Archive for the ‘ Theatre ’ Category

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.

After the audition

Auditions are quite horrible things, no matter how much the panel may smile encouragingly or how many times you’ve acted or sung for them before.  Nerves are a quite volatile factor.  This is, of course, true in performance as well, but nerves have a different effect in the audition room.  In performance, they act as fuel, and without some level of nervousness a performance tends to be rather lifeless.  Also, before an audience, nerves can be used or covered in the process of presenting a character to the ‘big black giant’ in the auditorium.  Not so at auditions, at least not for the singing librarian.  No matter how much I might try to convince myself that it is a performance for a small, select audience, my lungs, tongue, hands and vocal cords do not get the message, or at least choose not to act on it.

Tonight, I had an audition for the musical Titanic.  This is a wonderful show, which I’m very (though quite quietly) excited about.  The music is breathtaking, the story is moving and the opportunities for actors and singers are numerous.  In the audition, we had to sing a song, any song, unaccompanied, then do a few exercises to prove that we had some measure of musicality.  I chose to sing ‘The Old Red Hills of Home’ from Parade (see Google for a selection of videos of this song) for a variety of reasons.  Firstly, it goes quite high, as do most of the male solos in Titanic.  Secondly, it’s a wonderful song.  Thirdly, it was written around the same time as the Titanic score.  Fourthly, it could show off what I can do in terms of acting a song – presenting a variety of emotions in just a couple of minutes.  It was a choice that I thought would cover all my bases.  Unfortunately, I am painfully aware that I did not do it justice.  Audition nerves kicked in and produced a quite impressive (but entirely inappropriate) vibrato from the very first note almost until the last.  Nothing I could do would stop it, not even closing my eyes and concentrating very hard on one particular line.  The song acquired an extra layer of wobble which it certainly will not have wanted.  I could blame it on the fact that we were unaccompanied, but it was nerves, pure and simple.

The exercises seemed to go well – pick out the high note, pick out the low note, sing a pattern of notes back to the nice lady at the piano.  But still there was the vibrato haunting me.  Part of me is very disappointed with myself – I could have performed the song so much better, and indeed have sung it better as I’ve been preparing.  Part of me wonders whether I should care – I am young, I am male, I can breathe, so I could well have just sung ‘Happy Birthday’ and left it at that.  I’d have a good chance of getting a role of some kind, even if by default.  But I didn’t do as well as I could have done, and that’s not a good way to start with a director and musical director who do not know me.

Within a week, I will know the outcome and we will begin learning the music.  The wait until the moment of truth will feel long, though, as there are a lot of people who expect great things of me.  I can feel them – colleagues, friends, relatives and others – hovering over my shoulder when I audition.  The more they expect of me, or perhaps the more they believe in me, the harder I find it to just relax and do my best.  Sometimes it feels as though there’s a lot more riding on my auditions and performances than there really is.  There’s a downside to developing a fan club, and that’s the perceived need to deliver more and better things to them in each new production. 

Perhaps many people feel like this, perhaps I’m an unusual case, who knows.  I just know one thing.  Regardless of what capacity I may be performing in, I echo the passengers as they sing “I must get on that ship!”

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.

Finding my light

Every new show I do means learning new things.  Not just new lines, songs or dance steps, but new aspects of technique and stagecraft.  There is an awful lot to learn about doing theatre, or at least about doing it well, and I most certainly want to do it well.  My latest learning curve is to do with finding my light.

In our show (currently running) about the life and music of Richard Rodgers, I am frequently in a small pool of light on the stage.  Sometimes singing, sometimes engaged in a telephone conversation and sometimes addressing the audience directly.  It is considered important that the audience should be able to see me at these times, and the only way that will happen is if I can find my light.  I’m not quite sure how I have managed to go through quite so many musicals and operas without learning this, but it is something that I have struggled with this week.

Firstly, there is the exciting situation at the opening of the show, when the light is supposed to come up on me.  Only it didn’t on the first night.  It came up to my right and in front of me, as I had misjudged where it would appear.  I had to do an exciting little shimmy during the first lines of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ to get into position, which probably looked somewhat silly.  Even after my improvised movement, I wasn’t quite where I should be, but decided it would be too awful to try and move again.  There is now a little mark on the floor to show me where I should be.  I must just hope I can find it in the gloom!

