There’s also a wonderful encounter with Lemmy from Motorhead (of all people).



Books I’ve always thought that the way to tell if you’ve become a lifelong fan of something is if you can see which parts of it are a bit rubbish. Guardianista Emma Brockes spends an awful lot of her book What Would Barbra Do? listing the kinds of musicals she loathes and exactly why, an overblown chorus here, piss poor plotting there. She hates Rent (we’ll forgive her) and the movie version of Phantom of the Opera but has a surprising amount of time for the stage version. Yet, because she’s a fan, she slates them with a passionate intelligence, explaining perfectly convincingly why they don’t work and throughout you can see that she probably still loves them for all that. She says The Sound of Music isn’t her favourite piece of work but still takes the pilgrimage to Saltzburg to see where the exteriors were shot (which is one of the funniest parts of the books as she describes in agonising detail the other tourists accompanying her on the coach).

I've written before about where I stand with musicals; the bullet points are: love Sondheim, love Rogers and Hammerstein, love Porter, love Coward, love Whedon, hate Lloyd-Webber. Brockes caught the bug in childhood through weekly trips to the west end with her mother and a school friend through their mutual love of Mary Poppins, but it was really during her teenage years that she realised that no other genre would be quite as inspiring, that Rogers and Hammerstein rocked her showboat more than the top forty and indie. The book is mostly a memoir, charting that interest into adulthood and a hundred nights at the theatre or in front of the tv watching fledgling actresses within the fiction and not, expressing their emotion in song. Threaded in between are ruminations on why some men hate musicals, why a lot of women love them and why the worst place to see most of them is in a theatre with people who are clearly agnostic.

The interviews are best. She meets a Streisand impersonator who's perennially disappointed by his idol and one of Mickey Rooney’s many sons (the actor has had eight wives) himself a choreography but whose life story, spread across four pages is too much of an exciting left turn to be spoiled here. There’s also a wonderful encounter with Lemmy from Motorhead (of all people), where he gives his own sweary opinion of the genre. But there’s not really a dull passage; Brockes offers a ramshackle collection of stories and analyses that are far more engaging than a definitive history might have been and even when she’s offering little more than a synopsis you get the impression that its probably as entertaining as the musical itself (thank god I’ll never have to watch Xanadu now). It’s like spending an evening having a once sided conversation with a friend and you don’t notice you’re not actually speaking because you’re enjoying yourself so much. In other words, even if you don’t quite share the writer’s passion for musicals, by the end you’re dying to see a lot more of them.

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