Sunday, 30 December 2007

Lavish Your Daughter With Eggs And Affection 30-12

“Save the cheerleader save the world!”

Well that got your attention!

So the year is almost over which means there is no better time for me to take a (slightly tongue in cheek) look back,and also forward into 2008.

Hmmmmmmmmmm 2007, well it’s been an eventful year I guess. Gordon Brown was voted king of the jungle. Christopher Biggins became our new prime minister after the resignation of Lionel Blair. The shy and retiring John Barrowman spent another year out of the public eye. Oh, and Cheryl Wilkin has gone off jammy dodgers! Now what else……..

Well (“Celebrity Big Brother” aside) it’s been a good year for reality television I guess, “Grease” jumped on the Maria bandwagon and “Any Dream Will Do” discovered a new star in Lee Mead. The X Factor was won by Leon and Alisha Dixon danced to glory. We also had our first taste of “Reality theatre” as “Desperately Seeking Susan” debuted. Each night the audience saw a different performance and the clapometer decided what bits had worked and what didn’t then the next night it was all change as they strove to make a hit show! Sadly despite the work of the clapometers it was a bit of a failed exercise as the hoped for results never materialised! Never mind.

In Theatreland, recent arrival “Hairspray” starring Edna Everage as Michael Ball is wowing crowds at the Shaftesbury. Sadly over at the Duke of York’s Denise Van Outen can’t pay her rent - but despite this she is over the moon. Last years crop of big musicals are still going strong as “Spamalot”, “Dirty Dancing”, “Wicked” and “The Sound Of Music” continue to attract audiences. Next year sees Connie Fisher bid so long, farewell to her dirndl as she climbs ev’ry mountain to her next project. Meanwhile there is much speculation on her replacement. We have heard rumours of pop stars, soap stars, film stars even Christopher Biggins as the new Maria. I do have my sources of course so I can make a quiet announcement here. Shhhhh though, it’s a secret. What isn’t a secret is that early in the new year Liz Dawn leaves “Coronation Street” after over thirty years as Vera Duckworth. So yes I can exclusively reveal that from next march the hills will be alive with the sound of “Jack!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“There’s going to be an amputation in the village”

So we move on to television and the village in question would of course be Cranford. Possibly one of the most entertaining series to grace our screens in years. Where else would you see a cow in pajamas and as for the cat that ate Imelda Staunton’s best lace – well you had to see that! Some things you just can’t make up! The minutiae of Victorian village life was beautifully realised in this enchanting series. As Judi Dench said in the last episode it was “such a fine close weave”

As for that cheerleader, “Heroes” has been the years cult success. A group of seemingly ordinary people discovered they have special abilities then battled to save the world. Of course See/RUT is not without it’s heroes too……the call centre operator who can make one call last 35 minutes, the usherette who can juggle three ice creams whilst doing the dance routine to “All That Jazz” and let’s not forget the most astonishing ability of all…..yes at the Palladium we have a goat that sings show tunes! Save the goat save the world!!!!!!!!!!!

Also from America came “Brothers and Sisters” . In this surreal world Very Annie Mary is the sister of Ally McBeale and their mother is Gidget (try “Google”). We have a fiftysomething who used to be a thirtysomething, and a straight welsh man playing a gay American. Not to mention a Getty who was looking for missing millions! Oh the lives they lead!

I should of course mention “Doctor Who” as, former Drury Lane usherette, Freema Agyeman boarded the Tardis as his latest side kick Martha Jones! Hot casting rumours for next year include Anna Keighley as a terileptil and Andre Ptazynski as the newly regenerated Master.

In the world of pop Amy Winehouse didn’t want to go to rehab. No no no. Pete Doherty didn’t want to go to jail. The Spice Girls have got back together and Take That ‘s return goes from strength with the news that they are finally replacing Robbie Williams. Christopher Biggins begins rehearsals in the new year. The year’s big success story has been Leona Lewis of course with her debut album breaking all records.

The O2 Arena opened with a string of high profile concerts including Bon Jovi, Take That and Barbra Streisand. Plans for their next year include Kris Boobyer doing his Girls Aloud tribute show and Chrissie Tanners “Don’t Mess With My PPs” tour.

So what else?

Tracey Barlow was jailed. The Drowsy Chaperone failed. Louis Walsh was sacked – rehired. Steve McLaren was fired. Michael Parkinson retired. Sarah Jane Smith was revived. That canoeist was found – seems he survived. The American writers went on strike. Ewan McGregor got on his bike. All in all somewhat poetic year!

So 2008?
The producers of “Heroes” have announced a new character for the third season – Gee Foo the Malaysian cousin of Hiro – the catch phrase set to grip the world is “If I cut my hair I lose my powers!”. In the West End Boublil and Schonberg return with the musical “Marguerite” at the Haymarket. Over at the New London Anna Charles and Berni Green have “The Wind”. Last but not least Andrew Lloyd Webber is to begin work on his new musical “A Tale Of Two Valleys” the story of (unassuming box office manager) Allan Ferris and his life in Wales and California. Christopher Biggins is mooted to star.

So on that exclusive note I draw this parallel universe review and preview to close. All that remains is for me to wish you a very happy new year!


Monday, 17 December 2007

We Represent The Lollipop Guild

There are many things that sum up Christmas. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The weather men talking of that elusive white Christmas. Small terraced houses covered with thousand of pounds worth of flashing lights. Perhaps, even going through the advent calendar and eating all the chocolates before the first week of December has passed. For many of us though, much of what sums up Christmas is to be found on our television screen. The Queens speech of course, a vintage Morecambe And Wise Christmas show and now it seems we have a seasonal episode of Doctor Who. However, for most of us, it’s probably a movie that captures our imaginations more than anything. I am of course talking about that classic 1939 picture – a seasonal essential musical – “The Wizard Of Oz”. As I write I haven’t seen the Radio Times double edition but I am sure it will be lurking in the schedules somewhere. You can count on it!

I must have been around five or six when I first saw this most magical of screen musicals. I can recall it’s monochrome beginning and my Nan saying she thought it was supposed to be in colour. But no, Dorothy’s mundane Kansas existence was definitely black and white. But the lack of colour did nothing to spoil my pleasure as the evil Miss Gulch attempted to take Dorothy’s dog Toto. Then it happened, the twister hit, and the little farmhouse was blown away to the enchanted land of Oz. Next, the house landed with a bump, Dorothy opened the door and as she did it happened. Technicolor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I ran to my Nan in excitement “it IS in colour” I cried with great excitement before settling down to watch the rest of the movie. Now friend of Dorothy or otherwise I doubt there are very many readers who haven’t seen this movie at some point. So to tell you of the munchkins and flying monkeys is kind of superfluous. You know the difference between a good witch and a bad witch and also know that the yellowbrick road leads to the Emerald City. It’s not without good reason that almost seventy years after it’s original release this movie continues to hold each new generation of children spellbound. It isn’t so long ago since my nine year old little brother came to stay and insisted on watching it over and over. And over and over and over. It was ten years before I could face it again!

Making the movie was not without it’s problems. The first disaster was possibly the failure to get the chosen actress to play Dorothy. How different would it have been if, first choice, Shirley Temple had been transported beyond the rainbow? The casting of the Tinman also was subject to change as Buddy Ebsen had to withdraw from the role because of a reaction to the lead in the silver make up. Further difficulties have often been cited as down to the munchkins. Allegedly more than a few of the munchkin performers had a predisposition towards fornication and drink! To put that into perspective though many of the diminutive cast had come from communities where they were the only small person. Imagine meeting someone like themselves for the first time – who could blame them for getting excited? With more than one director attached to the project at different times there were so many reasons that the movie should be a failure. History of course tells us otherwise. Despite a successful launch in the States it initially failed to meet it’s expectations worldwide due to the outset of war, but over the years it touched the hearts of each passing generation, sealing it’s success as one of the all time greats.

There are some great (albeit silly) songs in the movie such as “We’re Off To See The Wizard”, “If I Only Had A Brain” and “FollowThe Yellow BrickRoad” but special mention should of course go to one particular song that was almost cut before the movie was released. I speak of course about “Over The Rainbow”. It’s simple sentiments were perfect for a time when most of the planet were facing a long and terrible war, and it became a song beloved by the troops, and also those left behind at home. Is it a coincidence that in the first few years of this new millennium that the song has achieved a renewed popularity? It’s very much a song that everyone has done, be it Eva Cassidy, Barbra Streisand, Harry Connick Jr or even Shayne Ward – but until recently the song was so strongly identified with one particular performer that it was very unusual for any one to record a cover version….

Judy Garland. How could I have written so much about “The Wizard Of Oz” without mentioning her name until now. If there was ever anyone who “owned” a song it had to be Judy Garland and “Over The Rainbow”. The serendipity of her casting in the defining role of her early career. Whoever may sing the song I suspect it’s Judy that people think of. Can you even imagine the movie if it had been Shirley Temple not her? No, I thought not! Needless to say “Over The Rainbow” was the song that Judy continued singing over her entire career. Even here at the London Palladium where there is a special plaque commemorating her long association with the theatre.

There have been many attempts to recreate what the original movie had. The first official stage version based on the movie was produced by the RSC in the late eighties with Imelda Staunton for a Christmas season, returning a year later with a different cast – this time generating a cast recording. A stage version also appeared at New York’s Madison Square Garden for a couple of seasons. Prior to these productions the early seventies saw a brand new stage musical based on Frank L.Baum’s original book. This of course was “The Wiz” with an all black cast. A big hit on Broadway the show was transferred to film where it’s cast included Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne and a slightly implausible Diana Ross as Dorothy. Aside from “The Wizard Of Oz” Baum wrote many more Oz novels, although with the notable exception of Disney’s “Return To Oz” adaptations to other mediums have been pretty thin on the ground. Today it’s through re-invention that the magical journey to Oz has continued…..

