Friday, 22 June 2007

And I Can Tell You How It Began (New Column!)

Over the preceding months I have, amongst other things, written about my (personal) essential musicals and a handful of essential performers. Today’s column is a little different in that it features an essential performer and an essential musical. The reason for this is that the two are so inextricably linked that it would be impossible to separate the two.

So who is my essential performer? Well to give a clue she has been a West End leading lady since 1964 and last appeared in a leading west end role just a couple of years ago. So firstly lets go back to the beginning. Born in Cricklewood in 1944 , after appearing in “Stop The World I Want To Get Off” in 1963, Marti Webb got her big break, at nineteen, playing Ann opposite Tommy Steele in David Heneker’s “Half A Sixpence”. The show was a big hit, in fact one of the all time great British musicals, but sadly, when Steele took it to Broadway Marti did not get to join him. However when she also lost out on the film role to Julia Foster she discovered that every cloud has a silver lining when she was asked to dub Foster’s vocals. The next notable role for Marti was in 1967 when she played Nancy in the first major revival of Oliver opposite Barry Humphries as Fagin. The early seventies saw a string of leading roles for her. In 1971 she was one of the stars of Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell” alongside three other performers who were to become big stars in the future - Julie Covington, Jeremy Irons and, Jesus himself, David Essex. Tony Hatch’s musical version of “The Card” at the Queens Theatre followed, where she starred opposite Jim Dale and sang the lovely “I Could Be The One”. Next stop was Her Majesty’s in 1974’s stage version of “The Good Companions”, with music by Andre Previn. Amongst her co-stars were Christopher Gable, John Mills and Judi Dench and the production was notable in being the last to feature lyrics by the legendary Johnny Mercer So for over ten years Marti had been a major player in the West End, not only playing leading roles but originating them. Possibly however her biggest break came in a show where she wasn’t strictly the star. When “Evita” opened to great fanfare in 1978 it was Elaine Paige who was cast in the title role. However Webb was cast as the alternate in this particularly demanding role, and when Paige moved on it was Webb who took over the role. The roles somewhat wordy score suited Marti’s talents perfectly and it was around this time that, the shows composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber took particular notice of Webb, and paid her the ultimate compliment by asking her to work on his next project

So this brings me to my essential musical! “Tell Me On A Sunday”, with lyrics by Don Black, is a song cycle telling the story of an English girl in America, and the men that come in and out of her life. Although a little work had been started on the show when Webb came aboard the majority of the songs were written with her in mind. Initially conceived as a one woman show for the BBC and an album it proved to be a huge hit. Both the album and the single “Take That Look Off Your Face” climbed high up the charts and Marti Webb seemed to become a household name overnight, a regular face on television for the next decade or so, and even having her own BBC2 show. Listening to the original album now it has some lovely songs, and Marti’s rendition of “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known” is quite beautiful. Where Marti truly excels, however, are in the pieces dramatic numbers such as “Let Me Finish” and “Let’s Talk About You” proving that she is one of the best singing actresses in musical theatre. So “Tell Me” was a hit record, and you may think that this should be enough, but hot on the heels of “Evita” and “Cat”s Andrew Lloyd Webber was looking for a new project for the theatre. “Tell Me On A Sunda”y seemed like a ready made hit but it was felt that it was too short. The answer was there all the time however. The solution was to pair the show with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s previously written “Variations” project. Originally conceived as a classical piece for his brother, cellist, Julian it was felt that, slightly restructured, it could be developed into ballet. As the first act, “Tell Me On A Sunday” once again starred Marti . New songs were added, for instance the stunning “The Last Man In My Life” and the entertaining “Married Man”. The lyrics were worked on as well to make it work better for the theatre, and the drama was heightened in many numbers, particularly the reworked title song. A little more humour was added to the show too, particularly in the “Letter Home To England” numbers. All in all the show proved to be an absolute tour-de-force for Webb. As our un-named heroine she took us through an emotional journey that ran the gamut as the original cast recording will testify. The second act saw dance take centre stage with Anthony Van Laast’s ballet inspired by the “Variations” album. The piece featured most forms of modern dance so Ballet, Jazz and tap all had a part to play. The principal dancer was Wayne Sleep, at the height of his powers and popularity and fresh from Cats. Bringing the evening of the show to a close was a finale with Wayne joining Marti in singing “When You Want To Fall In love” and Marti dancing! The show opened at the Palace theatre in 1982 where, as “Song And Dance”, it ran for over 700 performances. Marti was succeeded in the show by Liz Robertson, Gemma Craven and Lulu but even after the show had ended it’s West End run it continued to develop. 1984 saw the show, in it’s entirety, being video recorded and shown on BBCtv. Wayne Sleep reprised his role but Marti was succeeded by Sarah Brightman. It was for this version of the show that “The Last Man In My Life” was replaced by, what many consider to be one of Lloyd Webber’s greatest songs, “Unexpected Son”g. Shortly after the show was revised yet again for Broadway, seeing new songs and radical changes to many of the lyrics with the assistance of lyricist Richard Maltby. An attempt was also made to make the two halves of the show a more coherent whole by giving the lead character a name, Emma and making her a hat designer! Also the dancer of the second half was supposed to be one of Emma’s lovers. The show lead to a Tony award for best actress Bernadette Peters who apparently gave an amazing performance. Certainly her version of the song “Tell Me On A Sunday” is heart breaking but, I feel, much of Broadway cast album is spoiled by her dreadful London accent!

