“I’m just a boy. I’m not a hero.” My Chemical Romance’s bombastic Black Parade starts with a tormented young man on a hospital bed, ends in a martial explosion, a parade, a will to carry on.
Dave Malloy’s dazzling experimental musical Preludes imagines its protagonist, the Russian composer Rachmaninoff, as a downcast young guy who’s costumed like an emo band’s frontman, backed by two pianists who thunder out his early hits (he neither sings nor plays a note). Eyeliner makes its star Keith Ramsay’s gaze wide and child-like, while his tousled hair and black skinny trousers and assymetrical rucked jersey situate him somewhere in the early 00s. It’s exhilaratingly anachronistic. Preludes is set in 1870s Russia, but it feels as much like modern day New York, with its tormented subway rides and neurosis and the sense of big-city crampedness. Its timeline is as restless as Rachmaninoff’s swirls of strings, complicating his music with electronic updates and riffs. Its scenes circle Rachmaninoff’s meetings with a hypnotherapist (played, in an effective gender swap, by Rebecca Caine) who’s meant to cure his writer’s block. He can’t write since the disastrous premiere of his last work, when he landed vitriolic newspaper coverage that compared him to the devil (never read the reviews, guys). His heroes – Chekhov, Beethoven – visit him to offer advice, boozily, overbearingly. Like Rachmaninoff, they’re presented as ordinary men not gods, and they goad this threateningly good young upstart by dismissing his work as too ambitious, too much. He needs to write a new work to change their minds, but he’s childishly frustrated when he can’t compose because his more pragmatic wife Natasha kicks him out of the flat, to teach lessons on the piano and bring in the money they need to eat. In short, he’s an emo, infuriatingly self-absorbed and likeable at once as he tries to find the will to carry on.
“It isn’t fair. Every time I hear it I go to pieces”, coos Marilyn Monroe, in persona as an archly corseted femme fatale, sitting next to a pianist whose fingers are playing Rachmaninoff’s most emotive notes. “Don’t stop! Don’t stop!”
Rachmaninoff’s music has an extravagance that lends itself to scenes of romantic swooning excess; to the point of parody. His Piano Concerto 2 is also the theme to Brief Encounter, its swirling notes bringing all the emotional, sensual turmoil to the surface – a turmoil that just barely registers on Celia Johnson’s face, each tiny twitch blown up metres wide.
Preludes isn’t quite sexless, but it’s almost there. There’s a surprising disjunct between the sensuousness of the music and the awkwardness of its composer. Its time period covers a bit of Rachmaninoff’s life I didn’t know about; the bit where he sought the Tsar’s permission to marry his first cousin (officialdom had to approve potentially incestuous unions). Their relationship is child-like, formed as they grew up together. Its sensuality only registers her plea to the Tsar, where she talks about the delicate trembling of their crossed hands as they played four hands duets on the piano together, pressed close on a single stool. Music is sexy, it makes room for intimacies that wouldn’t be allowable elsewhere.
But this night’s sexiest moment doesn’t involve the delicate interplay of fingers; instead, it’s a demonic neo-opera solo that’s howled out to a surging electronic soundtrack, as Christopher Nairne’s lighting design frames the stage in concentric parallelograms of light, pulsing like rock concert. It’s kitsch but it’s also all-in dazzlingly new. And it’s a moment that shows what musical theatre can do, at its best, when it’s not tightly wrapped in layers of worn-out camp and tradition; it can unlock huge emotions and let them bounce and ricochet through an audience like giant rubber water bombs, ludicrous but unstoppable.
How did someone who never went to church compose one of the most enduring religious works of all time? The All-Night Vigil is music at its most transcendental, soaring up gothic arches and summoning a higher power, whether it’s god or some darker force.
Rachmaninov’s dense blend of new compositions and ancient Russian choral tradition might be my favourite piece of music of all time. ‘Borogoditse Dyevo’ is probably the best known passage but here, we get ‘Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda’, another hymn arranged with surging beauty. Four members of the cast sing it straight out at the audience, and opera singer Rebecca Caine shines in its central alto role, singing with a resonance and delicate vibrato you almost never hear in musicals in the age of Idina Menzel-style belting. The balance isn’t quite right; this is a idiosyncratic mix of voices, all different in style and training, some coming through, some melting away. But it’s beautiful.
Preludes doesn’t quite balance out, either. It’s really flawed in a few various, obvious ways. The pacing is off. The first act has a kind of narrative push that pretty much disappears in the second, which becomes muddied, even as it dazzles with genre-melding musical experimentation that floats free from the often-homogenous sound of 21st century musical theatre. As the story becomes submerged, it shows music to be an overwhelming, hybrid, ravenous force, cannibalising tunes and styles. The piano drifts from a symphony into a trite Broadway melody, its tune half-stolen from Rachmaninoff’s wildly fertile flights of notes.
“Chills run up and down my spine/ Aladdin’s lamp was mine”: The piano melts into a nostalgic melody and Rita Hayworth sings (more accurately, dubbing artist Martha Meers sings) with a strange lyricism, the electric thrill of remembering a love affair.
Preludes is frustrating but I still love it, so much so that I want to send people to it, especially people who don’t sit in the often-too-admiring circle of hardened musical theatre fans. It’s jolting and strange, massaging you one minute and prodding you the next as it breaks, firmly and decisively, with decades of backward-looking musical theatre tradition.
It’s also a kind of narrative that’s maybe too familiar, centring on the kind that of tormented genius figure that writers like to write because tormented geniuses are the people they’ve modelled themselves on. I’m always intrigued by the cult of genius and its omnipresence in the arts. Preludes doesn’t particularly have a grand thesis on why the neuroses of Rachmaninoff are so fascinating, or why we pore over artists diaries’ and biographies, as though we want just a smudge of that magic lustre to rub off on our hands. But what’s telling is that Preludes shows Rachmaninoff’s own encounters with his idols to be entirely unsatisfying. Malloy creates a picture where encounters with both artists and art are inherently flawed. A person can encounter a ravishing piece of music at the wrong time, in the wrong mood, and hate it. An uninspired conductor can ruin a work of genius. An enthusiastic audience member can horrify their idol by playing their music back in a clunky chords, express approval in a way that feels worse than disdain.
How can I respond to a work that’s all about the inadequacies of conversations about art, about the shortcomings of responses, about the shock of being misunderstood and mischaracterised, like Rachmaninoff was by his furiously angry critics? Perhaps by needling at a moment that I might have misread. At the story’s end, a paternalistic creator-figure pops in to reassure a troubled Rachmaninoff that he’ll find fame, and he seems reassured by the thought of his future success. It’s a moment that feels a little sentimental, a little easy after the mess of ego and inadequacy that’s gone before. Surely prickly Rachmaninoff wouldn’t be reassured by at the thought of an audience’s flawed adulation? Then, the music melts away, applause comes. He bows.
Preludes is on at Southwark Playhouse until 12th October. More info and tickets here.