Saturday, 26 May 2007

Perpetual Anticipation

Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing. Well yes, I expect it is. Its often said that Scandinavia’s long summer days can drive people mad with there being so few hours of darkness. Not necessarily the most obvious choice of subject matter for a musical, but as suggested by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles Of A Summer Night this did indeed become the subject matter for Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 Broadway musical A Little Night Music.

Liaisons what happened to them?

Described by its producer/director, Harold Prince, as “Whipped cream with knives” A Little Night Music is set somewhere around the turn of the last century in Sweden. It tells the story of amoral actress Desiree Armfeldt, her paramours and their spouses. As a well known actress Desiree was often off touring so was not able to spend much time with her daughter Frederika who was left in the charge of her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, an aging courtesan. Desiree’s current beau was the Count Carl Magnus Malcolm who was married to the acerbic Charlotte. Now Charlotte was an acquaintance of Anne the new young wife of Fredrik Egerman, former lover of Ms Armfeldt. Along with Petra the maid and Henrik, Fredriks son this more or less takes care of the entire cast. Of course we do also have the novel addition of a vocal quintet often described as the Liebeslieder which comment musically on the action as a kind of Scandinavian Greek chorus as it were.

Is Hans Christian Anderson ever risqué?

It is in fact the quintet who launch the proceedings as they begin a sung overture which starts with them doing vocal exercises – in the manner of an orchestra tuning up – and flows into Night Waltz as the stage is filled by elegant couples dancing and giving a hint of the romantic twists and turns ahead. Madame Armfeldt then takes the stage with her granddaughter Fredrika, informing her that the summer night does indeed smile three times. “The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second at the fools, who know too little, like Desiree. And the third at the old, who know too much – like me!” The action then turns to the Egerman house as Fredrik, a lawyer, laments his woes at Now being married to a virgin. His son then makes a clumsy pass at Petra the maid, who tells him he may have the knack Later, and Anne promises that Soon she will be a true wife to Fredrik. The first appearance of Desiree occurs as she sings of The Glamorous Life that she leads in the theatre whilst Madame Armfeldt and Fredrika offer some rather bitter ripostes! That evening Fredrik takes Anne to the theatre where he is spotted in the audience by Desiree. Fredrik makes his excuses and seeks out Desiree’s digs where they have a bittersweet reunion after over a decade, and he advises her You Must Meet My Wife which judging from her rather dry response is not an opportunity she relishes. Interrupted (in flagrante) by her current beau, the dragoon, Carl-Magnus, they concoct a rather dubious story about Fredrik bringing some legal papers for her to sign and him falling into the bath! Carl-Magnus sends Fredrik away in his underwear and seriously doubts the story he has been told (In Praise Of Women) . The next morning Carl-Magnus sends his wife, Charlotte, to visit Anne and inform her of Fredrik’s adultery (Every Day A Little Death) Desiree then pays a long overdue visit to her mothers estate and begins to plan A Weekend In The Country with guests, the Egermans, and gate crashers, the Malcolms, also in attendance.

A weekend in the country, how amusing, how delightfully droll

As the curtain goes up on the second act , the guests arrive for the weekends shenanigans. There is the inevitable stand off between Egerman and Malcolm (It Would Have Been Wonderful) and a lavish dinner that ends in an argument and Henrik’s angry departure from the dinner table. As Anne and Fredrika begin to search for Henrik, Fredrik visits Desiree in her boudoir where she reveals that she hopes to rekindle their romance. Fredrik however is unwilling to give up his young bride and leaves Desiree contemplating that it’s a case of bad timing etc – Send In The Clowns. Without giving away the denouement, as the summer night finally draws to a close many more twists and turns occur - duels, unexpected couplings, flings, and more - before Madame Armfeldt tells Fredrika that the night has indeed smiled twice – for the young and for the fools - as the lovers waltz one last time and the night smiles for it’s third and last time.

Love takes time, entirely too much yet sublime

It’s often quoted that the score of A Little Night Music is entirely in ¾ (Waltz) time, but Sondheim himself is quick to correct this. Without a doubt though this show possibly does contain more waltzes than any other as the vocal quintet comment on the action, in song, many times during the evening. Certainly it is hard to find a more elegant sequence of songs in musical theatre as variations on love and romance colour almost every song. Chief amongst the scores highlights must be Sondheim’s most well known song – Send in The Clowns – written for original leading lady Glynis Johns. Ms Johns was not noted for her great vocal range so the song was written, according to legend, in the course of one evening when it was decided that despite her vocal limitations she did need a big number. A Weekend In The Country, with its tongue twisting lyrics, must count as one of the most rousing act one closers ever to be performed, and the wit of the lyrics throughout the show very much contain the “whipped cream and knives” that Prince described. Although less crucial to the main plot there are two further numbers that deserve very special mention. Firstly we have Madame Armfeldt as she reminisces on the Liaisons she enjoyed as a courtesan, and bemoans the lack of romance in contemporary society. Also, at eleven o’clock, we have Petra, the maid, fresh from a nocturnal assignation where she ponders the kind of man she may end, up with touching on everyone from The Millers Son to the Prince Of Wales.

Hi-ho the glamorous life?

The book to the show was written by Hugh Wheeler, and is perfectly in tune with the textures of the remarkable score. Along with the orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, and stunning sets by Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz’ costume designs, the original Broadway run had all the elements that make for a great evening at the theatre. Opening at the Shubert Theatre in February 1973, A Little Night Music enjoyed the best reception so far for a Sondheim/Prince collaboration and enjoyed a successful run of 601 performances. Along with Glynis Johns the cast also featured the indefatigable Hermione Gingold (possibly best known for the film Gigi) as Madame Armfeldt, future “Sweeney Todd” Len Cariou as Fredrik and Laurence Guittard as the Count.