Then, there was my misunderstanding about precisely where to stand.  I assumed that the centre of a pool of light was the ideal place to stand, but this is not the case.  As the lanterns are generally hung in front of the stage and the light is travelling downwards as well as towards the stage, it is actually wisest to stand right at the very front of the circle, where you can guarantee that your face (which, let’s face it, is probably what the audience most wants to look at in most cases) will be caught in the beam as it heads towards the stage floor.

There is a subtle art to finding light, which I am having to learn at speed.  It is important to be seen, but it is also important to be subtle about it, to move naturally into position without it looking like you are simply walking into the light, even if that is exactly what you’re doing.  The character should want to be standing there, rather than the actor.  It’s not easy, particularly trying to do it without looking at the floor, but there is one great help – heat.  Light, particularly the intensity of light produced by lanterns in the theatre, also equals heat, and this heat can be felt on the performer’s face if they look upwards.  There’s no guarantee that a warm face means that the top of your hair is caught in the light, but it’s a good indicator.

Stagecraft, whether it be finding light, covering for mistakes, adapting to different audiences, keeping in time with the musicians, projecting the voice or any one of a whole host of other things, does not come naturally.  It must be learned, and takes as much concentration as any other aspect of performing.  Now I know how to find my light.  Who knows what I’ll learn in the next show?

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.

Rehearsal ups (and downs)

Rehearsals for amateur shows are strange things, often.  You never quite know what the atmosphere will be like as a great many different people gather together for a common purpose, some more enthusiastically than others, to create and improve a show.  A wonderful time can be had by all, in which very little is achieved, or a great deal of work can be done by a group of moody people, or anything in between.  The exact mix of people present can affect matters – is a cast member sick?  is the wardrobe mistress present, taking measurements?  is it the choreographer’s night off?  A particular moment can stump everyone and consume the whole rehearsal.  Some people are kept busy all night, while others can (if things are badly planned, or good plans go awry) sit around doing nothing.  You can have a collective breakthrough or a collective nervous breakdown.  As April ended, I had a particularly interesting rehearsal experience.

At the very tail end of May, I’ll be in a show about the wonderful Richard Rodgers, to be performed at the Whitstable Playhouse (book your tickets now, all who desire to see it).  It’s a strange show for me, as I’m playing said Mr Rodgers in a sort of featured capacity, which means that I don’t tend to be on with the ensemble very much other than at the beginning and end of each act, where I lead the cast in song.  However, as I have been asked to be at almost every rehearsal, I have stood in for missing members of the male ensemble, to the point where I know the words and choreography for almost every number, often with slight variations according to which particular man I’m standing in for.  This is a great deal of fun, but can be rather confusing.

As part of the show, I sing Carousel‘s fantastic ‘Soliloquy’ part way through Act Two. This is a privilege and a challenge, as it’s an incredibly powerful piece which has to be truly acted and truly sung with all the heart and soul that the performer can muster. It scares me and excites me at the same time, and there’s one part which I know I’m not getting perfectly right. It’s just seven words – ‘the way to get round any girl’ – and I’m working on it, I really am. I refuse to listen to a recording of it, as I want to do it my way, not John Raitt’s way, not Gordon MacRae’s way and certainly not Edmund Hockridge’s way. I shall just have to keep plunking the line out on the piano until it finally sinks in properly.

So there I was, the second time I’ve done this number in rehearsals (and only three days after I first rehearsed it with the director and musical director). I sang the line, which wasn’t perfect but wasn’t off key, and heard a voice at the side of the room saying “that was nearly right.”  It was the oldest member of the ensemble. I felt like turning round and telling him that I was well aware of its ‘nearly’ status, that I was struggling with it and would do my best to reach his standards of perfection in every rehearsal. I felt like making a similar comment the next time he had to sing. I felt like deflating like a tired old balloon, my confidence in the number punctured. But I didn’t. I carried on with the song, though I fluffed the next bit of business due to having been pulled out of my train of thought by his comment. I gathered momentum again and continued to the end, to be greeted by a cheer from the rest of the cast. That was lovely, unnecessary and heartwarming. A little later, a couple of the ladies in the cast were angry when they realised that I’d heard the man’s comment. They expressed the opinion that his words were completely out of line, and thought I should have stuck my fingers up at him, but I’m a terribly refined young man, so that had not crossed my mind. I am do pour everything I have into the number, and the comments I’ve received suggest that it’s showing in a good way, which is very exciting.

