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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 5th July 2003

Mamma Mia! / The Violet Hour / Gypsy

The Spectator - 5th July 2003

I'm writing this from my room in the Soho House New York, having just come to the end of a nationwide tour to promote the paperback of my book. After criss-crossing America for the past two weeks, and telling the same anecdotes over and over again, I feel utterly exhausted. Still, it seems to have worked. My publisher has just emailed me with the news that How to Lose Friends & Alienate People is on the New York Times bestseller list.

I thought that going to the theatre would be a good way of breaking up the monotony of traipsing from one branch of Barnes & Noble to the next and, since the tour began in Las Vegas, my first outing was to Mamma Mia. For those who've been living in a cave for the past five years, Mamma Mia is the smash hit musical based on Abba's back catalogue which has grossed over $500 million worldwide. By my calculation, that means the author of the book, Catherine Johnson, has pocketed a cool $5 million. Several people asked me whether I have any more plans for How to Lose Friends, having turned it into a stage play earlier this year. The answer is yes. I now want to turn it into a musical.

The $5 million is particularly impressive given that it can't have taken Johnson longer than a fortnight to cobble the story together. Admittedly, Mamma Mia is 10 times better than the Queen musical and the Madness musical, but there's no getting round the fact that the book just functions as a length of chord along which the pearls of Abba's greatest hits are strung. In London, where Mamma Mia debuted four years ago, the audience sings along with the cast, giving the play a kitsch, Rocky Horror quality, but the Mandalay Bay Theatre is an irony-free zone and on the night I saw it the audience listened to the score with rapt attention. That didn't seem to diminish their enjoyment, which is remarkable given how bad the lyrics are. Then again, I suppose there was something rather appropriate about a song called 'Money, Money, Money' in Las Vegas, particularly as the tickets cost $99.

One of the difficulties I faced in trying to promote my book was having to compete with J K Rowling who--and here's another newsflash for the cave-dwellers--has just brought out the fifth volume in the Harry Potter series. This didn't prove to be an obstacle for my friend Mike Gerber, the author of Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody, a huge bestseller. "This one's on Barry," he said, sweeping up the cheque after our steak dinner in Hugo's Frog Bar in Chicago. Fortunately, I was able to return the favour by taking him to The Violet Hour, the new one from Richard Greenberg, author of Take Me Out, one of last year's best new plays.

Set in 1919, The Violet Hour chronicles what happens when a kind of magic photocopier is delivered to a small, independent publishing house and starts churning out pages from books that haven't yet been written, including exhaustive biographies of all the major characters. Its real subject is whether the arts can survive the loss of innocence signalled by the death of modernism, whether the jaded self-awareness that characterises our post-modern age is a hindrance or a spur to creativity. There's no doubting Greenberg's brilliance--I'd place him among the top 10 of contemporary American playwrights--but this doesn't quite have the kick of Take Me Out. The problem is that the magic photocopier, while undoubtedly a clever gimmick, wreaks havoc with the plot and Greenburg ends up getting sidetracked by all the usual problems associated with time travel. Still, I felt privileged to see such a major work at such an early stage in its life and I'm sure Greenberg will have ironed out all the kinks by the time The Violet Hour reaches the West End.

On my last trip to America, a British Airways flight attendant very kindly allowed me to plug my computer in to one of the AC outlets in First Class, but only on the condition that I was as quiet as a mouse. "There's a very important person at the front of the plane trying to get some sleep," he whispered. The VIP turned out to be Sam Mendes and I'm glad I didn't wake him because he was in the process of casting Gypsy and needed all the rest he could get. His choice of Bernadette Peters for the lead was a controversial one--did she have enough oomph to follow in Ethel Merman's famous footsteps?--but his decision has subsequently been vindicated. The New York Times described her performance as "the surprise coup of many a season" and tickets to Gypsy are as scarce as hen's teeth.

Gypsy is considered by some to be the best musical ever assembled and I liked this production so much I actually bought the soundtrack. (I've developed such a passion for musicals my wife is convinced I must be gay.) This is the kind of Broadway experience that turns hardened cynics into lifelong devotees of musical theatre. If my book is ever turned into a musical, I want Sam Mendes to direct it.

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