Of course if I am to speak of the movie version of “The Wizard Of Oz” then I must mention the current hit show “Wicked”. Are there any of you who haven’t seen it? Probably not that many. The show ( and Gregory Maguires novel that preceded it) takes a very different spin on Baum’s magical world by telling the story from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. This show has really captured the publics imagination and I suspect that a large part of this is because of that old movie musical that first got shown back in 1939.

But anyway, here I am talking about the film and you should really be tidying up your desk and going home to watch it! So all that is left is to wish a happy Christmas to you all.


p.s. don’t eat too many mince pies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, 7 December 2007

"Best Kept Secret" - "Bare" the musical

Approximately three years ago I was surfing the web and read that I could go to a particular web page and download ten tracks from the, then current, Off Broadway musical “Bare”. I knew absolutely nothing about the show but found myself bowled over by these energetic and compelling songs and was determined to find out more. I then discovered a site on the show and also set about telling friends to download the free tracks. Everyone was hooked!

With music by Damon Intrabartolo and lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr, work began on “Bare, A Pop Opera” (as it was initially titled) in 1987 culminating in a successful Los Angeles run in 2000-2001. 2004 saw a short run off Broadway. A proposed full length cast album was cancelled and that should have been the end of the story, but a dedicated and loyal following had emerged and they weren’t going to let “Bare” die. The people who had worked on the show since the beginning were determined to at least get an album out. So this week my “Deluxe Edition” of the cast album of “Bare” arrived through the post, and I am pleased to say that my expectations have been more than met. What’s more I now know what it’s all about too!

The action takes place in an American Catholic boarding school between Epiphany and graduation of their senior year. At the forefront of the drama are gay students Peter Simonds and Jason McConnell whose struggles as they deal with their relationship take up much of the plot. Other principal characters include the most popular student, Ivy, her sometime boyfriend Matt, and Jasons overweight and lonely sister Nadia. Also featured is earth mother Sister Chantelle, whose school production of “Romeo And Juliet” provides a thread that runs throughout the show. During the shows two hours a whole plethora of teenage issues are explored such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancies and the isolation and loneliness of some of the characters. Peter’s longing to be open is often at odds with Jason’s desire to keep their relationship quiet, and both of them struggle to find answers or acceptance within their faith. Although many of the shows themes are pretty serious there is plenty of comedy throughout the show so you do get an opportunity for a few laughs as it hurtles towards its tragic conclusion. By the way, if you are wondering, yes there is also a parallel with “Romeo And Juliet” to be found in the show.

Of course the aspect of the show that grabbed my attention more than anything was the music. The score has a real modern Broadway sound. If you like “Rent”, “Spring Awakening” or the music of Jason Robert Brown I suspect you will find much to enjoy. The frustrations of Peter and Jason’s relationship are brilliantly portrayed in “You And I” and the later “Best Kept Secret” and “Bare” illustrate other aspects of their romance equally effectively. Nadia’s two big numbers, the comedic “Plain Jane Fat Ass” and “Quiet Night At Home” ” provide a humorous and tender view of her isolation and loneliness as the schools “fat girl”, and Ivy’s “Portrait Of A Girl” and “Touch My Soul” are equally revealing about her character, showing that despite being the girl with the looks and the admirers she is often equally lonely. “Are You There” is a fantastic soul searching number where Matt and Peter ask God for answers. Other highlights include Sister Chantelle’s “God Don’t Make No Trash” where she asserts that “there’s a black woman inside the soul of every gay man” . Best of all are “See Me” and “Warning” . “See Me” is Peter’s heartbreaking attempt to tell his mother about his sexuality as she determinedly keeps the subject on almost everything but. “Warning” is the emotionally devastating response of his mother as she comments on what Peter has been trying to tell her, which despite her knowing all along still comes as a shock.

I should of course mention the casting of the recording too. It combines cast members from the Broadway cast (Kaitlyn Hopkins as Peter’s mother), the LA cast (Kelli Lefkovitz as Nadia, Stephanie Anderson as Sister Chantelle) with Matt Doyle and James Snyder, who weren’t in either production, as the two leads. Special mention should be made of Jenna Leigh Green as she played Ivy in both productions. They all sound great and, I am sure, we will hear much more of them in time to come.

Now it’s difficult to get people enthused about music without letting them hear it, but in this instance I can point you in the right direction to do just that.
MySpace finds various opportunities to catch some of the songs is the official mysapce page – but doesn’t feature any songs is the official page for the album which does, as does the fan site is the official web page for the album and that features video clips

If “Bare” wins you over you will find all the links to buy the CD there. It’s a double disc with a “making of” Dvd and with current exchange rates my copy came in at around £16. The DVD is quite interesting but as all of the contributors are people working on the show who love it you don’t get a balanced perspective at all, but then again maybe it’s a show that everyone loves?

Anyway I hope this weeks column has piqued your interest, if any of you like the sound bites on the web be sure to let me know! It’s nice to have an opportunity to share this “best kept secret” with you all

Thursday, 29 November 2007

29/11 Swing Your Razor High Sweeney

Well in the last month or so you have endured all sorts of witterings from me and, with the exception of my piece on “Curtains”, it’s been a while since I have focussed on a particular show. Well today is where that all changes as I finally look at another of my personal essential musicals.

So what is the show in question? If I mention popping pussies into pies or piccolo player being served piping hot does that answer your question? If it does then you are no doubt already familiar with “Sweeney Todd” and with Tim Burton’s movie version just a round the corner it seems just the right time to talk about this most dramatic and horrific of musicals.

Stories have long been written about the demon barber of Fleet Street but it was a stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton debuting at the Theatre Royal Stratford East that inspired Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince to work on what is often cited as their greatest collaboration.

Opening in 1978, “Sweeney Todd” was unlike anything Broadway had ever seen before. The story tells of Sweeney (aka Benjamin Barker a former convict) as he returns to London and opens a Fleet Street barber shop. His first friend is the sailor Anthony, but it’s not long before he makes the acquaintance of the proprieter of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop. Whilst Anthony becomes lovesick for the beautiful Johanna, it’s only a matter of time until Todd is recognized as Barker by one of his customers. The best course of action seems to be a quick slit of the throat. Mrs Lovett becomes aware of Todd’s actions and it’s not long before she suggests that they may do business together. After all she needs meat for her pies! So the blood letting begins. Initially the business thrives but complications ensue with the lovelorn Anthony’s pursuit of Johanna (who ends up in the madhouse!), and the attentions of the judge and Beadle Bamford – not to mention a mysterious beggar woman. I don’t really want to divulge any more of the plot though – after all as one of the songs goes “what happened then – well that’s the play and he wouldn’t want us to give it away”

as it may spoil the movie for you but, needless to say, by the end of the show there is barely anyone left standing!

The musical has horror, pathos and comedy in abundance. The shaving competition and “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” are amongst the shows lighter moments, as is the glorious duet “A Little Priest” where Lovett and Todd discuss the merits of various professions as pie filling. “Not While I’m Around” provides a tender moment between Toby and Mrs Lovett, and Anthony sings the soaring “Johanna”. Possibly the creepiest tune in the show is the oft reprised “The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd”, where the shrieking factory whistle that is used in the original orchestrations, can send a nightmare shiver throughout the audience.

The acclaimed Broadway original saw Len Cariou (star of “A Little Night Music” and the Palladium’s “Ziegfeld”) as Sweeney and Angela Lansbury as Lovett. Yes that’s Jessica Fletcher herself! Performed on a vast “foundry like” set, it’s said that during previews Miss Lansbury almost came a cropper as a huge iron bridge fell to the stage. Ironically this was just as she she was singing “No one’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around…..” This original production was recorded for TV (with Lansbury and George Hearn) and is available on region one DVD.

When the show travelled to London it was for a short, relatively unsuccessful, run at Drury Lane starring Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock. During it’s run former colleague Plum Peyton’s childhood home was the Marquis Of Granby pub just a cross the road and she was known by most of the theatre’s staff. She says that they would often let her in the theatre and she can remember sitting in Sweeney’s barbers chair on more than one occasion! Luckily she didn’t get her throat slit.

It was actually with Plum that I saw the show for the first time at the National Theatre in it’s Cottesloe auditorium. The intimacy of the house worked brilliantly for the piece as you were so close to the action it really did heitghen the terror. We were mere feet from Sweeney’s razor’s as they dripped the blood of his victims – it really was quite chilling. I am quite relieved we weren’t sitting in the front two rows though, those audience members found themselves covered in flour as Lovett sang “The Worst Pies in London” not to mention shaving foam at more than one point. A superlative cast included Alun Armstrong as Todd, Adrian Lester as Anthony and Denis Quilley returning to the show as the Judge, later taking over in the lead. In her last stage musical role to date was Julia McKenzie. I had been a little disappointed by McKenzie in “Follies” and “Into The Woods” but her performance in “Sweeney” was an absolute revelation. Without a doubt one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.

It was a few years later that I saw “Sweeney” for a second time. Maybe 2001. This time around it was at the Bridewell Theatre – eerily just off Fleet Street itself. This time it was done in promenade. Although we were seated for part of the show we were often ushered around various parts of the theatre. It made the murders all the more horrific to be mere inches from the victims as they writhed in blood, making the show a really exhilarating experience – particularly it’s shocking conclusion. I attended with another two former colleagues, David Dolman and James Maddison. Now James seemed pretty traumatized by the whole night but it was one particular moment that freaked David out. There is a scene where the actors seemed to be ushering us all over the place and causing confusion. Now poor David found himself right in the middle just as they all started running at him yelling “City on fire!!!!!” I have very vivid memories of his look of terror whilst he waved his arms around in panic. All adding to the experience.

Of course this wasn’t the last London production, as it appeared a couple of years ago at the Trafalgar Studios in a version directed by John Doyle of Newbury’s Watermill Theatre. With the actors playing the instruments as well as doing all the acting I did feel that the show didn’t work as well as either of the previous productions I had seen. Somehow the drama was diluted a little. However, it’s such a strong piece of theatre that it still couldn’t fail to impress. This version also provided a little chuckle as the actress playing Lovett seemed to be a (loving) tribute to former Palladium staffer Roz Read. Down to the big hair, leopard skin and wedge heels. It seems that Broadway producers (and indeed Sondheim himself) had fewer reservations about this production as it was to go on to receive a Broadway showing with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone in the leads.

