Archive for the ‘ Music ’ Category

Recording – Apparition Smith and the B Musical.

Although I have performed in everything from seventeenth-century opera to recent shows which began life on Broadway or the West End, it is particularly exciting to get to sing something which nobody else has sung before.  New works I’ve performed in include the Christmas oratorio Prepare the Way by Phil Hornsey and the musical Behind Closed Doors by Stephen Clee.

Last year, I was contacted by Ethan Lewis Maltby, who I know from performing in the ensemble of his musical Courtenay. He was recording material from 3 of his shows, and asked me to participate in two of them.  Firstly, B Musical, a science-fiction piece about the alien invasion of a small town.  And secondly, Apparition Smith, a 19th-century tale about a group who put on fake séances. The material from B Musical had been recorded before, though the show has yet to be performed, and the pieces from Apparition Smith were as yet unheard.

This was exciting – it was great (and rather flattering) to be asked to take part and exciting to sing something new.  I therefore spent some time learning the music and a few evenings recording it.  Recording is an unusual experience – there is no audience to play to and the environment is a strange one. Unlike in live performance, there is nothing you can do to hide, but you can go back and fix even the slightest error, and do it as many times as is necessary to get it just right. Of course, this didn’t mean that I didn’t get annoyed with myself when things didn’t go right – quite the reverse! There were bits of the section I sang in B Musical which made me more and more cross with myself as I struggled to get them right. Ethan and Jenna (the lyricist for Apparition Smith, who also did the sound engineering – a skill I am in awe of) were very patient, but I dread to think how many attempts we must have made.

A little while later, the results of everyone’s work were released, and sound great!  They have been made available on-line, and I really hope that they lead to the shows being picked up for production – I would be happy to see any one of them on the stage.  Each has its own website:

  • Apparition Smith. The tale of Nathanial Smith, a charismatic conman who travels 19th-century Britain setting up fake séances. I can be heard on the tracks ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’ as a Legend-Teller and ‘Setting Up For a Séance’ as Ed.
  • B-Musical.  A comedy about a typical American family who have to deal with the somewhat unexpected arrival of aliens in their community. I play the part of Pa, and can be heard on the tracks ‘Strangeness About’ and ‘Tantrum’
  • Courtenay. The true story of the remarkable Sir William Courtenay and of the last battle fought on mainland English soil.  I don’t sing on this one, but you won’t regret checking it out!

If you’re curious about what singing librarians sound like, have a listen. If you like checking out new writing in musical theatre, have a listen. If you… well, just have a listen. Ethan and his lyricists are talented people, and their work deserves to be heard and seen.  The three shows have very different sounds and styles and offer proof (if proof were needed) that there is great work in British musical theatre going unheard.

If you are particularly pressed for time, I am most pleased with ‘The Legend of Apparition Smith’. Most unusually, I can listen to that track without feeling embarrassed about hearing my own voice. You could possibly even say that I’m proud of my work there – an astonishing feat worthy of Apparition Smith himself!

CD of the Moment: Kitty’s Kisses

My collection of musical theatre cast recordings has expanded faster than I’ve been able to listen to the CDs, a state of affairs that simply cannot be allowed to continue. So one of my aims for 2011 is to work my way through these thus-far unplayed discs, and to write about those which seem particularly worthy of note.  The first of these is a recording of an old show that even I hadn’t heard of before the recording was announced.

Kitty's Kisses CD art

Kitty's Kisses CD cover

Kitty’s Kisses : World Premiere Recording

PS Classics – PS-987

During the 1920s, literally hundreds of musicals opened and closed on Broadway, and even the most successful of them tended to last for one or two years at the most.  A run of a few months was enough to turn a profit and classify a show as a hit.  The cream of these shows are still household names, including Show Boat and Porgy & Bess, but most of them have since been forgotten, their songs and dances lost to the mists of time.  For a musical from 1926 to receive a 21st-century recording, particularly since it has never been recorded before, is quite remarkable.