Less exciting is what happens after I finish the song. Both times I’ve really done it as if in performance, it has had an unexpected side effect. A huge headache, of the sort that makes me feel as though the back of my head is about to explode. The feeling lasts for a few minutes and is horrible – though not as horrible, and certainly not as messy, as it would be if my head really did explode. It’s probably worth it to give the best performance I can, but it’s also strange and perturbing. I don’t recall getting any singing-related headaches before, not even belting out the first tenor parts in Carmina Burana or Rutter’s Gloria, which both reach into higher parts of my range than ‘Soliloquy’. A little research suggests that it’s a result of being an untrained singer, and thus not knowing how best to control my voice. I had best remedy that.

Having experienced discouragement, annoyance, encouragement and pain within a few short minutes, I was then paid another big compliment by the ensemble (who, it has to be said, have to work a heck of a lot harder in this show than I do). During the coffee break, a group apparently accosted the poor director and said they were unhappy with the end of the show. Why? Because they thought I should be out front on my own receiving applause for my hard work. Now, I hate curtain calls. I find them embarrassing and awkward. But that was incredibly touching to hear. I left the rehearsal feeling as though I was floating. Believe me, people involved with shows don’t normally complain because somebody else is in the spotlight too little. Quite the opposite, in fact. To know that my talented co-performers esteem me enough to ask that a fuss is made of me at the curtain call is absolutely incredible and strangely humbling.

It was a strange rehearsal for me, emotionally. I suspect it’s one that I’ll remember for some time. Standing in for ensemble members is a lot of fun, singing the songs is a joy, but the mutual respect, support and encouragement top everything else.  Perhaps I’m just letting my ego get the better of me, but the evening’s actions made me happy.  Rehearsals can be funny old things, but sometimes, just sometimes, they can be uplifting.

Talented youth

This week, I have been privileged to see talented young people performing in two different venues in Canterbury, and it has inspired and encouraged me.

The first was a performance of a musical by two of the local grammar schools – the Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents masterpiece West Side Story.  I am not frequently in attendance at school shows, but this one starred a talented young guy who I have performed alongside in Kiss Me, Kate and My Fair Lady, and I wanted to support him, so turned up to the opening night along with a couple of other members of the operatic society.

From the overture onwards, I was frequently impressed by the skills, energy and enthusiasm of those involved.  The orchestra negotiated Leonard Bernstein’s difficult score very well, and seeing the show performed by people of around the right age for the characters was a rare treat.  Though there were some iffy moments, these were far outweighed by the good bits.  ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ exploded with energy, and the boys were clearly loving every moment of that song.  The ‘Tonight’ quintet was impressive – not perfect, but very, very good.  It is an incredibly tricky piece of music.  In terms of stage craft, I was amazed at the ensemble’s ability to hold a freeze at the end of the ‘Somewhere’ sequence – it seemed as though not a muscle twitched.  The leads acted most of the adult characters off the stage.  My young friend had an entirely natural, relaxed and convincing air to his performance as Tony and both the main girls impressed me greatly.  The girl playing Anita had an incredible voice, with immense power and control far beyond her years.  I was so glad I had gone and I was encouraged that the schools were supporting talented young performers – involvement in a project of that nature can teach many things which cannot be taught in conventional lessons.

Then on Saturday, I was a steward at the semi-final of a talent competition run by the local churches for the city’s secondary schools and further education institutions.  This competition has many aims.  To encourage and develop local talent (the judges are from a local stage school and offer helpful advice as well as giving out scores).  To demonstrate that the church is not a remote and cold institution.  To have fun. 

