”). It’s not the subject matter that sinks “Out of the Blue”, it’s the writing.
The thing is, in some ways you learn more, I think, from plays that don’t work at all – and this show, I’m afraid, doesn’t work at all. “Carrie”, at least, had the mother-daughter numbers, which were genuinely thrilling; “Out of the Blue”, however, managed the nearly unbelievable feat of taking the detonation of an atomic bomb and rendering it dull. The music is sometimes painfully stilted. Shun-Ichi Tokura’s score is pretentious pop opera which, in attempting to set Paul Sand’s tritely conversational lyrics, forgets to blossom into the sort of soaring melodies that characterise the best of the pop operas – apart, that is, from in that grisly uplifting final chorus. It’s never bad exactly, and there’s the odd brief lovely moment, but basically the cast recording is seventy minutes of recitative in search of an actual, complete tune… which puts it head and shoulders above the show, which dragged on for two hours of stage time. Two hours, that is, which flew by like a decade.
Sniping aside, this recording, actually, is a fascinating document. The main reason I bought it, in fact, is a brief musical fragment, heard in each act, called “No Sound” (I know, I know). I’ve had this haunting melody in my head ever since I saw the show, and I wanted to know if I’d remembered it correctly. Unfortunately I hadn’t, and I like the version in my head better than the versions on the CD. Plus, while there are a lot of flop musicals (75%, roughly, of the musical productions mounted on Broadway in any given year fail to return their investment, which is Variety’s definition of a flop), there aren’t very many flop musical in which no structural element is successful, and very few of that subset get recorded. I doubt it’s something I’ll listen to often, but it’s an interesting thing to own. It’s basically a point-by-point primer on how not to write musical theatre, condensed into a 70-minute CD.
The same record company, incidentally, is now taking pre-orders for a rerelease of the cast recording of Mutiny, a 1985 crapfest written by and starring David Essex, with 80s pestilential pop menace and ex-girlfriend of Simon Cowell Sinitta in a supporting role. Am I tempted? God, no. I’m a geek, not a masochist.