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Silent hallows

Last night I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 with my housemates.  Others who are much more qualified than I to talk about film have commented on the many things to like, dislike and puzzle over, and I am sure fan sites are full of people comparing every line of dialogue, item of clothing and significant glance to the book.  However, one thing really struck me, and that was a particular brilliance in the soundtrack.  In terms of music, a good job was done throughout.  However, I did not often notice the specifics of the music in the score (other than a particularly apt use of Hedwig’s Theme), but I did notice that somebody – perhaps Alexandre Desplat (the composer), perhaps David Yates (the director), perhaps someone else – displayed great wisdom about moments when the score was not needed at all. So many films and television shows these days have constant background music, and in some cases it threatens to overwhelm the sounds in the foreground, including unimportant little things like dialogue.  Doctor Who is particularly guilty of this.  Murray Gold’s music in the episodes is uniformly brilliant, but it’s often very obtrusive to the point you wish it would just stop (which, in one episode where we had a view from the vacuum of space, it did). 

In Deathly Hallows, the score is used sparingly, and is so much more effective for it.  Poignant and scary moments are not telegraphed to the viewer, leaving us to decide how to react.  Film scores can often tell us, generally subconsciously, how we are supposed to be feeling at any given moment – tense, excited, elated, depressed.  But some of the most effective moments in the film were carried out in silence, or at least with no intrusions from the invisible orchestra.  Footsteps, breathing and real background sounds came through with unusual clarity in these moments.  I found that the silence somehow added to the tension in a certain scene set at Godric’s Hollow, and at other times the emptiness of the soundscape echoed the way in which the characters themselves felt spent and empty.  The film is a perfect example of the ‘less is more’ maxim (or at least, less can be more) applied to movie music.

When the film comes out on DVD, I would be quite tempted to watch it through paying particular attention to the score and the moments when it is not present.  This would, I believe, be an absolutely fascinating experience.  If I took nothing else away from it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 showed me that silence really can be golden.

You Know How To Love Me

One year ago today, I auditioned for When Midnight Strikes. This was not what most people would have done on their birthday, but most people aren’t quite as excited about performing as I am! I was not really expecting anything to come of it, but readers of this blog will know that as well as ensuring that I met some wonderful people, the show was a great learning experience for me, which I wouldn’t have missed for anything. I am so proud of what we achieved as a company and what I achieved as an individual in that show. I loved the music from the first time I heard it (why else would I have travelled to Folkestone to audition for a group of people who mostly didn’t know me?), and so I was both surprised and pleased to see that Brenda Edwards (a former X Factor contestant and a popular Mama Morton in the London production of Chicago) is releasing one of its songs as her debut single.

The song is ‘You Know How To Love Me’ and the track appears to be taken from an album featuring various theatre people singing songs by Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds (also about to be released) called It’s Just the Beginning. In the show, this song is extraordinarily emotional, as one of the women sings to the man who has, essentially, used her. She felt that he completed her, made her whole and understood her needs. The ways in which she misses him are endless. But he is having none of it. The number absolutely blew the audience away, both because of who was singing it (and who to) and because of the hard work of the incredible lead vocalist, the musical director and the off-stage backing singers. The fact that I could not be one of those backing singers was about the only regret I had about my role. For me, due to my emotional investment in it, no rendition of the song will ever compare to what Carrie did so brilliantly in that production. But for those who do not know the song, here is Brenda Edwards’ music video for ‘You Know How To Love Me’. A little more “pop” than the theatrical version, but still an amazing song.

It is me? The great Christmas No. 1 battle

Is it me?  I can’t help but be baffled by the news report I’ve just seen about the shocking result of the traditional race to be number one in the Christmas chart.  I say shocking, but it isn’t really – I think it was to be expected, really.  On one side, we have the X-Factor juggernaut, with a technically brilliant singer releasing a worryingly catchy song (Joe McElderry is a great singer [his performances that I’ve seen were near-as-dammit to flawless], there really is no question, I’m just not convinced he’s a superstar), on the other side you have a Facebook-fuelled campaign to get an alternative track to the top spot.  Never underestimate the power of Facebook.

Essentially, the choice of song (Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name”) made it quite clear that the campaign was more about sticking two fingers up at the way in which people like Simon Cowell dominate the music industry than it was about musical taste.  I’d be astonished if all the people who bought the song liked it.  But the whole thing strikes me as wonderfully ironic.  Continue reading

CD of the moment: Act One

I have [mumblemumble]hundred theatre-related CDs in my collection, and some of them inevitably get listened to a lot more than others.  I was recently asked to write a CD review (which was not used), so I thought I’d tweak it a little and share it here, potentially with the aim of posting a review of a recording at the beginning of each month.

