Part of the Cadogan Hall Broadway series, we were treated yesterday to a visit to London by an icon of musical royalty, Chita Rivera.
Now 86 years old, she created the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, toured in Sweet Charity, and appeared in London in Bye Bye Birdie and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.
Old enough to have known the likes of Bernstein, Fosse and Kander & Ebb, she performed a diverse set of numbers punctuated by stories of her road to success.
Her voice isn’t what it was – although in A Boy Like That, All That Jazz, Jacques Brel’s Carousel and a number from Kander & Ebb’s final show The Visit it comes to life with hints of the vibrancy she must have shown fifty or sixty years ago.
Head to toe in red from her earrings to high-heeled shoes, ‘Chi’ is still every inch a star, with knowing asides and dance moves.
Her set is full of lesser-known numbers from the likes of The Rink, Sweet Charity, Seventh Heaven (in which Chita sings not just the part of Fifi but also Camille and Cosette!), and Bye Bye Birdie (assisted by Tim Flavin on one song, Rosie).
Enjoyable, if only to see an original star in action – there are fewer of them by the year, but this one shows no signs of slipping into retirement just yet.
All I knew about this show on arrival was that it was a musical inspired in some way by the events on 9/11. I hadn’t heard any of the score, or seen any production photos, so it was a complete blind buy based on the success this show has had across the pond (and the fact it was available in the Get Into London Theatre promotion helped, too).
In the town of Gander, on the island of Newfoundland, off the shores of Canada, a small community of a few thousand people get on with the business of life. There’s a bus strike. The Mayor, who doesn’t drink, nevertheless gets all his gossip from the local pub. There’s a new reporter in town, a girl called Janice. There’s a school, a sports hall.
Then news that 6, then 11, then 20, then 30, then 38 planes are being diverted out of American airspace. A national emergency, bringing so many passengers the town’s population doubles that day. Men, women, children. A group headed for Disneyland. An Englishman headed for a conference. Wives, mothers. Christians, Jews, Muslims.
The town rises to the challenge. Shopping trips are made, food is prepared, phones are provided, clothes are donated. “There’s a candle in the window, and the kettle’s always on”, goes the refrain, and so it proves. Disputes are put aside; the hockey match space becomes a giant walk-in refrigerator. Passengers who hardly spoke to each other en route find common ground, or common emnity (the suspicion against the Muslim passengers is not glossed over).
Based on a true story, the show fleshes out some stories – the awkward romance of Nick and Diane, Hannah’s hopeless desperation in trying to find news of her firefighter son, Beverley the air captain who can’t compute the “thing I love being used as a bomb”, the two gay Kevins – and finds time for others like Ali the award-winning Muslim cook, Bob the nervous man who finds peace in the friendly environs of Gander, Bonnie who cares for the animals left on board the abandoned planes, Claude the tenacious mayor, Janice the reporter, Beulah the mother hen, the elderly Jew who has never breathed a word about his faith to anyone.
With a cast of twelve playing multiple parts, you’ll see the same actors as Newfoundlanders and refugees, as the confident and the faint of heart, and all this is realised in a simple set and just a shade of change in costume or accent. It’s a very intensive play with most actors on stage throughout, and if there were a couple of microphone drop-outs during the show, that’s nothing that can’t be easily fixed. Evoking a sense of time and place is far more important, and this is done without apparent effort, from the bar to the confines of a plane, to the schoolroom where hundreds sleep on the floor to the top of the Rock.
All the cast are exceptional and hard-working – Clive Carter (Claude), Mary Doherty (Bonnie), David Shannon (Kevin T), Jonathan Andrew Hume (Kevin J/Ali), Rachel Tucker (Beverley), Cat Shannon (Hannah), Robert Hands (Nick), Helen Hobson (Diane), Nathanael Campbell (Bob), Emma Salvo (Janice), Harry Morrison (Oz), and at the performance I saw, Chiara Baronti (Beulah).
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein runs from Irish whimsey and humour through to sweet ballads, and evokes just the right balance of laugh out loud amusement (the bar scene, the cardiologists) and moments of emotional engagement (Prayer, Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere).
I laughed, I cried. I invested in each and every character which is a tribute to the writers, the performers, and the director Christopher Ashley. The lively band quite rightly had their own curtain call which got the audience to its feet – if they hadn’t already risen for the cast – and sent us out on a high.
And what’s a “Come From Away“? It’s anyone who comes from outside the island, but by the time we left (and thanks to the little badges we could pick up at the door), I think we could all say “I am an islander”. This is a musical with heart and soul. Running initially until September, I’d highly recommend you give it a go.
In what has already been termed a triumphant return to the London stage (the current run has literally just started and has been given a year-long extension), Six comes back to the Arts Theatre with new actresses in the parts of Henry VIII’s six wives (“Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”).
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss created this show as a student production at Cambridge, and later wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe. Their mission, as stated in the programme, is not just to rehabilitate the six Queens, but to anchor their stories in the modern world, and to let the women tell their stories without being “too earnest or sincere”.
With a backing band of four, (“Ladies in Waiting” – Arlene McNaught, Alice Angliss, Amy Shaw, Terri De Marco), the six take their places with an opening ensemble number to confirm which is which, before entering into a contest to see who suffered the most, by telling their personal stories in catchy song.
