Archive for the ‘ Musicals ’ Category

Rehearsals are odd: Cartoon cats, gorillas and diving boards

Rehearsals for West Side Story are continuing apace, as well they should with less than 2 weeks before we descend upon the paying public.  My role in the production has expanded somewhat since my last blog post from Doc to both Doc and Officer Krupke, with a side order of singing in the wings during ensemble numbers.  Playing two different named characters in the same show is an intriguing challenge and Wednesday’s rehearsal demonstrates the lengths that the director and acting coach are going to in their attempts to help me do this.

For me, the rehearsal started with work on Officer Krupke.  Finding two different ways of speaking for the two characters was proving tricky, particularly since both are supposed to be New Yorkers.  So, from the depths of childhood televisual memories, somebody recalled Top Cat, and the phrase “OK, T.C.!”, which gave birth to a wonderful way of speaking which the Jets should have no trouble imitating.  With lips pushed forward and the sound sitting somewhere in the back of my throat, poor old Krupke sounds very dumb indeed.  Which is fair enough, since he really doesn’t have that many brain cells to rub together.  It’s also not an easy voice to sustain, so I shall have to practice reciting nursery rhymes, memory verses and the like in Krupke’s fascinating accent.

Moving on from the vocal, there is also the physical.  Krupke is intimidating.  Or rather, Krupke thinks he’s intimidating.  And he also idolises Lieutenant Schrank to an extent, for the plain clothes man clearly commands some sort of grudging respect from the ‘punks’ on the street, something with Krupke cannot really claim.  He walks with chest puffed out, arms dangling somewhat (unless clutching his whistle).  His gait is rolling and his legs are slightly bent.  He could be compared to a gorilla, only his arms do not reach quite so close to the ground.  The true challenge came in transferring this walk to a run (for Krupke enters and exits one scene at a gallop and has to negotiate steps at speed).  A portion of the rehearsal time was spent running around the outside of Whitstable Castle in character, either alone or chasing the acting coach, which was a spectacle enjoyed not only by other cast members but by innocent members of the public as well.  This is, again, something which needs practice, but even as a fairly dedicated performer, I have no desire to run through the streets of Canterbury in character.  And certainly not in costume:

The Singing Librarian as Officer Krupke

The Singing Librarian as Officer Krupke

Voice, posture, walk and run settled, we worked through Krupke’s scenes, setting some character moments to show how he looks up to Schrank, how he fails to live up to Schrank, and how the kids can run rings around him.  All of which may well pass beneath the audience’s notice, but such is the way of things.

Then it was Doc’s turn, a complete change of gears.  The focus was the scene where Doc has to tell Tony some very bad news indeed.  He is already shaken, having witnessed the young men of the Jets going too far and having been (falsely) told the news that he now has to pass on.  The beginning of this scene worked well, but the moment when the new finally has to be imparted was, quite simply, not good.  So we played a little game.  Telling bad news is something that Doc knows he has to do, but also doesn’t quite have the nerve to do, so this was transferred to a similar sort of feeling – attempting to jump off a high diving board.  Approaching the edge.  Retreating.  Breathing deeply.  Steeling nerves.  And finally, finally, taking the plunge.  Back to the scene in question and much the same thing happened.  A long pause, perhaps even a very long pause, while Doc considered his words, tried to say something, failed and tried again, before the words came out in a rush.  Much better.  The messenger was thankfully not shot, but fulfilled his purpose properly.

So there we have it.  Two hours of rehearsal with two characters, which involved old cartoons, apes and a less than Olympic athlete to get the desired effects.  This acting lark is a strange one, but it’s a wonderful feeling when a scene suddenly feels right, no matter what route took you there.

Becoming Harold Bride

Faithful readers, it seems my audition-related fears were ungrounded, or at the very least, my great virtues of being young, male and alive won through for me. I will be joining the cast of Titanic in the role of Harold Bride, a young radioman. 22 years of age, he is greatly enthused by his career in telegraphy and takes his job very seriously. He has human warmth as well, and in the musical theatre one other fact is very important – he has a wonderful song to sing. Before I heard it, I would not have believed that there could be a wonderful song about the telegraph, but Maury Yeston managed it somehow.

