Archive for the ‘ Musicals ’ Category

In defence of Footloose


As one of the 1980s film ‘musicals’ which have been steadily appearing in stage adaptations in recent years (Dirty Dancing, Fame and Flashdance being others), Footloose has come in for a lot of criticism, being for some people an example of all that is wrong with contemporary musical theatre.  I have both seen and performed in Footloose, and although it won’t top my list of favourite musicals (though my role in it will rank as one of the performances I’m most proud of, I think) any time soon, I like the show a lot.  I hadn’t really thought about why until I read some comments on the blog Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals which spurred me to examine why I liked the show – is it actually good?  Or does it match my reaction to Starlight Express – awful, but very entertaining?

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Lucky Stiff


Watching friends perform is wonderful, but also slightly nerve-wracking.  I feel nervous on their behalf, willing them to do well and hoping that my presence in the audience isn’t off-putting.  Thankfully, as long as they start off well, these worries quickly vanish and I can get on with enjoying the performance.  Last night, I watched Lucky Stiff at University College London, starring a young man who was a student in Fame, a Future Kid in Marty’s Project and one of the two guys playing my antagonist Ren in Footloose.

Lucky Stiff is a farce, which I first heard of due to a song called ‘Times Like This’ which appeared on a CD compiling tracks from off-Broadway shows.  That song was enough to encourage me to buy a full recording of the show, which is, like any decent farce, completely bonkers.  Harry Witherspoon, a repressed Englishman, inherits several million dollars from his previously unknown American uncle, on condition that he takes his uncle’s body on a trip to Monte Carlo (thanks to taxidermy, he won’t rot or smell).  Complicating matters are the staff of Universal Dog Home, who had hoped to inherit, his uncle’s ex-girlfriend who is desperate to get hold of a heart-shaped box and a man called Luigi who pops up literally everywhere Harry goes.  Naturally, things get extremely complex, thanks to bad eyesight, ambition, drunken maids and a variety of other unforeseen incidents.  The show is written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the team most famous for the much-respected musical Ragtime as well as the songs for the animated film Anastasia.  The twists and turns in the script come thick and fast, as do the laughs. Unusually, neither the plot nor the laughs are put on hold for the songs, some of which represent some truly ludicrous situations (which make perfect sense at the time, of course).  The pace does slow down occasionally, for ‘Times Like This’ and ‘Nice’, but naturally – sometimes songs in farces can feel like someone has slammed the brakes on unexpectedly.

The cast and those behind the scenes did an excellent job with this production, which was staged in the round.  Each brought bags of personality to their role (or roles) and the vocals, both solo and ensemble were impressive, easily filling the space and balancing with the four-person band.  The director included lots of wonderful little touches in each scene and kept the action flowing. Much attention had obviously been paid to ensuring that each side of the audience got their fair turn at seeing the actors’ faces as well.  There were moments when I felt the show was slightly over-choreographed – it’s not a big dance show, but there was a few points at which characters would dance unnecessarily, particularly Harry Witherspoon, who had been in motion quite a bit before claiming “I can’t dance!” – he had even executed a few tap moves (though sans tap shoes), which made this claim unintentionally funny.

My young friend did a good job, and it was nice seeing him act and sing in an English accent.  He was believably awkward, nervous, bemused and frustrated as the plot demanded, and created an endearing character who you really wanted to root for.  It was intriguing, also, to be able to pick out his voice quite easily in the ensemble singing (even the background oohs and aahs) which shows how well you can get to know someone’s voice if you work with them for a while.  There were a couple of moments when I was worried that he would crack and start laughing, but he managed to control himself (though I did spot a smile during his ‘nightmare).  A couple of others in the cast didn’t manage to keep the mirth in quite so well, but none of them ‘corpsed’ in a disastrous manner.  Even when the leading lady found herself amused by various intrusions into a scene, she managed to cover this and convert it into in-character confusion.

I was proud of him, and pleased to be watching it with another talented young performer, who had also been part of shows with both of us.  He did an excellent job of being the ‘straight’ man in the midst of all the chaos, and displayed a good sense of comedy as well as the straight acting and singing skills I already knew he had.  I was pleasantly surprised by the general talent level of the cast, which was extremely high (my only criticism was one guy who seemed slightly lost with the dance moves, and I can certainly empathise with that!).  I spent a lot of the evening smiling broadly, and indeed laughing out loud. I feel very lucky to have seen Lucky Stiff.

Jerry Bock


It has been reported (at Broadwayworld.com) that musical theatre composer Jerry Bock died last night at the age of 81.  Most famous for writing the music for Fiddler on the Roof, his legacy to the world also includes a number of other shows, including Fiorello!, one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In a strange coincidence, Joseph Stein, who wrote the book (the spoken words) for Fiddler, died only last month.