So this takes the development of “Tell Me On A Sunday” up to the mid eighties. Now this isn’t the end of the story but it’s time to go back to Miss Webb and see what she was doing! As well as a couple of stints in “Cats” as Grizabella, Marti also did panto for the first time when she starred in “Babes In The Wood” at The Palladium. Since the success of “Tell Me On A Sunday” much of the rest of the decade was taken up as a recording artist. “Won’t Change Places”, featured a mix of pop songs and show tunes with a couple of brand new Lloyd Webber/Black compositions thrown in for good measure. This was followed by “I’m Not That Kind Of Girl” in 1982. 1985 saw one of Marti’s biggest hits with the single “Ben” released in conjunction with TV’s “That’s Life” as a fund raiser for their Ben Hardwick campaign. This was swiftly followed up by the album “Encore”. It wasn’t long before she returned to the top ten again with “Always There” a vocal version of the theme from hit eighties drama “Howards Way”. An album of the same name followed, featuring a collection of small screen themes, and this was followed by 1987’s “Gershwin” released to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composers death. Her last album of the eighties saw a return to familiar territory with the release of “Performance” a collection of show tunes. Then, as the decade drew to a close Marti was once again imploring us to take that look off our face as she and Wayne Sleep toured again with “Song And Dance”, which enjoyed a season at the Shaftesbury Theatre.

The early nineties saw Marti begin her first tour of “The Magic Of Musicals” a production which she continued to participate in sporadically over the next decade or so. “Evita” also beckoned again as she undertook a major national tour in 1995-1996. Other highlights included the tours of “Annie” and “The Goodbye Girl”, and “Divorce Me Darling” at Chichester. “The Magic Of The Musicals” and “Divorce Me Darling” were both released on CD as was a budget Songs From Evita collection in the mid nineties. The new millennium has been a particularly productive period for Marti, kicking off with the national tour of the Palladium production of “The King And I.” Around the same time Marti returned to the recording studio for her “Limelight” album which included new material as well as re-recordings of previous hits - Notably a long overdue recording of “As Long As He Needs Me” which she performed in “Oliver” more than thirty years before. Now this brings us almost up to date for Marti so it’s a good time as ever to go back to developments on the “Tell Me On A Sunday”.