No doubt I will also be, at some point ‘Third 2nd class passenger from the right’ as most of the cast is required to do double or triple duty to help create the impression of there being a whole ship full of people on the stage. Even if not physically required, many of us will be singing lustily in the wings between our own scenes, given that the music often takes it upon itself to divide into eight part harmony. Glorious!

Rehearsals begin on Monday, when everything will start to become clearer. However, there are various aspects of preparation I can begin at once. There is a great wealth of material about the RMS Titanic, its crew and its passengers. I have already begun exploring some web sites where research is available, including the Encyclopedia Titanica and the records of the Inquiries which were held after the disaster. Journal articles and books can also be delved into, and I suppose I might have to get around to watching James Cameron’s Titanic, which I have hitherto avoided. Although the general information is interesting, it is the details of Harold Bride’s life, and particularly his actions and feelings during April 1912, that I am looking for. What sort of a young man was he? How did he speak and act? What did he really do on the night of the sinking and why? Of course, the musical is fictionalised to a degree, but even if I have to deviate from the truth, I would like to know that I am doing so, and why.

I’m also intending to learn Morse code. There are several points when Bride is supposed to be sending messages by tapping on the key of his equipment. When this happens, particularly in the sequence where the distress signal CQD is sent, I would like to be tapping the right rhythms. It will help my performance to be able to ‘send’ messages almost without thought, and it would please me if the messages make sense. I can also imagine that audience members who are fluent in Morse code would find it very annoying if the supposed radioman is actually tapping out a message like r7mgebe4t. I know that very few audience members would have the required knowledge to notice, let alone be paying sufficient attention, but I think it’s important.

This is a wonderful part, which gives an opportunity to create (or recreate) an intriguing character and includes some interesting solo/duet singing as well as the magnificent choral music.  Though I do not mean it in a strange luvvie sort of way, I look forward to becoming Harold Bride.

Reviewing Rodgers – 3: Babes in Arms

If you’ve ever wondered who is to blame for “let’s put the show on right here in the barn”, then you should probably direct your frustration in the direction of Rodgers and Hart.  In Babes in Arms, which hit Broadway in 1937, they devised a story where a group of teens put on a show under their own steam as those pesky adults had spoiled their other plans.  It may not have been the first time this trope was used, but it was probably responsible for popularising it.  The subsequent film even starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, if further proof were needed.  We can’t even blame the scriptwriter (or librettist, as they tend to be known in musical theatre circles), as Rodgers and Hart wrote the spoken words as well as the music and lyrics, the first show which they wrote entirely on their own.

In its historical context, their plot must have been a refreshing change from the parade of typical musical comedy affairs, where boy meets girl, suffers a series of frustrations for two hours and finally get the girl just in time for the rousing finale.  There is romance, of course, but the principal dramatic thrust of the show is the generational conflict between the ‘babes’ and their elders, alongside the difficulties and dramas inherent in staging a show.  However, like most shows of the era, the script is said not to work at all to modern eyes and ears.  It also contained one song, ‘All Dark People’, that is now considered to be politically incorrect, but sometimes gets sung without the offending lyrics as ‘Light on Their Feet’.

Although Rodgers and Hart created an enjoyable story, if contemporary reports are to be believed, it is the score which ensures that this show remains among the better-known of their efforts.  It produced more well-known songs than any other musical of the 1930s, besting even the original songlist of Anything Goes on that front.  Babes in Arms introduced the oft-recorded ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, along with the comic gem ‘Johnny One Note’, and two other numbers which have had a long life: ‘Where or When’ and ‘I Wish I Were in Love Again’.  The rest of the score is well worth listening to as well.

The first song, ‘Where or When’ has a romantic melody from Rodgers, and a typically unusual lyrical idea from Hart.  It’s a love song, between two people who have only just met, who declare that “it seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before”.  It’s destiny, or fate, or whatever.  Yes, they’ve fallen in love at first sight, but in some ways this is not exactly true.  It may not be quite as well known as ‘My Funny Valentine’, but has been recorded at least 75 times, and is a charming love song.  Other than the title song, it was the only Rodgers and Hart number to survive into the film version.