It’s not only in theatre’s that “Sweeney” makes an impact. Prior to her Broadway performance, LuPone had starred in a concert staging with George Hearn which played various engagements across the US. The musical is also oft performed by Opera companies and recently had en engagement at the Royal Opera House, and also at the New York City Opera where Elaine Paige had the opportunity to do some serious pie making!

So now Hollywood has beckoned and a movie version has been completed. It remains to be seen if the film will recapture the qualities of the various stage productions but I feel that Tim Burton is an inspired choice of director. He excels at “dark” stories so there is no one better – and we can also look forward to Johnny Depp as Sweeney and a host of British performers making up the supporting cast.

The original Broadway production is on CD and DVD and for my money it’s the best version available. Also out on CD are the (quite rare) concert version, and recent Broadway revival both starring Patti LuPone. In my opinion Lansbury’s performance outstrips LuPone, providing a sweetness that lulls you into a false sense of security before you get the horror of Lovett. Lupone is pretty scary from the off, although this is a lot of fun in the DVD of the concert.

The most recorded song from the show is “Not While I’m Around” and my favourite would have to be La Streisand on “The Broadway Album”. Anthony Warlow does a stunning “Johanna” on “Centrestage”. For comic relief though seek out Lea De Laria’s “All That Jazz” album for a jazz “Ballad Of Sweeney Todd” Even harder to find and extremely odd is Gordon Grody’s disco version of the track.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

22/11 It's Leah Garcia Time - Further Adventures In Paris

Well, another day another Musee and this time I had company.

I daresay there are a few of you who have been around long enough to remember Australian born Leah Chambers who worked for “Stoll Moss” (as it was back then) for a couple of lengthy periods in the late nineties. She finally returned home to Australia for good in 1999. No doubt Leah is best remembered for her Adam Garcia obsession during the days of “Saturday Night Fever”. Now, I knew Leah was planning a London trip for November, so I thought “sods law” she’s bound to be in London the week I am in Paris. So I emailed her a couple of weeks ago to check her plans to discover, by an amazing coincidence, that she had decided against a London trip and was heading for Paris instead. The same week as me! So Thursday morning found me in the queue for the Musee D’Orsay with no less than Leah herself along with her friend and colleague Michelle.

For those of you who are interested Leah is now Melbourne based and has a successful career in television where she is preparing to work on her third Olympics amongst other projects. Despite her Tv success, Leah’s time working for Stoll Moss means that her heart is very much in musical theatre. In fact on her last London visit she was considering giving up TV to come and work in London as an usherette just to be part of the West End again. Well, I tried hard to convince her that she was earning a good living which would enable her to visit London and New york on a semi regular basis and enjoy the best of what theatre can offer, So that’s what she did and indeed will be off to Broadway in a few weeks. Just to keep her hand in she was recently employed (by another former Stoll Mosser Amanda Mannion) in box office for theatres in Melbourne. She manages a few hours most weeks and has enjoyed being part of the successful revival of “The Phantom of The Opera” starring Anthony Warlow, and also current blockbuster “Priscilla Queen Of The Desert” – rumoured to be on it’s way to London next year.

Anyway, we had a truly lovely day starting at the Musee D’Orsay home to the Louvres collection dating between 1870 and 1920. This covers the impressionists and a whole lot more. The converted railway station provides the perfect setting for these masterpieces and it can almost seem like a transcendental experience. Three hours sped by as we walked through Monet’s poppy field, felt the cold of Van Gogh’s starry night and trembled at the gates of hell – courtesy of Auguste Rodin. If you only ever go to one gallery or museum on a Paris visit then make it the Musee D’Orsay. It’s one of my favourite places and I know I will visit again.

A long lunch (yes, at Joe Allen’s) followed where we laughed a lot and Leah and Michelle related a particularly peculiar Parisian incident. Leah was standing at her hotel window (in her own words) praying to the gods for the safe return of her missing mobile phone charger – picture Eva Peron a la balcony scene wearing winceyette pajamas. Anyway there she stands and what should she see but a naked man at the window of the opposite apartment. She swiftly drew the curtains closed saying “Mich’ you gotta see this!” At this point Leah and Michelle were both peeping through the curtains. I’m not sure how long they peeped for but they assured me that the gentleman was kind of “busy” for a while. Ooh la la!

So our lunch progressed with much hilarity before we bid our au revoirs having shared a great day in this most beautiful of cities. I was absolutely exhausted and other than a ninety minute sojourn into Les Halles for a few more Christmas presents I collapsed in my hotel room. I had done three days solid walking not to mention three rather tasty glasses of the Joe Allen maison rouge! I finally came around again at 8pm and headed to the UCG cinema in Les Halles for my last cinematic experience. I must admit that proximity was a deciding factor when I chose the latest Gus Van Sant movie “Paranoid Park”. It’s a devastating and compelling portrait of a young skateboarder and the aftermath of his involvement in the accidental death of a security guard. It didn’t lose my attention for a second. However even this, largely serious, movie was not without a touch of hilarity. At various points the main character would enjoy a contemplative moment of silence as he thought of his inner torment.. It was during one of these (it has to be said rather short) pauses that a young French woman exclaimed at the top of her voice that the film had stopped. This caused much laughter, and embarrassment for the silly girl. I suspect it’s a situation that really appeals to the French sense of humour as most of the audience was still giggling for the next ten minutes.

So aside from my Woody Allen experience I enjoyed some very different and very enjoyable motion pictures. I enjoyed Joe Allens crème brulee again and found that Monet makes the world go round, as do Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley…..I swear as my suitcase languishes at the end of the carriage as I write that it’s twice the weight it was on the way. Could it be my nice new coat perhaps? Could it be the DVDs I have purchased? More likely – but then again they are pretty light. No I think it might be the four bottles of French red wine that are the cause of the problem!


Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Last Time I Saw Paris 15/11

Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris. Allegedly. Well, I couldn’t find him.. An evening of Brel’s music seemed like the perfect theatrical experience to enjoy on last weeks Paris trip. But alas the Brel show wasn’t playing that week. This wasn’t even my first choice of show. I had read about a small musical called “Panique Au Bord” and had also been recommended another – “Coups De Foudre” – however both venues were a little off the beaten track (i.e. beyond the four corners of my tourist map) and I didn’t feel confident enough to wander into the unknown. Ok, so Bonnie Tyler thought being “Lost In France” was cool, but Bonnie is much braver than me. And fierce. I mean come on, have you heard her growl?

Anyway, the main purpose of my visit was Christmas shopping and that went quite well. I made a big start at least….

Of course, despite the lack of theatre, culture played a big part in my holiday, as indeed did history. I recently read a fictional account of the life of Catherine De Medici (thank you Miss Plaidy) and am currently working my way through a “proper” biography (thank you Mr Ferris) so when I flicked through my eye witness guide in the sections on Les Halles and Le Marais a few things leapt from the page. Obviously much has changed since the time of the Royal House of Valois, but it was interesting to see that several of the locations that featured in this particularly bloody period of history are still standing. So I managed to see the St-Germain L’Auxerrois , the church where the bells first rang out after the massacre of St Bartholomew’s eve, and also the Hotel De Sens (one of only a few mediaeval buildings still standing in Paris) home to Catherine’s daughter – the scandalous “la Reine Margo”. All in all seeing these, and many more locations are helping to paint a more vivid picture as I continue to read the biography.

So back to culture. Even more than theatre the two mainstays of my Paris jaunts are cinema and art. Paris, as you may know, offers the choice of most English or American films in either dubbed or subtitled (version originale) versions so it’s pretty easy to find a plethora of movie options. First off was “Stardust” which was really lovely and I would definitely recommend it if you are in the mood for a touch of whimsy. The following night I left my stardust memories far behind me to watch the new, London set, Woody Allen movie “The Dream Of Cassandra”. I’m not really a Woody fan per se, and this film did little to make me one. It was truly dire. I think possibly that Woody just can’t quite master the British syntax because the script was beyond awful. People just don’t talk like that. Ok well maybe Diane Keaton might but Colin O’Farrell and Ewan McGregor just sounded plain wrong. Better by far was “Ratatouille”. An absolute comedic delight from start to finish and it’s Parisian setting certainly enhanced my enjoyment. I must admit though, that I was a little wary of eating in a restaurant the following day. Mind you, in hindsight I suspect that the chance of my meals having been cooked by rats was a little far fetched!

Talking of restaurants, those of you who have read of my previous Paris breaks may remember that my restaurant habituelle has always been Joe Allens. Well, not only did this remain the case but I was staying in a hotel just around the corner – the lovely Hotel De Cygne. Despite the rather noisy street cleaners who appeared at 7am it was great to be so central. I barely even had to use the metro.

Not only did I go to the cinema but I also bought a few French DVDs. I was even brave enough to buy a couple without English subtitles. No, I am not talking about “The Making Of The Dieux De Stade Calendar” but a couple starring Romain Duris (of “The Beat My Heart Skipped”) who is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. These movies will continue my French experience over the coming weeks and hopefully aid my understanding of French a little more in time for my next visit.

So what of art? Well, as I was staying a stones throw away, I decided that it was opportune to revisit the Pompidou with its collection of modern art. I must admit that when it comes to art I tend to prefer the more conventional forms such as painting and sculpture. Although a large proportion of the Pompidou’s collection is of “installation” art it does have an abundance of paintings dating back eighty or ninety years so I had the opportunity to see works by Kandisky, Picasso and Matisse as well as Marc Chagalle – a personal favourite. Not to mention a big red shiny rhino and a giant fridge!

Now a shiny red rhino seems a good a place as any to leave it for now – more from Paris next week where I tell you about more paintings, a reunion with a former colleague and a case of indecent exposure!

