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The day the music died: Why the National’s justification for ditching the War Horse musicians doesn’t stand up

War Horse musicians lose their bid to be reinstated in the showThis week, five musicians who had provided live music for War Horse on the West End for four years before being axed last year lost their legal big to be reinstated.

It was clearly a cost cutting move, and the National admitted that was part of the motivation for the change. It’s sad when producers make changes to shows in the name of economy, but heck, this is a business, and it’s understandable given the harsh realities of commercial theatre today. But in defending the move, the National Theatre went further. Nick Starr, executive director of the theatre, stated

The National Theatre’s artistic judgement, made by those with the expertise to assess such matters, is that a live band does not provide the same quality and impact of performance as can be produced through the use of recorded music and professional actors

It’s hard to see this as anything other than disingenuous. Firstly, the musicians had been a part of the show since it opened on the West End. What has happened in the intervening years to convince ‘those with expertise to assess such matters’ that the inclusion of live musicians – a founding element of the production – is no now longer in the show’s best artistic interests?

The words ring especially hollow coming from a theatre which, during the often overblown era of Hytner’s leadership, has at times been notable for throwing live musicians into just about everything. Though less prevalent now, a few years ago you couldn’t swing a cat in the Olivier without hitting a musician. Sometimes this enriched the production – a memorable example being Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children in which Duke Special shared the stage with Fiona Shaw, with songs that were an indisputable pillar of the piece – but often, they performed the exact function of simply playing music that might as well have been recorded, as if the National just wanted to fill those draughty corners of the Olivier.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that live musicians necessarily enhance theatre. John Doyle’s famous production of Sweeney Todd where the actors all played their own instruments, for example, was an interesting experiment but ultimately served to confuse and distract from the story and characterisation. But used for the right reasons, and in a certain kind of theatre, music can be one of a director’s most effective tools.

The use of music at the Globe instantly springs to mind. Lacking the design shortcuts of today’s theatre, music and live sound was one of the key ways of expanding the horizon’s of a play’s world. But more than that, Shakespeare’s theatre had a different social function. There’s a keen sense in Shakespeare’s work of gathering, of people coming together, huddled in the embrace of the Globe as day turns to night and stars fill the sky. Together, the actors and the audience share in a communal process of storytelling, one in which collective disbelief is abandoned and something magically transporting is made from the barest of physical resources and a boundless store of imagination.

War Horse is, of course, not Shakespeare. But its effect, and I think the reason so many people around the world love the show, is much the same. It’s a show that asks us to believe that a tangle of fabric and wire is a horse. It asks us to go with this ‘horse’ on a simple yet incredible journey and invest more of our hearts into it than the greatest of Shakespearean heroes. To suddenly decide that the folk musicians who help weave and colour this story are no longer necessary is a bit like saying that the puppeteers who give the horse life are no longer necessary, and could more effectively be replaced with animatronics. The live musicians are, in the same way, integral to the aesthetic of the show as it was.

Producers sometimes have to make tough decisions and change their shows for reasons other than art. It’s unavoidable. But when they do so they shouldn’t betray the hard work of artists, or seek to deny the original vision.  War Horse, as they have pointed out, works very well in its many international productions without the musicians. But when they removed them from the London show, they changed it. Perhaps they should have the guts to admit it.

 

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