The talents on show at the heats and the semi-final were diverse – dancers, singers of all varieties, solo musicians, bands, a comedienne and even a pair of roller-dancers.  Some are better than others, but most of them perform with such joy and enthusiasm that it is infectiously exciting, even if their particular brand of performance is not the spectator’s normal cup of tea.  Particular highlights from the semi-final include a girl who had written a song after hearing someone on the radio say they’d never been given flowers or a card on Valentine’s Day.  The song was well-structured and moving, and her delivery very engaging, using her deep voice to great advantage.  And then there was the boy who did an Irish dance routine, who was able to do amazing things with his knee joints.  It was also encouraging to see the acts cheering each other on and giving fulsome applause.  Next week’s final should be an absolute delight, though I fear the pressure of counting the votes may get to me!

It is a joy to see talented young people perform, perhaps even more so than talented people who have had time to refine their craft.  There is a raw energy and excitement to what they do which is wonderful to behold, and there can be a surprising amount of talent locked in the youngest of bodies.  I can only hope that their teachers, relatives and friends continue to encourage them to use and develop their gifts into adulthood and that young people (particularly boys, who seem to have more inhibitions than girls) continue to be brave enough to act, sing, dance and create music.  It is a privilege to have shared in what they do.

Behind the scenes on opening night

Canterbury Operatic Society’s production of My Fair Lady opened last night, to a very appreciative audience.  I thought I would offer my readers a (long!) glimpse behind the scenes – what was the day like for me, playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill?

The day involved: a bit of running around the High Street searching for those last minute items I so desperately needed (facial wipes for the destruction of make-up, micropore for the fixing of microphone wires to the neck, and a wide white ribbon to transform into an unravelled bow tie); making my ‘have a good show’ cards, which used quotes from my character with relevant pictures; phoning home to arrange my parents’ visit at the weekend; and a last flurry of panic before leaving for the theatre.  Have I got the right colour socks on?  Have I put everything I need in my bag?  Is my voice working properly?  Should I eat something?  Can I eat something?  Have I remembered to shave?  Where is my glasses case?  Have I done cards for everyone I wanted to do cards for?  Am I breathing?  And so on.

Finally, it is time to head out to the theatre.  I arrive a little before 6.30pm, and wander the corridors handing out my cards, crossing back and forth with a number of others carrying out the same mission.  The musical director gives out bookmarks to her soloists, the director hand makes cards, one of the maids distributes special boxes of sweets to the different dressing rooms.  Soon, though, the flurry of activity is over, and everyone drifts back to their own dressing rooms, or starts gathering bits and pieces from wardrobe or props.

Continue reading

Cold taxis – cutting edge comedy?

Most theatrical productions include moments which mean more to the performers than to the audience – lines or bits of business which, for whatever reason, acquired particular resonance during rehearsals or performance.  Sometimes it may be because someone was struggling with something, so it becomes a shared joy when a moment finally works.  Sometimes it’s a choreographic moment which is universally loved, so that the wings get crowded with cast and crew watching every night.  Sometimes there’s a funny rehearsal story attached to a particular line.  And at other times, there is no reason for it at all.

In My Fair Lady this week, it is my lot to deliver one of this production’s lines, a line which many in the company find extremely funny indeed, and yet none of us can work out why.  The line is this zinger:

Eliza, it’s getting awfully cold in that taxi.

Not exactly comedy gold.  My character, the perfectly useless Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is only in this scene in order to get Eliza off the stage and allow her father and the chorus to launch themselves into ‘Get Me to the Church On Time’.  It is dawn, so it would be rather cold, even in a taxi.  There are numerous ways I could say this line to make it funny, and I have experimented.  There’s the suggestive, the teeth-chattering, the whiny.  Rather than spoil the scene with any of these, we are going with a simple statement of fact, yet the first time we reached the scene in question with the whole cast present, it provoked chuckles, giggles, titters and outright laughter.

This has continued to be the case and as the dress rehearsal is in only a few more hours (that’s all the time we’ve got…), it is surely now a problem.  Nobody can put their finger on why the cast are amused, including the director and others in positions of authority.  The only explanation that has been forthcoming is from the lovely chap who plays Alfred Doolittle, who says it’s because it’s “just so good”, which really doesn’t explain things.  Unfortunately, he is on stage as I deliver that blasted line and struggles to maintain a straight face.