Friday, 2 November 2007

I Miss The Music

Well, how lucky can you get? 2007 has been a particularly lucky year for John Kander and Fred Ebb. Chicago celebrates its tenth birthday in London, and continues it’s successful Broadway run, as well as various productions worldwide. Rufus Norris’ production of Cabaret continues to thrive at London’s Lyric and Sam Mendes’ take on the show has had its run extended at Paris’ Folies Bergere. Last, but by no means least, the duo have a brand new show successfully running on Broadway – the musical murder mystery Curtains. However, it’s somewhat ironic – and more than a little sad – that this event has occurred without Fred Ebb, who died in 2004.

The combination of Fred Ebb’s lyrics and John Kander’s music have been razzle dazzling audiences since the early sixties. Their first Broadway show, 1965’s Flora, The Red Menace was also the debut for their muse Liza Minnelli (one of two ladies forever associated with their work). Liza’s career has been inextricably linked with Kander and Ebb’s ever since. The team have written much special material for Liza over the years, including songs such as Liza With A Z and Ring Them Bells. She has appeared in their stage musicals Chicago, The Rink and The Act, as well as the movie version of Cabaret, and they wrote songs specially for her movies Stepping Out and New York, New York. Apart from those with Liza Minnelli connections, other Broadway shows included The Happy Time, Zorba, Woman Of The Year, 70 Girls 70, and the triumphant Kiss Of The Spider Woman which starred Chita Rivera - the other lady. Then of course they wrote some original songs for Barbra Streisand’s second time out as Fanny Brice in Funny Lady. By 1991 their place amongst the Broadway greats was assured as they were paid the ultimate tribute with the compilation show And The World Goes Round.

Despite the late nineties seeing revivals of their classic shows flourishing, by this time, new product wasn’t nearly as successful. 1997’s Steel Pier wasn’t successful on it’s Broadway debut, and the later adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth (titled Over And Over at some points in it’s development) didn’t even make it to the coloured lights of the great white way. When their musical The Visit , written for Angela Lansbury, also failed to get to New York we could have been forgiven for thinking that the chances of a new Kander and Ebb show were over for ever. However, as I have already established, that’s not quite the case.

Curtains journey to Broadway has possibly been more convoluted than many other shows. The story began back in the early seventies when writer/director Abe Burrows began collaborating with Kander and Ebb on Tango Mogador an homage to romantic adventure movies based on the French Foreign Legion. Despite work being well under way on this project it was abandoned due to the ill health of Burrows. Fast forward to 1981 and celebrated writer Peter Stone comes on board to write the book, but decides that he would be more interested in the piece being about a group of performers putting on a show about the Foreign Legion – but with a murder mystery at its centre. For the next twenty years the project was on and then off again. The title changed to Who killed David Merrick before finally becoming Curtains. The Foreign Legion idea vanished to be replaced by a Commedia dell’arte company in wartime Paris, and later a contemporary setting, but the murder mystery became a constant. Director Scott Ellis, who had a long standing connection with Kander and Ebb, came on board and it started to look like production of the show was going to happen when, in 2003, Peter Stone died.

For a replacement the team looked to Rupert Holmes. Thanks to his musical The Mystery Of Edwin Drood and a couple of mystery novels Holmes was a good choice for the project. Of course the show was to change further as Holmes put his stamp on it. The setting was changed to the late fifties – the golden age of Broadway musicals, and all that jazz – and Holmes began reworking the book. The show as it is was very much taking form when the shock of Fred Ebb’s death was announced. Maybe this time, it would have been no surprise if it was curtains for Curtains. But the world goes round and John Kander wanted the show to go on, so (as a noted songwriter himself) Rupert Holmes signed on to complete Ebb’s work as lyricist.

Finally a successful Los Angeles production of Curtains debuted and the show was scheduled for a Broadway run. It opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in March 2007 and has been running there ever since. The show stars Frazier’s David Hyde Pierce (Tony award winner) in the central role of a musical comedy loving detective, and Debra Monk, ably supported by Kander and Ebb regular Karen Ziemba, and a host of well known Broadway performers. Despite the murder mystery aspect of the plot the show is, above all, an affectionate love letter to the Broadway musical. It’s delightful score is very much one from a bygone age containing Broadway anthems such as Show People and in the “show within a show” Robbin’ Hood authentic tunes that could be from any fifties show in the same way that The Drowsy Chaperone so comically spoofed the thirties. Given Ebb’s death though, I think the highlight of the score is possibly Jason Danieley’s touching rendition of I Miss The Music. Somehow I think this song says it all.

The cast album of Curtains of course. For Kander and Ebb in general then almost any of Liza Minnelli’s live albums. If you are not a Liza devotee then seek out out The Kander And Ebb Album by Brent Barratt, which features a rare recording of the title song from The Skin Of Our Teeth.

Friday, 19 October 2007

You Were A Monkey And I Was A Pony

Friends Reunited can be a great website. I have had a few friends get in touch over the years and even managed to re-establish my closest friendship after having lost touch. However it does also bring the oddest people out of the woodwork. Three times now I have had a message from a girl called Julie saying “You were a monkey and I was a pony, get in touch” Naturally I was perplexed. What an odd thing to say – and how on earth do I respond to it? Well I didn’t, but I did recently come to realise what she meant.

I expect I would have been about six and it was the Christmas play at school. You know what it’s like, every now and then teachers get a bit over excited and do something a little different to the traditional nativity. This year we had a Christmas circus. So we had all sorts of acts - clowns, lions, acrobats and of course ponies and chimpanzee’s (not monkeys!). At the end of each act the participants would take a Christmas ring (actually a quoit covered in tinsel) and place it on a branch of the tree to see if it would light up. The clowns were unsuccessful as were the ponies – little girls in pink leotards jumping over bamboo canes. Then it came to the chimps. The mid seventies were a less pc time, the time of the PG Tips chimps and chimps tea parties at the zoo. A chimps tea party, was usually held at the zoo, twice daily, and was basically half a dozen chimps, all dressed up, at a dinner table and being given a meal. Invariably they would end up throwing the food all over each other and the first few rows of the audience. This was also the time that the TV series of “The Planet Of The Apes” was popular, and the shops were full of POTA action figures and masks. Now, if you remember, the apes had a very particular way of walking. I, yes that’s right me, was the best in the school at doing the walk, so along with a boy called Ian, who was a “bit of a monkey” we were the chimps. Our act was inspired by both “Planet of The Aoes” and a chimps tea party and of course culminated in us throwing lots of (paper) plates into the audience. We had great fun doing this and walking round going “Oo , oo, oo” like monkeys. Yes, I could walk the walk AND talk the talk. Then we proceeded to the tree with our festive quoit and threw it at the tree. For we were very naughty chimps! Needless to say it didn’t light up, this honour was left to the group of “Children” who went up to the tree last of all, hand in hand. Or, as I like to think of them, the untalented children who couldn’t do anything! However it seems that when the Leicester Mercury was looking for a photo opportunity it was me they spotted, along with Julie the pony. So somewhere in the archives of the Mercury from 1975 there is a picture of a smiling Julie along with me. Of course I am totally hidden by the “Planet Of The Apes” mask I was wearing so you can’t see me at all. My mum was most put out. Anyway, this would be what Julie had in mind – although I still haven’t replied!!!!

I was probably quite a precocious little boy in some ways, so I always looked forward to participating in school plays and nativities. However the holy grail of roles always seemed to evade me. I speak of course of Joseph (of ”Joseph And Mary” fame) I did come close on many occasions. I was told I was the best, but not tall enough, more than once. Of course I was an innocent young child back then so stopped short of calling the teacher a size queen! One year our head mistress had written her own nativity musical called “Follow That Star” , of which I can only recall the title song and “Three Wise Men” sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”. Yes really. Sadly I was stuck in the back row of the choir. The following year saw the piece being expanded and bizarrely we did it in a totally different school. I was so close to being Joseph. It was down to two of us – then they told me. “Sorry Markus, you really aren’t tall enough!” I did get to be understudy though, and had that most famous of Nativity characters to play. The Pig Farmer! Obviously the role of the pig farmer is crucial to the nativity story as it’s used to illustrate the fact that all sorts of people had to traipse all over the place for the census. On reflection I must have been quite magnificent in this part as these days it’s generally considered that I was such a hard act to follow that they don’t even bother to feature the role!

Anyway, shortly after this I moved home, from Swannington to the bizarrely named estate Agar Nook, and of course a new school. I was hardly there five minutes before my precocity set in and I started trying to get into all the school plays. Every other week we had to do an assembly which, as my teacher was a bit arty farty, was always a play. One week we were re-enacting the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey (queen for nine days) whose family home was in the local Bradgate Park, and the next we were re-enacting a journey along the Amazon where we were attacked by Pirahnas. Then of course there were after school drama clubs and shows like “The Wind In The Willows” and “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”, the latter saw me as Captain Nemo (height no issue!) and of course this being a school play I was captain of a “Yellow Submarine” . Then Christmas drew near and it looked like I was going to win the role I had dreamed of! Once again I was down to the final two and I was told “Sorry too short!” Yet again, my dreams of stardom lay in tatters. But then I had the call which changed my life (for December 1979 at least) . The Joseph who they had chosen couldn’t do one of the three performances, so for one night only I was to play the part I had coveted. Yes, I was going to be the alternate Joseph. The Aiofhe Mulholland of Warren Hills County Primary School. Opposite me as Mary was Michelle Allen. Michelle is actually the sister of west end performer Nicky Adams who has been in both “Phantom” as Christine, and “The Woman In White” . Incidentally , a couple of years ago I discovered that they are both distant cousins of mine. So anyway, I cracked it. I finally got to play Joseph. I had my moment in the spotlight.

I didn’t really pursue school plays after this. It all seemed a bit un cool. I did still end up doing a few things though such as “Mother Courage”, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and Stan Laurel in a school revue. Somehow though, these roles never seemed to reach the dizzy heights I experienced as a pig farmer and a chimpanzee back in the mid seventies.

Looking back, I can say hand on heart that I will never appear in a school play ever again! However I have a sneaky feeling that in the coming months I will get an email saying “You were a monkey and I was a pony, get in touch!”

