Musical of the Year, Lost Theatre, London ★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

When it comes to pastiching a variety of musical styles in a single show, there are a range of approaches to take. Shows like Forbidden Broadway and Jest End prefer the sketch-based approach, while the cult show Musical of Musicals: The Musical takes a simple plot and plays it out in the style of everyone from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber.

Musical of the Year takes a slightly different approach. Starting in the 1950s, it has idealistic composer Rudy (Robbie Smith) and his lyricist wife (Rebecca Gilliand) knocking about ideas for updating the musical they wrote at college together, updating it to be more in vogue with the year’s hottest musical styles. And so, as their musical based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame progresses, its style shifts to reflect how the genre of musical theatre has shifted over the decades.

Of course, the story of Quasimodo and Esmerelda has been adapted into musical form several times, but it’s still a good choice, as creators Stephen Lanigan-O’Keeffe and Owain Rose balance their affectionate jibes at well-known musicals with a narrative drive that prevents the mickey-taking from ever seeming repetitive. It also means that the story’s plot points dovetail nicely with thematic elements from each of the musicals they choose to lampoon – not an easy task when the strictures of a strictly chronological journey through musical theatre dictates when and where each musical style should be applied.

But work it does, with strains from The Sound of Music playing out as Esmerelda is enticed by the cathedral bells, and the licentious priest Dom Claude chastises himself over his sexual desire for the gypsy girl in a manner befitting Jesus Christ Superstar. These are not parody numbers per se, although a second act belfry scene between Jamie Fillery’s Quasimodo and Jennifer Tilley as Esmerelda comes closest – one cannot, it seems, base a song on both Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera without poking substantial digs at revolving stages and masks.

What is less successful is the framing device of Smith and Gilliand’s composer duo, as Rudy’s obsession with updating his musical plays it toll on his family life. While it makes thematic sense – and the composer’s spiralling depression in the second act allows for 1990s excess, and even Avenue Q-style puppets, to have their turn on the stage – it has a tendency to kill the pace, and with Frank Turnbull’s set design placing the “real life” elements in one small corner of the stage, they often feel intrusive when they should feel integrated.

The chronological aspect to the show’s pastiches falls apart for the finale, with a mash-up of HairspraySister Act and even Spring Awakening suggesting that there were some musical targets that Lanigan-O’Keeffe and Rose could not fit into their self-imposed structure.

The most up-to-date reference in the modern-day finale is (a frankly brilliant) Once pastiche – but it is a sign that Musical of the Year will have a limited shelf life before it feels out of date. All the more reason, then, to grab this often hilarious show now.

Runs until October 29. 

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