The ensuing concert – Divorced, Beheaded, Live! – allows each Queen to come to the forefront with the others performing back-up functions; sometimes in high-energy dance format, sometimes in ballad form.
It’s hard to single out a song, or a performance. Some are stronger earworms, but some are stronger stories. The current six – Jarneia Richard-Noel, Millie O’Connell, Natalie Paris, Alexia McIntosh, Aimie Atkinson and Maiya Quansah-Breed – are all terrific, hard-working, likeable performers.
Catherine of Aragon’s “no way” when jettisoned to a nunnery and exile following 25 years of marriage and 5 miscarriages has the power you would expect from the woman who put up with so much for so long, shipped from her home country to marry first one brother then another when the first one died.
Anne Boleyn’s Essex girl “sorry/not sorry” is a girl power rant for the Netflix generation with liberal usage of text speak, but showing the exploited young girl underneath. History shows that Anne was playing a game with the King which led to his obsession and her imprisonment, and it is no wonder she may have got bored, used purely as a young baby farm.
Jane Seymour shows herself to be a devoted wife and mother, who doesn’t talk back, and who’s only regret is that she didn’t live to see her son (that sickly son, remember, who didn’t rule for long and was overshadowed by the sisters his father had disinherited). Jane, who had served her predecessor Queen and who stood with Henry waiting for the signal that her head had gone, freeing her to be wife number three.
Anne of Cleves, often dismissed as dull and ugly, is badass and sexy (“you said I didn’t look like my profile picture”), and happy in her riches and her freedom. She reclaims herself from being the boring and the irrelevant one and gets the measure of her horny husband.
Katharine Howard is the pop tart exploited from teenage years, with men who pursue her and “all you want to do is touch me, squeeze me, can’t get enough, see”. She was married at seventeen and dead at nineteen, her crime having been abused by opportunistic men no different than her ageing husband. Even Thomas Culpeper, who is usually thought to be her true love, is shown to have exploited her and put them both in danger.
Catherine Parr, the survivor, who writes a letter she never sends to the man she truly loves, who wishes she had not caught the eye of the King who just needs a nursemaid to end his days. The contestant who is a “Prot-est-ant”, who claims “I don’t need your love” but marries four times because life for a Tudor woman dictates it, and eventually goes like Jane, dead in childbirth with the son of the man she had to give up for Henry.
The contest unravels when the Queens realise they can detach themselves from just being known as Henry’s wives, stop trying to outdo each other, and assert themselves in their own revised histories and reformation (“you can try but I’m unbreakable”), and we feel we have got to know these ladies just that little bit better.
This is a glittery, fun and feminist musical, full of puns, dance moves, and sass. Even for Tudor obsessives (and I’m one, having read and seen just about everything on the topic from straight history to television adaptation to romantic fiction) can find something new to ponder about.
And by the end, it is Henry who is invisible, as his wives re-identify themselves as Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Cathy, rather than by their proximity to the throne.
At just eighty minutes without an interval, this show can easily be slotted in to your theatre-going, and I’d recommend it to musical fans, to those who love their history to be a bit irreverent, and to women who want to see good stories told.
Six continues at the Arts Theatre until January 2020.
Now coming to the end of a two and a bit year run, Dreamgirls remains a spectacle with numerous set and costume changes, and a killer of a first act closer in “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which at this performance Marisha Wallace delivered with devastating style and emotion. That girl can sing!
This story feels a bit like the real-life one of The Supremes, in which one of the trio becomes pre-eminent over the others. In Dreamgirls, Effie White, larger than life in voice and body, sings lead until pushy Curtis, their new manager, decides to trade her in personally and professionally for one of the back-up girls, Deena.
In the meantime, third girl Lorelle is content to remain as back-up and as girlfriend to married showman Jimmy Early, who has a definite Little Richard vibe going on. Over time, the rechristened Dreams cross over into the white market, leaving Effie by the wayside until the (inevitable) comeback.
There’s not a great storyline here, and that act one closing declaration of courage, love, and resilience, doesn’t make much sense when the character singing it goes into semi-retirement for seven years before act two, but there are some great musical moments and in Wallace, Brennyn Lark (Deena), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Lorelle), Joe Aaron Reid (Curtis) and Tosh Wanogha-Maud (Jimmy) there are some charismatic and talented performers on display.
Henry Krieger’s score is on point to the period, and Casey Nicholaw directs with more than an nod to Michael Bennett’s original work, given the latter’s prominent credit in the programme. There have been snips and changes evident if you’re familiar with the Jennifer Hudson/Beyonce film, but this show retains a high energy and entertainment value to the end.
You may recall the jaunty film in which Tommy Steele hopped around with a gor-blimey accent, and this uses many of the songs from it, but with some new lyrics and seven new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. So, confusingly, this is a musical with eleven songs by the original composer and lyricist David Heneker, from a book by Beverley Cross, with a kind-of new book by Julian Fellowes … and of course based on ‘Kipps’, by HG Wells!
