Believe it or not the fourth of April marks the first anniversary of my writing this column. I am not going to bore you with a retrospective look at the last year however – I think I did that at Christmas so that’s done and dusted. But what of the next year? What do I have in store for you?
Well this may quite possibly be one of my last “regular” columns for a few weeks as my page is about to be overtaken by something called The Inspirations Project , I am not going to reveal what all this is about quite just yet, but I am optimistic that the pieces will all come together very soon and then you will find out! Before this project launches I thought I would kind of take a look at my own inspirations – or at least what the contributing factors towards my love affair with musical theatre have been.
So lets go back three decades. There I am eight years of age. 1977. No lets go a little further back still. Maybe 1975-1976? It was probably around this time that I first saw the classic movie The Wizard Of Oz beloved of many generations of children. I am sure there are many of us who loved this film as a child and believe me I was completely under it’s spell. Around the same time my Uncle was beginning his career as a singer/actor so I was often taken to see him in shows, largely at the Players Theatre. Now for a precocious child who loved being in the school play ( I was a monkey once upon a time and also a Palestinian pig farmer – don’t ask!) The Players was great, you got a song sheet and had to join in with all the choruses. Allegedly I was always singing louder than anyone else and the audience were all looking at me. I think this is more a case of me embarrassing my family, but who am I to argue? So sporadically over the next few years I was taken to see various shows he was in. It was a great thrill meeting Sheila Steafel (who was well known at the time for The Ghosts Of Motley Hall) and Anita Harris was lovely when I saw her in Robinson Crusoe. She even gave me a box of chocolates and a copy of her single from the pantomime, Hello Sailor. So I was used to seeing shows from a young age, Joseph and Calamity Jane both played their part too but I think its fair to say that biggest factor in my passion for a good show was Evita . As I mentioned many months ago hearing that LP, in its big shiny silver sleeve had a great effect on me. Even then I think it was the lyrics that made a huge impact on me. Tim Rice’s lyrics were just so witty, and combined with some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best melodies they made for a beguiling combination.
The following years saw me tentatively explore the odd show and also work in theatre for the first time, Little Shop Of Horrors made an impact as did On Your Toes, but it was the album of Chess that really grabbed me. I loved almost everything about it and couldn’t wait to see it live on stage. When I did see it I really wasn’t disappointed either. I know the show was flawed in many ways but the music was amazing, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Around the same time Elaine Paige’s Stages album came out and Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album followed soon after. Both of these albums introduced me to shows I had never previously heard of such as Nine and Dreamgirls but most of all (along with the movie of West Side Story) they made me aware of the work of Stephen Sondheim for the first time. The songs featured on these albums really struck a chord with me, and when the BBC showed their documentary based around Follies In Concert this compounded my love of Sondheim and I have been lucky enough to see productions of almost all of his shows over the years.
It was because of the Follies TV show that I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see one of it’s stars, Barbara Cook, when she played the Donmar Warehouse in 1986. She really didn’t have the kind of voice I appreciated at that age, but there was something about seeing her live that made me a huge fan. Somehow she seemed to be able to perform any kind of song and make it her own – indeed she still does! I have seen Miss Cook in concert possibly around 13 or 14 times, and whether she is singing the songs of the Disney movies or the works of Sondheim she never disappoints.
Since moving to London and coming to work for Stoll Moss in 1987 I have been lucky enough to see some amazing performances in some wonderful shows. I suppose I may as well start with the Sondheim shows as there have been so many of them that have been amongst my highlights. Follies at the Shaftesbury was amazing , Diana Rigg’s Phyliss Stone was marvellous and Eartha Kitt’s rendition of I’m Still Here was ridiculous and fabulous all at the same time. Into The Woods at the Phoenix was a marvellous experience although made a little difficult to watch thanks to the poignant of lyrics in No More which seemed to reflect the relationship I had with my then recently dead father. One of the greatest moments I have ever enjoyed in theatre was when Judi Dench sat on a bed made of red roses in A Little Night Music and gave a master class in both acting and singing when she performed Send In The Clowns. It was only a couple of years before this that I saw Sweeney Todd at the same theatre with a revelatory Julia McKenzie as Mrs Lovett. The Donmar productions of Company, Assassins, Pacific Overtures and Into The Woods were definite highlights but it was their production of Merrily We Roll Along that was particularly memorable. I think there were around fourteen of us and we followed the show by going to eat at Joe Allen’s. At the next table was Maria Friedman and as we left she stopped us to ask if we were the cast of Merrily. Hilarious! My first experience of Merrily was in 1988 when I saw a concert presentation at the Shaftesbury when it was followed by a concert of Sondheim’s songs and I will never forget Dame Edna singing The Ladies Who Lunch. Bringing the Sondheim shows right up to date, last years Sunday In The Park With George is really as good as theatre gets and one of the best recent examples of marrying master story telling with modern technology.
