About a fortnight ago, I was lucky enough to go and see Operation Mincemeat at the Southwark Playhouse. At the end of Act 1, my companion and I took a moment to reflect, and then one after another said that yes, it was quite possibly the best new musical that we’d ever seen. After a week, I stand by that claim. This blog is a brief attempt to understand why.
First, the basics:
Good tunes, cracking lyrics, great book: yes. In spades.
More particularly, its musical theatre idiom seems really comfortable assimilating different root-languages to make a new dialect. While Hamilton is clearly an influence, it’s not (unlike so many post-Hamilton ‘British Hamiltons’) trying to do the same thing; it’s just one of many influences.
Vivid characters: yes. I generally prefer big, bold characters without too many subtle details getting in the way. And whether that’s Montague (posh twerp with an ego the size of a planet), Cholmondley (socially inept but intellectually brilliant), or any of the other characters, they all walk on, rapidly establish themselves, and go on to sparkle through the show.
Mastery of structure: Operation Mincemeat’s structure, moving between lots of different scenes with a small cast shifting roles to tell a core narrative, has many similarities with sketch comedy, reminding me especially of the Beta Males’ ‘sketch storytelling’ or Starkid’s shows. It weaves every thread together with great craft, knowing when to introduce, connect, and tie off each one.
Musically, this is also dealt with through some really nice use of reprises. As a show, it has more original musical content than many new musicals (hooray!), but when it does use reprises they always act really nicely as markers of similar narrative/emotional points, with a new perspective or context, used with enough reserve as to avoid the Les Miserables approach of AND HERE’S/THE TUNE/YOU’VE HEARD TEN TIMES BEFORE.
I have no idea how they managed to make the ending medley so right. Somehow, it’s not mawkish but sincere and entirely earned. Which leads to…
Mastery of tone: Operation Mincemeat spends much of its first half shifting between different comedic styles, from brash social satire to character comedy (aided by the superb characterisation) to mocking the musical genre itself to good new-fashioned dick jokes. If I had to describe its style, I’d probably say “macabre camp”, which is so far up my street I’m asking it to get out of my house.
But then this shifting of styles opens doors for it to easily switch to a more serious tone. While reviews have inevitably compared it to Mel Brooks’ work, there’s something more contemporary in how it drops the comedy entirely for an absolute gut-puncher towards the end of Act 1.
For me, I think that’s the moment it shifted to ‘quite possibly the best’. Often, those NOW WE ARE DOING THE SERIOUS moments feel unearned; as though the writers want to make ‘proper’ art and do so via a crunching gear change. They feel like the manipulative moment in a TV cookery show where, in a situation where the real stakes are ‘Jeri baked a bad sponge cake, ah well’, the producers add a tense and emotional string underlay to tell you that you should feel something greater. Here, the seeds have been sown slowly throughout the act, both narratively and tonally, and the payoff is absolutely earned and worth it.
Unspeakably tight: This is, perhaps, the greatest brilliance of Mincemeat. Between the shifting tone and many-scened structure, there’s always something new to keep your interest, true. But even within that, there’s barely a stray line that feels irrelevant, shallow, or just a bit flat.
If I was being really picky, there was a two-line exchange in Act 2 that felt a bit cheesy compared to the rest of the show. But that’s personal taste, and good criticism is not (despite the opinions of some broadsheet critics) just saying “I liked it” or not.
Clear heart: Ultimately, Mincemeat has a really clear sense of what it means to be trying to be decent in a terrible situation; of the importance of fairness; of the importance of loyalty, love and fellowship. Even though it portrays a world where those qualities arguably count for exactly nothing, and victory is temporary and costly, it still lets those things be valuable rather than ridiculous.
If I had to make three criticisms: One: Sondheim’s dictum that ‘content dictates form’ is often a useful school of thought, and if you’re looking for a show that fundamentally changes what you think musical theatre can do this maybe isn’t it. There’s not an obvious ‘wow - I’ve never seen that before!’ feature.
Two: Its social commentary isn’t especially groundbreaking, and the Marxian in me could get sniffy about how it points out problems its audience largely know about (posh boys can get away with everything! Women are victims of discrimination in the workplace!) without offering any meaningful solutions.
Three: Even while critiquing them, it valorises the agents of state force and the ideology of “the ends justify the means.”
However: to judge Mincemeat by the standards I think it’s aiming at, it’s ‘just’ an absolutely perfectly delivered example of the musical theatre genre doing comedy. Not everyone has to be Sondheim, and there’s something rather special in watching a show with such mastery of its craft as to find something new in that work.
