New Year, Old Genre

As the old year segues into the new, many will be only too happy to kick 2022 into touch. Turmoil and division have featured strongly over the past twelve months. The curtain fell for the last time on some of Australia’s most beloved sons and daughters, including cricket legend Shane Warne, Uncle Jack Charles (the ‘father of black theatre’), and the iconic Olivia Newton-John. Coronavirus continues to stalk the nation’s citizens: in November, more than 70,000 new cases were recorded weekly. And the climate crisis can be denied no longer, with devastating floods and catastrophic bushfires forcing politicians to wake up to the truth of our times.

But Australians are not known for lingering over past pains; they are more likely to be found welcoming the future with open arms, ready to embrace a year that is sure to be better than the last.

It is perhaps a little ironic, then, that one of the things Aussies can look forward to in 2023 is a musical rooted in a genre that is distinctly nostalgic. In June, Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co will play host to the gritty noir musical, City of Angels. Theatregoers will be transported back to the glitz, glamour and corruption of 1940s Hollywood.

In the late 1980s, jazz composer Cy Coleman joined forces with Larry Gilbert (writer of Tootsie and M*A*S*H) and lyricist David Zippel, with the objective of creating a musical that offered relief from some of the extravagant and ubiquitous British musical of the decade, such as Cats. Yet the end product was more than a simple pastiche of 1940s detective noir – it has resonated with audiences ever since.

But is City of Angels just a touch of old-school solace that offsets an uncomfortable present and uncertain future? Or does it have something relevant to say about the future we now face, thus making this a highly topical piece of theatre?

There is, of course, a clear element of comfort in revisiting the familiar. There is a gratifying sense of certainty that comes from the classic noir tropes: the femme fatale, the morally compromised PI, the sniper-like dialogue, a murder or two, and the promise of a solution to a problem. The black-and-white simplicity is glorious, and seductive when set against the complexities of modern culture. It is easy to see why this musical can be perceived as little more than archaic escapism.

Nevertheless, a case can be made that City of Angels finds fertile ground in the context of 2023. In the musical, successful author Stine has been recruited to adapt one of his detective novels into a screenplay – something he struggles to do. In Hollywood, he inhabits a technicolour world. This is a merry-go-round of palm trees, sunshine and celebrities. Much like we are, he is surrounded by a sea of temptation. Like us, too, he struggles to operate outside his comfort zone. Adapt or die, as the saying goes. His gumshoe detective, Stone, offers a stark alternative to his creator. Stone’s – fictional – world is a moody aesthetic in monochrome. He is cynical and tough. He is what he appears to be and has no hidden agenda. His job is to uncover the truth, with no room for shades of grey.

But now that Stine is susceptible to the hypnotic allure of Hollywood, the lines between reality and fiction become blurred. This crisis is what renders Stine an anti-hero, someone we can identify with. We see the corrupt and the moral battle it out, because we perform it so often on our own private – yet public – stages. For the noir genre is essentially voyeuristic. It places the audience in the role of observer, taking in the existential malaise of the protagonist and deciding where our own sympathies lie. The original meaning of noir is ’black cinema’, therefore its themes are unsurprisingly dark – and ideals are invariably shattered. In this sense, Stine is a sell-out – he has thrown Stone to the wolves in return for the American dollar. How modern-day is that?

It is worth remembering that the neo-noir Marvel take on the genre also enjoys current popularity, and has done for some time. The idea that urbane humanity, with all its social anxieties, can be saved by a superhero is another manifestation of a world that needs to be rescued. Can the simple, monochrome world of Stone ever win out against the colourful pull of Hollywood? The fact that we are interested in seeing him try is a sign that all is not lost. And seeing this play out in the stylish City of Angels is at least one thing we can look forward to in 2023.

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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