The hands on the clock turn, but don’t sing a nocturne just yet

It was two years later, in April 1975 that the Adelphi Theatre housed the London production of A Little Night Music. British born Hollywood star Jean Simmons lead the cast as Desiree and was joined by Broadways Madame Armfeldt, Hermione Gingold. Joss Ackland played Fredrik and also amongst the cast were well known names Liz Robertson, Maria Aitken and David Kernan. In the role of Petra was, rising star, Diane Langton. In the late eighties I was lucky enough to see Ms Langton reprise her stunning version of The Millers Son in a charity concert – and, for me, her rendition will always be definitive. 1978 saw the some what misconceived film version of the show. Many of the songs, including the show stopping Liaisons were excised from the score, and The Glamorous Life was totally rewritten as a gorgeous solo for Fredrika. Strangely the location for the story was transferred to Vienna, but the film did retain three of its original cast with Cariou, Gingold and Guittard. As Desiree was the, miscast, Elizabeth Taylor. Whilst as an actress her casting may seem spot on she didn’t manage to accomplish the style of either Glynis Johns or Jean Simmons vocally. The one performance that was a real highlight of this film – and indeed in itself is good reason for seeking it out – was Diana Rigg as the Countess. Bringing a cool brittle aloofness to the picture she makes Every Day A Little Death the films best moment for me.

I admit she’s endearing what’s one small shortcoming

Although never revived on Broadway the show has received two productions by the New York City Opera in 1990 and 2003 , the latter production featuring Juliet Stevenson, Jeremy Irons and Claire Bloom. There have been two major revivals in the West End both of which I have been lucky enough to see. Approximately fifteen years after its London debut a “chamber” version of the show with scaled down orchestrations played at the Piccadilly Theatre. The cast was lead by the late Dorothy Tutin as Desiree and featured Eric Flynn, Peter McEnery, an excellent Susan Hampshire as Charlotte Malcolm and a young Alexander Hanson as Henrik. However, it was in 1995 at the South Bank’s National Theatre that A Little Night Music enjoyed a critically lauded production. Dame Judi Dench was sublime as Desiree Armfeldt and her rendition of Send In The Clowns will always remain one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed and heard in the theatre. Almost everything about the production was exquisite, the sets, the lighting, the choreography…..for me the only jarring moment was The Glamorous Life which (misguidedly) combined both the film and stage versions and frankly was a bit of a mess. This aside it truly was magnificent and as well as leading to a well deserved Olivier Award for Dench it had an outstanding cast. As Henrik was, the Broadway and movie Carl-Magnus, Laurence Guittard – married to a perfectly annoying (for that is how she should be!) Joanna Riding. Sian Phillips was a convincing Madame Armfeldt despite being far too young, and Patricia Hodge brought all the right qualities to Charlotte opposite French actor Lambert Wilson’s dragoon! Around the same time a full radio production of the show was mounted on BBC2 starring Betty Buckley and Keith Michell in the principal roles.

So the summer night has smiled three times on London, and once on Broadway – but I am sure it’s only a matter of time before it smiles again on this further essential musical.

To my knowledge there are five English language recordings of the score and I believe there has also been a Spanish one! The definitive one, for me, has to be the 1995 London Revival with Judi Dench which (with the exception of The Glamorous Life) is a stunning recreation of the score. However this was only in print for a short time and when it turns up on ebay it goes for over a hundred pounds so unless you already possess it then its pretty hard to get hold of! I haven’t heard the Spanish version of the show and the film is yet to get a cd release, but the Broadway version was beautifully re-mastered a decade ago and preserves a wonderful cast. Although not quite Judi Dench, Glynis Johns is excellent as Desiree and you also get the incomparable Gingold and the great voices of Cariou and Guittard. Soon is not generally considered one of the best numbers in the show but Victoria Mallory’s soaring performance of the number is absolutely stunning. This recording does also contain the bonus of the film version of The Glamorous Life. The 1975 London cast recording is a little disappointing, as Simmons lacks what Dench and Johns brought to the role, but Langton’s The Millers Son makes up for it. The earlier London revival lacks a cast recording but TER did record an album featuring some of the cast including Flynn and Hampshire. Of interest for this recording are, a future Madame Armfeldt, Sian Phillips as Desiree, Maria Friedman as Petra and the legendary Elisabeth Welch as a more delicate matriarch who makes Liaisons a touching showstopper.

P.S. For the very brave a region one DVD of the movie is released soon!

Friday, 18 May 2007

The Inspirations Project part 3

Matt Harrop as Riff Raff/Susan Egan As Sally Bowles (with Michael Hall)

“Discipline, Trust, Focus, Honesty, Passion, Being, Experiencing the birthing process of a theatrical living organism every night, Joy. Despair, Joy, again. The air we breathe.”

So Says Maureen McGovern as she describes what musical theatre means to her, and we begin the final instalment of The Inspirations Project (for now!)

After looking at the musicals that first got them interested in theatre, and then the performers and performances that inspired them later on we now move on to our groups own careers.

When we look at people who have inspired us it can quite often be those who we see from the audience, but for a performer it can often be someone with whom they share the stage.

Caroline Sheen” I have always thought Jenna Russell was the sort of actress I wanted to be. Her ability to create a sympathetic, lovable and moving character is brilliant. I worked with her at the Donmar (Warehouse) when I had only recently left college and she taught me so much. I am so pleased for her finally getting the appreciation she has deserved for so long. (Jenna Russell recently won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress In A Musical for the role of Dot/Marie in “Sunday In The Park With George”) She’s a top girl too!!!”