It may just be my imagination, but I’m sure the tension now mounts among the cast as that line approaches.  We know we can’t laugh and we know it’s not funny, but that makes it so much worse.  The last time we did  the scene, in the last full run-through (which you have to treat almost as a performance), even I was struggling to keep a straight face and I never, ever, corpse in performance, no matter how ridiculous the scene might be.

You can guarantee that the whole cast will remember that one line for years to come, while the rest of the lines, harmonies and dance steps fade away.  For a few dozen people, those few words will live forever.  All we have to do now is make it through one dress rehearsal and six performances without laughing at them.

A lad in a panto

Partly spurred on by Aphra Behn’s post on pantomime, and partly due to a cry of “I’m bored!” from one of my fellow house-dwellers/purchasers, I recently attended the Marlowe Theatre’s annual festive extravaganza, this year being the old favourite Aladdin.  Now, I knew going in that this wasn’t necessarily going to scratch all my panto itches.  The Marlowe doesn’t do the principal boy thing, as they tend to bring in a soap heartthrob to attract additional female audience members.  I tend to prefer amateur pantomimes anyway, as the leads are likely to have more stage experience than ‘Her off Big Brother’ or ‘Him off EastEnders’.  And my very favourite pantomime story is Mother Goose, though Aladdin is certainly acceptable.

The cast included Stephen Mulhern as Aladdin (him off children’s telly) and Shaun Williamson as Abanazar (him off EastEnders ages ago and Extras), but that was it for TV-star billing, and the two of them were not of the ‘so bad I wish I was dead’ variety of celebrity panto star.  Mulhern had an extremely busy time, as there was a distinct lack of Wishee Washee, meaning that he had to be both romantic lead and ‘audience friend’ (Buttons from Cinderella being the other famous example).  This must have been a tiring task, as it meant he had to win the girl and save the day, but also get the audience primed for the inevitable shouting, do the audience singalong and participate in the inevitable slapstick routines.  Poor chap.  I was full of admiration, and just a touch of jealousy!  He was jolly good, too, with a rather nice singing voice, bags and bags of charisma, more energy than anyone should have on the third performance of the day and a command of the stage.  Bravo!

Very, very funny indeed were comics Hilary O’Neil as Slave of the Ring and Lloyd Hollett as PC Pongo.  They may be terribly famous for all I know, but they weren’t known to me beforehand.  Both were brilliant in their roles and managed to get a cheer out of me at the curtain call.  On the other end of the scale was, sadly, the pantomime dame.  Dave Lee is always billed as a ‘local legend’, and does a lot of excellent work for children’s charities.  Sadly, though, I completely failed to find him in any way funny.  He did do the traditional thing of not even pretending to be female, but he still wasn’t funny to me.  It’s always disappointing when the dame doesn’t sparkle, but Widow Twanky was a big damp squib as far a I was concerned.

The panto did a good job in its arbitrary choice of songs.  Often, a song is chosen where the title fits the plot, but the actual mood or lyrics of the song are completely wrong.  This wasn’t the case here, as a section of ‘Defying Gravity’ (from the musical Wicked, brilliantly sung by Hilary O’Neil) actually fit Aladdin’s magic carpet ride from China to Egypt and enough liberties were taken with ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ to make it vaguely appropriate for its slot.  Snatches of Take That and The Buzzcocks provided a bit of randomness, but the most arbitrary choice was the opening number, ‘We’re All In This Together’ from High School Musical (the Disney version…) which bore no relation in any way to anything at all.  The chorus (as Chinese citizens) sold it, though, so that was OK.  Attending pantomime without a programme is always exciting with the songs, as you can play a game of trying to spot the song from the opening chords and then speculate on how well or otherwise it’ll fit with proceedings.

I had a lot of fun.  I was impressed by several of the performers and let myself go so that I could happily boo the villain, shout ‘Hiya’ to Aladdin and join in with ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ (“Five custard piiiiiiiiies!”) with no inhibitions.  Which is always the best way.  If you attend a panto and don’t join in, then you tend not to have a good time.  It’s participatory entertainment, community fun, and an all-round enjoyable experience.

%d bloggers like this: