Re:Imagining Musicals at the V&A celebrates the fantastical, famous and forgotten

Weave your way round the new exhibition Re:Imagining Musicals at the V&A in London, and you light on a fascinating contrast. Among the 100 objects on display are costumes, props, posters and a kaleidoscopic video of the 30 stage musicals recorded by the museum’s archival department. But sharp-eyed observers will notice at the end a tiny inset panel showing a solitary guy listening to old LPs on his gramophone. Among the album covers I spotted was Valmouth: a 1958 Sandy Wilson musical that has a dedicated cult following.

This is a vivid reminder that while musicals have a mass-market appeal they also attract obsessives who can tell you which numbers were cut from the 1964 staging of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. What is good about this exhibition is that it is likely to attract both audiences: those for whom the musical is the ultimate form of showbiz escape and collectors of theatrical arcana. The two categories are not mutually exclusive and I confess that, at different times, I could have signed up to either group.

A headpiece for Danny La Rue as Dolly Levi at Re:Imagining Musicals.
A headpiece for Danny La Rue as Dolly Levi at Re:Imagining Musicals. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

The former will find plenty to relish in the exhibition which is broadly divided into three sections: musicals inspired by literature and film, those that take history as their starting-point and those that stem from real people’s lives. As the exhibition’s curator Simon Sladen points out, everything is covered “from the First Folio to Frozen” but I suspect many people will be drawn initially to the costumes on display: here is the beaded Cecil Beaton gown worn by Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, the diamond-studded outfit sported by Satine in Moulin Rouge! The Musical and even a feathered headpiece that adorned the capacious bonce of Danny La Rue when he played the lead in Hello Dolly!

But the geek in me was intrigued by shows represented of which I have little or no recollection. If I did see a 1977 Leslie Bricusse musical, Kings and Clowns, about the private life of Henry VIII, it has been banished from my memory. The same goes for Abbacadabra, a 1983 Christmas show at the Lyric Hammersmith produced by Cameron Mackintosh and starring Elaine Paige, that deployed Abba hit songs long before Mamma Mia! But I know for sure I never saw – nor did many others – a 1977 musical called Nefertiti which died on the road in Chicago without ever getting to Broadway.

Wandering round the exhibition brought on a fit of list-making. Someone clearly once thought a musical about a 14th-century BC Egyptian queen would be a good subject for a musical but what about all the other ill-fated choices? Top of my list would be The Lieutenant which was a 1975 Broadway musical about the massacre of civilians at My Lai in Vietnam in 1968: unsurprisingly it closed after nine performances. Then again in London in 1971 there was a musical, with lyrics by Don Black, called Maybe That’s Your Problem which dealt with premature ejaculation: as Michael Coveney pointed out, it came off quickly. In my early years as a critic, I saw musicals about Bernadette of Lourdes and Thomas Becket and Henry II that made the mind boggle and an adaptation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays that inexplicably featured a flamenco display by a band of Warwickshire dancers.

Detail of a costume from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Detail of a costume from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

But the exhibition also made me think about musicals I would like to see again. My first choice would be a 1956 Frank Loesser musical, The Most Happy Fella, which bursts with great tunes: I’ve mentioned this to several producers who all agree about the score but say that the book, which deals with a California wine grower and a mail order bride, would have to be rewritten. If presented as a 1950s period piece, I still think it could work.

Another neglected show from the late 50s is Make Me An Offer which started its life at Stratford East and then moved, under Joan Littlewood’s direction, to the West End. With music and lyrics by Monty Norman and David Heneker and a book by Wolf Mankowitz, it was about the aspirations of a humble antiques dealer. To this day, I can still recall Daniel Massey poignantly singing “I want a lock-up in the Portobello road”, a young Sheila Hancock stopping the show with a number called Isn’t It Romantic and a sweating Roy Kinnear turning to the audience and moaning: “Ten years in rep and here I am humping furniture around for Joan Littlewood.”

The musical, I realise, has moved on. This is the age of Hamilton, Wicked and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. While all these are acknowledged at the V&A, the exhibition gives one a licence to dream. In fact, I can easily identify with that grizzled oldster glimpsed at the very end inhabiting his own world of musical fantasy.