Charlie Stemp is on leave, so Arthur Kipps is currently being played by Sam O’Rourke, whose infectious energy brings the draper’s apprentice who comes into money sharply to life. His childhood sweetheart Ann, who holds the ‘half a sixpence’ of the opening song, is played by Devon-Elise Johnson, who convinces as a gawky thirteen year-old as well as a growing women fighting her jealousy and irritation as Arthur becomes sideswept by his attraction to posh Helen (Emma Williams).
The toffs are fun, especially in a new number ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’, and Ian Bartholomew offers good comic support as a Dickensian theatrical named Mr Chitterlow. There is a lot of leaping, swinging and boisterousness, and this is definitely a musical in which you can just sit back and be entertained.
Others worth mentioning – John Foster is a joy as both Kipps’ stodgy employer and Lady Punnet’s butler; while Jane How is very funny indeed as Lady P. Gerard Carey was better as the photographer in the ‘Flash, Bang, Wallop’ number than he was as crooked James, and Vivien Parry was all decaying aristocracy as Mrs Walsingham. Alex Hope as the idealistic socialist Sid and Bethany Huckle as lovestruck Flo were very good, too, and I enjoyed the new duet which gave insight into the feelings both Ann and Flo seem to hold for Arthur.
Running to early September, this is warmly recommended if you want an evening of fun, and if you can get to see O’Rourke have his moment in the spotlight, please do.
This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy. I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.
Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble. He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful wonder.land, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?
This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.
Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.
There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.
Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.
Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).
The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work. I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.
I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter. I hope this makes my comment clearer.
Moving swiftly into the West End following a successful run at the Chichester Festival, this quintessential Broadway musical camps up at the Savoy in lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday year, with just one cast change (Peter Davison replaces Kevin Whately as Herbie).
Written in 1959 to a book by Arthur Laurents, with music by the late Jule Styne (1905-1994), this musical takes the real life memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (born Louise Hovick) as its source, choosing to present the story of this most famous of strippers and her little sister June (who made it big in Hollywood as June Havoc) by focusing on their most monstrous of stage mothers, Momma Rose.
As Rose, Imelda Staunton must be aware she has some big shoes to fill. Although singers such as Betty Buckley, Bernadette Peters, Patti Lu Pone, Tyne Daly and Angela Lansbury have appeared in well-received productions, each and every portrayal arguably has the ghost of the greatest of them all, Miss Ethel Merman, hanging over them. And although the tiny Staunton proves to be an engaging and convincing powerhouse, you can’t help thinking that her Rose is channelling those big voices of the past (and doing it very well).
If Staunton is harking back to Merman and others, then Davison seems to be taking inspiration from Jimmy Durante with slightly off-key and often gravelly vocals, which give his characterisation a curious and sinister quality. He does get into the spirit of the role, though, throwing himself into the ‘that’s showbiz’ vibe of ‘Together Wherever We Go’ and slumping visibly when he realises that Rose will never be the calming wife he seeks to spend his declining days with – this man gives years to Rose and her daughters and their increasingly awful vaudeville act, and yet proves dispensible at the end.
Lara Pulver, previously seen on television as the confident dominatrix Irene Adler in ‘Sherlock’, is a quite wonderful Louise, moving effortlessly from the quiet innocence of ‘Little Lamb’ (“I wonder how old I am”) to the brassy confidence of the strip-woman (“My mother says ask them what they want and then don’t give it to them … but I am not my mother.”). She comes out of her shell wonderfully in the second half of the show when she finally emerges from the shadow of her squeaky voiced sister (Gemma Sutton).
The best number though, which rightly brought the house down, is ‘You Gotta Get a Gimmick’, in which three old burlesque performers give advice to the newcomer. Louise Gold is quite superb and hilarious as Mazeppa (“bump it with a trumpet”), while Anita Louise Combe is a gracefully ageing Tessie Tura and Julie Legrand a cheeky Electra. This routine boasts the original Jerome Robbins choreography, a good decision as why try to improve on perfection?
Stand-out songs to look out for are the spunky ‘Some People’ in act one, where Rose vows to strike out and make her girls stars, and ‘If Momma Was Married’ where June and Louise wish for a normal existence, off the road. But it is Staunton’s ‘Rose’s Turn’ which gets the emotions stirring, and which give her the standing ovation she rightly deserves. On the debit side I felt ‘Mr Goldstone’ could have had more zip, but it is a small quibble.
The staging is simple – a fake proscenium arch with variety boards title each scene, the sparsed of sets indicate living and performance spaces. This allows the lush orchestrations and the clever lyrics from a writer just beginning to flourish to come through. I wouldn’t have used the area beyond the thrust stage, though: it isn’t fair to those in cheaper seats and adds little to the proceedings. Better to let the orchestra (who are brilliant) stay seperate and do their thing.
Jonathan Kent’s sparkling revival (the first in London for forty years) is worth a look, and if you like the traditional, old musicals it will not disappoint. If you’re used to the brash and modern pieces then you might find it slow (especially the lengthy overture), but be patient, and this ‘Gypsy’ will reward you.
For more on the real-life Hovick sisters, see here for Gypsy herself (in 1943):
It’s been twenty-five years since I last saw this show live, at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in 1988 or 1989, and I have very strong and happy memories of the musical. I also have a soft spot for both the Original London Cast Recording and the film version which appeared in the late 1990s.