Act One CD Cover

Act One CD Cover

Act One: Songs from the Musicals of Alexander S. Bermange

Dress Circle 070 501-8 – RRP: £14.99
Alexander S. Bermange’s name may not be familiar to the majority of theatre fans, but the people who interpret his songs on this recording almost certainly are. The 26 singers include leading men such as Jon Lee, Earl Carpenter and Daniel Boys, while the distaff side is equally strong, featuring Sally Ann Triplett, Joanna Ampil, Lara Pulver and Summer Strallen among others. As Sir Tim Rice says in his brief liner notes, this surely speaks volumes about the quality of the material they are interpreting, and they all give their songs all they’ve got. Mr Bermange has mostly been successful in continental Europe, which has seen productions of his various musicals based on tales from the likes of the Brothers Grimm. Several selections from these shows are included here along with others representing a total of ten musicals and one pantomime. The numbers themselves cover power ballads, love songs and comedy moments, showing great versatility from the composer-lyricist, who plays piano on all bar one of the tracks.

Each track is rewarding listening, but some stand out immediately. The disc opens with ‘Walking On the Sun’, which is reminiscent of  ‘This is the Moment’ in some ways, though the lyrics of the verses are somewhat puzzling – perhaps they make more sense in the context of the show it comes from. Three songs from Odette, an adaptation of Swan Lake, are particularly enjoyable. Each of the main characters familiar from the ballet is represented in these selections, and all of them use fairy tale metaphors, an interesting touch which provokes questions about the rest of the show, suggesting an unusual level of awareness on the part of the characters – do they know they’re part of a story, I wonder? Best of these is ‘My Prince’, sung by Lara Pulver (now appearing as Isabella in the BBC’s Robin Hood), a comic number in which Odile reveals the many ways in which she has tried to attract a Prince Charming using every trick in the fairy tale book. The sadder side of love is explored by Janie Dee in ‘Where’s the Love?’ from Close Encounters and by Jenna Lee-James and Dean Collison in ‘Anyone But You’ from Thirteen Days. Both tracks pull at the heart strings, exploring two complex relationships, ill-advised in different ways.

For me, though, it is two of the upbeat tracks which prove to be the cream of the already very good crop on the CD, both of them written for a pantomime version of Aladdin at the Pleasance Theatre. While they may not be deep or complex (not concepts you usually associate with panto), ‘I Want to Reach the Stars’ (sung by Jon Lee) and ‘Higher Than a Shooting Star’ (Mark Evans and Susan McFadden) are highly engaging, great examples of the ‘I want’ and ‘I love you’ genres, essential inclusions in any theatre score, and leave the listener with a huge smile. This CD proves that Stiles and Drewe are not the only hope for the future of British musical theatre, and makes you long to hear more from Mr Bermange – here’s hoping for an Act Two!

Belatedly, Susan Boyle

It has taken me a while to catch up with the Susan Boyle phenomenon.  I’m not a fan of ‘reality’ talent competitions as a rule, so I didn’t see the episode of Britain’s Got Talent where this woman wowed the judges and audience with her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Miserables.  Just in case you are one of the few people who, like me, had not seen this, the video is up on Youtube.  Have a look and listen, then pop back here.

Right.  I had read about the performance in various blog posts and newspaper articles, but it wasn’t until a colleague asked my opinion that I finally investigated it.  I have to confess I was cynical.  Was this performance really going to wow me?  Was this just the first of the inevitable tabloid stories that such television series inevitably generate?  Still, I was intrigued.  It’s not often that the nation starts discussing someone singing a showtune, even from such a popular show as Les Mis.  So I tried to approach Ms Boyle with an open mind, but I wasn’t expecting anything special.  My first observation was that the singer was nowhere near as ugly as I had been expecting, in fact, ugly is definitely far too harsh a word.  The various reactions in the press had made me expect someone truly hideous, but this was not the case – plain, perhaps, and not having had the dubious ‘benefit’ of a makeover of any kind, but there’s nothing wrong with that.  The reaction of the judges and audience, though, was fascinating – here was someone who is not beautiful, who wanted to be a professional singer, they thought, clearly this is going to be a disaster.

