Recently, while visiting London, and thanks to the machinations of Irene, who interfered and caused me to stay far too long than I should have, and certainly intended to, I was struck by something the brilliant writer/actor/raconteur John Cleese, of the original “Monty Python” and “Fawlty Towers”, was quoted in the British newspapers as having said OUT LOUD while appearing on Australian television to promote a show at the Sydney Opera House, causing all sorts of fallout with his countrymen for having said it. He actually said he felt London was no “no longer an English city”. Not only that, but he went even further and stated the capital felt like a foreign city and that English culture was disappearing. I was struck at the time, while reading of his comments, that maybe he had something there, for during my stay, prolonged by an infernal hurricane which completely turned my stay into something unfortunate which I never wanted it to become, that I started to think, well, gee, maybe he’s gleaned onto something with incredibly far-reaching consequences. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt a love for London, from the first time I set foot there close to 20 years ago, when I started turning down its twisty, sooty streets and began to think I’d been there before, in another time and era, because everything seemed so eerily familiar, and over the years when I kept returning, always discovering something new to fall in love with, yet realizing, with each passing year, something here was changing each time I came back, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it, I was coming to realize that London was changing into something very different than what had originally caused me to love it. Maybe it were the giant, ugly monstrosities of architecture that began to rise up and fill the view from Waterloo Bridge, surrounded by enormous hulking cranes that were indeed erecting these monstrosities, that were beginning to bother me. There are so many of these oddly shaped things now, you can stand on the South Bank and realize St. Paul’s Cathedral and The Tower of London are dwarfed and surrounded by metal and mortar THINGS that make London’s HISTORY look puny and insignificant by comparison. Maybe it’s the fact there’s no direct path to anywhere in London anymore, that there are bulldozers everywhere, destroying that beautiful little park in Leicester Square, for instance, while attempting to preserve the trees in that poor little park, even though across the way, something that was once beautiful has been replaced by a giant corporate candy store and emporium, that makes a piece of British history look like Times Square at its gaudiest. Not far from where I was staying on this visit, a 52 story thing improbably called the Shard Building, is going up and destroying the landscape, and here’s the capper, no, the literal topper to all this-when the Shard building is finished there will be a giant, single hotel suite in the shape of a yacht (which is being currently assembled on the South Bank), which will be lifted by crane to the very top of the Shard Building, and rented out to a different guest, or set of guests, for one day and evening at a time ONLY-one day and night per guest party, for a price to be determined by the owners of the building, and I assume, based on the status of whomever the VIPs turn out to be. Is this what a city as old and cultured and civilized and storied as London has become? A city where hooligans (the week before I arrived), could run rampant, unabated, and allowed to burn and loot and wreak havoc, while the police could only stand by and watch, until the mayor, and the mayoral candidates, and the prime minister all cut short their vacations and returned to chide the looters and give the police more power to deal with them and make them STOP (Oh yes, THIS will teach you! Angry Words), causing 2 weeks of ludicrous editorials in which the great and powerful ranted and raved and pontificated about what was to be done and what needed to be done, and, for the most part, succeeded in just filling newspaper space with opinions and crazed meanderings, which is, after all, what newspaper space is there for after all, especially when some of those newspaper owners are giving their employees free reign to spy on, and tap the phones of ,the rich and famous and the fabulous, just to prove that they have every right to do so. And so, I read what John Cleese had said in public with great interest, because I realized he was right, squarely, on the money. The English “culture” I had fallen in love with, was disappearing, the “civility” that once shone so brightly on its streets and made me smile and chuckle was pretty much a thing of the past, and, scarily enough, I realized one reason I was so bothered by it all, was, over the years I had watched the city WHICH I live and work in, fall prey to the same bulldozing, the same destruction of the old in favor of the new (even if the new was far uglier than the old), the same mentality that the new was far far better than the old, just because it was new, and therefore, an improvement. And while it happens at an accelerated pace in London because they are a year away from the Olympics showing them to be the showplace of the world and thereby necessitating all this “progress”, i shudder to think of what New York City would be looking like right now had it been the “winner” of the 2012 Olympics instead of London. and so I say, Bravo, Mr. Cleese, keep speaking out about what you believe in, and may you possibly inspire a New Yorker to come out and publicly say something very similar.
And what about the state of British theater, you query, has that changed and disintegrated and radically altered as well? Well, there are great gems to be found currently on the London stage, but the British public are also lapping things up like “Rock Of Ages”, “Million Dollar Quartet”, “Legally Blonde” (which has now run longer than it did in New York), a gaudy, multi-million production of an unrecognizable “Wizard Of Oz”, with new songs by Andrew Lloyd Weber and production values that make it look more like a Las Vegas extravaganza, the seemingly endless runs of “Phantom Of The Opera”, “Mama Mia” and “Les Miserables”, with a spanking new production of “Cats” on the way (Hey, when they said “Now and Forever” back in 1982, THEY MEANT IT!!), and yet curiously, and very quietly, 2 weeks ago, the 15 year West End run of “Chicago” quietly folded up shop with absolutely no fanfare, having been displaced by a theatre owner who sees another musical that will open in its place and which will inevitably bring in much more money and run much longer. “Chicago” intends to return and re-open, however, but rumour has it, in one of the older, colder uglier theaters in the West End. Whoops, maybe it’s time to tear it down and replace it, huh?
But beware, theatregoers, for on these shores, this Spring, you will be bombarded with the loudest, crassest, silliest excuse for a musical I’ve seen in a long long time, a musical that has no sense to BE, that so screws up and kills the power of its movie-roots source material, you just walk out shaking your head over the bombastic, ugly nonsense you’ve just been assaulted with. COMING SOON TO BROADWAY- and i wish I were kidding- “Ghost-the Musical”. Would that it weren’t.