Friday, 12 October 2007

Soundtracks of My Life 60-61

60.Something Right (Fordham) JULIA FORDHAM
This is for Jackie and Sarah, who are planning a civil ceremony for later in the year. When they got together I had my doubts as Jackie was leaving a long standing relationship to embark on a new one with Sarah. However, as soon as I met Sarah I knew that Jackie really was doing something right. I am sure that they will be very happy together – after all they already are!

61.Paris Je T’Aime (Grey/Schertzinger) PATRICK BRUEL
Paris is a recurring theme in my life as I have spent so many holidays there. This song is typical of traditional French “café” music. I really don’t know the proper term. I started to listen to Bruel’s music when I was trying to improve my French, and although this is atypical of his stuff I have gone for this selection as it reminds me of going to France with my mum. Taking her to Paris was a huge bonding experience. I had come into a small amount of money, and wanted to treat her, so took her away to Paris for the first time. Out of all the places I could have picked Paris really struck her imagination. She can now spend hours talking about nothing but Paris and the places we went to and the things we saw. We spent time a lot of time in Montmartre, had a wonderful day in Versailles and saw lots of art. This song reminds me of standing in line to go to see the impressionist art at the Musee D’Orsay and there always seem to be buskers playing when you queue for these kind of things in Paris. Almost always they are playing an accordion or something similar and its these French Café Chansons that are particularly popular…so this is what I am reminded of from this song!

Friday, 5 October 2007

A Little Dental Music

“Who wants their teeth done by the Marquis De Sade?”

Well not me! It also has to be said that the song I have taken that quote from is not a good one to listen to when awaiting dental treatment. The song is, of course, “Dentist” from “The Little Shop Of Horrors” which is frankly enough to put anyone of having a filling for life.

However, although I stay clear of this particular show, musicals have proven to be a brilliant aid in my coping with uncomfortable dental procedures. “How on earth do you do that?” you may ask. Well it’s simple really. From the moment the dentist approaches me with – well maybe a drill, or even that horrible tube that sucks out the saliva , in my head I try and go through a complete musical. Around ten years ago it was “A Little Night Music” that got me through four crowns. Now I don’t know if you have ever had a crown but it really is quite horrible when they grind the original tooth down to a point to slot the new porcelain tooth on. So there I am, sucker in one cheek and feeling bits of tooth hitting the roof of my mouth as the dentist prepares for the crown. In my head Desiree Armfeldt is sending out invitations for “A Weekend In The Country” as I struggle to obliterate the pneumatic drill that seems to be present in my open mouth. I gloss over “Every Day A Little Death” as it seems a tad too close for comfort, and the dentist is very confused when, on asking me if I am ok, I reply “Hi Ho The Glamorous Life”. All in all “Night Music” made this particular procedure far less painful than anticipated! A success in fact!

Equally effective was, on the occasion of a wisdom tooth’s removal, “West Side Story”. The up-tempo numbers always work best and this show has plenty. “Cool” is probably the best song in the show, as keeping cool is a definite asset. “Dance At The Gym” is one best omitted however. Trying to mambo when you have to keep your head still is not so easy, and the temptation to promenade out of the surgery altogether is also very great. I seem to remember “Rent” working quite well once too.

The big draw back of this method for dental coping is the fact that the dentist is invariably not in tune with me as a patient. I mean, fair enough, they should be concentrating on matters in hand, but honestly they should get their timing right. Was it really necessary for her to ask me if I needed any more anaesthetic right in the middle of “West Side’s” balcony scene? It well and truly killed the moment. And could I blame Anita for missing her entrance when the dentist chose that exact moment to go full throttle with the pliers?

Anyway, last weeks extraction saw me plumping for Barbra Streisand. This was a dismal failure. I just went over the first two lines of “Evergreen” over and over again. I tried “The Way We Were” but somehow it always worked it’s way back to “Love just like an easy chair……” . Thank goodness that the treatment itself went so much better than expected so my dental pain management technique wasn’t that vital anyway!

To paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein I guess this is all just my own way of whistling a happy tune. Of course it works in many other situations too, not just the dentists. I have heard of people singing “I Have Confidence” when they need to feel strong , and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” when they are low and need courage. I guess musical theatre (in fact just Rodgers and Hammerstein) has a song for every occasion!

So this all goes to prove that whilst a spoonful of sugar may well help the medicine go down there is nothing better than a show tune to get you through all manner of crises and what not!

Somehow I think favourite scenes from Samuel Becket wouldn’t be nearly as effective!

Bye for now!


Friday, 21 September 2007

Soundtrack Track 59

59.Fields Of Gold (Sting) STING
This song is featured as it was played at the funeral of a dear family friend, Violet – and It remnunded me of a piece of writing I wrote shortly after her death so have included it here – A little longer than the normal I’m afraid!
I must have been little more than three years old. I had just been given the Fisher-Price family houseboat, and in my excitement there was only one thing on my mind. I stepped out of the porch of 44 Hilary Crescent, clumsily negotiating the step with my new toy, and began my short journey. I pulled the houseboat by its string, past Beattie and Franks’ bungalow, towards my destination. I turned right into the path which, as always, had beautifully tended flowers and shrubs along the left hand side. This was the house with a little stone church at the top of the garden – which in later years I seem to remember was “Breedon-On-The-Hill”, and a bush of the hugest most colourful flowers which could be seen from the back windows. This was also the house with a shed that contained not only miniature steam engines but a couple of fully operational beautifully detailed miniature fairground carousels. All of these things held great delight for a small child, but this was not my reason for visiting. I pulled my boat up to the backdoor, which as it was a fine day would of course have been open, peered through the door and would have seen the kitchen table on the other side of the room. On the left, by the window, Bert would have sat, and on the right not to far from the boiler, with an open copy of “Peoples Friend” in front of her, was my main reason for visiting. Violet. If I had a new toy then, of course, it had to be presented for Vi’s approval. Her approval and delight were always forthcoming – and as I got older this ritual never changed, as it changed from toys to books and later records I would still have to show my spoils to Violet.

Always smiling and always happy to see me, Violet was a constant presence in my life. One mustn’t forget Bert as well naturally – a known story teller who loved to spin a yarn – albeit often the same yarn told and re-told. I am still haunted by his tales of how it wasn’t that great in the old days, and the cheese was left piled high on the pavements for the dogs to urinate on.
“You’d still eat it” he would say. Truly the stuff of nightmares. The other abiding memory I have of Bert is of his kindness to me. But at Vi and Bert’s bungalow, kindness was in no short supply.

On occasion I would knock on the door and Vi would have visitors so I would apologise and say I would come another time. Vi would have none of this of course.
“It’s alright, come in m’darlin’” she would say – and if I wavered she would be quite insistent. So I would be welcomed in and sit with her while she chatted to maybe her friend Lena with the artificial leg – or Janet and her mother Lucy. Sometimes she would have her family over, George and his wife Hilda, and maybe John and Audrey. They always seemed larger than life to a small child, with their broad northern accents, but were every bit as welcoming as Vi herself. Then there was her sister Irene, and Jess – always dressed in trousers with blousons of elaborate designs that twenty years later were revived by Versace. Sometimes Irene and Jess would have a little fall out but to me they were always lovely. I remember one Christmas they bought me a toy post office – complete with stamp pads and tiny packets and jars of the all the products you might want – I was delighted.

Some people you remember with sadness, others with a smile, but with Violet it’s not long before you begin to laugh. So many incidents over the years happened that ended in laughter that it’s a pleasure to recall them. A visit to London to see Simon at the Players Theatre ended in us being late for our train at St.Pancras. As myself and my Nan ran for the train Vi was having difficulty keeping up, the train started to pull out so I remember shouting at the guard “You stupid man can’t you see she’s an old lady!” I don’t recall if we managed to get on the train but I do remember everyone laughing around me. Sunday mornings Violet would come round and have a drink of wine before lunch, “Your cheeks are getting red!” my Nan would say to her, and my Grandpa would say “Y’alright Fatty?” and she would chuckle with good humour. Often we would sit in the kitchen and play scrabble, and on one occasion, as it rained outside, suddenly there was a clap of thunder and Vi was nowhere to be seen. In her fright she had sprinted from the table and was cowering in the hallway. When we found her we took one look at her and she started chuckling at the absurdity of it all. Most Saturdays were spent on a shopping expedition, Leicester, Loughborough and on occasion Nottingham. It was on one of these occasions (actually I have a sneaking suspicion that it happened more than once) that somehow we lost Violet and seemed to spend hours looking for her – finally tracking her down wandering the multi storey car park. There was one very funny incident when she telephoned my Aunt Jane, after she had been baby sitting her three children, because she had got home and realised that her false teeth were no longer in her mouth. It seemed she had fallen asleep and the teeth were discovered by one of the children down the back of the settee. So, when we remember Vi, laughter is never far away.

In the last few days I have heard so many people say that Violet never had a bad word against anyone, to this I can add that she always seemed very happy and was always incredibly appreciative of anything anyone may have done for her. She never took the kindnesses of others for granted.

In the years after they both lost their husbands Violet became very close to my Grandma Cox, and they would spend many hours sitting together and chatting. On one occasion my Grandma complained that her false teeth were uncomfortable and it transpired that she had somehow put Vi’s in.
“It’s alright I’ll wash ‘em” said Vi, and that was the end to it. There were a few occasions when Grandma Cox, whose health was on the decline, could be a little caustic towards Violet . Violet never complained about this, always saying “It’s alright I know she doesn’t mean it”.

When Violet moved from Hilary Crescent to Park View I felt that loss as keenly as any bereavement. By this time I had long moved to London – but it didn’t seem right that on my visits home I couldn’t do the short walk that I had first done so many years before to go and see Vi in her house. In these years I saw Vi much less than I would have liked, so often my infrequent visits home seemed to tie in with her frequent holidays, but I would at least try to send her some flowers at least so she would know I was thinking of her. When I did go to her flat I was always touched to see that all the candles I had bought her for Christmases over the years seemed to be given pride of place. I would urge her to use them but she would say “I don’t like to ‘cause they seem so lovely”. She really did appreciate everything so much.