Maureen McGovern “George Rose was my theatre mentor. George played my papa, Major Stanley, in “Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway. He was extremely supportive to me as an actor and came to many of my concert performances as well. “

Susan Egan” Once I started working in the theatre I found inspiration in folks like Tommy Tune, Gary Beach, Beth Fowler, Fred Applegate and others. Folks who are immensely talented ... and also kind and enthusiastic about the art form. Many people become bitter, or are difficult to work with, or have forgotten why they entered the business in the first place. Not these ... they are joyous people, and it shows in their performances.”

Caroline “I have been very lucky to work with a lot of the top names in musical theatre – but I will always have the biggest soft spot for a certain Mr Michael Ball. He has the most incredible singing voice – instantly identifiable, and when he hits those ‘money’ notes it’s spine tingling. Working with him (on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) was one of the funniest experiences of my life and I often do concerts with him now. He’s a great company leader and a fabulous leading man.”

Of course Maureen McGovern’s career has taken her into many other fields beside musical theatre so it’s unsurprising that a major influence on her was legendary vocalist Mel Torme.
Maureen “I have been a fan of Mel Torme since I was a teenager. What a thrill it was to not only work with Mel and share his friendship, but to have him as my mentor for most of my career. He was one of the greatest singers to ever grace this planet...a lesson in every breath.”

As I ask our septet to look to their own careers it only seems right that I should ask them if they have had any particular favourite roles.

Anne Kerry Ford “It was great fun being Grace Farrell in "Annie" on Broadway when I was only twenty-four. What could be better than being in a great musical with sold-out houses, a wonderful cast, your own dressing room, and your name on the marquee? Plus, I got to work with the wonderful choreographer, Peter Gennero.”

Susan “I enjoyed "Belle" (In “Beauty And The Beast”) simply because it allowed me to connect with so many children -- people now grown who still hold the memory of that show in their hearts. Sounds corny, but it's true. But professionally, I enjoyed Sally Bowles in “Cabare”t the most, because the production (directed by Sam Mendes) was exquisite. The character is tragic, but she doesn't know it. The time period resonates. I love the play and I loved that cast.”

Maureen mentions three roles that she particularly enjoyed “The Countess Aurelia: “Dear World” -- Jerry Herman's gorgeous musical version of “The Madwoman Of Chaillot.” Philip Himberg directed me in his production for the Sundance Theatre Institute. His belief in me, his artistic integrity and his compassion and creativity as a director made for a completely joyous stretch for me as an actor. I loved playing Aurelia. Eleanor Bridges: Paris Barclay's “Letters From ‘Nam.” To portray the actual mother of an American soldier in Viet Nam, whose young life was needlessly taken in a senseless war was humbling and heartbreaking to me. To honour the strength and courage of the families and the soldiers, who witnessed unspeakable horror and were expected to mainstream back into society with precious little help and mostly contempt from the country that sent them, was a wrong that needed to be righted. This wonderful healing piece of theatre celebrates life amid the inhumanity and futility of all war. Marmee: “ Little Women, The Musical.” It was a joy to return to Broadway as the matriarch of the legendary March family from Concord. I was re-united with my very first theatre director, Susan H. Schulman and was blessed to have exquisite songs to sing by Mindy Dickstein and Jason Howland”

With the works of Stephen Sondheim having cropped up so often in this piece it’s not surprising that both DC Anderson and Caroline Sheen particularly enjoyed working on his shows.

D.C “Buddy in” Follies” I like Buddy and Sally's story - their relationship as it's exposed in song...”

Caroline “(It) would have to be playing Philia in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” at The National. She was so ridiculously dumb and funny. A Brilliantly written character and I used my native Welsh accent for it which was an extra bonus as I am very proud of being Welsh!”

Matt Harrop “I think having been in the business for 10 years, I have been lucky, but not as lucky as I have been in the last 8/9 months... I have a brilliant agent, and having landed the role of Riff Raff in “Rocky Horror Show” has been a real eye opener... So I would have to say that this part has given me the most enjoyment as it is my first big role, and the atmosphere on a Friday/Saturday night on this show is ELECTRIC!! And I love every moment of it...”

As the least experienced of our collaborators AJ O’Neill has less roles to choose from but has found things to enjoy none the less “With my heady experience of.. well two shows since college, I enjoyed playing Man 1 in “Songs For A New World” in Ireland because I got to sing some of my all time favourite songs. In “Chicago” it's not any particular role I enjoy but the challenge of doing different ones.

For Matt too his early roles made their mark! “I have to mention the beast that is “Les Miserables”, my first job and a show that I have a great love for... And I loved playing Grantaire , the drunken student, a lovely small dramatic part....”

Since, initially, asking this question AJ has performed in a leading role on the West End stage for the first time as Amos Hart in “Chicago” so I felt it only pertinent to ask him for a few words on this experience. “I had been looking forward to eventually playing Amos for a very long time but when I finally had the chance, I was more scared of screwing it up because I had been looking forward to it for so long than screwing it up because I didn't know what I was doing. It was the fear of doing something you know so backwards that you might be overconfident with it and mess up because of that. But it went great, and I really REALLY enjoyed being the centre of attention (shocking I know) and I am looking forward to doing more lead roles if they ever let me again. Preferably Amos not Mary Sunshine.. though that was a singular experience. I'm looking forward to playing Jamie in the Irish premiere of “The Last Five Years” but at the moment it's only a pipe dream. Have to have some time off first. But it would be a great follow-up to playing Man 1 in “Songs for a New World.””

Having established their past highlights I was curious to see what roles they would like to play in the future and who their dream co-star might be. I wasn’t particularly surprised with their answers though as so many of the shows – and indeed performers – have already been mentioned.

It seems that Anne would like to follow in the footsteps of her co-star from “The Threepenny Opera” – a certain Maureen McGovern when she says “I would love to play Anna in” The King and I” with anyone capable of inhabiting the role of the king! (All offers will be considered)” and DC chose “Sweeney Todd” as the demon barber himself, along side Victoria Clark.

