BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM: THE MUSICAL By Peter Filichia
When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was all the rage in 1967, many listeners were very glad that “Within You, Without You” was the first song on the second side.
These people, who weren’t fond of the song’s Hindustani sound, found it easier to position the needle on the second song on the second side to hear the more felicitous “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
In other words, close, but no sitar. If “Within You, Without You” had been in the middle of either side, it would have been harder to avoid.
Yes, for better or worse, there is a contingency that finds the sound of Indian music a little weepy-waily. These people may be reluctant to listen to the Original London Cast album of Bend It like Beckham, given that the story concerns itself with orthodox Indian Sikhs.
Worry not. If you know the score to Passion Flower Hotel – a London musical of more than fifty years ago (and you’re pardoned if you don’t) – you’ll find the same type of joyous bounciness in the music, representing the happy times that teenage girls do occasionally encounter. Soccer games may offer more kicks, but this story that centers on soccer offers plenty of kicks of a different kind. The semi-title song – “Bend It” – almost has a bossa nova feel.
The fifty-year-old Passion Flower analogy may suggest that Beckham is also set in the ‘60s. What’s more, the then-legendary Carnaby Street showed up in the 2002 film on which the musical is based. But the title of the opening song tells us that we’re in the here and now, thanks to one of those Internet abbreviations: “UB2,” which translates to “You Be, Too.”
The lyrics are by Charles Hart, most famous, of course, for providing most of the lyrics for The Phantom of the Opera. Beckham’s music is by Howard Goodall, one of my favorite contemporary theater composers.
In 2010, to Stephen Clark’s lyrics, Goodall wrote the excellent music for Love Story – yes, a musicalization of the 1970 uber-best-selling Erich Segal novel. Just as The Wiz wisely avoided putting a song in the same spot as “Over the Rainbow” and the musical of Grand Hotel didn’t have Grushinskaya say Greta Garbo’s famous line, “I want to be alone,” Goodall and Clark were equally wise to not even attempt to write a song with the oh-so-controversial and much-mocked line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” They never had it show up in the show.
Equally astute was Goodall’s starting a song with the famous “Theme from Love Story” — better known as “Where Do I Begin?” – but then making it take a back seat to a nicely wrought countermelody that he composed.
After hearing Love Story, you’d never infer that Goodall was the same man who provided the music and lyrics for the 1985 Olivier-winning musical The Hired Man. Although Love Story involves high- and middle-class Americans, Hired Man deals with workaday British laborers, farmhands and miners. Despite all these people’s agonies, Goodall had their voices rise up in a magnificent soaring score full of chorales, operatic duets and the occasional rave-up dance.
With Bend It Like Beckham, Goodall returns to England, but in Southall, the Indian section of London. Much like Flower Drum Song, we again have tradition-bound parents who approve of the child who thinks as they do but are frustrated by the one who doesn’t.
In Flower Drum Song, they were brothers; Bend It Like Beckham gives us the Bhamra sisters who are on the threshold of womanhood. Pinky just can’t wait to get married, have children and, in essence, relive the life of her parents, which pleases them because her actions validate how they’ve been spending their lives.
But Jesminder – who much prefers to be called Jess – has aspirations to play professional soccer, which is anathema to her parents. And for whom would she play, anyway? The only professional soccer teams in existence are in the United States.
Ah, but to quote a song from Paint Your Wagon (but to use it in a very different context), “there’s a coach comin’ in” from America to scout would-be players. Of course, wouldn’t you know that he’s attending the London girls’ big game on that day that Pinky is to be married, when Jess will be otherwise engaged?
Not until song three does Goodall’s music have a traditional Indian feel – but even then, he limits it to the first few moments. The setting is the Bharma home where Pinky’s engagement is being celebrated. “Twenty-four carats and twenty-five cousins,” she happily notes. The melody then veers away from a Hindustani sound to establish that Mr. and Mrs. Bhamra are assimilated into contemporary British life – but only to a point.
Mrs. Bhamra prefers to describe her inability to endorse Jess’ passion for soccer as “Tough Love.” The lyric expresses what every parent and child has felt somewhere along the way: “All we share is a name and address.”
The tradition-turbanned Mr. Bhamra gets a song, too, but even it isn’t overtly Hindustani in sound. “People Like Us” has him get down to brass tacks in telling Jess that their Indian background and heritage will always keep them from getting ahead in the British world. “We only do what they allow us to,” he insists. And yet, the miracle of the song is that none of it comes across as self-pity, but simple resignation. Mr. Bhamra even seems to see the natural-born British citizens’ point.
There’s more conflict afoot, for Jess and her like-minded soccer friend Juliette – who prefers to be called “Jules” – have their eyes on their coach Joe. (Truffaut gave us Jules and Jim; Beckham bookwriters Gurinder Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges — who were two-thirds of the screenplay team — give us Jules and Jess and Joe.)
Joe is pretty much all business: “Use your head,” he tells the girls, which has a nice double meaning; in soccer, most players can use every body part except their hands.
Playing for an on-field victory — and Joe, too – gives another double meaning to the girls’ rousing first-act closer “Just a Game.” But everyone can only rationalize for so long. Jess and Jules blatantly display how they really feel about soccer in the most appropriately named second-act opener “Glorious.”
Those who don’t know soccer from succotash may not know what the expression “Bend It Like Beckham” means. It refers to David Beckham, a legendary soccer star who spent most of his career playing for Manchester, England (which, as any Hair fan can tell you, is across the Atlantic sea). Beckham was good at “bending” his kicks at the goal, which the other team’s defender often couldn’t reach because the angle was just too sharp.
Beckham is Jess’ hero and role model, but that isn’t the reason the title was chosen for either the film or the musical. Jess and the Bhamras will both ultimately bend. Compromises usually do mean bittersweet resolutions for everyone, but the ones here are more satisfactory than most. As a result, few would complain that Bend It Like Beckham isn’t true to life. As the lyric goes in that semi-title song, “Remember, everything and everyone bends.”
The line “It’s a beautiful game” is often repeated. It reminds us of another musical, one from 2000: The Beautiful Game, which, in fact, dealt with soccer, too. (In fact, this is the sobriquet associated with soccer, dating back to the days when Pele was a superstar or, some say, even before.)
The Beautiful Game had music by no less than Andrew Lloyd Webber, who – small world – co-produced Goodall’s The Hired Man. Perhaps one soccer musical is enough for any man, for Lloyd Webber didn’t join the producing team of Bend It Like Beckham. But if you know The Lord’s work – meaning Lord Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game – you’ll find Beckham far more fun.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.