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HomeEntertainmentPerspective | Oh, do laugh, deary. The Brits have made the year’s...

Perspective | Oh, do laugh, deary. The Brits have made the year’s funniest musical.


LONDON — They didn’t know much about musicals while writing what turned out to be the funniest one in London.

“We don’t really come from a very musical theater background,” said Natasha Hodgson, who is among the performers-conceivers-songwriters of “Operation Mincemeat,” the musical. “We don’t dislike musicals. Like, we’ve never been in them. We’ve never, you know, written anything like this.”

“I mean, to be honest,” added David Cumming, another of the project’s multi-hyphenates, “we actually didn’t know the rules.”

Breaking the rules, or making up the rules, or simply not realizing that they’d intuited the rules has worked out pretty darn well for these close-knit old friends from “uni” (that’s British-ese for college). Their scrumptio-licious, five-actor show, telling the story of an improbable spy mission that just may have won World War II for the Allies, is the freshest little gem on the West End. There’s talk of a Broadway run. And perhaps the unlikeliest aspect of all is that these musical-theater neophytes have raised the bar for show-tune wit on this scepter’d isle.

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“Operation Mincemeat,” the musical, is not to be confused with “Operation Mincemeat,” the 2021 film directed by John Madden, or “Operation Mincemeat,” the 2010 nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre. Those properties are conventionally straightforward accounts of a singular wartime escapade, when British spies planted phony military plans on the body of a man from a morgue. Dressing the corpse as a pilot, the intelligence officers placed it near the wreckage of a plane on the Spanish coast — all to convey misinformation to the Nazis about where an Allied invasion of Italy was to occur. (It worked.)

This new “Operation Mincemeat” owes as much to screwball farce as to historical epic, employing a plethora of musical styles (including hip-hop and swing) both to honor the incredible true story and send up the popular genre of wartime drama. Bolstered by their backgrounds in sketch comedy — itself a hallowed British tradition back to the days of “Beyond the Fringe” and Monty Python — the team created an uproarious musical comedy, with starring roles for … themselves. Not that their grand scheme involved orchestrating their own debuts as singers in a theater around the corner from Covent Garden.

“We didn’t actually land on the casting until Day 1 of rehearsal,” said Zoë Roberts, yet another of the actor-writers. “We started off with the three of us being in it — partly because we had no money, actually.”

The musical’s creators — Roberts, Cumming, Hodgson and Felix Hagan, a musician who was also the pianist in the show’s early stages — are in the vanguard of a younger generation putting an invigorating spin on British musical theater. Like “Six,” the London and New York smash that won Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow (uni friends from Cambridge) the 2022 Tony for best score, “Operation Mincemeat” is rewriting the playbook for originality.

Britain lacks the depth of resources that makes the United States the global leader in musical theater. According to aspiring musical writers there, there’s no routine process quite like the one that produced a “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Next to Normal,” Broadway hits that benefited from developmental phases at nonprofit theaters supported by commercial producers. (Arena Stage provided crucial pre-Broadway engagements for both.)

London luminaries such as composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and impresario Cameron Mackintosh have of course had seismic impacts on musical theater, with a string of megahits including “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Still, the system for producing their heirs remains anemic. As Jake Brunger, one of the writers of “The Great British Bake Off Musical,” told me earlier this year: “There are not many opportunities for new British writing teams in this country to get their work onto a main stage.”

Against the odds, the “Operation Mincemeat” gang has found its way to the big time. In 2017, the quartet of “Mincemeat” writers formed the company SpitLip to develop their ideas about comedy with music, one of which came into Hodgson’s consciousness on vacation with her family in Norway. Her brother was listening to an episode of the podcast “Stuff You Should Know” that happened to be about Operation Mincemeat.

“I am listening to a podcast that should be a musical,” he told her. “And I’m like, ‘Everyone says that about everything,’” Hodson recalled. He persuaded her to listen, though, and after she did, she declared, “That’s the musical.”

The SpitLip crew are in their mid-30s and of a generation both mindful of British wartime valor and slightly over the self-congratulatory tone of wartime stories. “The hook for us was that we were drenched in school in learning about World War II,” Cumming said. “Also there were the Tudors, but then, ‘Here’s more about World War II!’ We won a war at one point — that’s nice, lovely. But this story was like nothing you’ve ever heard.”

The show they assembled, with a crucial stop in 2019 at London’s New Diorama Theatre, then establishing a longer-run model for new work — was built for five actors, all playing multiple roles and switching genders at will. Hodgson took on a central part as Ewen Montagu, the real-life intelligence officer who cooked up Mincemeat with Charles Cholmondeley, portrayed by Cumming. Roberts was cast as, among others, Johnny Bevan, a harrumphing senior officer forever casting doubt on Montagu and Cholmondeley’s far-fetched plot.

“We all instinctively saw that this was filled with really eccentric and fun — but also, you know — potentially heartwarming characters,” Hodgson said. Director Robert Hastie and choreographer Jenny Arnold were recruited, and two other actors — Jak Malone and Claire-Marie Hall — came aboard. Malone was cast in the most heartwarming role of all, as devoted secretary Hester Leggett, who sings what is arguably the show’s best number, “Dear Bill.”

For all of “Mincemeat’s” wry and zany commentary on the stiff-upper-lip personalities of British World War II movies, it is Hester’s touching epistolary ballad that gives the musical its emotional range. “And why did we meet in the middle of a war?” Malone’s Hester sings to her man at the front. “What a silly thing for anyone to do. And I’m trying my best to write everything down/ To fill in the gaps so that when you’re around/ It’ll be like you’d never been gone.”

Intrinsic to the SpitLip aesthetic was the notion that all the actors seamlessly crisscross the gender divide, and the casting of Hester was key. “We kind of knew that was gonna be a little bit of a secret weapon for the show,” Hodgson said of “Dear Bill.” “And we were very, very keen that part would be played by a man.”

“Operation Mincemeat” opened officially in May at the 432-seat Fortune Theatre to rapturous reviews. Which of course fueled the team’s transatlantic dreams. “We just feel like we’re on this big, hilarious journey,” Cumming said. “I just still can’t really believe that this is happening.”

The question, though, is whether the musical’s references are so quintessentially British as to be less reflexively funny to American audiences. Then again, if Americans laugh half as much as I did, SpitLip and “Mincemeat” are home free.

Operation Mincemeat, book, music and lyrics by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts. Directed by Robert Hastie. At Fortune Theatre, London. operationmincemeat.com.



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