And in my opinion Caroline would be the perfect choice for her own dream role when she requests “Clara in “The Light In The Piazza” opposite Hugh Jackman please!”

And for Maureen we have a non musical dream role (or maybe a musical yet to be written?) when she offers “”The Lion In Winter” with Russell still my heart!”

Hmmm I make that two Australian hunks as co-stars!

AJ “Dream role?, at the mo, Princeton/Rod in “Avenue Q”. Or “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Oh ambition... Dream co-star is blatantly Joanna Lumley. Met her before working on a movie and was actually star struck. And she hugged me. So clearly we'd work well together.”

Hmm I don’t know about you but I can’t quite imagine Joanna Lumley as Lucy The Slut!

Matt “Heh, I don’t have a dream role really.... I want to be a good actor, and be adaptable, and let people find roles that I can do, I never thought I would be Riff Raff for example, but I hope I am doing a good job!”

Susan” I like new shows, originating a role and being allowed to collaborate with the writers, so my dream role has yet to be written! I'd love to work with Gary Beach in anything. Meryl Streep would be a dream come true - I admire her greatly. Anthony Hopkins is a favorite as well.”

Matt “Ok, if you push me, I would love to go back to “Les Miserables” as Javert one day.....”

Many musical theatre performers have parallel careers as concert and cabaret artists so I also asked how much musical theatre informs this work.

Anne “ It is completely the same thing for me. The lyric is a script. Of course, in a concert, you are singing the song out of the context of the show, so you may have to "set up" the song to the audience so that it makes sense. But singing the actual song, there is no difference. I am always acting the lyrics. In cabaret rooms, it is the same, except in smaller venues I may have to play more "extreme close-up" and bring the emotions to a more subtle level to be effective.”

Maureen “As a singer, I approach a song as a musical conversation. In theatre, we are story tellers. So, my concerts have given me an ease, an at-home feeling on stage, while theatre has taught me to trust the material and tell the story.”

DC “I think they feed each other. As a cabaret performer I am in the habit of telling stories with song as myself, I am comfortable in my own skin in front of an audience. As a musical theatre actor I am in the habit of entering another's world and telling their stories through dialogue and song, filtered through either my own experience or a combination of my experience and imagination”

AJ” I try not to be too cartoony in my musical theatre work and try and bring whatever realism I use in my MT work to my cabaret and concert work.”

Susan believes it informs her cabaret work “ in as much as it's where I draw the music from -- but my cabaret work is based on my life experiences -- I simply find songs in the musical theatre world that describe those personal experiences best -- they may not be from shows I've actually done.”

Susan’s answer leads neatly into a further question, when I asked if there were any songs that had particular meaning either personally or professionally. For Maureen it was “The Music And The Mirror” as she mentioned in an earlier question, and Caroline selected a song from “The Light In The Piazza.”

Susan “I always loved “Patterns” from “Baby” -- rather sad, but beautiful -- about a woman wondering how her life became what it is. I think Sondheim hits the core with “Children Will Listen.””

Anne “I love the song “Move On” from Sondheim's “ Sunday in the Park with George” because it totally sums up an artist's journey. I also think Sondheim articulated the pain and fear and trepidation of love and loneliness in the song “Being Alive” probably better than any other song I have ever heard. It is a joy to sing” Being Alive” because it is such a TRUE song. (By the way, I think Sondheim had so much guts to call a song, Being Alive! That's a pretty big topic, isn't it? And he completely nailed it!)

DC - “You Don't Know This Man” from “Parade” (by Jason Robert Brown) - a concise, perfect example of true dedication and devotion to a life partner “

Matt “Mmm a song.... Well I can definitely say that a composer I love is Jason Robert Brown, and the song I love of his at the moment is called,” What It Means To Be A Friend”, pure and simple genius! From his new musical, “13”, it’s a child's view of what friendship is, and although it is deliberately naive, written from a 13 year olds point of view, I think it pretty much sums up what friendship is all about.. and maybe love!”

AJ -“” Why” from” Tick Tick Boom” (by Jonathan Larson) . Whenever things are shit I think what would I rather be doing, and in the end it comes down to... I'd not prefer to be doing anything else. This is me, for better of worse, for the time being. It's good to admit to yourself that you are who you are, regardless of if you're in the mood to be you.”

But what if he, and all the others, were doing something else? What do they think they would be doing?

AJ “Probably journalism. I got into a course but went to dance college instead. I've always had an interest in journalism anyway, I figure I may do it later with a theatre slant. If I remember how to type!”

Maureen “A Photographic Journalist!”

Anne “Gosh, I don't know. Writing for a travel magazine would be fun. Coaching actors for auditions? Raising border collies, perhaps? Or I might make a good stylist.”

Matt “Erm, maybe teaching... I did want to be one when I was younger...”

Susan “Research science.”

DC “I would love to be a casting director - I love the theatre and I love actors and singers and am thrilled when I see the successful melding of an actor/singers talent and a role”

Caroline “Crying!”

Without a doubt, whatever the future holds, musical theatre will play a big part for my interviewees. So I asked them to sum up what musical theatre means to them. The results ranged from the poetic to the pragmatic. Interestingly the British were pragmatic but the Americans were poetic which provided me with some wonderful copy to begin each of these three parts. So we have already heard from Anne Kerry Ford, Susan Egan and Maureen McGovern on this question but it’s time to hear from everyone else!

AJ “I have devalued it slightly through college - I used to think it was the be-all and end-all, and college made me realise that it's a job like any other. Well, not like ANY other, but it's important to know that it's a job. When it's stressful, and it's usually stressful, it's important to remember that there's more important things in the world. Like... most things. :-)”

DC “ It's a combination of all that I love - all that moves me - music, movement, story-telling”

Matt “ Oh Lord! Easy Question! To me, it means so much, my life has been defined by it, and sometimes it drives me absolutely crazy.... Well that’s the business side of it I guess, and the trials that producers and casting directors put us poor actors through! But I couldn't not have musical theatre in my life, I drive my friends crazy cause I still play musical theatre tunes all the time, and have playlists dedicated to it on my Ipod!”