And then she sang.  The crowd went wild, and expressions of shock abounded.  It was immediately obvious that here was a woman with a great singing voice.  Unrefined, yes, and sometimes there was a feeling that she wasn’t really connecting with the lyrics, but in this case Britain has talent.  I have heard better renditions of the song.  Quite a lot of them, in fact, given how very many people have recorded it, and I have heard much worse versions as well.  There were no moments when she went horribly off-key, as there so often are on these shows, and no flights of histrionic nonsense.  She certainly connected with the live audience, and the way they responded gave me chills.  They adored her, and surely that’s all that counts?

However, with my cynical head back on, I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen the next time she sings for us – the surprise is gone, we know she can sing now, and all the media attention will lead us to expect great thinks from her.  If a large part of the appeal is the difference between the expectations her looks and her nervous personal demeanour evoke and the voice that appears when she sings, then what more has she to offer? It seems obligatory to talk about her story, not just her talent, and I fear that this story may well outshadow her abilities.  If she ever appears in a designer dress, or has a new hairdo, will the British public turn on her?  I hope not.  She has truly great potential.  And my goodness, she’s so much better than the terribly overrated Paul Potts.

Reviewing Rodgers – 2: My Romance

The love songs of Rodgers and Hart are often not exactly love songs, tending to have a sting in their tail (which may or may not be revelatory concerning Hart’s character). Love is frequently compared to an illness (see ‘This Can’t Be Love’ or ‘It’s Got To Be Love’), and some of their best songs tell of a lack of love or a wrong love (‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ or ‘Spring Is Here’). One of their most emphatically positive love songs, though, is ‘My Romance’ from the musical Jumbo.

Jumbo, it has to be said, is not a show that is likely to be revived in the near future, despite having served as the songwriting duo’s triumphant return to Broadway in 1935 (having not found great success or pleasure on Hollywood). Descriptions vary, but you get the impression that plot, songs and performances were overshadowed by the setting – a circus, complete with a live elephant. Frankly, what chance does any normal element of a production have when it’s competing with a great big elephant, particularly when the climax of the show involves said elephant placing its foot on Jimmy Durante’s head?

It would have been entirely understandable if Rodgers and Hart had made a negligible effort with the score for this show, since it could be drowned out by the hundreds of regular-sized animals and overshadowed by the horse-riders, jugglers, human cannonballs and, of course, the titular pachyderm. However, several of the songs are highly noteworthy. ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ is a very pleasant waltz number (Rodgers has a lot of very pleasant waltz numbers in his catalogue), and ‘Little Girl Blue’ is an astonishing song of loneliness. ‘My Romance’ itself is a beautiful ballad of love, with a simple, affecting tune and an inventive lyric.

In his lyrics, Lorenz Hart has fun with the stereotypical love song, subverting the trite, overused ideas to create something new. The song is full of negatives, with sprinklings of ‘no’, ‘not’ and ‘doesn’t’ throughout the lyric, as the singer describes what is *not* necessary for romance – “my romance” doesn’t require moons, lagoons, castles, soft guitars, dances, specific times of year or starlit nights. All the things that lyricists are so fond of rhyming in their love songs, essentially. So if all these things and more are unnecessary, what does this romance need?

Wide awake, I can make my most fantastic dreams come true
My romance doesn’t need a thing but you.

It was not truly a new idea, but the way it was expressed is refreshingly different, allowing Hart to make a point about some of the lyricists of his day while still providing a romantic conclusion.

Rodgers, for his part, provided a gorgeous melody which spends most of its time gradually climbing upwards, apart from a ‘B’ section which rises and falls in unexpected ways. The main tune is full of long phrases which convey the depth of feeling behind the song and the steady climb upwards speaks of a building ardour which climaxes on ‘fantastic dream come true’ before descending on the final phrase, making it almost a statement of rational fact. A very happy fact, of course, but the shift from the steady climb to a gentle descent shifts gears from rhapsody to contentment.

It is rare for me to be able to identify exactly what the melody is doing, but because the words and music fit so beautifully together, the music makes complete sense (though this is likely to be Hart’s doing, as they tended to work music-first, while Rodgers and Hammerstein were generally lyric-first). Because of this, ‘My Romance’ is one of my favourite Rodgers and Hart songs to listen to and quite possibly my favourite to sing. There is a wonderful simplicity about it which disguises the craft that went in to creating the song. It’s an absolute gem.