2003 saw “Tell Me On A Sunda”y (on this occasion minus “Variations”) return to the west end as a vehicle for actress and television personality Denise Van Outen. New songs were written yet again, and lyrics were yet again adapted to allow for a younger central character and also the changes in society in the twenty years that had passed since the original. The show once again struck a chord with the public and had a successful run at the Gielgud Theatre and went on to have a successful national tour.

Now this in turn brings us back to Marti Webb . After a break of many years she was back in the West End playing the alternate Mrs Mears in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” when the call came for her to return to her defining role. So Marti was back where she belonged, in a lead role in the west end and what’s more, in “Tell Me On A Sunda”y the show that had been written for her back in 1980.

Of course the story continues and she went on to do several tour dates of “Tell Me On A Sunday” and, more recently, has starred in “Hot Flush!” I am hard pressed to think of any other musical theatre leading lady, with a career spanning over forty years, who has been active in the West End for such a long period. My only wish for Marti would be that she would get to tackle some more roles that her would provide the same challenges that “Evita” and “Song And Dance” did for her. As one of our finest singing actresses she excels with wordy literate songs bringing real wit and drama to them. I have always thought she would be wonderful in some of the great Sondheim roles such as Mrs Lovett and Phyliss Rodgers Stone. I can only hope!


Tell Me On A Sunday – as a record the original album by Marti is great, but the show really came into it’s own with the London Cast Recording of “Song And Dance”. In my opinion it’s the musical at its absolute best in every way – musically, lyrically and of course actressly! It’s the absolute marriage of great theatre with a performer at the top of their game with an amazingly witty, dramatic and heart wrenching piece of the theatre. The Bernadette Peters version isn’t nearly as successful for me, sadly the faux London accent can be incredibly distracting and for every number such as her stunning “Tell Me On A Sunday” there is another which sounds terrible! I do have an old LP of the German version too with Angelika Milster. Bless her! Very German! The most recent version with Denise Van Outen is also worth a listen, she sings the score beautifully, particularly on the newly written songs but, for me, she lacks the drama of Marti Webb’s performance that really makes the piece work. So given a choice go for the live “Song And Dance” but they all have their merits! Whichever one you may choose you at least get top hear this wonderful musical theatre score!

n.b The Sarah Brightman version is also due to be released on CD for the first time very shortly.

Marti Webb - Many of her recordings are no longer available or have never been released on CD. We can only hope that the London “Godspell” someday gets a release as it really is excellent, but “Half A Sixpence” and “The Card” are both available and both worth exploring as British musicals. Of her solo works, “Tell Me On A Sunday” is out of print and sells for upwards of forty pounds on ebay. “Gershwin” is also out of print but its an album containing some real gems if you should come across it. You can still get her “Evita" collection which isn’t the best recording ever but does give a taste of what she brought to the role, and I believe “Performance” is still widely available.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

New Column 14/6 I Love Paris in The Springtime!

Above sees me reflected in the odd mirrors at The louvre, below are views of The Petit palais

Well for those of you who have been reading my column for a while you will be aware already that I love Paris in the fall. So following last weeks column, where I told you about seeing “Cabaret” at the Folies Bergere, I thought I would tell you of a few more highlights from my trip. After all, I love Paris in the springtime too!

Well my hotel can hardly be considered a highlight, I really did go for the cheap as pommes frites option whilst remaining relatively central. Yes, my hotel was decidedly grotty – clean but definitely grotty! However, being located just two minutes from the metro station at Place De Clichy was a definite plus. The Place De Clichy is a very busy area too, and full of hustle and bustle well into the early hours of the morning which was fun. I was also just a couple of seconds walk from a gorgeous statued square with lots of greenery. I have always liked greenery. In fact if you were to look at my photo albums you would find pictures of inordinate numbers of trees, not to mention lots of ceilings. More of the ceilings later. I was also a stones throw from the Moulin Rouge and only ten minutes or so walk from Montmartre which was nice as this is an area of Paris I am particularly fond of. I didn’t climb the hill to the tourist trap of the Place De Tertre on this visit though, limiting myself instead to the foot of the hill.