OK, so non Sondheim highlights? Guys And Dolls at the National was just amazing and, as previously documented, Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat made my Grandpa wave his walking stick in the air with excitement . Taking my little brother to see Crazy For You and witnessing him trying to tap dance on the bus home was also funny. Working front of house on La Cage Aux Folles I had the privilege of enjoying George Hearn sing I Am What I Am many times. Jesus Christ Spuerstar at the Lyceum and the astonishing voice of Steve Balsamo as he sang Gethsemane was another highlight. I watched it from the onstage seating and was a little distracted that one of the disciples was wearing CK One, and that Mary Magdalene kept pinching other performers bums but this did not detract from the overall enjoyment. Bizarrely I saw the show during the week of Princess Diana’s death and some of the lyrics – particularly those to Heaven On Their Minds were very similar to what the press was saying about Diana – it really did add a surreal edge to the show. I have seen Rent several times in the west end and was always blown away by Jesse L.Martin’s performance as Tom Collins. I remember seeing it the night before he left and, even though he was always amazing on this night, he seemed to give it an extra 300 percent as he sang the reprise of I’ll Cover You - truly inspiring. Billy Elliot should get a special mention as one of the best things I have ever seen – inspiring and moving at every level. The same goes for Ragtime. The late lamented Bridewell also offered some great shows such as Michael John La Chiusa’s Hello Again and the wonderful Is There Life After High School which I just didn’t want to end. A special mention should also go their promenade production of Sweeney Todd, I went with David Dolman and James Maddison. Poor James seemed truly frightened by some of the murders happening practically at our feet and at one point David seemed to get trapped in the middle of the performance area as he was ran at from each and every direction by performers yelling city on fire !!!!!!!!
I have also been lucky enough to see some amazing performers over the years. As well as Barbara Cook I have seen Barbra Streisand in concert when she was at Wembley in the nineties. There was really something magical about seeing her performing Evergreen and The Way We Were. Seeing Liza Minnelli live two nights running, when she really was at the top of her game, is possibly the most exciting theatrical performance I have ever experienced. Also particularly memorable, and the most moving concert I have ever attended, was Petula Clark at the Palladium. Witnessing the sound check and having my own private rendition of Who Am I? Was really cool. The Donmar Warehouse used to present a Show People (or later Divas At The Donmar) season and I saw some great performers there. Betty Buckley’s marvellous one woman show and Liz Callaway’s rousing Sibling Revelry Sister Act with jazz/cabaret icon Ann Hampton Callaway. I remember seeing the late Elisabeth Welch as she sang songs that had been written for her by Cole Porter and Noel Coward and told us tales of legends like Paul Robeson and Gertrude Lawrence. Speaking of Gertrude Lawrence I also saw Welch perform at Drury Lane in a concert version of Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant(originally starring Lawrence) where I was blown away by the performance of Maureen McGovern Then of course, working in the theatre, sometimes there are quite magical moments that happen away from the eyes of the public. Hearing the band call for The King And I really gave me chills for instance, and sometimes observing rehearsals can be really exciting too. Seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fly for the first time in a technical run through was also breathtaking.
So that’s more or less the highlights of my last thirty (that can’t be right surely?) years of theatre going. I am sure there are many highlights I have left out – can I count hearing Anthony Warlow’s voice on record for the first time? Maybe not. There are also the fair share of lowlights too, Fantine falling off her bed after dying the first time I saw Les Miserables, a nameless actress fluffing I’m Still Here in a production of Follies and Nite Club Confidential??? Let’s not talk about Nite Club Confidential!!!! Well, that aside, one thing is certain. I will continue having memorable experiences in the theatre. I will laugh, I will cry (well I won’t really – I never cry in public!) and will enjoy experiences that will stay with me for a long long time. In the words of Ira Gershwin Who Could Ask For Anything More?
Just one! Go to the theatre!