Some tweaks have been made to make the show more up-to-date – a new tap sequence for Jenny-Any-Dots’ beetle tattoo is fun, but the switch of Rum Tum Tugger from sexy Tom to annoying bling-laden rapper is a mis-step.
‘Cats’ is largely about the dancing, and it doesn’t really need star names to keep it going – there are some amazing young performers showcased here in the various solos (although with five or six understudies on this afternoon I can’t say for sure who was playing Jemima (I think Alice Jane), Rumpleteazer, Old Deuteronomy, Skimbleshanks (Dane Quixall?), Bombalurina (Cassie Clare) and others – if anyone knows for sure or needs to correct assumptions here please do). I do want to give a nod to Paul F Monaghan who works hard as both Bustopher Jones and a very enjoyable Gus/Growltiger, Callum Train as Munkustrap and Joseph Poulton who is a dazzling Mr Mistoffelees.
The pre-opening buzz has all been about the Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, who plays the supporting role of Grizabella, and who has the ‘big number’, Memory. Although she can certainly hit that big note, I felt her voice was lacking in body in the rest of her role, and frankly, her vocal style doesn’t do it for me. I’ve been brought to tears before by this cat and her song, but not here.
The rubbish dump set might not revolve as it did in the old days, but the cats climb, stretch and emote as they ever did, and the ensemble singing in the numbers ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and ‘The Ad-dressing of Cats’ is excellent. The special effects might not look as spectacular as those in other shows – yes, Wicked, I am looking at you – but the hydraulics, trapeze work and lightning effects are fun.
I would recommend this show to new and old fans alike, and those of you who have feline friends at home will find yourself smiling in recognition at the antics portrayed within this show.
This much-heralded West End revival of the Boublil-Schonberg musical brings back the doomed love story of Kim the bar-girl and Chris the marine (based loosely on the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’) with some new choreography, a slight reboot of lyrics, a new song for Ellen, and a cast which is headed by show veteran Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and new discovery Eva Noblezada as Kim.
If you’ve seen the show before, you’ll know what to expect – epic staging, emotional impact, humorous interludes, and excellent performances. And yes, the helicopter is back, in one of the staging highlights. Last night’s show had the understudy (Niall Sheehy) on for Chris, and to my eyes he didn’t quite have the chemistry needed to gel with Eva’s Kim, although their duets (‘Sun and Moon’ and ‘Last Night of the World’) were still affecting.
The opening sequence in the sleazy Saigon bar – ‘The Heat is On’ – now has different lyrics and feels a little bit cramped and cheap, but despite this Gigi’s predicament as the crowned whore who cannot get a passage out of the hell-hole she finds herself in to a better life is well portrayed by Rachelle Ann Go. As John (Hugh Maynard) sets the tragedy in motion by buying the sexual services of the innocent Kim for Chris, the fall of Saigon seems just a heartbeat away.
Other highlights are the vibrant victory parade ‘Morning of the Dragon’, the choral melody of ‘Bui-Doi’ (although I am not a fan of Maynard’s approach to this, a bit too gospel for me), the intensity of ‘This is the Hour’, and the light relief of the big production number ‘The American Dream’ where we find that The Engineer’s ambition only stretches as far as being the greatest pimp in the Western world, as he postures around in cheap plastic pants and attitude singing of selling blondes ‘you can charge on a card’.
I did miss Ellen’s solo ‘Her or Me’ in the early years, then ‘Now That I’ve Seen Here’. The new song, ‘Maybe’ is OK, but just not as memorable, and it does not advance the story as much.
All these years after the close of the Vietnam war, ‘Miss Saigon’ feels more a historical piece than it did back in 1989. when the cast was made up of a mainly Western cast even in the Asian roles. Now the cast is majority Filipino or Korean, and what a talented bunch they are. The night belongs to Eva Noblezada though. Only eighteen and able to bring all the vulnerability and strength of soul the role requires to this exceptional staging.
Charming piece of early television, this musical, starring Howard Keel (who of course starred in the Hollywood film) and Patricia Morison (who was the lead in the original stage production, later filmed for US television). They are joined by Millicent Martin, an English singer best known at that time from That Was The Week That Was, a satirical television programme.
Clocking in at just 95 minutes, this loses a few snippets of dialogue and a song or two, but good to see Brush Up Your Shakespeare, for one, has survived (with a pre-Last of the Summer Wine Bill Owen as one of the gangsters). Keel and Morison are fascinating to see together even in a muddy archive copy of this, and for lovers of the musical this is a version to seek out (as is the shorter US TV version with Morison and Alfred Drake).
Ever since the birth of ‘the talkies’ at the premiere of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the genre of film referred to as ‘the musical’ has been strongly represented in the type of material brought to the screen.
But what IS a musical?
Films developed from Broadway and West End hits are easy to classify (‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Hello, Dolly’, ‘Sweeney Todd’). Alongside these there may also have been concert versions of the same material (‘South Pacific’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Follies’, ‘Les Miserables’), or versions made expressly for television or video (‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Wonderful Town’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Cats’, ‘Into The Woods’).
