When I first attended a musical based on the life of a famous musician, the recreation of their live performances was exciting, engaging, and electrifying. Complete with supercharged lighting, atmospheric smoke, and the sound cranked up to ear-shattering decibels, it was almost as good as seeing the real thing. But now, although still impressive, the magic has begun to fade, with each new production adopting a similar format on stage. It’s all got a bit repetitive, to the point where, sitting down to watch 20th Century Boy, I was really hoping for something fresh. Inspired by the life of Marc Bolan (of T.Rex fame), it offers both more of the same yet adds something new to the subgenre.
The most distinctive element comes immediately. The opening minutes see a score of newspaper articles flashing up on stage as the title song announces itself to the auditorium. At the end of this sequence, we see a picture of a crashed car. Suddenly, there is a loud bang. The music cuts out. We hear the sound of shattering glass. The lights illuminate before the audience is plunged into darkness. Silence greets the room. It is a very powerful and emotional beginning. So it is slightly disappointing when, after such an impacting start, the musical settles itself into the familiar chronological retelling of Bolan’s early years. That is to say, it begins with a series of mini-scenes that provide a rough snapshot of key moments in his teenage years that would become significant in shaping the man that we come to know. Here, that man is played by George Maguire. His is a performance of two halves. On the one hand, his recreation of Bolan’s singing and playing is excellent, probably one of the highlights of this whole production. On the other hand, I didn’t like his take on the man away from the mic. He gave far too much nasal expression to the voice for one. In addition, his overall presentation gave the sense that Bolan lived in a constant daze. I could understand this if it were just in the drug-infused scenes but this was a consistent feature that failed to convince.
Much can be said about the all-too-familiar style in which the live music performances were presented (see Tom Jones: The Musical, Million Dollar Quartet and others for reference). But I do not mean to take away from the fantastic musicianship of Maguire and his fellow cast members. Their ability could not be questioned. I certainly gained a much greater appreciation of Bolan’s music through their faultless sound. At the same time, there was nothing surprising in their presentation. It was enjoyable, but not memorable. Indeed, it is only really the opening scene and the closing few minutes that make this production uniquely different from other like-minded musicals. The ending is a beautifully poignant tribute to Bolan, and would have made for a superb finish. Again, it is spoilt somewhat, in my view, by the conventional encore that sees the cast reel off a medley of greatest hits. The delightfully distinctive gives way to the flavourless familiar, leaving me slightly frustrated as a result.
The set design may be typically minimal. The costumes may be colourfully garish. The musical presentation may be nothing new. But 20th Century Boy still offers enough fresh content and ideas that don’t leave you feeling as if you’ve seen it all before. The multimedia sequences are very well done. The use of the real in this fictional presentation adds an interesting dimension. The opening and closing scenes mark themselves onto your mind. Overall, it is a musical that does justice to Marc Bolan’s musical legacy. For some people, that will be enough.
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Originally written as part of Venue Cymru’s Young Critics scheme.
Featured Image (C) Venue Cymru