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Musicals fill a unique niche in the world of entertainment

Spending a life foraging through the arts for inspiration, I've found that I'm a huge fan of music and theatre… and yet I don't much like musical theatre.

West Side Story, based loosely on the plot of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, was created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. A new stage production is currently touring the UK
West Side Story, based loosely on the plot of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, was created by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. A new stage production is currently touring the UK

Why such a conundrum? Both are such potent and expressive forms, and the prospect of a combination should arguably be just as emotive and rewarding. But when an actor suddenly bursts dramatically into song at a touching, tenterhooks moment, the results to me are comical, precisely at a time when a director is attempting to convey pathos. To me, it detracts from the actual drama and seems contrived, tasteless and plain irritating.

Musicals are just entertainment of course, and perhaps I shouldn't be so po-faced. I realise their place in the world. They exist in the pop-classical realm, part of the proliferation of light entertainment that includes game shows, soap operas, talent contests, celebrity journalism, manufactured pop and gala variety performances.

As a general rule, I prefer "heavy" entertainment - music, film, art, theatre, literature, the avant-garde and so on. I am neither trying nor intending to be elitist. Far from it, I'm a pop music lover first and foremost: I like rock'n'roll and its myriad offshoots, which have always been seen as low-brow and primitive. But to me pop can still remain challenging and subversive, as well as being catchy and concise.

I must also admit that I far prefer opera. Until recently I wasn't an admirer for similar reasons to musicals, but I am slowly being converted. Having recently witnessed Bizet's Carmen in Prague at the Czech National Theatre, I now see opera as predominantly about music and singing, with acting and dancing secondary. The music itself is also more complex and the experience more emotionally engaging.

Light entertainment is force-fed to us all via advertising, television, radio, press and the internet. Pop-classical music is now heard in shops, hairdressers, airports, train stations and most other public spaces. Anything weightier is usually sidelined and deemed as too specialist or niche in appeal. Such bombardment becomes frustrating, and consequently I've built up an aversion over the years to the forever-smiling, endlessly-cheerful, commercial faux-sincerity of it.

That said, to tarnish all musicals with the same brush would be to do the entire genre a massive disservice. Take the writers who produced what is now referred to as "The Great American Songbook", such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington. They constructed some of the most timeless and delightfully crafted melodies and arrangements ever, designed for the most part specifically for musical theatre.

These artists were pioneers and visionaries, whose music still stands up today as it did in the days of Broadway in the early 20th century. There is wit, humour, soul and beauty in so much of the work. Even late 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan productions are frivolous family fun but still sustain a level of quality, sophistication and sheer escapism that leaves many contemporary works by the wayside.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is probably the real reason the genre means little to me. Growing up to the soundtrack of Evita, Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom Of The Opera and (let's not forget!) his first Ben Elton collaboration, The Beautiful Game, his insipid, saccharine mediocrity was everywhere. Photographed with presidents Bush and Putin, a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, not to mention recent TV talent shows… he's not my cup of tea, shall we say.

Of late we've seen the so-called "jukebox" musicals too. Queen's We Will Rock You, ABBA's Mamma Mia, Green Day's American Idiot and The Proclaimers' Sunshine On Leith have all been huge box-office sensations, keeping the music of iconic groups alive and giving an audience what they want. My main complaint about these is often the propensity to shoehorn in as many songs as possible around an often peripheral, risible plot.

Film adaptations of Les Miserables and Chicago as well as the global TV phenomenon that is Glee have further cemented musicals in the heart of the entertainment world. Reviews have been ecstatic and yet I am utterly dumbfounded. I suppose watching Tom Waits's Big Time, the Sex Pistols' Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle or an early Beatles film gives me a similar thrill and many won't understand that.

This week I buried any preconceptions, narrow-mindedness and bias by entering Glasgow's King's Theatre to watch West Side Story for the first time as a stage production. Eschewing modern adaptations for the original Leonard Bernstein score, Stephen Sondheim lyrics and Jerome Robbins choreography, you can see how it changed musical theatre forever. And, wait for it… I actually enjoyed myself.

With a little more grit due to its age-old themes of social unrest, prejudice, gang rivalry and hopeless aspiration, West Side Story certainly has an edge. As with Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet, on which it's based, there is no happy ending either. It's dynamic and visceral, with Bernstein's jazz coursing through its veins, and I have to confess that it does work. When masterful musicianship combines with stunning lighting, stage projections and the athletic prowess of the performers, at times it's breathtaking. Judge for yourself: West Side Story is on in Glasgow until January 25 and returns to Edinburgh Playhouse on March 18 for another run.

Musicals may not be my thing, and this recent mini-epiphany hasn't swayed me much either, but let the statistics speak for themselves: Broadway made an estimated $1.2 billion in ticket sales in 2013. Who am I to question that? More than ever, I suppose the world is still enthralled by a good, old song-and-dance routine. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is showbiz.

Vic Galloway presents on BBC Radio Scotland at 8.05pm-10pm on Mondays (www.bbc.co.uk/radioscotland) with a Mogwai live special from Celtic Connections tomorrow. His book Songs In The Key Of Fife is out now, published by Polygon. Contact Vic at www.twitter.com/vicgalloway

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