Another duet, ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ has an incredibly perky melody as the singers list aspects of their love affair that make them wish they were in love again: broken dates, endless waits, pain, strain, double-crossing, sleepless nights…  Yet they still miss it.  It is possible to make the song wistful, longing or tragic, but it started life as a typically cynical entry in the canon of Rodgers and Hart love songs.

Pure comedy comes in the form of ‘Way Out West’ and ‘Johnny One Note’.  The first is cousin to ‘Manhattan‘, being a list song about missing the life on West End Avenue in New York to a loping, Western-style tune.  Aspects of city life are compared to the wagons, cattle, ranches and so on of the open range.  ‘Johnny One Note’ takes a different tack and tells the ridiculous story of an opera singer was cursed so that he could only sing one note, and could sing it so loudly that all other noise is drowned out.  It contains one of my favourite sequences of Hart lyrics:

Poor Johnny One Note

Got in Aida,

Indeed a great chance to be brave.

He took his one note,

Howled like the North Wind –

Brought forth wind that made critics rave,

While Verdi turned round in his grave.

The unexpected rhymes in the middle of the lines make this a particular pleasure and the song gives opportunities for singers to show off just how loud and long they can belt a note.

Back to romance, and ‘My Funny Valentine’ is another song that approaches love from an unusual angle.  Originally sung to a character named Valentine, a “noble, upright, truthful, sincere, and slightly dopey gent” it lists all the reasons why he shouldn’t be adored – he isn’t smart, his looks are laughable and so forth – but she wouldn’t have him change a thing about himself.  It’s a rather touching way of saying “I love everything about you”, loving him for his supposed faults, not despite them.  Rodgers’ melody supports this by climbing ever upwards as the singers rhapsody for their “sweet comic Valentine” grows more intense.

Songs heard less frequently include the ‘look on the bright side’ song ‘Imagine’ which has a little sting in its tail, a charm song ‘All At Once’ about growing up, and ‘You Are So Fair’, a song of frustration at a fickle lover which turns into a point-scoring duet that sounds a little like the opposite of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’.  All are good quality songs that repay repeated listening, which is not something that can be said for many Broadway songs of the era.

Surpassing all the others in terms of popularity though, is probably ‘The Lady is a Tramp’, which was picked up by many artists at the time and for decades afterwards.    Unsurprisingly, it is a song where the point is the opposite of the title.  It spoofs the high society of the time, and by saying that she refuses to bow to many of the societal demands, the singer is proving that she is anything but a tramp.  She goes to the opera, which was fashionable, but unlike those who have gone there just to be seen, she “stays wide awake”, she likes the simple things in life and refuses to join in the rituals that make you somebody.  She’d the sort of person the world needs more of.   The song, even without orchestration, has a bold, brassy sound that is just right for her air of defiance and is instantly recognisable.

An exchange of dialogue towards the end proves my opening point.  “Do you children have a theatre?” asks French aviator Rene Flambeau. “No,” comes the response, “but we have something better – we have a barn!”  Mr Rodgers, Mr Hart, you have a long history of cliche to answer for.  But with a score like that, you can definitely be forgiven.  Other Rodgers and Hart shows, most notably On Your Toes and Pal Joey, may have made greater contributions to the development of the musical, but this score remains their most listenable over seventy years later.

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.

“I’ve seen that cast” recordings

I have a lot of cast recordings.  Several hundred of the things, in fact, more than any sane person probably ought to own, including multiple recordings of some shows, particularly Cabaret, where I think I own every English-language recording of the show.  Generous people would say I’m a collector, others might just back away and flee from the crazy man obsessed with musical theatre on CD.  I often get hold of them through eBay, charity shops and record sales where they can be obtained at much less than recommended retail price, because they tend to sell at higher prices than pop or easy listening, appealing to a more niche audience.  I find them all fascinating, even though I don’t, to be honest, enjoy absolutely all of them.  And some hold a special place in my affections.

