Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Brothers Johnstone

What is the deal with Blood Brothers?

Before closing last year, the show played for 24 continuous years in the West End. It still tours the United Kingdom. With such statistics, you'd think there's a pretty solid Blood Brothers fandom out there.

If there is, five years as a musical fan hasn't been a long enough time to encounter it. I've never talked to anyone who calls Blood Brothers as one of their favourite shows. It's never mentioned in musical fans' discussions, hardly anyone I know has even seen it. I definitely can't name a single song from it.

Yet productions keep popping up, even in Finland. I saw the second-to-last performance of Tampereen Teatteri's production (Veriveljet) this Saturday.

A while ago, a friend and I discussed musicals where the quality of the music and plot don't match. We came up with plenty of shows where good tunes saved a silly plot, but couldn't come up with a single one where a fascinating plot made up for a bad score. Sadly, we found that show in Blood Brothers.

Blood Brothers is a story about a pair of twins separated at birth. It's a very interesting tale, with lots of moments for strong emotions. Nature versus nurture – what happens when one of the twins grows up in a posh upper-class family and the other as the eight child of a working-class single mother? The boys become best of friends, their mothers can't tell the truth to them, and as they grow older, the stakes grow higher...

The script was pretty strong, but not problem-free: the first act felt a bit too slow, the second way too fast. The song at the very end felt useless and sucked the effect out of the ending scene. It was also a weird decision to start the show with showing how it's going to end. But in general, the musical's funny moments felt genuinely funny and the touching moments truely touching, and the two were at a good balance. The brothers' story broke my heart a little, I'm only sorry their relationship wasn't explored even further.

But then there's the music. It's a wonder a story filled with such drama can inspire music like this: the score seemed to consist of one unmemorable song. No ups, no downs, no different tunes or styles for different characters. The music was pleasant enough to listen to, but every melody sounded the same. Even though I think 75% of the songs were reprises, I couldn't remember a single tune after the show, even when I tried to hum them.

I've never before attended a musical where the audience doesn't applaud after a single one of the songs. (And this was the 85th musical performance I've seen during the last five years, mind you...)

At first, I was happy about that the musical had a narrator. Narrator-type characters can be fascinating! Too bad it turned out the character was useless in this show. He only had one song. It didn't advance the plot and wasn't good enough to warrant repeats, but it was repeated five times nevertheless. Seeing how the other characters did some of the narrating too, I don't feel the actual Narrator was of any use here.

It didn't help Jussi Selo was a complete cardboard cutout in the role. He had all the stage presence and acting chops of a lifeless cellulose product, I'm afraid! Selo has a nice voice, but it's clear he's not an actor. I've heard others say Sami Hintsanen, the alternate Narrator, was loads better in the role. I'm certain they're right. It'd be difficult to be any more lifeless and bland than Selo was.

Other than the Narrator, the characters were strongly written, and other than Selo, I liked the cast. Rinna Paatso gave a beautiful performance as Mrs. Johnstone, the twins' mother. The character has both a fragile, guilt-ridden side and a good sense of humor, and Paatso balanced the two well. Jussi-Pekka Parviainen and Martti Manninen were quite amazing as the twins. During the first act, I had no doubt they were just almost eight years old! Their friendship felt very real, which made the second half of the second act quite painful to watch – in a good way.

Overall, I'm glad I saw this show, and the Tampereen Teatteri production of it. Still, I don't understand how it's possible Blood Brothers is so popular. It's an interesting story, but I don't understand how a show with such bland music has been seen by so many people.

Any Blood Brothers fans reading this who would like to explain their point of view to me? I'd appreciate any comments, I'm genuinely curious to find out if there are people who call this their favourite show!

Photos by Harri Hinkka / Tampereen Teatteri.


  1. (Blogger eats my comments, dammit.)

    I wholeheartedly agree. I guess the English class system as its topic is what's made the musical so popular, because apparently that era is still very important in the minds of the Brits. Hintsanen as the Narrator is much better indeed, and he has more interaction with esp. Mrs Lyons.

  2. It's my third favourite show, for the reasons you list as positives.... and I like the music? I always used to leave the London production humming my favourite tunes. I agree that the Narrator is superfluous, but his "Gypsies in the Woods" theme is still one of my favourites.

    I admittedly hate most of the cast recordings, other than the New Zealand one (same recording was later reissued as Australian Cast). It depends very much on the performances, I suppose?

  3. 'Blood Brothers' is very closely linked to historical events in the north of England so I guess for British people familiar with the background it might just mean that little bit more. That's also supported by the fact that the show only ran on Broadway for two years. I don't know that many people who list 'Blood Brothers' as their very favourite musical but there are many people who include it in their Top 5/Top 10 list. I admit, though, that for a long time I did not know of the existence of 'Blood Brothers', not until I read through a 'longest running West End shows'-list.

    I always thought of 'Blood Brothers' as a play with music rather than a musical as it lacks the dance element to a great extent and, as you said, there are not that many different songs but lots of reprises are used.

    It is worth mentioning that part of the reason 'Blood Brothers' was able to run in the West End for as long as it did was that it was a cheap show to put on with its naturalistic set and lighting, few set changes and fairly small a cast. It also doesn't need a big theatre. It didn't matter that the auditorium was only half full or that most of the seats had been sold at discounted prices. What followed from the fact that it was (and is) a cheap show to put on, many schools and colleges perform it which made the musical known to the younger generation and encouraged them to go and see the West End show.

  4. Thank you for the input, everybody! Lots of good points here, I guess I can already see it a bit more clearly how this show did so well in the West End.

  5. Hei, Elwindga kirjoittikin hyviä pointteja Blood Brothersiin ja engl. luokkayhteiskuntaan liittyen. BBC:n tekemässä englantilaisen musikaalin historiaa käsittelevässä kolmiosaisessa (youtubessa 9-osaisena) dokkarissa on ihan mielenkiintoiset pätkät myös tästä musikaalista. Alkaa youtubessa osan 4/9 lopusta ja jatkuu osassa 5/9.
    Tässä linkit:

    Ite en oo nähny kyseistä musikaalia, mutta oon kuunnellut musaa jonkun kerran. Muistan myös, että Veriveljiä esitettiin Kotkan Kaupunginteatterissa vuonna 2006, jolloin toista veljeksistä esitti Samuli Vauramo - joka tietysti on sittemmin kunnostautunut enemmän leffojen saralla. :)