Ben Elton and THE BEAUTIFUL GAME: 10 Years Later

This year will mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of The Beautiful Game. The show, now revised as The Boys in the Photograph, will be produced in South Africa as a part of the World Cup festivities there, and perhaps it is time to consider how this show away from whatever hype surrounded its original production.

When the show first premiered, I wrote an in depth track-by-track review of the cast recording, focusing on the music and lyrics, concluding that Andrew Lloyd Webber had composed an interesting and intriguing score that was compromised to a certain extent by Ben Elton’s craftsmanship as a lyricist,

That aspect of Elton’s work hasn’t changed and it has harmed the reputation of the show. However, if one works through all of the lyrics in the show, Elton does some good work in places and I think one should remember that a set of lyrics that is half bad is also one that is half good. Consequently, his work on the show when assessed as a body of work as opposed to his work on one song, such as this, is brought down to the level of mediocrity rather than being one that displays no merit whatsoever.

Furthermore, although his work in terms of rhyme is one of the major problems of his lyrics, it is worth remembering that there is more to a lyric than perfect rhyme; indeed, there are many songs in musical theatre that rhyme perfectly but which have such poorly conceived content that no amount of perfect rhyming could save them as markers of meaning within a dramatic context. Songs that exist in the context of drama for the sole sake of wordplay are as destructive to the communication of meaning in a musical as an imperfect rhyme that jars on the ear: the best dramatic lyrics are a marriage of both elements. (This does not even take into account the problem of the contemporary ear, which is accustomed to imperfect rhyme and would probably find the former more destructive than the latter.)

With the exception of “The First Time”, every other lyric in the show has something to commend it. “The First Time” is the only song that in the score that is truly unsalvagable and would be better off being cut, though I think it is worth noting that the reasoning behind the song is solid from Elton’s perspective. It was not simply a lyric written to fill the space, as it were: Elton’s intent, as he has mentioned in interviews, was for the lyrics to contrast the lush Aspects of Love style music and to create a kind of comic clash between the two. The purpose of that is to keep the mood of the scene “up” because, as those who have seen the show or at least spent enough time to go through the show with a synopsis will know, it’s pretty serious from there on out. Ultimately, the choice doesn’t work and what Elton needs to do to counter the tragic events that follow John and Mary’s wedding is to play into the romanticism of the scene rather than try to contrive a comic “upper” for the audience. This would work particularly well given the new ending written for the show.

Elton and Lloyd Webber’s hearts certainly were in the right place when they created this show and The Beautiful Game is a noble project. It grapples with serious issues and difficult themes, particularly in the extensive book of the show which is more typical of books by Oscar Hammerstein II than those normally attached to a Lloyd Webber production. Certainly Elton’s lyrics do detract from the good intentions of the show, but I believe firmly that if Elton was meticulous about his craftsmanship in his lyric-writing in a revisiting of his work on this show, then most of the problems with the lyrics could be solved.

Of course, this does not immediately imply that the show itself is better: we begin to plant ourselves in dangerous territory when we say that a show has more merit simply because of the intentions behind it. The kudos (and the brickbats, for that matter) given to a show should be based on what is there, on the show itself. I also think that the context in which Lloyd Webber’s works takes place needs to be taken into account if we are to offer any opinions on his choice of projects: he is one of the few theatre-makers creating work for an incredibly commercial milieu. He’s not using fringe theatre with its lower costs to develop new theatre, which might allow him to be more daring, and whether he should be doing just that is a separate debate. Certainly he deserves credit when he takes a chance on a show that is more risky, but I think that allows him the space to choose when he takes on a more commercially viable project – in the way that Harold Prince did The Phantom of the Opera to make up for the losses on works that might have greater artistic integrity but which had no impact at the box office. It’s a very complicated equation, one that has artists having to support their families and their lifestyles at the bottom line. It’s even further complicated by the fact that Lloyd Webber has to create what satisfies his needs as an artist, whether you, dear reader, or I or anyone else likes it or not. I don’t think that Lloyd Webber had great stakes in The Beautiful Game and it’s a very atypical show for him: it’s clearly Elton’s baby, he who was the driving force behind the show originally and who basically only worked on the Love Never Dies to get Lloyd Webber to work on the revisions that have led to the creation of The Boys in the Photograph.

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