Exhibition: Re:Imagining Musicals – Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Of all the subgenres of show business that fall under the purview of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Theater and Performance Galleries, musical theater is one of the most spectacular.
The latest V&A exhibition to feature alongside its permanent galleries is Re:Imagine musicalsexamining both the craftsmanship behind the musicals and how changing tastes and styles have transformed the way the genre has dealt with the same subjects.
For instance, Six: The Musical is here, with costume designer Gabriella Slade’s work for the wives of Henry VIII represented by her design for Catherine of Aragon. Concurrently, other portrayals of the Tudors in musicals – a poster for Leslie Bricusse’s 1978 musical kings and clowns which featured Frank Finlay and Richard Rodgers album cover Rex.
In another display, the lasting legacy of The Wizard of Oz includes references to stage adaptations of the MGM musical, alongside the template set for the Hope Mill Theater revival of The genius and Kerry Ellis’ Elphaba costume from Nasty.
Most of the exhibits in this new gallery have never been exhibited before. With exactly 100 pieces on display, it includes many beautifully crafted record albums from the Bennett-Muir collection, illustrating how the love for musical theater extends beyond the stage.
Some of the key elements on display are illuminating. A rehearsal score of the original production of A chorus line shows how much a performance number can change before it is shown to the public. It’s something the world of digital sheet music, in which entire sections of songs could be deleted with a simple backspace keystroke, struggles to maintain.
The most visually striking elements of the exhibition are the costumes. Rosalie Craig’s red dress from the Marianne Elliott revival Companysimply and beautifully cut in a simple shape by designer Bunny Christie, stands proudly against a restored dress designed by Cecil Beaton and worn by Julie Andrews for my lovely lady. The concept of people whose desire is to perform see Jamie New’s denim and diamond outfit from Everybody’s talking about Jamie rub shoulders with an original outfit from A chorus line.
Scattered throughout are small-scale models of people working in all fields related to musical theatre, which have been scanned, 3D printed to the same scale as a model set, and hand-painted. Finding each one is a delightful little touch.
Beyond that, however, it’s easy to feel the pickings here are slightly slender. Although there are many items of interest, the space as a whole feels slightly sparse. It looks like viewing the whole gallery is going to be a quick experience.
It’s a shame, because if you dwell on a specific piece for a while, the ambient sound turns into interesting nuggets on the piece of someone involved, like a member of Spit Lip talking about how their marketing for WWII comedy Ground Meat Operation managed to sneak a portrait of Adolf Hitler across London, with a briefcase positioned like the toothbrush mustache below an abstract line representing the dictator’s hairline.
The exhibition may be modest, but could nonetheless inspire the next generation of musical theater practitioners. Re:Imagine Musicals only scratches the surface of the medium and the V&A collection. As an exploration of theater and performance galleries, however, it’s a great place to start.
Opens October 15 and runs until November 27, 2023