The original cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s new musical The Beautiful Game was released this past weekend. The production opened recently in London to mixed reviews, with many critics saving the most negative comments for Elton’s book and lyrics. What follows here is an in-depth, track-by-track discussion of the original cast recording, focusing on what the score has to offer. I do not have a copy of the complete libretto, nor have I been able to see The Beautiful Game in its West End production, so I shall be basing my overview on what is represented on the recording, working with a synopsis to gain some sense of the dramaturgical contributions made by the music and lyrics to the show.
Those who do not know the show at all will be able to make sense of things as this analysis continues, but a complete synopsis of the plot is available on the page devoted to The Beautiful Game here at Musical Cyberspace. Here is what you need to know to get started: the show tells the story of the members of an Irish football team and their experiences of the religious intolerance and violence that engulfed Ireland in the 1970s. You will notice a series of numbers in blocks at the bottom of this article. These can be used to navigate between the different sections of this review.
The “Overture” of The Beautiful Game is an evocative piece of music based on some of the musical themes we will hear during the show (including “Clean the Kit”, “The Final”, “God’s Own Country” and “Dead Zone”. After an initial listen to the album, this was one of the tracks I found most intriguing overall. In the production, the “Overture” is used to establish the role of football in the 1970s Irish community that is at the core of the show: a single figure kicks a tin can around the space before being joined by a group of other football players. There are shades of West Side Story, perhaps, in the way that choreographed movement and dance are established as being an integral theatrical element of this show at its opening (although it is worth remembering that this choice is a theatrical one that may not be followed through in new productions of the show; an overview of the show as a whole reveals dance to be less integral to the show dramatically than in West Side Story). The music also provides a sense of tone and setting for the show as a whole: Lloyd Webber certainly establishes almost instantly that this will be a dramatic piece with a certain degree of serious intent, that we are in the territory of the musical play rather than than that of the musical comedy. This choice supports the serious content of the show. The Irish setting is reflected in the use of what must be an Irish flute or whistle at the beginning of the “Overture” and the way that the strings are used in the passage immediately following recalls the 1970s, although it seems that the opening of this show could be as early as 1969. The use of percussion to introduce irregular and more frequent rhythmic passages, until a kind of dramatic pseudo-jig is created as electric guitars and fiddles are added, helps to establish a sense of unrest in the score, while the instrumentation further supports the setting. There was a moment when I wondered – as some kind of measure, I suppose – whether this “Overture” would work musically in In the Name of the Father, the Jim Sheridan film about the Guildford Four that shares, in the early part of the film, the milieu of The Beautiful Game. I thought it would and was satisfied in my appreciation of the piece.
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