For any film fan, awards season is an exciting time. But rarely, in recent years, have they been so exciting for fans of musicals, too.
Tick, Tick…Boom!, the directorial debut of Hamilton maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda, was set to join Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story in getting a bevvy of award nominations, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for a movie musical since Chicago in 2002.
This musical biopic, based around the early work of musical theatre composer Jonathan Larson, had already received a hefty dose of critical acclaim, most notably for the performance of its lead actor, Andrew Garfield, who’d never sung in a musical before.
He’s everything critics would usually call Bafta bait. He learnt to sing and play the piano for a role in a biopic, taking on new skills outside of his comfort zone.
But when Bafta nominations were released on 3 February, not only was Garfield’s name absent, Tick, Tick…Boom! was missing entirely.
If it’s possible to be appalled and unsurprised at once, I was exactly that. Its omission was and remains a travesty.
But to think that the British Film Academy might fail to recognise a musical – a modern one at that – in its annual honours? As I said: unsurprising.
The snub is just the most recent example – but certainly not the worst – of how little this country values musicals as an art form, and it’s devastating.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone outside of London and not a die-hard aficionado of musicals who could tell you the names of new shows on the West End and what they’re about, let alone who stars in them.
While the appetite for musicals remains strong with purists and tourists, musicals don’t seem to make their mark on British popular culture anymore. As Broadway in the US continues to make stars of its stars – take Idina Menzel and Ben Platt, for example – Britain’s West End struggles to make it into the nation’s collective consciousness.
I believe that it’s the example set by years of neglect from a seemingly indifferent government that have repeatedly cut funding for the arts, failing to support those who work in it.
Though the West End alone contributed almost £800million in Box Office revenue to the UK’s economy in 2019, all too often, the arts are still treated as a frivolity.
In 2020 when theatres closed and times were desperate for the professionals working in them, the Government came under fire for a campaign that suggested they should ‘retrain in cyber’ instead.
It added insult to the significant injury caused already by the lack of financial support given to those professionals – front of stage and back – during a period when their income was cut off completely, with no sign of return.
The Government’s £1.57billion Cultural Recovery Fund, announced in July 2020, supported organisations in the arts sector, not individuals, despite 70% being freelancers who had little access to financial support elsewhere.
Now, such institutional apathy appears to have culminated in a climate where musical theatre – even with its breadth and variety – is often torn apart by critics who, in one fell swoop, reduce the entire industry to a Marmite monolith.
One review of Tick, Tick…Boom!, for example, felt the need to warn its readers that ‘the show tunes are an acquired taste.’
Seemingly, every musical must come with a pre-warning: by the way, people sing.
Throughout the movie, we watch Garfield’s Jonathan Larson struggle to balance his friendships, his long-term relationship, and his poverty-stricken bohemian lifestyle with his desire to make art. Garfield thrums with this desperate energy to get something written before time runs out (Larson never lived to see the success of his masterpiece RENT; he died on the eve of its first preview).
In a role that could easily be seen as narcissistic or self-indulgent, Garfield is neither. We root for his portrayal of Larson as much as Garfield himself clearly does. When he says he’s the future of musical theatre, we believe him.
Garfield’s performance is teeming with love and understanding – it’s a masterpiece all of his own. It means a lot to fans of Larson who, like me, wish he could have got his flowers on opening night.
Seemingly, every musical must come with a pre-warning: by the way, people sing
I try to compare the performance to others from actors of Garfield’s generation and am reminded of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, a performance that largely saved an otherwise tepid film and generated a similar amount of buzz among critics for its competency.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is by no means tepid but Garfield’s revelatory performance in it, like Redmayne’s in The Theory of Everything, is by far the best thing about it. But while Redmayne won the Bafta, Garfield was snubbed. The main difference? One of them sings.
In America, the Oscars made no such error as Andrew Garfield was nominated for Best Actor. It may not have been a full house for musicals – West Side Story’s Maria, Rachel Zegler, again missed out on Best Actress – but their inclusion in the major film categories shows that they were at least taken seriously in a way that they never seem to be at Bafta.
To completely leave out Tick, Tick… Boom! from the Bafta nominations this year only reflects the lack of support I see for modern musicals, particularly at an institutional level. It not only shows a disrespect for the art form but a lack of acknowledgement of the artistry involved in bringing it to life.
Acting through song is no mean feat for anyone – even the best actors have failed (Russell Crowe in 2012’s Les Mis comes to mind) – but if the British Film Academy doesn’t recognise it as a skill, what hope do we have?
We may still be a world leader in the art form for now, but I pray Britain comes to its senses soon before it’s too late and we realise just how much we’ve lost.