Madonna has been part of my cultural life for knocking on 40 years so I approached the idea of a jukebox musical based on her songs feeling slightly grumpy and very old. I needn’t have worried though. The clumsily titled Live to Tell: (A Proposal for) The Madonna Jukebox Musical is many things, but it is quite definitely not that kind of greatest hits nostalgia-fest. In fact, it’s less crowd-pleasing West End fare and more Off-Broadway Greenwich Village Art School Project, which is okay if you like Off-Broadway Greenwich Village Art School Projects. I happen to have a soft spot for them.
Brian (autobiographically played by writer-performer Brian Mullin) is our hero. He begins by pitching a vague jukebox musical idea to Madonna, initially via his agent (Dan de la Motte, who valiantly takes on every other character in the story beyond Nadya Ginsburg’s recorded voice). At least Brian would pitch if he wasn’t struggling with his mental health. He is struggling with his mental health because he’s having an existential, and possibly physical, crisis around his HIV status. Not being able to pitch makes him feel worse. His crisis deepens and the whole shebang becomes cyclical. If that sounds convoluted, it is because it is. How much of the show’s self-referential angst you will be able to cope with will depend on your tastes, but by Christ, there’s a lot of it.
There isn’t, ironically, a lot of Madonna’s music. Only ‘Cherish’ gets a real outing. Others are heard in snatches or simply referenced with a line or two of dialogue. Neither of the two performers has musical theatre chops; it is literally karaoke at one point and the choreography is best described as enthusiastic. This is a small personal and intimate story though, so expecting triple threat polish misses the point. If you buy into Brian’s worldview, lean into his problems and enjoy his redemption, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here. If you don’t, its self-conscious bare-all intensely theatrical style may feel a bit cold.
Whichever camp you are in, you can’t ignore the piece’s highly personal, impassioned stance on living with HIV. The drugs keeping Brian, and so many others, alive are of course worth celebrating but they don’t mean everything is rosy. The dense text is littered with references to viral loads and antibodies. Sometimes we feel like we’re in the classroom, sometimes we’re part of New York nightlife and sometimes we’re even in Brian’s body. We’re constantly reminded of a battle between good and bad cells, of health and sickness and of perceived guilt and innocence. It’s all very chaotic but then, I suspect, HIV+ life can be too.
Mullin is an incredibly likeable stage performer. Even when he’s striding around the stage ranting semi-coherently (which he probably does a few times too often), we’re on his side. In the quieter moments that let him act, he delivers poetic stretches of text with welcome precision. His comic timing is matched by his co-star in a genuinely funny patient-doctor dynamic early in the evening too. De la Motte slips on a slight Hugh Grant air along with his white coat. Most successfully though, he inhabits a shirtless cocky street-wise hook-up who repeatedly encourages Brian to chill out.
Sitting in the audience, I think I would have liked Brian to chill out a bit too. This is no doubt a confusing, mashed-up, meta, in-your-face piece of theatre but it is also told straight from the heart. It stakes its claim and stands its ground in a way I suspect Madonna, at her most strident, would approve of.
Written by: Brian Mullin
Directed by: Deidre McLaughlin
Projection & Sound Design by: Josh Anio Grigg
Lighting Design by: Alex Thomas
Produced by: Steph J Weller for Playwell Productions
Live to Tell: (A Proposal for) The Madonna Jukebox Musical played at Omnibus Theatre until 18 February 2023.
The show will next be playing at Camden’s People Theatre 4 – 15 April. Further information and bookings can be found here.