Fiddler on the Roof is definitely Bock’s most well-known contribution to musical theatre, containing numbers which evoke emotions from joy to despair, but there are some hidden gems in his catalogue of works.  The melody for ‘Artificial Flowers’ from Tenderloin is truly beautiful (though you wouldn’t know it from Bobby Darrin’s recording), and I have a bit of a soft spot for the score of She Loves Me (not least because the show’s lead would be a wonderful part to play).  It even includes a song called ‘A Trip to the Library’, so how could I fail to like it?  The title song and ‘Where’s My Shoe?’ are great pieces of character writing, and ‘Twelve Days to Christmas’ evokes the panic of festive shopping perfectly.  But my favourite number from the show, and from Jerry Bock, is probably ‘Tonight at Eight’ :

His style may not have been as distinctive as some of the other musical theatre writers of his generation like John Kander or Jerry Herman, but Mr Bock had a flair for melody, sometimes supporting a comic lyric as in ‘Tonight at Eight’, sometimes evoking a particular time or place, sometimes soaring free.  His name may not be that well known outside of theatrical circles, but the power of Fiddler on the Roof ensures that his legacy will last for a long time to come.  Jerry Bock, rest in peace.

Finding my feet again


Having reached a place of despondency with Footloose, things managed to get worse before they got better.  Part of my attack of the glums was probably caused by general feelings of physical exhaustion, as the mildly stuffy nose turned into an uncomfortable sore throat and a somewhat more than mildly stuffy nose.  In order to ensure that breathing was at optimum level for singing, I became quickly identifiable (and quite popular) backstage due to the smell of Olbas Oil.  Several others had been ill in the lead-up to the show, and I believe a good proportion of the cast is now feeling the effects as well.

On the Friday night, I experienced one of my most terrifying moments on stage.  A few lines in to my solo, “Heaven Help Me”, my mouth continued moving, but not a sound came out.  So I sang ‘Someone’s got to … … … … If I don’t who will?’, which made very little sense (for the record, someone’s got to take the high road).  It was only a brief moment of nothingness, but it was truly terrifying.  My mind raced with the horrifying possibilities – what if my voice had run away and I had to continue mouthing the entire song?  Was there any way someone could rescue me, even though I was alone on the stage?  Thankfully, a deep breath at the end of the missing line, and things return to normal.  I still wanted the earth to open up and swallow me, but had to change from ‘at home’ to ‘at church’ costume ready for the final scene of the act.  I don’t know whether it was the nose and throat, some sort of mental affliction or just random fate which conspired to create those few seconds of personal horror, but it certainly galvanised me for the second act – I had to just pretend that act one had not happened and get out there and be the best darned Reverend Moore I could be.  Apparently, I found out later, it looked like a problem with my mic rather than with me, though that seems rather unfair to the hardworking sound man.

After the Friday night show, I opted to walk home, giving me a chance to experience some quiet, some fresh air and a chance to have a good long talk with God.  I expressed my frustrations and anxieties about the role, I told him about the feelings from life in general that had got tangled up with Footloose, and I tried to listen to Him in response (something I am so very bad at doing).

On Saturday, I was still feeling ill, but I was feeling calmer than I had felt all week.  And I started to enjoy the show.  I had enjoyed spending time with my fellow cast members and there was much entertaining people-watching to do, but it wasn’t until Saturday that I felt able to let go and enjoy the experience of performing the role rather than fretting and being neurotic about it.  It was still hard work – Shaw Moore is a very challenging part – but it became considerably more enjoyable than I had made it earlier in the run.  Whether you choose to put this down to God’s influence or to something else, this was most definitely a good thing.  It would have been a terrible shame to have been given such a great opportunity to truly act and then not enjoy it at all.

After the show on Saturday, quite a number of people I had never met came up to me and congratulated me on my performance as Reverend Moore, saying that they found it very moving.  This was very encouraging, and made me want to cry in a very good way.  I still feel I could have done better, but can’t we always do better?  However, I definitely found my feet and am sure I am stronger because of the experience.

Cutting loose?


Tonight we gotta cut loose, footloose!
Kick off your Sunday shoes. 

It’s that time again – show week!  It seems like I only just got off that particular emotional roller-coaster, largely because All Shook Up was only last month.  Now I’m on to Footloose, with the young people of Phoenix Performing Arts (the group where I am brought in from time to time as an “adult”).  In some ways there are many similarities between the shows: in both of them, an authority figure has sucked the joy out of a town; in both of them, a young man arrives and shakes things up; in both of them, I play(ed) the father of the female lead; in both of them, I walk(ed) out part of the way through an emotional song being sung to me.    But in more fundamental ways, they are completely different.  All Shook Up was a comedy, whereas Footloose is a drama with some funny bits.  When I saw a production of the show last year (by Lights Up Productions, before I was involved with the group), I was surprised by how much genuine drama there is in the show, with some complex relationships and some quite serious themes.  Now, having been rehearsing for the last three months, I am still coming across new layers to my character and trying to work out how to make these come through.