In many ways its macabre camp answers my Marxian critique with a realist/nihilistic one: you have to deal with the world in front of you. That world is often awful in ways it’s bloody hard to change, so laugh at it, enjoy yourself, because very little matters in the end, you have to endure it, and you can’t change anything much (Let Me Die In Velvet being one of the clearer statements of that idea). If you must have more, try to be decent in small ways; do what you can. While it’s not much of a philosophy, it is one.
WWII and the Good War
Before this last part begins, a brief aside: when I was starting out, I did a show in Germany. The three reviews we got were my first exposure to the idea that a review could be more than ‘I had/did not have a good time’, and instead be an academic-ish discussion of the piece. All three made me feel like I was being taken seriously, though very much as a dead author. So, with a great love of Mincemeat, here’s an attempt at that (with spoilers).
There is a great deal of discussion about how best to portray WWII. As the ‘good war’, WWII-themed work tends to lend itself to letting its protagonists’ more questionable decisions be justified because a) Nazis and b) victory. While Mincemeat has characters wonder whether using an unknown body for a military decoy operation is virtuous, it keeps its protagonists sympathetic.
In particular, Montague, the posh boy who believes the rules don’t apply in the name of victory, is often criticised by other characters. However, he’s portrayed more as a bit of an arse seeking validation than an incompetent, body-snatching monster.
Dramatically, Mincemeat has certainly made the more interesting choice. Natasha Hodgson gives a spectacular turn in the role. Philosophically, after a striking opening number about those who are “born to lead” it lets Montague embody those elites, surrounded by outsiders (women, eccentrics) who challenge him, rather than showing the whole rotten system that enables his behaviour. By the end, he is shown to be pathetic, desperate for attention and glory. In short, someone we can pity rather than chastise.
I found it useful to contrast Mincemeat with Oh What A Lovely War, where the elite are shown to be similarly foolish and lacking in scruples, but also cold and entirely unsympathetic, closer to spectators than protagonists. The musical is focused on the rank and file; the outsiders to the system, leading to a heartrending critique of British society and the foolishness of war. Mincemeat is shares a focus on the interactions of people in a society at a point of strain than on the war itself, but lets its elite be people.
There is a version of Mincemeat with a similar focus entirely on the outsiders, seeing Montague through their eyes: as part of a system that does evil things. There’s another version that brings out Montague’s historic outsider status as a British Jew, which shifts his ambition to a broadly assimilationist desire that might serve as another lens to criticise what the system does to people. In the Mincemeat that is, we see people doing evil things, but they’re all basically trying to do what they think is right. They are, deliberately or not, valorised and understandable for trying to endure a difficult situation.
There may not be any way for Mincemeat to deal with its subject matter without such valorisation. It’s hard to avoid stories about wartime historic figures becoming hero-stories at the best of times, let alone in a comic musical. But Mincemeat is extremely aware of its contemporary context, telling its story for our times. This leads to a strange disjunct between its criticisms of embedded powers avoiding responsibility and its intrinsic excuse-making for them doing so, because the elite are trying to do what they think is right while being flawed people.
This is where Mincemeat’s finale comes into its own. As the characters grasp for a moral, Montague is seen grotesquely reminding us that all of these problems linger into our present. If Montague is a monster, he is a monster of our times as much as ‘back then’.* Perhaps we should as pity our current monsters as much as we pity the pathetic Montague.
There is a part of me that bridles at this; a harder moral line could have been drawn to say that power without constraint or responsibility is evil, even when fighting the Nazis (rather than some characters simply saying that in passing). Another part of me, however, thinks that Mincemeat’s conclusion is more in keeping with the show’s basic heart: that we can and should try to be decent, even when others aren’t. We can condemn Montague getting off scot-free and wince at how little justice he receives while remembering he is human. An awful, awful human. Even though that means that, today, we may have to do the same thing.
Perhaps that doesn’t sing harmoniously with your personal politics; I have sympathy with that. But it sings harmoniously with Mincemeat, and frankly, that’s good enough for me.
After all, it’s so bloody brilliant that I’m not even jealous. I just feel privileged to have seen it.
*On the Jewish Montague question, I admit I’d be very interested in an authorial answer for why that was never mentioned - while I have no problem with historical inaccuracy (‘historical’ shows are usually (and rightly so) more about their present), it is among the more obvious changes/omissions. With a loose awareness of British Jewish culture in the 1930s and 1940s, part of me wonders whether it was simply that in a show with such sharply-drawn characters, “egotistical posh boy” is rather easier to convey to contemporary audiences (like the concept ‘1940s women were discriminated against’) than the very particular marginalisation and social position of British Jews before the Holocaust. Which is, sadly, less well-known.