These are the very rare instances when I’ve seen the production that was recorded.  Not the show (I have seen A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum several times for instance, but not in productions that were recorded), but the particular iteration of the show.  Perhaps even the same cast.  That’s always exciting.  It’s a very rare thing, you see, as I don’t often get up to London to see shows, and these are the only casts generally preserved on disc in the UK.  From time to time, I may see a performer who has recorded the role, such as Richard Dempsey as Ugly in Honk!, but only three CDs in my collection are “I’ve seen that cast” recordings.

The first is The Witches of Eastwick, which ran in London around the turn of the century, having a much shorter run than I felt it deserved.  In this case, I got hold of the CD before the trip to Drury Lane, but we managed to get up to London while the original cast were still in their roles.  I was excited to see performers such as Maria Friedman and Joanna Riding, veterans of many productions and recordings, and the CD got me excited in advance about such numbers as ‘Dirty Laundry’, a wonderful piece for the ensemble, and ‘Something’, an exceedingly cute love duet. It was somehow more exciting knowing that I’d be not only hearing the same orchestrations (and believe me, orchestrations can vary a huge amount between productions) but seeing the same performers. 

The other two are the other way around, as the CD was produced after I saw the shows in question.  Both shows were deeply moving, though in rather different ways.  The London productions of Billy Elliot and Parade.  In years gone by, cast recordings would be available very shortly after opening night (if not before, sometimes recorded during tryouts and previews), but this is rarely the case now.  With Parade, which was presented for a limited run at the Donmar Warehouse, the recording became available a couple of weeks after the show ended.  The Billy Elliot one just took quite some time to put together.

With both of these recordings, having seen the show with same cast (almost – I saw a different Billy) gives the CD extra resonance, being able to associate the songs (and in the case of Parade, the dialogue, as it is a truly complete recording) with the emotions, thoughts and experience of seeing the cast perform them on stage.  It’s not quite the same as a video preservation of the show, particularly since I lack the capacity to summon up images of what I saw on the stage, but perhaps that’s a good thing.  Filmed stage productions always lack something, because the camera chooses where the eye will focus, while in the theatre there is generally a choice of things to look at.  The whole stage picture, the principals, the chorus, details of the set, sometimes even the stage crew.  But you still remember what happened.  The police cordon in Billy Elliot.  The way Bertie  Carvel fidgeted nervously in Parade.  The sheet-snapping in The Witches of Eastwick.  It makes the experience of listening to these particular recordings subtly different to that of listening to any other cast recording, even of different recordings of the same songs.  It makes them special, in a way completely unconnected to the quality of the music or performances.  It gives them a connection to me.

The Eynsford-Hill inevitability

A little over a year ago, I mentioned that one of the roles which I felt I was almost inevitably likely to play at some point in my life was young Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady.  Not, I think, due to arrogance on my part, but due to the sort of performer than I am and the sort of role that it is.  Well, said point is now on the horizon, the runaway steamroller of this iconic tenor role has well and truly hit me, and I can’t say I’m displeased.  The role is a small one, with relatively little to get to grips with in characterisation beyond “I am madly in love with Eliza Doolittle, who I can’t have”, but there is enough there to make me think that I might be able to do something with it.  And, of course, the role comes with a truly glorious prize in the form of the song ‘On the Street Where You Live’, which he gets to warble twice, once in each act.  I think it is uncontroversial to say that this is one of the best songs in the score, which is already far above average, and one of the best tenor songs in musical theatre.  You do have to slightly overlook the fact that Freddy is clearly utterly mad, and may in fact be a dangerous stalker, since he follows the leading lady home and waits on her street for days on end trying to get a glimpse of her.  But if you can ignore this uncomfortable truth, the song soars and swoops beautifully as the character waxes lyrical about the delights of walking down Wimpole Street, breathing the same air as his beloved.

Auditions for the production (which will run from 4th-8th March at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury should any discerning blog readers choose to attend) were eight days ago, rounding out the busy weekend which had already included two shows up in London the previous day and the stressful pleasures of teaching Sunday School in the morning.  Although the audition itself surely lasted less than ten minutes, I was in the place of audition for several hours, as they wanted to make decisions and announce results then and there.  This did at least avoid the horrible tensions of waiting for audition results, jumping every time the telephone rings and hiding from the postman.  It was very strange, though, as many people had been acting as though the casting of this particular role was a foregone conclusion, which actually made the audition harder in a way.  However, I refused to subscribe to the prevailing theory since, in amateur theatre just as much as in the professional world, there is always someone out there who is better than you.  No audition is ever truly a foregone conclusion and any audition panel who has made their mind up before the auditionees arrive deserves a good slap!