AsIe moved into adult life time seemed to move so quickly and, before I knew it, another year has gone by, and I would sometimes stop and think I can’t believe that it’s so long since I saw Vi. The last time I spoke to Violet was at one of these moments, and I had decided to give her a call.
“’Ello m’darlin’ it’s lovely to hear from you” she said and I can’t recall what we spoke of but I remember her warmth and affection at receiving my call.

How do you do Violet justice? Initially a neighbour to my grandparents, her good friends Jean & Reg, Violet seemed, over the years, to become adopted by the entire family and it’s a tribute to her that so many of us were there to lay her to rest. But it kind of goes without saying, because even if she wasn’t of our blood she was a vital part of our family. But how do I define Violet’s role? I could say it was like having another grandmother or another aunt but neither of those words do her justice. She was a “Violet” and I count myself lucky to have had her in my life. Always kind, always smiling.

There are no better closing words than Violets own.

“ninety one, going on ninety two – not bad is it ?”

Friday, 14 September 2007

It Was Twenty years Ago Today......

Sgt Pepper taught the band to play…..

Actually it wasn’t – it was more like forty. However it’s with great personal shock that I realise it’s twenty years ago today (14th September 1987) that I started work for Stoll Moss Theatres (as it was then) in box office……I did start very young!

I remember that morning quite clearly. I knocked on the side door of the box office at Her Majesty’s and nervously announced myself. I was greeted by Douglas Hinton, box office manager, who spoke with a cut glass English accent despite (as I later found out) being a Texan. I was introduced to some of the other staff including Mark Trumpess, and Toni Gabriele (who I seem to recall had just returned from holiday), before I was taken to head office – Cranbourne Mansions – whose top floor housed the advance booking period for The Phantom Of The Opera. Working on Phantom was very exciting as in Theatreland in was a true phenomenon, breaking all box office records, in an era where Andrew Lloyd Webber really ruled the roost in the west end. Phantom truly got everywhere, it was mentioned in the papers almost every day and I can even remember Eastenders’ Dirty Den quipping “I’m going to see The Phantom Of The Opera and I’m taking her to the theatre”.

Oh my god twenty years? Where has it all gone? Well if you read my column called “Wishing I Was Somehow There Again?” (back in the intouch archives if you missed it) you will remember my time at Her Majesty’s has been well covered as indeed has the Apollo and my experiences working front of house at the Phoenix and The Palladium (even longer ago! Yikes!) . Someday I will get round to telling you about my time at Drury Lane (and the occasion when Plum Peyton was instrumental in getting us all banned from the Rock island Diner for bad behaviour) and even maybe my early years at the Palladium. However I thought it would be much more fun to take a look back and see what I can actually remember about 1987!

So what about the rest of the west end? Across town at the Palladium, Colin Brooksbank and Edwin Shaw prepared for the theatre’s last pantomime to date – Cannon and Ball in Babes In The Wood. Derek Bessey was box office manager at the newly refurbished Cambridge, where Lulu was starring as Peter Pan, and 42nd Street was in residence (along with Plum Peyton) at Drury Lane. The Adelphi was occupied by Me And My Girl and, of course, Vereen Irving. At the Palace was Les Miserables, proving to be a blockbuster despite opening to bad reviews. Cats and Starlight Express continued to go strong and Chess was enjoying it’s successful run at the Prince Edward. Other musicals included Time and Nunsense. Non musicals included William Gaunt in When Did You Last See Your Trousers? at the Garrick, and Maggie Smith at the Globe (now the Gielgud) in Lettice And Lovage. Shaw’s You Never Can Tell was at the Haymarket and the Queens was occupied by Jeffrey Archer’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Of course I was determined to see as many shows as I could and I can particularly remember seeing Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Shaftesbury in November 1987. I was living at my Uncles at the time and our visit coincided with the night of the fire at Kings Cross Station. By the time we got home at 1am my Nan had left over twenty increasingly insane answer messages as she slowly convinced herself we had been killed in the fire!

But what about the world beyond theatre? Well 1987? This was a time before Ipods, DVD , Big Brother and Sky TV. A time when Amy Winehouse was a toddler and Elaine Paige dominated the album charts. This was a time when Whitney Houston was prime minister and Margaret Thatcher wanted to dance with somebody. French and Saunders were still funny and Rainbow was flying high.

In the world of television this was the year that the staff of the Crossroads motel where given their marching orders – it went off air the following Easter. Coronation Street stalwart, Hilda Ogden sang Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye as she left Weatherfield for ever. Den and Angie’s, tempestuous relationship kept us all glued to EastEnders and up in Liverpool Brookside’s Sheila Gant mourned the loss of her beloved Damon. Much to the consternation of evil wardress “Vinegar Tits” Vera Bennett, Frankie Doyle and her girlfriend Doreen escaped Cell Block H of Wentworth Detention Centre, while over in Ramsey Street Scott loved Charlene.

Elsewhere on screen Morse solved his first case, and Jean Luc Picard took to the skies for his maiden voyage. The Simpsons of Springfield made their debut and a fresh faced Richard and Judy launched This Morning. Last but not least, the Tardis had a new occupant as Sylvester Mccoy became the seventh Doctor Who alongside Bonnie Langford as his companion Mel.

At the movies Cher was Moonstruck as well as being one of The Witches Of Eastwick. Glenn Close’s antics in Fatal Attraction gave rise to the term “bunny boiler” and Patrick Swayze dirtydanced across the screen with Jennifer Grey.

In the pop charts CDs were still a relatively new innovation so the 45rpm vinyl single still flourished. The Stock Aitken Waterman partnership ruled the charts with the likes of Bananarama, Rick Astley and their latest signing Kylie Minogue was poised to make a big impact the following year. Young Scottish band Wet Wet Wet sang their way into the charts for the first time with Wishing I Was Lucky,and Pet Shop Boys bagged the Christmas number one with Always on My Mind. The album charts were dominated by the cast recording of The Phantom of The Opera and later in the year George Michael’s Faith.

On a sadder note 1987 was also the year that Hollywood legends Fred Astaire, Danny Kaye and Rita Hayworth died. Broadway mourned legendary choreographer/director Michael Bennett, as well as his A Chorus Line colleague, lyricist Ed Kleben. Over in the UK original Starlight Express cast member (as well as Rent A Ghost’s Timothy Claypole) Michael Staniforth passed away.

So that was 1987 – and just a little of what was going on (come on you didn’t really expect me to tell you the sporting news did you?) Well, the years have flown by and, little did I know that I would still be here, selling tickets, twenty years later. I have seen great changes over the years. What began as Stoll Moss is now RUGT. I have met some great people and formed some lasting friendships. Worked on some of biggest hits the west end has ever had and more than a few flops, and it seems most fitting to end with a line from the show I saw on the night of the Kings Cross fire….

“Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and my dear, I’m still here!”

Bye for now
Twenty years and counting!


Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Soundtrack Tracks 56-58

56.”I Will Be Waiting” (Joseph ) MARTYN JOSEPH
“I will never give up on anyone except maybe me” well that would a tad dramatic I think – but I have found that there are times when I should really have been more focussed on my own problems but instead have become involved in sorting a friends out and just hoping things would sort themselves out as far as I am concerned. However that’s not why I have particularly chosen this song – it’s because it defines the moment that myself and Lisa (Sharp) became friends. We had been part of the same social group for a while and she had just moved back from the States to Holloway. It had been her birthday and I had bought her the Martyn Joseph CD as part of a present. This lead to a long conversation about music over breakfast the following morning, and it was a couple of years later that we discovered that we both thought this moment was where our friendship really began. It’s always great to see Lisa at her huge house in Chiswick with her hundreds of kids – well two anyway!

57.Stronger Than Before (Newton John/Roboff/Chapman) OLIVIA NEWTON JOHN
By this point I have probably mentioned a couple of times my Dad saying that whatever awful things in life may happen you always gain something from them. Now this song that Olivia sang to illustrate her fight with cancer illustrates this point beautifully. Life’s traumas really can make you stronger. Always! Without fail!

58.I Didn’t Know That I Was Looking For Love (Watt/Thorn) EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL
OK soppy moment! This is here because it reminds me of the wedding of Jo and Nick. It was the song for their first dance, and it was really such a lovely wedding, We all descended en masse on Lake Windermere where the nuptials took place for what proved to be a really lovely weekend. Good company, good food, good conversation. It stands as one of the loveliest days I have ever had. Funny how many of those seem to be weddings. Lisa and Jon’s the previous year is up there too of course.

Friday, 31 August 2007

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Big Brother?

Well this years Big Brother is finally drawing to a close. Somehow I can’t help wondering what it would be like if it hadn’t been the likes of Chanelle, Charley, Samanda and Brian who had been in the house this year…..what if the housemates were more……well……musical?

Day One
Day one in the Big Brother house. The first housemate to enter is, former nun, Maria Von Trapp. She is bursting with confidence, but then again, a house with nine new house mates, what’s so fearsome about that? Maria is closely followed by Joseph, Dolly Levi, Tevye, Eva Peron, Effie Melody White, Oliver Twist, Sweeney Todd, Henry Higgins and Little Orphan Annie. As usual the housemates are overwhelmed by the new house and its splendid colour scheme. It was purple and white and pink and orange and blue. After a first night feast of handcrafted beer made from local breweries, some yoga, and yoghurt and rice and beans and cheese, they finally get to bed.

Day Four
Big brother surprises the housemates by asking them to nominate for the first time. Up for eviction are Tevye and Joseph. . Joseph he annoys his housemates but what makes them mad are the things that Joseph tells them of the dreams he often has. Somehow the idea of them bowing down to them isn’t so appealing. Tevye has been heard in the garden declaring to himself what he would do if he were a rich man. It seems that the two men both have their eyes on the prize.

