Musicals did not start in the year of my birth, although 1949 did begin the golden age with the edgy and amorous South Pacific touching on issues of racial romance and indoctrinated bigotry (“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”). But it was the soaring lyricism of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” that embedded this musical into my young psyche. Mom wore the grooves off the LP to such an extent that even now I could sing most of the score from memory. The same is true for the lighter, but no less racially edgy romance on view in The King and I, another musical with a songs that seem to cling to your memory like dear friends.

Probably my favourite from those early days was Porgy and Bess, a musical that was originally staged in 1935 and again in 1942. But it wasn’t until the 1953 revival in London’s West End that all of Gershwin’s glorious music was performed. What a score that was! There isn’t a song in that musical that doesn’t grab you, from the sly suggestiveness of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the plaintive “Summertime.” But all of these early successes pale beside the enormous success of the last half of that decade. One year after the other there was My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Gigi, The Sound of Music and Oliver, each with at least half a dozen well crafted, powerful and memorable songs and lyrics.

But with the start of the 60s came the start of rock and roll, and while jazz and swing were admirably suited to the stage, rock was far less so. There was still the occasional gem of a show: Fiddler on the Roof in the 60s; Chicago in the 70s; Phantom of the Opera in the 80s; Rent in the 90s; and Wicked in 2000. However, the musical has never returned to the force it was in the twelve years between 1949 and 1960.

Which brings me to Les Mis, which we went to see last night. (The sweet little attendant wanted to know if we meant Less Miserable!). Pam loves musicals as much as I. For years at Christmas we would sit around the telly with our children in our laps and sing along with The Sound of Music.We took our children to see Phantom in Toronto, enjoyed the film version of Chicago and loved the stage production of Wicked, which we were fortunate enough to catch in Singapore. We had heard nothing but rave reviews about this film, so we were both looking forward to seeing it last night. I am sorry to say it was a disappointment.

There is nothing wrong with the story; it is a little convoluted, but that was the style in the days of Charles Dickens and his literary doppelganger across the Channel, Victor Hugo. Nothing wrong with the acting either. Russell Crowe was a little wooden, but then so was Javert, whose role he plays. It is nice to see that Hugh Jackman has some range beyond his Wolverine rage, and Anne Hathaway is transformational as Fantine. Once she dies – far too early in the treatment for my liking – the film loses half its radiance.

But it is the music that disappoints. Oh yes, “I Dreamed a Dream” is a song as lovely as any from the ‘classic’ era, and “Master of the House” as catchy as “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” from which it obviously derives. “On My Own” is sweet as well, and nicely sung. Now name me another. Stuck? No wonder. There is really nothing else that you can even call a tune. Instead you have atonal ramblings: words set to notes, but not tunes. I can name you ten songs from West Side Story without breaking a sweat. And sing them for you as well. Why? Because songs are powerful instruments that stir the heart and mind for decades; because in a musical the score is everything. And aside from two or three songs, Les Mis was a musical looking for its music.

If I had not grown up in the 50s and heard all these glorious showtunes played over and over again by my frustrated songstress and fangirl of a mother, I might have enjoyed the show. But I am cursed with an awful knowledge: I know what a good musical sounds like. And Les Mis, unfortunately, ain’t!

Here are the just the songs I know and love from the musicals I mentioned. I bet you know a dozen or more of these yourself. At the end of the list I have provided a link to the reviewer at The New Yorker magazine who agrees with my assessment, but is far funnier than I in doing so!

South Pacific (1949):

  • Bali Hai
  • You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught
  • I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair
  • Happy Talk
  • Younger than Springtime
  • I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy
  • Some Enchanted Evening

The King and I (1951)

  • I Whistle a Happy Tune
  • Hello Young Lovers
  • Getting to Know You
  • Something Wonderful
  • We Kiss in a Shadow

Porgy and Bess (1953)

  • I Loves You Porgy
  • Bess You Is My Woman Now
  • There’s a Boat That’s Leaving
  • Summertime
  • I Got Plenty of Nothing
  • It Ain’t Necessarily So

My Fair Lady (1956)

  • I Could Have Danced all Night
  • Wouldn’t it be Loverly?
  • Get Me to the Church on Time
  • I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face
  • With a Little Bit of Luck
  • On the Street Where you Live

West Side Story (1957)

  • Maria
  • I Feel Pretty
  • America
  • A Boy Like That
  • Gee, Officer Krupke
  • Here Come the Jets
  • Tonight
  • Something’s Coming
  • One Hand, One Heart
  • I Have a Love

Gigi (1958)

  • Thank Heaven for Little Girls
  • She’s Not Thinking of Me
  • It’s a Bore!
  • Gigi
  • I Remember it Well
  • I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore
  • The Night They Invented Champagne

The Sound of Music (1959)

  • The Hills are Alive
  • How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
  • Do-Re-Mi
  • My Favourite Things
  • Sixteen Going on Seventeen
  • Edelweiss
  • So Long, Farewell
  • Climb Every Mountain

Oliver (1960)

  • Food, Glorious Food
  • Oliver
  • Where is Love?
  • You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two
  • Consider Yourself One of Us
  • As Long as He Needs Me
  • Who Will Buy?
  • As Long As He Needs Me