Alongside these are the concert films featuring rock bands (‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Festival!’, ‘Message to Love’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), and musical versions of popular plays or films (‘Silk Stockings’ – Ninotchka, ‘High Society’ – The Philadelphia Story, ‘My Fair Lady’ – Pygmalion, ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘My Sister Eileen’).
There’s a third group which are more problematic, films which have songs included in them, but which are not generally thought of as musicals – but they could be (the 1940 ‘Thief of Bagdad’, ‘The Wicker Man’, even ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Pillow Talk’).
Then we have the operettas (‘The Mikado’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’) and the full-blown operas (‘Tosca’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Das Rhinegold’). These are musicals, too, if having characters breaking into song counts – and if the argument against an opera being a musical is ‘no dialogue’ then where does that leave ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’)?
Some musicals have simply been written for the screen, although in some cases, they have made it onto the stage later – ‘State Fair’, ’42nd Street’ – some have been comedies with music attached (‘The Cuckoos’, ‘Buck Privates’, ‘Way Out West’). And if Rochester and Blanche share a duet in one of the many versions of ‘Jane Eyre’, is that a musical too? What about Westerns with a bit of music, like ‘Rachel and the Stranger’? (Singing Westerns of course are a genre all on their own, with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne and Vaughn Monroe contributing to titles often dismissed as ‘horse operas’).
For me all the above fit the definition. You could also stretch the definition to fit the dance or ballet film, although music without words becomes something else. But some ballet versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to film give Tiny Tim his song.
If it sings, is it then, that thing – the musical?
Gene Nelson (1920-1996) was a familiar face in 1950s musicals from Warner Brothers, a talented hoofer, singer, and amiable screen personality. He was born Leander Eugene Berg in Oregon, and became interested in dancing after watching films featuring Fred and Ginger when he was a child.
Although he never became a big star as a performer, or later as a director, Gene made appearances in a number of films which are remembered with affection today – notably, he is Will Parker in ‘Oklahoma!’, his final musical film (he’s the one who dances with the rope and sings about ‘Kansas City’), he partnered Doris Day three times (in ‘The West Point Story’, ‘Tea for Two’, and ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ – in which they make a winning team), and appeared a trio of films with Virginia Mayo (‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’, ‘She’s Back on Broadway’ and ‘She’s Working Her Way Through College’).
After taking a break from performing in front of the camera to direct Elvis Presley in a couple of weak musicals (‘Kissin’ Cousins’ and the appalling ‘Harum Scarum’), Gene’s career took a step up when he appeared on stage as Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s backstage musical, Follies, in which his easy charm and pleasant singing voice created a memorable character.
Gene Nelson was always honest about his limitations. On his dancing he had the following to say: “In my heyday, I could only do about four pirouettes without starting to fall, but with film, I could do a dozen by cutting and editing. The magic of film is that you can create anything you want.” Perhaps so, but film is permanent, and he remains a decent hoofer on the screen who deserves to be remembered.
Classic Damsel has posted a video in tribute to Gene on YouTube:
The Evening Standard has a column today by David Sexton which caught my eye: How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals? It can be found here.
I would like to use this blog to respond to Sexton’s article from a point of view of someone who loves both music AND musicals. Musicals have a rich tradition dating back to the end of the nineteenth century, where they existed as operetta and revue. They have been adapted from the works of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Bernard Shaw and many others. They represent a huge and influential section of the culture of both the United States and the United Kingdom, and international versions of the biggest Broadway and West End musicals draw audiences in around the world.
Musicals were the first film genre to be created at the birth of the ‘talkies’, and even in the silent era, films were made of operas such as La Boheme and operettas such as The Merry Widow. Sexton claims that one of his main objections to the musical is the unreality of people bursting into song and dance, which they would not do in real life. We can perhaps assume that he discounts science fiction, westerns, and the whole development of CGI effects on both screen and stage for similar reasons?
The assumption that the ‘minority’ (as Sexton will have it) who enjoy musicals are incapable of music appreciation and suffer from an absence of good taste only exposes an ignorance of the musical form and its rich history. Many of our best composers have worked in the musical form – how can anyone doubt the quality of Jerome Kern’s melodies for ‘Show Boat’, or Ivor Novello’s Ruritanian fantasies? Why shut your ears to the wide-ranging work of Richard Rodgers, whether working with Larry Hart or Oscar Hammerstein? Other craftsmen come to mind – Cole Porter, Kander and Ebb, Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan, and, more recently, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude Schoenberg.
I particularly find Sexton’s distaste of the works of Lloyd Webber worth comment. He dismisses a career of forty plus years as ‘inflated tastelessness’, which makes me wonder if he has ever sat down and listened to the scores of ‘Evita’, ‘Aspects of Love’, or even the rock opera ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. A critic who can locate nothing to enjoy across the whole works of a composer – Sexton also dismisses Stephen Sondheim for being ‘clever’, so we should assume that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t – can only find themselves the poorer in their professed love of music.
What do human beings do when they are happy? They hum tunes, they sing, they revel in the joy of life. Musicals may tug at the emotions at the extremes, but I challenge an audience not to find ‘West Side Story’ as valid in plot and complexity as its source, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or to fail to appreciate the joy of the classic Hollywood set pieces such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. TV shows such as ‘Glee’ have experimented with the links between drama and music and brought them on to the small screen – and stage musicals have become big business, with lighting, sets and sound closer to that of the film world. They are sensational spectacle, attracting large and diverse audiences.