Day Eight
The housemates are sitting on the sofa as Davina announces that Tevye is the first housemate to be evicted from big brother. It seems the public are decidedly unimpressed at the footage of him fiddling on the roof.

Day Eleven
This weeks task is for the housemates to form a coconut orchestra. Due to the indisposition of Miss Eva Peron her role in this weeks task will be performed by Miss Roxie Hart. Due to the failure of completing the task the housemates find themselves with basic rations of gruel.

Day Twelve
Maria decides to make everyone outfits from the house’s curtains. As a punishment the housemates have their suitcases confiscated “until further notice”

Day Thirteen
Oliver is struggling to cope with the basic rations and goes to the diary room where he imploringly asks “Please Big Brother, can I have some more?” Annie is finding it too much of a hard knock life too and the two orphans bond, helped by Dolly who is determined to push them together.

Day Fifteen
Joseph is horrified to be evicted in Maria’s curtain outfit, rather than the clothes in his suitcase that he was saving for the eviction. He demands “Give me my coloured coat, my amazing coloured coat!”

Day Sixteen
Despite her blossoming friendship with Oliver, Annie is still distressed by the lack of food and the “curtain situation”. Sweeney suggests that a “nice new bob” might cheer her up. He takes her to the bath room to give her a trim but returns alone, saying that Annie has decided to leave the house. Big Brother makes no comment.

Day Eighteen
A new housemate, Mrs Johnstone, is brought in to replace Annie. Possibly literally, as she is pregnant with her 17th child. Dolly immediately tries to fix her up with Henry.

Day Nineteen
Tempers flare as the housemates are asked to participate in a pop group task. Effie is determined to be lead singer, however Eva has different ideas. “I want to be dazzling, they need to adore me” she cries and takes centre stage.

Day Twenty Two
It came as no surprise when Eva and Effie found themselves nominated for eviction. As Effie’s name is called, by Davina, she reacts badly and yells “I’m telling you I’m not going”. Eva merely says “Goodnight, and thank you whoever” as Effie leaves the building.

Day Twenty Three
As a punishment for discussing Jason Robert Brown, Eva and Sweeney are forced to listen to the London cast album of Saturday Night Fever.

Day Twenty Six
Mrs Johnstone nominates for the first time, but she finds it difficult. “Don’t make me choose, they’re a team they go together” she begs. But choose she must.

Day Twenty Nine
Oliver is evicted.

Day Thirty Two
The housemates begin an elocution task. Henry Higgins takes it upon himself to assist everyone else but finds it difficult. “In ‘Ertford. ‘Ereford and ‘Ampshire” begins Eva, and Henry asks “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”.
“Gorgeous!” answers Dolly, “I’m American, Eva’s from Argentina and Maria’s Austrian for heaven’s sake!”
“No I’m not, I’m welsh!” interrupts Maria, “Although occasionally I do feel a little Irish!”

Day Thirty Three
Eva is still bridling from Henry’s rudeness “Just you wait ‘Enry ‘Iggins” she mutters as she enters the diary room to nominate. Later Dolly unwisely tries to smooth things over by suggesting they have a romantic meal for two.

Day Thirty Six
“Wave your little hand and whisper so long dearie, you ain’t gonna see me anymore” says Dolly as she becomes the fifth person to be evicted.

Day Thirty Eight
Mrs Johnstone is accused of being “controlling” for taking over most of the domestic duties in the house. The housemates are particularly upset with her commandeering the shopping list and Maria’s request for schnitzel and noodles falls on deaf ears. Instead they have to endure steak and kidney pies. “These are probably the worst pies in London!” remonstrates Sweeney.

Day Thirty Nine
Mrs Johnstone is trying to eradicate a particularly stubborn red stain from the bathroom floor when Sweeney walks in. “Have you ever considered a peroxide rinse?” he asks. “Like Marilyn Monroe?” replies Mrs J. Sweeney later reports that Mrs Johnstone has left the house.

Day Forty
The Rum Tum Tugger is brought into the house as a replacement for Mrs Johnstone. “What’s new Buenos Aires?” asks Eva. “My dear Eva”, remarks Henry, “I think you may mean pussy cat”

Day Forty One
Henry is evicted from the big brother house.

Day Forty Two
The Rum Tum Tugger is finding it difficult to bond with his new housemates. Could this be because every time someone tries to approach him he runs up the drain pipe and stares at the wall, or perhaps it is his unfortunate habit of “washing” himself.

Day Forty Four
The final task is a music task. Maria tries to teach her other housemates. “Let’s start at the very beginning….Do a deer a female deer.” “Meeow” sings the Rum Tum Tugger, Maria grimaces as Sweeney ominously mutters something under his breath about popping pussies into pies.

Day Forty Five
In an attempt to “bond” with Tugger, Sweeney offers to give his fur “a going over with my clippers.” Eva later asks Sweeney where Tugger has got to. “Surprise midweek eviction” answers Sweeney. Eva suspects that Sweeney has a game plan and takes Maria to one side and warns that there is “evil, ever around!”, strangely Maria answers “Yodeleyeeeeeeeeee”

Day Forty Seven
It’s the penultimate day in the Big Brother house. Big brother calls Eva to the diary room to try to explain how she feels.
“It won’t be easy you’ll think it strange” responds Eva
Next up is Maria –
“My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies from a church on the breeze”
And finally Sweeney
“Well what happened here, well that’s the play and you wouldn’t want me to give it away!”

Day Forty Eight
It’s the last day in the Big Brother house. Eva, Maria and Sweeney are the only remaining housemates as they plan to say so long, farewell. Struggling to find room for the outfit that Maria made Eva asks Big Brother for another suitcase. Maria wistfully muses that her days in the house have come to an end and the lark has come out to tell her it’s time to go. Sweeney begins to pack his belongings but then finds his Carmen rollers and suggests that the ladies might like a new “do” before they leave the house forever……….

Friday, 24 August 2007

Today 4 U Tomorrow 4 Me - 24/8/07

Since I first heard the CD of Rent it has always been a favourite of mine. I even went to an open audition for the original London production believe it or not! I suspect the show itself needs little introduction to you but, for the uninitiated, I present a brief summing up. Basically the story updates La Boheme which told the tale of a group of “artists” as their dealt with the traumas of love, poverty, and disease. Rent relocates the story to late twentieth century Greenwich Village, making some of the story’s couples same sex, and throwing in modern issues such as HIV and drugs. Sadly the shows writer Jonathan Larson died before the official Broadway opening in 1996 (tragically dying of an aortic aneurism during the preview period) so he was not to see the amazing success the show had. It became the show to see, and is still running in New York today where original cast members Adam Pascal and Antony Rapp have recently returned to the roles of Roger and Mark. The show was to prove less successful in London where it initially ran for about 18 months and returned for a short season a couple of years later. However Rent is on its way back.

This time round we are expecting big changes. Due to the early death of Larson very few changes were made during the preview period and subsequent production. Under the helm of (Kylie chum) William Baker we are promised a new look at the piece and (if rumours are correct) it’s relocation to London. I am very intrigued about this as it really is a quintessentially New York piece. However I thought it might be fun to take a (hopefully) humorous look at how the show could be adapted to contemporary London and tackle some of it’s issues.

The story begins on Christmas eve where out of work performers Roger and Mark are working in a call centre selling theatre tickets, worried about how they will pay their rent. They return to their bed sit and wait for their friend Tom Collins. However Collins’ is mugged before he can get to them. Luckily for him a stranger comes to his aid in the guise of Angel – a Kylie Minogue impersonator. Roger is trying to download one great song to his ipod when he is disturbed by a knock on the door. It’s Mimi a teenage lap dancer from Spearmint Rhino, who needs her candle lit to cope with the power cut they are experiencing. Mimi, flirtaciously, is thankful that they at least have the moonlight. Roger suggests it’s not the moon at all “I hear Eastenders is shooting down the street”. Roger manages to get rid of Mimi, and after Mark returns Collins joins them along with Angel who then proceeds to re-enact the video for Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. Mark then finds himself called to the aid of Joanne, current girlfriend of his ex girlfriend Maureen. As he assists her in fixing the PA for Maureen’s performance later that night they argue to a big dance number – The Agadoo Maureen. Meanwhile Mimi attempts to persuade Roger to join her as she gets ready to go Out Tonight to G.A.Y. After he puts her off until Another Day the action segues to a VOTFLSG (Victims of Transport For London Support Group) meeting where the members lament “Will I lose my oyster card, will someone care?”. Collins, Roger and Mark then dream of what they would like to do in the future as they sing “We’ll Open Up a Kebab Shop In Basingstoke”. As the preparations continue for Maureen’s show Collins and Angel declare their love. The scene changes to Oxford Street where a group of hectic Christmas shoppers berate the lack of choice in Marks And Spencer as it begins to snow. So we go to Maureen’s performance. Of course this being London it’s not performance art but it’s a one woman tribute to the songs of Jason Robert Brown. Elated after the performance the cast retire to a local eatery where they celebrate La Vie Boheme and all it’s cultural icons…… “J.K.Rowling, Posh and Beckham too, Jade Goody, me and me, and you and Gee Foo!” Amidst all this cacophony Roger and Mimi share a tender moment when they realise they are both suffering from attention deficit disorder. So ends the first act.

The second act sees great changes in the relationships between the group. Mark had been spotted tap dancing at Maureen’s show and so “sells out” and accepts a job as a hobbit in Lord Of The Rings. Roger and Mimi’s relationship breaks down as they fail to pay each other enough attention and even Maureen and Joanne have problems when they realise that Maureen’s love of show tunes clashes with Joanne’s football fandom. All of their bickering is brought down to earth by the shock death of Angel after a fatal clash with a Britney Spears tribute act. However Angels funeral only temporary calms them all down until they all end up having another big argument. As the show proceeds to its finale Roger returns from a fortnight’s boating on the Norfolk Broads and joins Mark in a rousing song “When you’re living in Kennington, seven years in the millennium”. Mark is sufficiently roused to turn down the hobbit job – particularly when he reads about a new reality TV show to find the next Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly- and Roger returns to the difficult task of finding one great song for his ipod. As the show heads to a close Mimi’s attention has wandered to such a point that, after going missing, she is found doing a circuit of the circle line with a carrier bag full of red bull and a heat magazine with Big Brother’s Charley on the cover – having failed to notice her stop. Joanne and Maureen rescue her and take her to Mark and Rogers bed sit where, gasping for breath, she comes round from her trance saying, “I was in a tunnel, heading for Oxford Circus, And I swear Angel was there and she looked like Dannii, and she said turn around girlfriend and go and listen to Roger’s Ipod”. So our couples are reunited and agree that life goes on and there is “no day but today………” And there we have it!

