When Is A Musical Not A Musical?

Recently I saw Poor Boy by the Melbourne Theatre Company at the new Sumner Theatre, Southbank.

Poor Boy is a play written by the fabulous Australian playwright Matt Cameron. I say fabulous because at least two of his previous works, Ruby Moon and Mr Melancholy, are fantastic pieces of literature. Ruby Moon was a wonderful night at the theatre back in mid-2003 at the then Playbox (now Malthouse Theatre), while Mr Melancholy serves as the only absurdist work I have ever successfully been able to completely engage high school drama students in … repeatedly. No small feat!

Back to Poor Boy….

This play was not a musical. It was a play. So why the title of this post, then? Because Poor Boy had weaved throughout it 12 songs by New Zealand maestro Tim Finn. Everything from known hits like I Hope I Never (Split Enz, 1980) to Tim Finn solo numbers and the song of the play’s name, Poor Boy (also Split Enz, 1980).

Though much is written in the program notes about the what these songs meant to Finn when conceived and why Cameron chose them for inclusion in the play, little is revealed about any collaboration between the two artists (?).

While I certainly believe the majority of the songs “worked” in the play and consolidated its themes (a few jarred, but that’s OK), the play still wasn’t a musical. Offiicially it was “A Play With Songs By Matt Cameron and Tim Finn”, undoubtedly part of its attraction to the theatre going, ticket buying, public. It certainly was a major part of the attraction for me, anyway.

I assumed with much anticipation Poor Boy was going to include original songs by Finn written exclusively for the show; the sort of artistic collaboration only dreams are made of. But it was not to be so.

In moments where the songs didn’t quite work as well as one might have hoped, I couldn’t help feeling this concept was a little bit like the Mamma Mia / Jersey Boys Jukebox Musical genre. Throw a bunch of songs together by a well-known artist and weave them into the (existing) “book” as best as possible and pray that it works in the theatre.

Like all musicals, the songs in Poor Boy worked best when they were interlaced with the dialogue with ease. And yes, when they failed, there was an artificial “jump” made to include the song/s and worse, the audience knew it.

On the whole, I loved Poor Boy and thought it was a wonderful two and a half hours in the theatre. Hats off to the MTC for taking a risk with the genre, too.

What genre? Is a “play with songs” a theatrical genre? Was it not a musical in the traditional sense because the songs were added to the work after it was written? Or because this “play with songs” had no dancing, as in most musicals? Or was it because the play was the focus and not the songs?

Being a long time Split Enz / Tim Finn fan, I bopped along inside my head to all the songs I recognised.

It was all very musical to me.

But Poor Boy was not a musical.

It was a “play with songs”.


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