Reviewing Rodgers – 1: Manhattan

The first big song hit for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a ditty called ‘Manhattan’, which made a big splash when it was included in the first edition of the Garrick Gaieties in 1925, a revue which originated as a benefit performance for the Theatre Guild.  It had been written three years earlier for a musical called Winkle Town, but that particular show never saw the light of day so the song rested dormant until its big discovery.  It wasn’t Rodgers’ first song, not by a long way, since he had been publishing some of his work since 1917, but it was the song that made ‘Rodgers and Hart’ household names for the first time and launched them on to a series of hits over the next few years.  Everyone was singing it, and an incredible number of people have recorded it since – from Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Dinah Washington to Anne Bancroft and Rod Stewart.  But what makes this song so special?

Well, firstly the music, which has a delightful bounce which is incredibly catchy.  It has an incredibly laid-back tune which captures the feel of strolling along without a care in the world and simply exudes joy.  Like many of Arthur Sullivan’s tunes, as well, it allows the lyric to be heard clearly, which is important as the words do not repeat other than in the last few words of each refrain (“We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy!”).  It’s instantly recognisable from just a few notes of the refrain, which probably contributed to its initial hit status – catchy music spreads faster than a virus.

The lyrics, though, are what make the song for me, and yet I only recently realised how clever they are.  We tend to accept the song on face value, a pleasant little number about a courting couple enjoying spending time in New York rather than going off on an adventurous holiday.  But close attention to the lyrics tells a different story.  From the most familiar refrain (the first), we get the following lines:

It’s very fancy
On old Delancey
Street, you know.
The subway charms us so
When balmy breezes blow
To and fro.

What a charming image.  Or is it?  Balmy breezes on the subway?   They’re singing about the gusts of air that assault the platforms as the trains arrive and depart.  Breezes certainly, but not particularly balmy or at all pleasant.  Other highlights of their wanderings in Manhattan include a futile attempt to cross a busy road and eventual arrest.  And yet they seem quite content.  Is this a song that show us love can make the best of a bad thing, or is it a satirical swipe at the island of Manhattan?  Probably a little of both, with perhaps the emphasis on the latter. 

Whichever it is, Rodgers and Hart followed it in the next year’s Garrick Gaieties with ‘Mountain Greenery’, a song which expresses much the same notions about a countryside retreat, including the joys of collecting wood and encountering mosquitoes.  The pair seem to be having fun with the conventions of the love song – each song works beautifully as a romantic duet (or solo, which is how they tend to be recorded), while simultaneously poking fun at the locale in which the amorous couples are located.  As they sing, these lovers can turn even dirty, dangerous Manhattan into an “isle of joy”.  And Rodgers and Hart could turn this idea into a hit song which has survived for over eighty years.

Reviewing Rodgers – 0: The Beginning

A new series for the new year, stemming from an idea that has been percolating for some time. Richard Rodgers, famous as both …and Hart and …and Hammerstein, left behind a rich legacy of songs and shows, some of which endure, while others fade quietly away. My intention, at least once a month, is to focus on one aspect of his work at a time, including each of his eleven collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II from Oklahoma! in 1943 to The Sound of Music in 1959. Individual songs, shows, films, themes, whatever seems apt or interesting and in no particular order.

Rodgers helped to redefine musical theatre with landmark shows such as On Your Toes, Pal Joey, Oklahoma! and Carousel, each of which contained innovations which pushed the genre in new directions. He also wrote the music for some of the most enduring songs of the twentieth century – ‘Blue Moon’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’, ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’ and dozens more. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a composer that I admire, with a body of work which I (mostly) enjoy very much, spanning some sixty years between his first and last published songs. He’s also a composer who is very much on my mind at present, as I immerse myself in his music prior to playing him on stage.  A love of Richard Rodgers may hardly be original (though perhaps slightly unusual in one who has not quite turned 30), but one thing I hope to demonstrate along the way is that he could be surprisingly unconventional, given that we now associate his most famous musicals with a sort of safe, middle-class theatricality.

And so this post is only a beginning, a signal that there is more to come. But the beginning is, as I’m sure we all know, a very good place to start.

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