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Facing the music

Big musicals are like going to war. Playwright Dusty Hughes describes the struggle with 15 competing egos as he puts the finishing touches to Metropolis

I know how I got into this. I know where I got into this. I even have an idea why I got into this. What I don't understand is why I never got out of it. A friend told me that big musicals are like going to war. But at least in a war you can give free rein to your homicidal instincts.

This is a war of attrition. You have to fight your corner every inch of the way. If you include the principal actors there are at least 15 strong creative personalities working together. It would be much simpler if everyone listened to me all the time instead of just when I've got something sensible to say.

Lyric writing is a joy, dialogue a pain. Everyone wants to get on with the singing. I'm trying to winkle out lines as the shape of the piece starts to float clear and the Polyfilla becomes apparent. As the opening draws nearer the changes become harder to make. Even the change of a bar of music has a "knock-on" effect throughout the show. The equation is time, time. We should be tightening-up on the road, but this one's too big to fit in a suitcase.

I go to sleep with the songs we've cut (nine in the last three years) echoing in my head. Or else the lyrics turn upside down. Notwithstanding the plangent beauty of my original, last night it was ...

Bring me some tights
These bloody nylon ones have holes
I will just die on stage

Thus semiologists will be pleased to know that every musical has a super-text which the cast can perform at any time. In my nightmares they do just that.


Despite the grinding work and the obsessiveness, the exhilaration keeps coming back. And there are other compensations. The Piccadilly Theatre is being redecorated from its bars to its meanest back corridor. The peeling Blythe Spirit is becoming a plushy grand dame for the Nineties. Off duty, a fresh part of London has become my second home; Melati's, the Brasserie at the Cafe Royal, the wonderful Polish cooking at the Brewer Street Buttery; the wine shops and delis, the sleaze and the chic. When I want to be alone I watch run-throughs from the back of the Upper Circle. In the evening there's an upstairs room at the Devonshire Arms where I can sit and watch the audience collect outside the theatre opposite. One's enemies, of course, come to previews. The earlier the preview, the greater the antagonist.


There has been a surfeit of laughter, the best lubricant when the going gets tough. When the company appeared on the set for the first time it was like a group of wild children let loose in Disneyland, climbing all over the moving lifts and through Ralph Koltai's honeycombed steel towers. The French director Jerome Savary has also provided a number of treasurable moments. "Where is Joe?" said the musical director one afternoon, when the composer was out of the theatre. "Ee 'as gone to Nashville to look for anozzer song", said Savary.

Last week Judy Kuhn broke out of her love song as she disappeared in a cloud of dry ice. "I can't sing in this", said the American star from somewhere inside a cumulo-nimbus of gigantic proportions. (Actually that wasn't exactly what she said). The director was unrepentant.

"But my dear, this is a French smoke machine", said Savary with Gallic pride, "it's just glycerine and nice things like that, very good for the throat!"

Now we're previewing, listening for pearls from the audience becomes an addiction. The trick is to get next to a likely group and pretend you're waiting for someone, or bury your head in a programme as if temporarily distracted. The information can be valuable. It can also be a shock. Last night I followed an intelligent-looking couple at the end of the show, my abject horror increasing as we climbed up to street level from the stalls.


The show was bereft of a beginning. Of the middle there was no sign and the ending was nowhere to be found. Of sense it was devoid and performances there were none. (By now I'm out in Sherwood Street bent double with shock and pretending to look for a taxi). Worse still, it was old fashioned and repetitive. And the simultaneous translation was impossible.

... Another show. They've just come out of Metropolis and they're talking about another show! Never mind, the previews are full and the box office is taking on more staff. I'm a writer of mere words, a maker of mere action, coming slowly to understand the public's thirst for musical theatre.

Dusty Hughes:
"I go to sleep with the songs we've cut echoing in my head"

Metropolis opens at the Piccadilly Theatre next Wednesday.

Evening Standard, 2 March 1989


Copyright © 2002 M. Kniestedt. All rights reserved.