But maybe Caroline finds the perfect balance between pragmaticism and poeticism when she says “Energy, excitement, fun and hard work!”

Well that’s almost it, but as AJ is just starting out I thought it only fair that I should ask our more seasoned performers what words of wisdom they may be able to offer him.

DC “Enjoy yourself - know the story and dedicate yourself fully to telling your part of it every night - avoid any temptation to leave the world of the play for your own or your cast mates' entertainment.”

Anne “Work as hard as you possibly can on your craft EVERY single time you go out onstage. It keeps the work fresh and keeps you from getting bored in a long run. Also, be nice to absolutely everybody, always be on time, and have fun. You have earned the right to have lots of fun.”

Susan “Don't get caught up in the politics or dramas backstage -- keep your joy and focus on the performance and the audience. It's easy to become submerged in other people's energy, especially if it is negative -- and there are plenty of those folks in the business. I find that staying light keeps me happy, focused, working at my highest level ... and you can help create a marvelous environment for your coworkers. This is not brain surgery -- we have to keep our senses of humour! AND don't believe your own press! The rave reviews or the horrible ones -- disregard them all.”

Caroline “Enjoy yourself, have fun, be disciplined – but above all don’t take yourself too seriously “

Matt “I wouldn't presume to know anything, except to say enjoy it, try not to stay in one show forever, move on and find more challenges for yourself after getting everything you can out of your present job..”

Maureen “Remember to BREATHE! I frequently tell this to myself when working on any new role.”

Now I inadvertently sent this question to AJ himself who, humorously, offered himself the following advice! “Always wear a clean jockstrap, you never know when you'll be hit by a bus. Or a flying female chorus member.”

And Matt actually asks AJ “Could he teach me how to do the splits?”

Well some questions it seems are to remain forever unanswered! All that remains are our customary handy household hints, and for me to say a few words of thanks. I am sure all of my readers will wish to thank AJ O’Neill, Matt Harrop, Caroline Sheen, DC Anderson, Anne Kerry Ford, Maureen McGovern and last but not least Susan Egan. How on earth she found time to answer my emails while caring for a two month old baby is beyond me! Hopefully, however, this is not the end of The Inspirations Project and it is just the beginning. My intention is to get together a much larger group of performers and see where their input leads me. So watch this space!

But In the Meantime………

Susan “Get rid of as much as you can! Donate or throw away things on a regular basis -- keeps your home from becoming deluged and it keeps new things coming in -- creates a great flow!”

AJ “The recycling bin doesn't smell. That's how you know the difference. In case you're so stupid you can't notice from first glance. This is at me, not anyone else.”

Thursday, 10 May 2007

The Inspirations Project Part Two!

“It's a vehicle to communicate. It might be a way to make someone forget their worries, laugh and hum a few bars. It might be a way to get someone to think about an issue. You can do things and say things with music and dance that you can't say with text alone”. (Susan Egan)

Last week we touched upon the shows and performers that first got our contributors interested in musical theatre. As we enter our second week of The Inspirations Project we look at who, in the theatre world, has influenced them and the theatrical experiences that have most moved them as members of the audience.

To begin I simply asked which performers they have drawn inspiration from

DC Anderson responded equally simply, “Patty Duke, Robert Preston, Jo Henderson (US regional theatre actress), Barbara Cook,”

Matt Harrop” I wouldn't say that performers as such have inspired me in a fundamental way, more that pieces of theatre have done so... Although thinking about people that I admire in musical theatre, I guess I would have to mention Barbara Cook as one, I wish I could have seen her perform when she was younger, as I saw her at Drury Lane in about 97, and she totally blew me away then...”

Anne Kerry Ford “There are so many, it is hard to choose. I adore Bernadette Peters for her confidence and panache. She is simply masterful, and can also be so extremely simple. She is breathtaking when she just stands with her arms to her side and delivers a song, so real, so personal. Watching her is like taking a master class in musical theatre. I adore Patti LuPone for the same reasons. They are both fearless.”

Susan Egan “I loved Bernadette Peters growing up. She played all the roles I loved. Patti LuPone as well. The ones who inspire me the most, though are probably Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews.”

Maureen McGovern “Gertrude Lawrence, Elaine Stritch, Victoria Clark & Kelli O’Hara (Light In The Piazza) and Christine Ebersole (Grey Gardens)”

D.C. “Victoria Clark -I saw her as the ditsy matron in 'Titanic' on a Sunday afternoon and the following Tuesday evening she was Fraulein Kost in 'Cabaret' at Studio 54 - two distinctively different characters both played with depth and honesty.. Barbra Streisand in 'Funny Girl' on screen - a dynamic combination of exquisite comedy and drama in one performance,”

Anne “Kristen Chenowith inspires me vocally, as she is in such command of her voice. It impresses me when someone like that, at the pinnacle of their vocal power, uses the voice with such nuance that you can tell they are in complete control of their technique. Actually, sometimes Chenoweth simply throws her head back and lets it rip with bravado, like she did with Glitter and Be Gay, a sensational performance. Thrilling! Also, I love Kevin Kline because he creates broad and colourful characters (such as the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance) and inhabits them fully. He doesn't apologize for being a ham, and that kind of joy is infectious. Actually, all of those performers look like they have such a good time onstage too, which is a good reminder to enjoy the work”

As our youngest contributor it’s no real surprise that A.J. O’Neill draws inspiration from the new generation of Broadway leading men, but first also a fellow Irishman “Years ago Colm Wilkinson, parental influence again, then as time went on I found what I liked myself, Anthony Rapp, Norbert Leo Butz, Raul Esparza, I saw Neil Patrick Harris in Tick Tick Boom and was stunned... and not just cause he winked at me... My reasons for admiring people have changed but I'm still really impressed by a great voice and a humorous attitude towards characterisation. I really admire versatility. Linda Eder owns it. OWNS IT. Yer man who plays Princeton (Jon Robyns) in Avenue Q, but purely cause I wanna be him. And he was great. And hot. lol. I shouldn't be writing this where it can be read.”