I love musicals. I love those who perform in them now and who have set a pathway before them. I revere the composers and lyricists as much as I do the classical greats. I see no difference. I see all art forms as escapism, and do not regard musicals as a ‘low’ form of art. In some ways, I pity the ‘silent majority’ who dislike musicals, if indeed they are in the majority!
Back in 1992, in Manchester, we saw the Leslie Bricusse musical ‘Scrooge’ in its first transfer to the stage, adapted from the Albert Finney film. It starred the late Anthony Newley, a big personality with a big voice, who was endearingly grumpy in his nightgown and cap on his way to redemption.
Fast forward twenty years and it is time to make my acquaintance with this show again, this time starring that performer of perennial cheerfulness, Tommy Steele. No-one has made more appearances at the London Palladium than this chirpy chap, and of those appearances, one previous triumph was that of Ebenezer Scrooge himself. And now he’s back …
Early November may not be the perfect time for such a seasonal show to make its return to the London stage, but in its joie de vivre and Christmas spirit, ‘Scrooge’ achieves the impossible – to give the audience a light heart and a smile with which to go back out into the world. To critique Steele’s performance would be pointless, as he has been playing much the same part for years; even when he’s grumpy before the ghosts of Marley and others arrive there is a twinkle in his eye.
Interestingly, Marley was played by Barry Howard back in 1992 and again now. He has a different wig, and shows more of a stately age than two decades ago, but he’s still very good.
The first in an occasional series, looking at a group of titles from my viewing collection. These may include titles available in Region 1, 2, 4 or 6, or items transferred from videotape (commercial VHS or off-airs).
1. Bloomers. 1979. 5 episodes recorded and broadcast out of a planned series of 6. Richard Beckinsale stars in his final role as resting actor Stan who is currently working in a florist’s shop (the ‘Bloomers’ of the title). Anna Calder-Marshall appears as his wife Lena, with David Swift as his boss Dingley. This series was unfinished after its star’s untimely death and although it has elements of the ‘cutes’, it just doesn’t have the laughs it could have had. Watchable, but not very memorable. Not available commercially.
2. Anne of Avonlea. 1975. 6 episodes. This was a sequel to the 1972 series Anne of Green Gables, also starring Kim Braden as Anne, but unfortunately now wiped. Based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Notable for featuring 11 year-old Nicholas Lyndhurst as Davy. Often compared unfavourably to the 1987 version with Megan Follows citing a low budget and poor locations. It drags a bit and Braden doesn’t quite convince in the lead. Curious how the sequel has survived but the earlier series has not. Available Region 1/2 DVD.
3. Lady Killers / Ladykillers. Two series – 1980, focusing on women who kill; 1981, focusing on men who kill women. With introductions by Robert Morley which are often archly amusing (inappropriately, given the gravity of the subject matter), these dramas are showcases for actors – John Fraser as Dr Crippen, Joan Sims as Amelia Dyer, Elaine Paige as Kate Webster. Not the kind of drama to watch before bedtime but good for Crown Court addicts as there is plenty of courtroom action, verbatim from transcripts. Available Region 2 DVD.
4. Shock Treatment. 1981. Musical film sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also written by Richard O’Brien. Where Rocky Horror was a parody of horror films, Shock Treatment pokes fun at TV game and reality shows. Brad and Janet are recast from the original film, the sultry Jessica Harper replacing Susan Sarandon. Little Nell and Patricia Quinn return alongside O’Brien. The score is more modern and varied than the fun pieces in the earlier film. Looks great too. Available Region 1/2 DVD.
5. Person to Person: Edward R Murrow. 1953-1961 TV series where Murrow interviews movie stars in their homes – they have a camera there, while he is in the studio. Interviewees include Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando (and Brando Snr), Frank Sinatra, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren. Murrow is perhaps best known now for Good Night and Good Luck, the George Clooney film. Here he shows his lighter side, on a best of DVD collection. Available Region 1 DVD.
Every ten years, a section of film aficiandos and experts receive an invitation to submit their selections for the Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’, and 2012’s selections were announced yesterday, with the big news being that after fifty years, Citizen Kane has been toppled from the top spot by Vertigo.
To me, a film becomes ‘great’ if it is innovative, interesting, or informative – in short, if it has something to say, and stays in my memory. This can apply whether the film is a silent romance, a musical, a war film, a women’s weepie, or a kitchen sink drama. In my list you will find examples of all of these, and more. It is a purely personal list, however, and rather than sort it by numbers, I have chosen to break down my selections into decades.
1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919). Innovative, and still feels fresh.
2 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927). Contains perhaps the greatest acting performance of all time, from Maria Falconetti.
3 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927). Not necessarily better than Nosferatu or Faust, but engrossing on many levels.
4 Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933). A bubbly comedy of manners with Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler and the two Barrymore brothers.
5 Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936). An early Spencer Tracy film with a message about vigilantes and lynch mobs.
6 Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). The greatest of all pre-Code musicals.
7 Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). A great, epic, glossy soap opera of the American Civil War.
