Pick A Pocket or Two – A History of British Musical Theatre
By Ethan Mordden

Reviewer's Rating

This new and welcome study of the history of the musical in Britain fills -incredibly – a major gap in the literature, as there is no other single volume that currently occupies this niche. It takes its bearings from the ‘Beggar’s Opera’ at the start of the eighteenth century, with its determined stand against the conventions of Italian opera and follows the story through familiar markers such as Gilbert & Sullivan, Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Lionel Bart and culminating of course in Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mordden offers many fascinating insights into the careers of all these well-known contributors, but perhaps the most useful and revealing chapters of the book focus on less-well known figures and periods that are now unjustly neglected.

The overall argument of the book is that unlike the American musical whose characters achieve their ambitions and social mobility the British musical focuses more on establishing and maintaining social order. There are fourteen chapters, all of which contain intriguing and shrewd insights and highlight less than well-known information. It is good to hear the case made for the qualities of ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ in the G&S canon. And even better to get some detailed coverage of the ‘Gaiety Theatre’ era and the Cochran revues of the 1920s in which musical comedy established itself as a separate genre from operetta. Ivor Novello is of course better known, and here receives a fair, if brisk, assessment – ‘long books and short scores inflated by reprises.’

There is an excellent discussion of the relatively flat conservatism of the British Musical in the 1930s and 40s relative to elsewhere, and we receive on-point explanations for the great popularity of Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan. More puzzling is the author’s very high estimate of Noel Coward. While he certainly deserves great admiration as a playwright and for his brave projection of a fully formed public gay persona, Mordden seems overly enamoured of Coward’s skills in musical theatre. Yes, the wit and brio of many of the songs remain; but the shows themselves have not worn well and seem unlikely to find many future revivals on the London stage.

While the works of Vivian Ellis, Sandy Wilson and Julian Slade have their moments, Mordden rightly focuses on Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver’ as the key work of the post-war era. He points out how the ingredients of its success are common to many of the most successful musicals – a story everyone knows, a sweetening and lightening of the original story by Dickens, and a consistently memorable score that meshes tightly with a swift moving, eventful narrative. In some of the most intriguing parts of the book he next shows clearly how the success of ‘Les Miserables’, despite its French core, is shaped by British collaborators operating between and influenced by the twin guideposts of ‘Oliver’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’

Lloyd Webber is inevitably the focus of the final sections. We are both reminded of the sheer variety of the musical genres his musicals have inhabited, and also of the consistency with which he builds on the pop roots of ‘Joseph’ (1968) all the way through to his last really successful contribution ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1997), whose grandiose proportions represent the outer limit of writing in that tradition. A final chapter takes us right up to date with analysis of ‘Matilda’ and ‘Half a Sixpence.’

This book is a lively, thoughtful and engaging read throughout, but there are specific criticisms that need to be made. The broader themes are often obscured by the remorseless show-by-show progression of the narrative, which sometimes sacrifices the big picture for too much (albeit fascinating) local detail. Moreover, given that the author has written so widely on the history of musical it is odd that this book is never engages systematically with influences from outside Britain. While there are occasional references to synergy and parallel development with the American musical, there is so much more that could be said, not least by an author who has written so much on the subject elsewhere. For example, the success of Stephen Sondheim in this country and the shaping role his works have played on other practitioners is not glimpsed here.

Finally, in his account of the nineteenth century Mordden skips over some crucial elements too briefly. For example, the contribution of the music written for popular melodrama requires discussion, or at least a reference to Michael Pisani’s masterful survey, ‘Music for the Melodramatic Theatre in Nineteenth-Century London & New York’ (2014).

There is an excellent and helpful discography to conclude, together with an attractive scrapbook of photos located in the centre of the volume.