Of course being a musical theatre performer doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired by non musical performers….Maureen McGovern almost seems to be ready to burst into a chorus of “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” as she cites “Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Diana Rigg, Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren, and Dame Judi Dench” for instance.

The inclusion of Dench is borne out by Matt who says “If I had to pinpoint anyone else I think I would be Judi Dench, a performer of great natural talent. When I had the opportunity to meet her, she was so self deprecating, and generous, that I realized that is what an actor (and generally people) should be like, not, how many people can be in this business, full of self confidence and arrogance... hate it, hate it, hate it!!” But for Matt it’s not just the performers that move him,” I think I am a fan of directors! I had the great luck to work briefly with Trevor Nunn when I was in Les Miserables, and we moved the show from the Palace Theatre to the Queens Theatre... He came in to work with us for a week or so, and it was truly wonderful to spend some time with him.... I was lucky also as I was playing the part of Bamatabois, who attacks Fantine in the Lovely Ladies scene, as the guy who played it usually was on holiday, and although we didn't talk much about the character to have him watch me do that, and be accepting of my performance was a real thrill for me, and something I wont forget..”
D.C. also gives a special mention to producer/director “Harold Prince - because of the respect and trust he has for actors.”
Caroline Sheen” I get inspiration from a lot of people, I love how Nick Hytner is running The National Theatre. I love going to see a Shakespeare play done brilliantly. I recently Saw Henry VI Part I in Stratford. Inspiring Stuff! I don’t understand how some people who work on stage shy away from going to the theatre. It baffles me.”

Anne Kerry Ford “Of course, I am inspired by the great songwriters. I love Leonard Bernstein's music (so soulful), and Kurt Weill's music, too. And Sondheim. None of them try to emulate someone else; they are presenting their own wholehearted expression, therefore they inspire me to find my own unique expression as well, which takes courage. I also really adore Oscar Hammerstein's gorgeous lyrics. He was such a master story teller. He never, ever "cheated" a lyric or stuck something in as a handy rhyme. That guy slaved to make every word count, make every lyric carry the song forward as an emotional piece. I also find Agnes DeMille's choreography in the film "Carousel" to be absolutely brilliant because she understood the characters so well that every move in the dream ballet has the truth of emotion in it and tells the story so beautifully.”

So, moving on, what of the actual shows?

AJ has already touched upon “Les Miserables” and Colm Wilkinson, so it’s not surprising that the Les Mis’ experience affected another of our group
Anne “I saw the original cast of Les Miserables on Broadway and thought I had died and gone to musical theatre heaven. I just loved it. Colm Wilkinson singing Bring Him Home -had to be one of the shining moments in musical theatre history”.

Matt “OK, well I think that two of my greatest theatrical memories have been at the National Theatre, firstly seeing Guys and Dolls there, and the number of encores for Sit Down Your Rocking The Boat. I will never forget that, a brilliant night at the theatre, SO entertaining, the best version I have ever seen, and also I saw the last night of A Little Night Music there, again amazing, Judi Dench just wonderful in the lead, and a generally stunning cast and production.. Oh and Sondheim was there and came onstage at the end... the audience of course went crazy!!”

Maureen McGovern seems to be a Sondheim fan too as also mentions A Little Night Music, along with Sweeney Todd and Sunday In The Park With George (particularly the first act!) along with more recent ( non Sondheim) works Grey Gardens and The Light In The Piazza. The latter seems destined to be a future classic as it was also mentioned by D.C.Anderson who gave a special mention to Victoria Clark’s performance. British performer Caroline Sheen must be especially pleased to be working on Adam Guettel’s earlier work Myths And Hymns given that Piazza also had an impact on her.

Caroline” I recently saw The Light In The Piazza in New York and thought it to be the most touching sensitive piece of musical theatre. Stunning music, wonderful performances and a heart warming story – who could ask for anything more?”

And AJ? Well, he’s not about to forget that wink from Neil Patrick Harris! “My favourite trip to the theatre would be Tick Tick Boom which was on at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I was taken as a birthday present by my friend Robbie. We both loved the music and I came away feeling great about life, musical theatre, people... I felt like it really affected me, and I was really glad to be doing what I was doing even though college was not enjoyable at the time. Nearly danced down the street :-)”

For our stateside contingent many of their highlights have been non-musical productions, and it’s a testament to British Theatre that, with the exception of DC mentioning Angels In America at The Mark Taper Forum in Los ANgeles, all of their choices have been UK productions. DC also enjoyed Medea (with Fiona Shaw), as did Maureen - but in her case with Dame Diana Rigg. Now we have already established that Maureen has a thing about dames! Can there be anything else I wonder?
Maureen – “Bed Among The Lentils (a filmed monologue) with Dame Maggie Smith….anything with Dame Maggie Smith in it!”

Susan- “Nicholas Nickelby -- all 8 hours -- performed by the RSC. I received a student ticket for free and ate up the whole thing. Loved it.”