8 Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander, 1936). The Swedish original of the great romance between musicians.
9 Mr Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936). A charming slice of Capra-corn whimsy.
10 Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Garbo laughs!
11 Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). A career defining performance from John Wayne in Ford’s memorable Western.
12 Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935). Polished floors, inky canals, and Fred and Ginger.
13 The Women (George Cukor, 1939). The greatest ensemble cast of ladies in the history of cinema.
14 Bambi (James Algar & Samuel Armstrong, 1942). Disney’s most emotional achievement, and one of the funniest.
15 Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The Archers’ colourful and over-wrought production set in a house of nuns.
16 A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944). A quirky, unique, and unusual war film.
17 The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). Judy Garland in her first non-musical role in this charming romance.
18 It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Perhaps the best of all ‘what if’ films.
19 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). A delicious crime caper with a twist.
20 Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944). A drama of obsession.
21 Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). Hitch’s claustrophobic and clever anti-Nazi film.
22 The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). A remake, but an excellent one, and the first film by Huston.
23 Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Joan Crawford suffers in a typical ‘women’s picture’.
24 Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). And Bette Davis does the same.
25 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947). Deeply subversive and beautifully performed British classic.
26 Pimpernel Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). The Scarlet Pimpernel set in wartime.
27 All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950). An acerbic drama of theatrical poison.
28 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). For the dance sequence at the end alone, and Gene Kelly’s enthusiasm.
29 Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950). One of the rare handful of appearances by Judy Holliday as the scatty Billie Dawn.
30 From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Career-defining on so many levels, and remembered largely for Deborah Kerr in the sea, but has much more to it.
31 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Anti-McCarthyism at its best. I could have picked the much later film of The Crucible, for the same reasons.
32 Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). The strange story of Norma Desmond, and her iconic close-up.
33 Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). A stifling and wordy courtroom drama which never tires.
34 A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). For Jean Seberg’s smile.
35 Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967). High energy and enthusiasm in this French love letter to the American musical film.
36 Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964). Simple perfection, and a perfect marriage of live action and animation.
37 This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). Angst on the rugby field and by the kitchen sink.
38 The Trap (Sidney Hayers, 1966). Notable for Rita Tushingham’s mute performance.
39 West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961). The greatest of all dance films, and a potent love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
40 Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968). A chilling horror film which does not have its tongue in its cheek.
41 Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964). An example of the stirring ‘boy’s own’ epic, with great music and three-dimensional characters.
42 The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971). Derek Jarman’s designs and Ken Russell’s direction lift this film to greatness.
43 The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The blueprint for all crime epics to follow.
44 Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). A blackly comic exploration of the influence of television on the masses.
45 Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971). A milestone in gay cinema, and full of unusual shots and ideas.
46 Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981). The greatest and best film about sport, which still feels relevant today.
47 Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983). Michael Caine’s best performance and a touching portrait of adult education and self-awareness.
48 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). A vibrant musical comedy, and perhaps the defining image of a transsexual character on screen, who gets her happy ending.
49 Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). Bonkers, clever, unnerving.
50 Trois couleurs bleu (Three Colours Blue) (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). All the trilogy could be included, but this is the best of the three on all levels.
First in a series of DVDs presenting performances shown once on American television during the Tony Awards, ‘Broadway’s Lost Treasures’ promises “22 rare performances from Broadway’s greatest musicals.”
Does it deliver? If you want to see the people who created iconic roles, look no further. Here is Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide bewailing her single state which has left her with a permanent cold. Here is Zero Mostel’s joyous Teyve the milkman, wishing he was a rich man. Here is Robert Preston’s Harold Hill warning of trouble ‘right here in River City’. Here is Angela Lansbury’s mad Mrs Lovett and the worse pies in London. Here are Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon as the murderous duo ‘nowadays’. Here is John Raitt’s Pajama Game boss. Here are Yul Brynner and Patricia Morison learning to dance. Here is Carol Channing leading the parade and starting life anew.
And that’s just for starters. If you love musicals, then this purchase is a no-brainer. If you like the classic artists, then you will see them at their best here, even if one or two numbers are mimed. There aren’t that many disappointments – Julie Andrews and a truncated ‘Send in the Clowns’ is perhaps one of them; I would have preferred to see Glynis Johns. Patti LuPone as Evita is also not to my taste, but it is interesting to see her here.
Broadway’s Lost Treasures can be purchased from Amazon and the usual retailers, and is well worth a look.
Showing in a new print at the BFI Southbank as part of their Dickens on Screen anniversary season, the Lionel Bart musical, filmed by Carol Reed, is a worthy addition to the adaptations of this most quintessential English writer’s novels.
Oliver! made its stage debut in 1960, using the novel ‘Oliver Twist’ as its source material – freely adapting the complex tale of an orphan who runs away and falls amongst thieves, omitting a few peripheral characters and one subplot (you’ll find no Monks here), and generally making the major characters more sympathetic. By the time the film was released the musical had been a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic, having premiered on Broadway in 1963.
The film features Ron Moody as Fagin, Shani Wallis as Nancy, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Mark Lester as Oliver, Harry Secombe as Mr Bumble, Peggy Mount as Mrs Bumble, Joseph O’Conor as Mr Brownlow, Hugh Griffith as the Magistrate, Sheila White as Bet, Leonard Rossiter and Hylda Baker as the Sowerberries, and Kenneth Cranham as Noah Claypole.
