Music in Oh! What a Lovely War

Oh! What a Lovely War shows us a different side of World War I, that involves music! It is something that is very hard to do; take a very serious subject and add singing and dancing to it without it being disrespectful or just plain silly. It’s first showing was in Stratford in 1963 and made the rounds in the next few years, including being made into a movie in 1967. The thing that kept drawing people in time and time again was the sentimentality of the songs, one of the most famous was the song of the same title, that kicked off the second act:

Up to your waist in water,

Up to your eyes in slush –

Using the kind of language,

That makes the sergeant blush;

Who wouldn’t join the army?

That’s what we all inquire,

Don’t we pity the poor civilians sitting beside the fire.

Oh! Oh! Oh! it’s a lovely war,

Who wouldn’t be a soldier eh?

Oh! It’s a shame to take the pay.

As soon as reveille is gone

We feel just as heavy as lead,

But we never get up till the sergeant brings

Our breakfast up to bed

Oh! Oh! Oh! it’s a lovely war,

What do we want with eggs and ham

When we’ve got plum and apple jam?

Form fours! Right turn!

How shall we spend the money we earn?

Oh! Oh! Oh! it’s a lovely war.

This song was part of Music Hall, which is a type of British theatrical entertainment popular between 1850 and 1960. It involved a mixture of popular songs, comedy, speciality acts and variety entertainment. Its American equivalent would possibly be “burlesque”. The song talks about how great it is to be in a war. The soldiers actually pity the civilians home by their fires.  Up to and including this song in the show is strangely cheerful for a story about war. Even the title is pretty satirical. What is the least bit lovely about war?!

But after getting the audience hooked in the happiness, they do a 360° turn to the darkness of war. The second song in the second act is titled Gassed Last Night. From there forward, the songs are joyless and somber from When This Lousy War is Over to I Don’t Want to be a Soldier. This musical is a perfect example of how songs, music, and lyrics can alter the mood with great effect.  It’s another great way to aid the audience in seeing things from a different perspective, which is what theatre is really all about.

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