Anne” There was also a production of Pygmalion with the Royal Shakespeare Company that must have been over three hours long (good old G. B. Shaw!), yet I was riveted to every single moment of the stellar production. In particular, there was a scene where Eliza, the street urchin, is forced to take the first bath of her entire life and she is terrified of the water and is screaming and kicking and crying as she is thrown naked into the tub, and then, magically, the scene changes, and the scenery starts to shift, and in the next scene she is dressed in a long, flowing kimono, and her hair is wet and slicked down flat, and she enters running down this very long flight of stairs with her arms stretched out, and the kimono is billowing behind her, and, without her saying anything, simply by the way she runs in like a butterfly, you can FEEL (so poignantly) how wonderfully CLEAN she is for the first time ever, and how good she feels. I started to cry like a baby. I still get chills thinking about it. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment.”

Before we leave this epic second instalment of The Inspirations Project I also asked who in the world beyond musical theatre has inspired our contributors. Many of the responses to this were still very much Theatre centred so the responses are covered above and some of them were very personal in that they deal with working relationships. As next week we will be looking at our groups own careers I will include these then. However, there are a few exceptions (unsurprisingly many of which still have a show biz bent!) which I will conclude with now!

Anne” I admire artists who don't copy other people, but create something which is truly and uniquely their own. For that reason, I love the modern dance choreographer Mark Morris because he is brilliant and original. I am inspired by the poetry of Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings and Wislava Symborska, all unique and inspired wordsmiths. Because they love language so much and play with it so masterfully, they inspire me to love language and to see the emotional possibility and power in great lyrics. I am inspired by the paintings of Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Georgia O'Keefe because of the passion and fearlessness in their canvases. They inspire me to have the willingness to look closer at my own world and see things through my own eyes. I am very inspired by the late, great Eva Cassidy, who was simply (in my opinion) the most soulful singer, and yet so simple, so emotionally raw. Andrea Marcovicci, the cabaret singer, inspires me with her ability to wrap an audience around her finger. She weaves a magic spell on people... it's amazing!”

DC “Cheryl Wheeler - folk performer, Christine Lavin - folk singer, producer Both highly creative women who have devoted their lives to storytelling. In Christine's case - to bringing creative people together also.”

Anne “I am inspired by Meryl Streep throwing herself completely into her roles so that you don't recognize her...what commitment to the work she has! She inspires me to work very hard and dig beneath the layers of a song, to explore the song whole-heartedly, like she does with the roles she inhabits. I am also inspired by Martin Short... there is always room for humour.”

Susan “I am inspired by the people who don't forget where they came from. People who understand their good fortune and give back. Paul Newman, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Audrey Hepburn.”

AJ “My parents. Some of my teachers. My friends. I take most of my world view from my parents and their friends that I've become close to and respect. My mother dying meant that I re-evaluated a lot of my life and I've realised who I learned all that I value from - and mostly it was her and my dad. She wanted me to do this, and always saw me being successful, even though I didn't. Turns out she was right, to a point. I work towards hopefully proving her right in the long term.”

What better way to end this chapter than AJ’s poignant words? Well maybe it’s not a better way but we can’t go without a further handy household hint or two!

DC “As I look at the disaster that is my apartment - I realize I have no hints - unless I could suggest that picking up after oneself has its rewards. When I think of how long it takes me to find my keys on a daily basis.......”

Anne “Well, I don't know if it's a "household hint", but a good feng-shui tip is to keep your slippers at the FOOT of the bed, down where your feet are. I got that one from a Taoist feng-sui master!”

Thursday, 3 May 2007

The Inspirations Project - Part One

The Inspirations Project - part one – let’s start at the very beginning!

“Joy, colour, passion, poignancy, richness, humour, and LOVE being offered to the audience with spectacle and light to transport them into another world for a few hours. The audience then has an emotional "hang-over" long after the show is over. A great musical stays with you for a long time.”

So says Anne Kerry Ford as she describes what musical theatre means to her. She manages to sum up what we feel, as a member of the audience, beautifully. Musical theatre, and indeed the arts in general, inspires and influences us in many ways, but what of the performers we see in the shows? What are their influences and inspirations? Well, that is what I have set out to discover in this new project. With this eclectic group of contributors from both sides of “The Pond”, who have answered a group of questions via email, I will hopefully shed some light on what moves them and, indeed, what shapes them as performers. Certain names such as Barbra Streisand, Barbara Cook and Stephen Sondheim seem to crop up more than once, as indeed do particular shows - “Les Miserables”, “Sweeney Todd” and “The Light In The Piazza” for instance. But what first sparked an interest in the delights of, what used to be referred to as, Musical Comedy for these performers? – well let’s see…….

For my first question I asked Was there any particular musical that made an impression on you, fuelling a desire to work in musical theatre?

“Absolutely!” Answered Matt Harrop “I guess I remember, most of all, listening to Sweeney Todd when I was a young teenager….I was bought the CD for my birthday, as I already had an interest in musical theatre, but that CD changed everything for me! I sat down to listen to the first track, and I just remember thinking how amazing that opening number was, the big chorus, and the dramatic ending with Sweeney and Lovett singing….and I sat there and listened to the whole musical from beginning to end, and was completely taken in by it. I really remember the twist at the end, and being completely blown away by that – not only because it took me completely by surprise, but also because musically it just worked so well. I didn’t know why or how Sondheim did it. I just knew, for me, that he absolutely did!”

AJ O’Neill “ In my early years my parents played Les Mis more than was strictly necessary. I remember knowing that I wanted to be in it, but not that I knew it so well, but freakishly when I saw it at about 18/19 I knew all the words. Les Mis was just the best example of a musical ever - it had all the types of songs and they were all catchier than in other shows. Or at least I thought so at the time. I remember that I never considered the possibility of actually doing them. Also Chicago (which A.J. is currently performing in) had a huge effect 'cause I think my parents did it during my early years. Cell Block Tango rings a particular bell.”

DC Anderson “My first experiences with musicals were the musical films - The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Bye,Bye Birdie - I was enthralled - and then my older sister brought home original cast recordings from the library - introduced to them by her 7th grade music teacher. Again - I couldn't get enough of them. The voices - Barbara Cook in particular - warm, wonderful, great storytelling instruments... I knew it was something I had to do.”