Fagin in particular is depicted as a rich comedy character with a touch of pathos (and more than a touch of the Jewishness which also distinguished Alec Guinness’s portrayal in the 1948 David Lean film), and his songs ‘You’ve Got To Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘Be Back Soon’, and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ are undoubted highlights of both show and film. Nancy is depicted as both a survivor and a victim, a former child thief trapped in an abusive relationship she doesn’t want to leave (as highlighted in her torch song ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’), while she tallies each night in the tavern waiting for her man to return from his day of crime (‘It’s a Fine Life’).
Shorn of his song which worked well on stage, Oliver Reed’s Bill Sikes exudes an air of menace but clearly cracks up when he makes one fatal mistake – here the tension rachets up a notch and the mood swings of the plot are handled extremely well. In fact the handling of both serious and comic situations throughout the film should be noted with praise, as should the performances of the two child stars, Jack Wild and Mark Lester, who are both superb, especially Wild who is a cheeky chappie, a tiny toff who will always make his way in the world, but also a child who knows he cannot yet protect those who need it (the scene where Nancy is attacked by Sikes being a case in point).
Special mention to the ensemble numbers, ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy’ which look superb on the big screen, and the funny/tense ‘Oom Pah Pah’. Numbers for the Sowerberries (who are rather less comical in the stage version), and Mrs Bumble (Corney on the stage; she is not yet married to the Beadle at the start of the story) are not missed from the film and would perhaps have slowed the action down. What remains is of course superb – a song for Mr Bumble, ‘Boy for Sale’ showcasing Secombe’s gift for opera; a diverting piece for the children, Bet, and Nancy (‘I’d Do Anything’) and a plantive number for Oliver before he escapes to London (‘Where Is Love?’).
The film is perhaps one of the greatest literary adaptations even without the songs; it does not trivalise the story of Oliver Twist and, the plot omissions aside, manages to be fairly close to the book, with all the characters fully drawn and perfectly cast, from the drunken magistrate through to the kindly Mrs Bedwin (Megs Jenkins) and the jovial bookseller (James Hayter). A longtime favourite film of mine, which still looks and sounds terrific.
In 1970 a concept album appeared containing a rock opera based on the final days of the life of Jesus Christ, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It was their second musical together following the production for schools of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Cast as Jesus was Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, with actor/singer Murray Head portraying Judas Iscariot.
It came to Broadway as a fully-fledged stage show in 1971, with Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Ben Vereen as Judas, with a British production following in 1972 featuring Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Stephen Tate as Judas. The interesting thing about the Broadway production was that the actors who eventually took the lead roles in the film version were understudies for the roles of Jesus and Judas (Ted Neeley, and Carl Anderson, who eventually took over the role of Judas when Ben Vereen fell ill).
Fast forward a year to 1973, and the film version. The stage show had led to many protests from religious groups who felt that the treatment of Jesus as a ‘superstar’ was offensive – however, in following the story of Christ from the Bible through key scenes like the Temple, the beggars, and of course, trial and Crucifixion, the story was fairly reverent, using contemporary rock rhythms to put its message across. It was more earthy and less of its time than Godspell, which was filmed around the same time, and which covered a wider story of Jesus choosing his disciples and eventually dying on the Cross.
The film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was directed by Norman Jewison, and retained some players from both the original concept album (Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdelene) and Broadway (Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Carl Anderson as Judas, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas). For me, Ted Neeley is perhaps the greatest of all singers to have taken on the part – and his delicate looks and picture-perfect depiction of Jesus as seen in those Bible prints fit perfectly with the man who has ‘heaven on his mind’, according to Judas. Anderson is also amazing in the role of Judas – and both men continued to portray the roles on stage for many years afterwards.
Filmed in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations, the film is atmospheric and offers much to believers and non-believers alike. Perhaps it makes Judas a little too sympathetic (but it shows him as human being with a conscience, rather than a cardboard villain), and portrays Jesus as a misguided man with doubts (in his soliloquy song, Gethsemane, he asks God ‘why then am I scared to finish / what I started / what you started / I didn’t start it’), but that is all to its strength.
The music remains exceptional after all these years, although some of the period lyrics (‘what’s the buzz’, ‘cool it man’) sound rather anachronistic in the 21st century. Elliman is touching as Mary in her big number (‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’) and if her song with Peter (‘Could We Start Again, Please?) is a bit like a Coca-Cola advert, that is perhaps the only blip in an otherwise fine film. Peter, by the way, is played by one Philip Toubas, who under the name of Paul Thomas followed quite a different career path as a successful porn actor and director.
Is Jesus Christ Superstar worth your time now? Absolutely. It opens out the stage production (which is powerful enough in its own right) and stands up as one of the last hurrahs of 1970s musical cinema. Jewison, who had already brought Fiddler on the Roof to the screen, is a good choice for director, and the film benefits from Melvyn Bragg being involved on the screenplay, and Andre Previn on the musical scoring.
A further version was filmed for television in 2000 featuring Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas, which was closer to the stage production.