Of course it’s highly unlikely that any of my suggestions for the adaptation will be taken on board. Come on let’s be honest you have just read a rather large amount of preposterous nonsense and I really wouldn’t like to take anything away from this show that deals with so many important issues, albeit in a fairy tale like way. I am sure that, whatever decisions it’s director makes, this new production of a modern classis will be very interesting with much to enjoy. If you haven’t seen Rent before then definitely try and give it a go this time round! If only to find out what really happens. I am sure you will love it!

Well you have two English language recordings to try, the Broadway original or the soundtrack. Both are great and the principal cast is almost identical. The only real difference is that the movie soundtrack doesn’t have quite all the songs, but the ones that aren’t included are rather superfluous excluding many of the brief phone calls set to music etc that can prove rather grating. Also the movie soundtrack includes a new song – “Love Heals”. The movie itself is great, and I feel improves on the show anyway.

In Closing
No room at the Holiday Inn
Did you go to the cat scratch club?
In a thousand sweet kisses I’ll cover you

Monday, 20 August 2007

Tracks 53-55

53.“Love Don’t Need A Reason” (Malamet/Allen/Callen ) BARBARA COOK
If I didn’t manage to sneak a Barbara Cook track into this project then something would definitely be very wrong with the world! Of all the performers I love (and there are many) there is nobody I have seen perform live as often as Barbara Cook. It must be at least a dozen times, maybe even more. So many of her songs have touched me , and the lyric of this one is very much something I believe in…so it is rightly included here. I thing I will dedicate it to the civil partnership ceremony that my uncle and his partner of many years, Chris, had – as they both love her too. It was a lovely day shared with many of the cast of “The Woman In White”, the friends and their kids. We went on the train from Richmond registery office to a Joe Allen lunch in Covent Garden. Then those of us remaining headed to the Thames to try and spot the whale. Yes it was the day of the Whale in the Thames. The day , at least for me, ended with my first “flight” on the London Eye – by dark!

54.“Theme From Doctor Who”(Grainer)
As a very small child I watched the end of Jon Pertwee’s era of the television show, but then I lost interest when Tom Baker took over. 1981 saw a BBC2 season of stories called “The Five Faces Of Doctor Who”. For some reason I have often become drawn into things just because they are long running, and this was enough to get me watching. For the next three years – throughout Peter Davison’s tenure – I was an avid viewer, and it was only the advent of Saturday jobs and proper jobs that saw my viewing tail off again. I went through a period of getting the odd video in the nieties but then I got UKGOld – a new vintage story each week and it was only a matter of time before I was well and truly who’d out. Then the series returned to our screens a couple of years ago and since then I have become a bit of a Who anorak! I buy the vintage DVDs, the occasional novelisation and even (horror of horrors!) the magazine! Anyway when it came back it was amazing – I find the series takes me on a real emotional journey…and when the cybermen (my favourite villains) were announced as returning I couldn’t believe – only one more thing could top that , Elisabeth Sladen reprising her role as Sarah Jane Smith – then not only did it happen but she was given her own spin off series. True Who Heaven!!!!!

55.“Song For Ten” (Gold) Neil Hannon
I make no apologies for choosing this song from the Who soundtrack (yes I bought that too!) Ostensibly about what it was like for the Doctor on the first day of his regeneration it’s a song that speaks to me of many days I have had. “I Wish today could be just like any other day” now you would think that was because it had been a crap day, but no! “Today has been the best day!” Sometimes we have such amazingly wonderful days, almost always because the people we spend them with, that we want to hold on to them for ever. Lisa and Jon’s wedding, as well as Joe and Nicks and Simon and Chris’s – all great days. My Joe Allen’s birthday brunches of the last few years, holidays in Paris with my mum….even holidays alone in Paris. All times I cherish!

Friday, 17 August 2007

I Feel Pretty And Witty And Gay 17/8

As this week sees the release of a new recording to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story it seems a good time to dip my toes into the world of the Jets and the Sharks. The show is, of course, an updating of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet. For Big Brother’s Brian (“So who is this Shakespeare geezer?”) I should point out that Shakespeare is regarded as Britain’s greatest playwright and he is not a film director or anything else for that matter. Although Brian and Charley really weren’t Romeo and Juliet, it could be said that, the rivalry between Charley and Chanelle was quite often on a par with the Montague and Capulet feud! And maybe Carol for the nurse and Seany as Friar Lawrence? Oh my god! Big Brother is taking over my mind, I am supposed to be talking about West Side Story……

Phew, let’s get back to (un) reality! Originally conceived as East Side Story and dealing with the rivalry between the Jews and the Catholics in New York the show brought together a group of musical theatre’s giants. Book writer Arthur Laurents, producer Harold Prince, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins are all now considered Broadway legends. Also joining them, writing the lyrics, was Stephen Sondheim making his professional debut. Of course by the time the time the musical premiered it had been retitled and the Montagues and Capulets had become the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the more waspy “Jets”. West Side Story was one of the first Broadway musicals to focus on teenagers, with the adults being very much minor characters. From the comedy of Gee, Officer Krupke to the energy of Dance At The Gym, via the touching balcony scene, the show presents a rich portrait of teenage life. Indeed, the subject matter was revolutionary for it’s time and, within the plot and Sondheim’s lyrics, touched upon sex, drugs and lots of violence. As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, much of Romeo And Juliet has resonances with modern life. Likewise, West Side Story, with it’s relocating of the story to fifties New York, with it’s rival gangs, remains very topical today in a year that has seen several gang related deaths in the London area.

After the show opened it became the stuff of legend, the contributions of all it’s collaborators being incredibly innovative. For instance would it have had the same impact without Jerome Robbins’ breathtaking dance? I don’t know. Despite the groundbreaking achievements of West Side Story it was not 1957’s biggest hit, that honour (along with most of the years “Tony” awards) went to the more traditional The Music Man. However, a young Chita Rivera was honoured with an award for Best Featured Actress as the original Anita. It was possibly the 1961 film version of “West Side Story” that cemented the musicals place as one of the all time greats. Featuring Natalie Wood, then a big draw, as Maria (although she and most of the other performers were dubbed by other singers) the film was a resounding success. Even today it’s a truly stunning film. It was actually filmed on the streets of New York, on a number of streets due for demolition, and seeing the choreography of Robbins on those streets is particularly effective, really giving the whole movie an authenticity that adds to it’s impact. Incidentally, a few years later New York's Lincoln Centre rose from those avenues that had seen the Sharks and Jets fighting on them previously. So the streets that echoed with the sounds of one of the world's greatest musicals now echo with the best of the performing arts at this prestigious venue.

Of course I haven’t really mentioned the music yet. The demanding score features many songs that have become very well known such as Tonight, Something’s Coming and I Feel Pretty. Other highlights include the musical duel that is America and the anthemic Somewhere. The score has become much loved over the past fifty years and thanks to it’s great vocal demands is often performed by opera singers. It’s for this reason that many of its recordings feature well known, yet miscast, names from the opera. In fact when Bernstein himself conducted a recording of the show he chose Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa to lead the cast. Naturally they sang it beautifully, however they both sounded far too old and Carreras’ heavy Spanish accent made him sound more like a Shark than a Jet! Bernstein’s music also lends itself particularly well to Jazz so when acclaimed jazz musician Dave Grusin recorded an album with many of his contemporaries (and Gloria Estefan) it came as little surprise. However opera performers do seem to dominate new recordings and the fiftieth anniversary recording is no exception. As Maria, the light soprano of Hayley Westenra is very effective and it’s refreshing to hear a performer of the right kind of age in the role. Vittorio Grigolo has a beautiful tenor and sings wonderfully, however he does sound a little too old to play Tony and sounds far too Latin, like Jose Carreras. Even though the score sounds better than ever in this new recording I would relish the opportunity to hear it performed by more theatrical, rather than operatic, singers. Happily, the supporting players do sing the roles more like you would expect to hear them on West End or Broadway stage, in fact our very own Connie Fisher gets to sing the solo Somewhere. Connie does a great job on the track, it’s a very individual take on the iconic number and in places it is very moving.

It’s almost ten years since West Side last played in London but I would hope that it’s a show that will return to the West End at some point in the coming years. Iconic as the original production was, it’s a show that is ripe for re-interpretation and it would be nice to see it done with a new vision… direction, choreography, sets and even orchestrations….after all they were brave enough to try it with Oklahoma!

Now back to what I was saying….Gerry could be considered a bit like Tybalt but……

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad recording of West Side Story from the original Broadway Cast to this brand new one they all have their merits. As well as the versions I have mentioned, several songs were recorded by German tenor Peter Hoffman and his American wife Deborah Sasson on the album “Bernstein On Broadway” which often turn up on Bernstein compilations these days. These are probably my personal favourites. Ten years ago an album called Songs From West Side Story was released with an eclectic group of pop and country stars including Natalie Cole, Trisha Yearwood, Aretha Franklin and even Little Richard. It’s a different and unusual take with differing results which only serves to illustrate the versatility of Bernstein’s work. Around the same time the Pet Shop Boys released a very different version of “Somewhere” too. Of course the movie is fantastic so the film soundtrack is always going to be worthwhile, but you could do a lot worse than buy the new recording. The orchestra sounds fantastic!

In closing
Only you, you’re the only one for me
You are psychologically sick
So smoke on your pipe and put that in