For Anne Kerry Ford it was seeing some legendary performers that first piqued her interest!
Anne Kerry Ford “I grew up in Fort Worth Texas, and when I was very young my parents took me to New York, where we saw three musicals, Hello Dolly (with Carol Channing), Oliver, and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. All three were absolutely phenomenal. Hello Dolly had the MOST memorable score, Oliver had KIDS in it, and Streisand was, well, Streisand! I was determined to be in musical theater after seeing those three; my fate was sealed. I listened to the cast albums until I wore them out. Some years later, seeing Godspell off-Broadway fueled my passion for musical theater even further. I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my life at that point.”

There were two musicals in particular that impacted on a young Maureen McGovern “I was 11 yrs. old when I first heard the score to West Side Story and saw the movie seven times! I memorized everyone's part and, in my living room, I'd become Maria, Tony, Bernardo, Anita, Riff, The Jets, The Sharks -- singing and choreography full tilt! The King And I was a beloved musical of mine and I knew I was born to play Mrs Anna! That childhood dream came true when I played Mrs Anna in the recent Broadway National Tour of The King And I! I have rarely had such a perfectly grand time on stage. Great music, gorgeous costumes, absolutely wonderful cast.” (See top)

Susan Egan “I always responded to unusual shows. I never really wanted to be Annie -- I wanted to be Fredrika in A Little Night Music. I loved Man Of La Mancha, anything Sondheim, Evita. Funny choices for a child. I think these shows moved me because the characters were discussing things of importance. These were plays with music. Not the frivolous stories that you imagine musicals of being. Of course, I enjoy those, too, and tend to make my living doing those types. But the ones that made me fall in love with the art form were the darker shows.”

So D.C. Had already began his love affair with the musical well before he actually saw one on stage, and when it came to the stage it was also a far cry from Little Orphan Annie
DC “The first stage show I saw was Hair - a 12 year old child watching all the naked bodies race through the theatre, thinking I could NEVER be able to be naked in front of strangers... but I knew from the publicity that this was a special event. I really couldn't follow the 'story' in Hair - it wasn't until I was 14 and saw the high school production of Carousel that I experienced a true 'book' musical 'live' , loved it too!!”

For West End performer Caroline Sheen, her first taste of theatre in general came from a very different direction as her parents “were involved in the massive cult that is amateur dramatics.”
Caroline Sheen” I was brought up with them doing a different Gilbert and Sullivan show every month. There is even cine film of my dad abducting me, as a babe in arms, dressed in his pirate costume from The Pirates Of Penzance. I think all their shows I experienced, when I was young, had a profound effect on me. The music, the colours, the costumes – the wonderful topsy turvy world they presented created a magical living piece of theatre that I was completely smitten with. I particularly liked Iolanthe, Pirates and The Mikado. The society always did something different with the shows ( Iolanthe was set in a Victorian brothel – all the fairies were prostitutes!)”
But what of seeing a fully fledged West End show for the first time?
“I was eleven, it was Chess. The scale of the production and the amplification of the music – basically all the production values amazed me. The music wasn’t bad either!”

So let’s go back to D.C. Anderson and Anne Kerry Ford, we know now what piqued their interest – but let’s find out specifically what it was about the shows and movies that really struck a chord.

DC “The Music Man - watching Robert Preston entice an entire town with Trouble. The Sound of Music - loved the combination of intriguing (true) story, beautiful singing, romance, and the 'event' of it all - when I was a kid it was a 'reserved seat' movie – we had to reserve tickets months in advance..”

Anne “I was so young, it was probably the sheer energy coming off of the stage when people sang and danced. I think that I intuitively understood, even as a young girl, that the character who was singing (or dancing) was in a heightened state of emotion. It was thrilling to me and I loved the beauty and the energy of this kind of expression. Plus, those three musicals had some unforgettable characters in them and the stories were told in such a rich way with the sets and the lights that the whole production was a world you could slip right into. I was transported completely. I personally never questioned the reality of someone singing to someone else... they were just having a big emotion! And the overtures were so exciting! I knew something wonderful was about to take place when I heard the orchestras play those overtures.”

Maureen McGovern took a little longer to break into musical theatre than our other contributors (there was the small matter of a successful recording career getting in the way!) so it was as an adult that she experienced a further show that had a profound effect on her.
Maureen” I sat in the very last row of the Shubert Theater and saw the first Broadway National Tour of A Chorus Line in 1977 in Los Angeles. It was the lowest period of my career. After a million selling, Oscar-winning, Gold record in the early 70's, I found myself flat broke and couldn't get a record deal. When Cassie sang The Music and The Mirror I saw my whole life pass before me. I literally sobbed all the way home. Fast forward to September 29, 1983........ Joe Papp had recently given me my first Broadway role as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. He invited me to see the record breaking performance #3389 that made A Chorus Line the longest running musical (at that time) in Broadway history. THIS TIME, I sat in the 4th row, next to Meryl Streep, and witnessed Michael Bennett's brilliant adaptation of his own classic, A Chorus Line. It was one of those moments that makes you so glad you're alive and able to witness something so magical. There is nothing like "live" theatre!”

So it would seem that, be it in amateur productions or family outings, parental influence can have a huge impact on what sparks a performers initial interest in theatre. But what of their influences as they grow up and begin performing themselves? Well, we will find that out next time but, before we go I feel one very important question remains unanswered.

The household handy hint!

Matt Harrop "Get that washing out on the line it smells so much better, and gives a real pleasure everytime!!"

Maureen McGovern "To keep uninvited little critters out of clothes in storage, put two "Bounce" dryer sheets in a small, open plastic bag and place it inside the garment bag. Works like a charm!"