Musical Theatre Sunday School: THE BOY FRIEND Readathon Part 1

To purchase the libretto of THE BOY FRIEND by Sandy Wilson, click on the image above.

Sundays at Musical Cyberspace are a time to have a look at musicals in more depth. This month, we are going to have a readathon of the libretto of The Boy Friend by Sandy Wilson. If you can get a copy, or have a copy, or have read the libretto before, it would be great to hear your comments each week. The edition that I am using was published by Andre Deutsch in 1955. This week’s discussion will focus on the Preface and Author’s Note.

The first thing that strikes me about the book are the delightful illustrations, which were done by Sandy Wilson. This section of the book includes a brilliant on of a “boy friend” on the inside cover, with three girls going crazy for him on the opposite page, as well as an illustration of the setup line for the title song – ‘Oh, do tell us about him, Polly!’ They truly capture the spirit of the piece, which is outlined succinctly by producer Vida Hope in her preface:

Over coffee I declared my love for The Boy Friend, told Sandy I wanted to do it as a serious reproduction of a period and not a burlesque, and from that moment on his whole demeanour brightened and a friendship was forged that has withstood all the vicissitudes of the various productions of the show.

My first exposure to The Boy Friend was through the film version, which I watched again and again and again as a child until my father basically ordered me to tape something else over it from the television. It seemed to irritate him no end, but I loved it. Of course, the film is something of a burlesque of the play and I wonder to what extent that most times I’ve seen a bit of The Boy Friend on stage – I’ve never made it through a full production – the film is responsible for the sense of overexaggerated parody that seems to have characterised the productions I’ve attended. It seems to me, therefore, that in this little paragraph, Hope offers some important advice to directors hoping to stage The Boy Friend: it’s not The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a difference between a spoof and a valentine.

Another thing I found interesting in the preface was Hope’s discussion of ‘miracle’ shows, shows that are unexpected successes and which capture the public’s hearts and imagination in a way that could not have been predicted. With The Boy Friend itself being such a show, Hope also cites Journey’s End and Oklahoma! as two other examples from her recent memory. While Hope seems to be happy not to delve too deeply into what makes a ‘miracle’ show, it occurred to me how much more obsessed people are with trying to find that formula, rather than fulfilling an artistic vision or telling a story well. Certain musical theatre coomposers, lyricists and librettists – as well as producers and other parties too – seem to be more obsessed with crafting hits than with crafting a brilliant musical that connects with its audience because of its thematic concerns and the way its told. That’s why the market is oversaturated with jukebox musicals and hurried stage adaptations of movies. Neither of these is new to the musical theatre scene by any means, but their prominence today is unprecedented and there are far too many Catch Me If You Cans and We Will Rock Yous and far too few Dogfights and – dare I say it? – Mamma Mias.

In Wilson’s Author’s Note, the thing that stood out most of all for me was his citing of Noël Coward’s advice to readers of lyrics, something which Stephen Sondheim picks up on too in his two volumes of lyrics, and that is that they cannot be read in complete isolation without any sense of the music that accompanies them. Great advice, and I urge us all to remember that in this readathon.

I also adore Wilson’s conviction that his show was not a British reply to Oklahoma! and his acknowledgement that ‘English Theatre has very far to go before it can rival Broadway’ when it came to musical theatre of the 1950s. The British really came into their own with the advent of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the mega-musical, which led to what some musical theatre fanatics call “the British invasion’ and, later on, by mounting newly-focused revivals of American classics, some of which have been enlightening (Carousel, Oklahoma! and La Cage aux Folles) and others rather more ponderous (Follies, A Little Night Music).

So with all of the these thoughts in my mind, I am ready to immerse myself in the world of The Boy Friend. Next week, we’ll be looking at Act One and I hope you’ll join me. Any thoughts to add about the Preface and Authour’s Note? Head on to the comment box below.

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