I play Reverend Shaw Moore, who essentially runs the town of Bomont.  Everyone there does what he says and follows his guidance.  As Rusty, Urleen and Wendy-Jo explain to Ren, “Reverend Moore? He is the power.  He is the law.”  His leadership has resulted in the town having a curfew for all young people, and bans in place on alcohol, drugs and (more surprisingly) dancing.  Due to these rules and his rather strained relationships with his wife and daughter, he functions as the antagonist to the young leads through the show, blocking their hopes and plans at every turn.  Yet, he is not a bad man.  He is motivated by a genuine desire to protect the young people of the town, to care for and guide his daughter and to do God’s will.  Unfortunately, his judgement has been clouded by an event in the past, an event that casts a shadow over the entire town due to his reaction to it.  He is a persuasive man and a frightening man.  He is a caring man, but an unseeing man.  He is a good man who cannot see that his actions are causing harm.  He cares deeply, but doesn’t express it as he should.  He buries his pain, but he also treasures it in a way.  All of these things need to come through in my performance somehow – so no pressure…

Actually, an awful lot of pressure.  Performing with PPA always brings with it a sense of responsibility.  I am there as an “adult” so I feel I need to be some sort of role model in the way I behave backstage and in rehearsals, in addition to fulfilling the demands of the role and giving the younger cast members an older person to bounce off.  In this role, I know that the way I perform will inform the performances of Ren, Ariel and Vi at the very least – I have to give them everything they need for their characters.  I have a series of scenes towards the end which are wonderfully written, but which scare me immensely – they have to be so, so right to make the show’s conclusion work.  I’m probably not making things any easier for myself when in the back of my mind, I am always aware that one of my last conversations with Stuart before he died was about how much he thought this role would be a good one for me.  And in my heart of hearts, I know that he could have performed it better than I ever will.

As ever with PPA, rehearsals have their strange moments.  The Rens (most of the non-adult roles are double cast, meaning that I have two very different daughters and two very different antagonists) being told that entering a room was like being thrown into a shark pool, with me as the biggest shark.  Running around the acting coach’s garden and delivering a speech breathlessly to see what happened (answer, I couldn’t get to the end as I am clearly less fit than I thought).  Discussing what our characters would wear in bed.  My daughters comforting me as if they were a lioness or a domestic cat, to see the difference.  Rehearsals are, as I have mentioned before, odd.

It is a great privilege to play this role.  It’s extremely scary as well.  There are emotions in it that I don’t want to touch on, but really have to.  The character continues to elude me, and show me more sides of himself which I doubt I can portray.  I have vocal issues in the dialogue which have been pointed out numerous times, but which seem to be getting better only slowly.  But the script is wonderful, and I am sure the show will be a great experience once I manage to cut loose (though not footloose, given Shaw’s antipathy to dance) and just go with it.

A week in the Tower – Day 6


So after two months of living and breathing All Shook Up, it finally had to end.  One last journey to the Tower Theatre, and two last shows.  One last day with Lights Up Productions and the several dozen people whose work made the show happen in so many ways.  It had been a hard couple of months, in terms of the number of hours of rehearsing and in terms of emotional stresses both connected to the show and otherwise.  I had tried hard to keep my personal life outside of my show life, and hopefully succeeded (on Day 2, though, being in the theatre made me miss Stuart immensely and I needed a good cry, but I saved it until the lunch break).  Dance routines had driven me literally to the point of tears when trying to get them right at home.  The tight jeans had almost given me nightmares.  One of the scenes did literally give me some very disturbing dreams.  But I had met, and re-met, some amazing, talented, dedicated people and we’d put together a show we enjoyed and which we were proud of.  Now it had to end.

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A week in the Tower – Day 5


Day 5 could have gone better for me.  An awful lot better.  During the afternoon, I read over my notes from the various run-throughs and performances over the last 10 days, and sang through ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ numerous times, as I know that’s the number I find most challenging vocally.  It stays very low and my character is supposed to be nervous while singing it, a combination which can mean that I descend into incomprehensibility if I don’t concentrate.

Notes were at five o’clock, preceded for unknown reasons by a game of catch that soon became violent.  Much laughter was shared by the company, and I proved that I have no sense of aim whatsoever.  I know people who hate notes during a run, but the whole point of them is to make sure that the show gets better and better, as there’s always room for improvement.  They can also be encouraging – if someone does something particularly good, that will be picked up on and praised.  As long as everyone involved knows that the purpose is notes is for good and not for ill, then all is well – I certainly have had many notes over the years which improved my performance, generally suggesting things I’d never have thought of myself or catching errors or problems I hadn’t noticed.

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