When I am older and less fresh-faced, I would love to have a crack at Professor Henry Higgins, a marvellous role for an actor who sings which would represent an incredible challenge.  But for now I will strive to do my best by the silly Eynsford-Hill boy, warble my aria passionately and continue to learn from those I perform with.  The role, though comparatively short on stage time, does present its own set of challenges and I am determined to make it my own.

Too much drag, not enough lift

After the many pleasures of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse, I headed across town with my friend (via a tasty burger) to see the final performance of Take Flight at the Menier Chocolate Factory.  This was another venue I’d never visited (fab building), and again I had not seen anything by the composer-lyricist team of David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr before.  This show is based on the stories of aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, all pulled together by narration from the less successful Otto Lillienthal.

As you may guess from the title of this post, I wasn’t particularly thrilled as I watched this particular show.  There were moments when it almost took off, but it didn’t seem to be able to stay airborne.  It wasn’t bad, as such, and was nowhere near the low standards of an operatic version of the Roswell Incident I once saw, but it wasn’t really very good either.  I shall now try to steer clear of aviation puns, though I am not the only person writing about the show who has found that difficult.

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Go on, go on, go on, go on…

Last Saturday, I saw one of the previews of Parade at the Donmar Warehouse in London with a friend.  This was very exciting, as I had never attended the Donmar before, and this was also the first time I’d seen one of Jason Robert Brown’s works live.  I arrived in plenty of time, to make sure I found the place, which meant that I had a good reason to visit Dress Circle, possibly my favourite shop in the whole world – purely in order to kill time while I was waiting to meet my friend, you understand!  Anyway…

This is a very, very good show indeed.  Tickets have sold like hot cakes, so if you’re at all interested in going, call the box office right now, before even finishing this post, before they all disappear!  There were a few sticky moments in the staging, where the pace and tension flagged for a moment, but they may have been ironed out as previews continued, and other than this slight problem, it was a very engaging, involving show.  It is based on the case of Leo Frank, an infamous miscarriage of justice due to anti-Semitic sentiment in early 20th-century Georgia.  It paints, though Alfred Uhry’s script, Jason Robert Brown’s score and Rob Ashford’s double duty on direction and choreography, a vivid picture of the time with its tensions and resentments, beginning with the Civil War, particularly significant since the major events take place on Memorial Day.

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Murder most musical

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to see two shows, both of them involving people killing others, and the audience following the killers’ stories.  Whether the victims “had it coming” or simply “looked like plant food”, we weren’t meant to feel much sympathy with them, though the levels of audience sympathy with the killers was very different in each show. 

First, I zoomed up to the capital to see Little Shop of Horrors with three friends.  This show is a particular favourite of mine, so it was wonderful to see a professional production, even if it did heighten my previously-mentioned desire to play the role of Seymour.  The show is on at the rather lovely Ambassadors Theatre and was an absolute joy.  The cast were all very good, which is always a relief in a show with a small cast, as anyone under par stands out like a sore thumb.  The bloodthirsty plant had a new design, which was refreshing.  And, of course, the script and score were as excellent and laughter-provoking as always.

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Lovelorn Tenors Anonymous

There was a time when tenors ruled the roost, a time when they would inevitably get either the girl or a glorious death scene with a stunning aria, a time when they would buckle their swashes, get the star dressing room and break hearts across the world.  That time was the time of opera.  When the musical came on the scene, the tenor was gradually ousted from his position, and the baritone became the leading man.  The tenors still got some of the best songs, but were relegated to subplots, with one defining characteristic – the tenor is in love with someone he cannot have.  Sometimes they try to stake a claim on a more substantial plotline, but Rodgers and Hammerstein showed everyone the way to deal with such demanding tenor characters – kill them!  Off stage. 

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