One of the joys of Paris is how easily accessible the metro is. Unlike the tube, it’s very cheap and you rarely have to wait for more than two minutes for a train. Much like it’s London relation it is also populated by buskers galore. It seems you are lucky if you go for more than two or three journeys without hearing an accordionist. Anyway, on this visit there were two particular brushes with buskers that will stick in my memory. Firstly at St Michel metro station, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, I witnessed what must be the best ever. Nine of them in total, all Russian, with everything from a guitar and accordion to a cello and double bass. All playing, all singing beautiful rousing harmonies in Russian, the acoustics of the labyrinthine tunnels of the metro station making them sound absolutely stunning. Sadly, however, not all Parisian buskers are quite so accomplished. On a metro train later on the same day I was witness to possibly the worst ever. Basically they played loud dance music on a ghetto blaster, accompanying it with a few rather odd jerky dance moves. As they danced people grimaced at the loud music and tried not to laugh at their dancing, then when they came round with a cup almost everyone averted their gaze.

Of course buskers are just part of what Paris has to offer. If you have any interest in the arts then there are so many things to enjoy, and the wealth of museums and galleries provide much to feast your senses on, so I always try to visit at least a couple when I am there.

On my last visit I had made an unsuccessful attempt to visit Musee de la Mode at Costume Palais Galleria , the fashion museum. As Paris is often considered the worlds fashion capital I had thought it would be fascinating to see their collection. This time I was more successful – it was open at least! Sadly the entire exhibit – other than one small room with old military costumes and suits of armour – was made up of the work of one designer – Jean Charley de Castelbajac. This really was fashion at its least accessible. Clothes that you may see on the catwalk but never in the real world. I have to admit that some of the outfits were quite inventive however and I did chuckle a little at a faux fur coat made entirely out of teddy bears But all in all I gave the museum nil points!

Similarly I was disappointed with the Musee d’Art Naif Max Fourny, which normally houses a collection of naïve art, instead the entire museum was given over to some Indian batik wall hangings and some rather odd statues. However as its located at the foot of Sacre Couer, a hundred yards or so from the carousel, it was a good excuse to enjoy some time in this particularly pretty area of the city.

However, on the museum front, all was not lost. I had previously visited the vast collection of the Louvre in 1992 and been distinctly unimpressed. Generally speaking the periods of art that it contained held little appeal for me. As far as paintings go I tend to prefer the impressionists and later, whilst not particularly enjoying the renaissance and the religious iconography which seems to be the subject of so much of the preceding years’ ouevre. However, about five years ago, I visited the stunning Musee Rodin, and was mesmerised by the sculptures. Although the interior of the museum is relatively plain, the gardens are stunning and to see works such as the Burghers of Calais, the Gates Of Hell, and The Thinker in such a natural setting (greenery again!) was a wonderful experience. Because of my visit to the Rodin, I thought that it was time to re-explore the Louvre and take in their collection of French and Italian sculptures. I planned a visit based on the areas of their collection that held the most appeal and set off! It was indubitably the first part of the collection I saw that provided the highlight for me. The beauty of the French sculptures was breathtaking, and covered over a thousand years of history. The light streamed, multi levelled, gallery provided a particularly beguiling setting for the works which showed them off to great advantage. The craftsmanship it must have taken to accomplish these works is astonishing – how skilled must the sculptors have been to create such great art with only a block of stone and a chisel? Currently the museum is doing another exhibit alongside the regular exhibition called contrapoint which places contemporary art alongside the more antiquated pieces. Sometimes this can jar, but at others it is really provocative in making you perceive the art in a different way. It was particularly effective in a gallery containing Islamic murals. They had placed an enormous arced mirror in this gallery – and I really do mean enormous – which reflected and distorted the murals, along with the people looking at them of course. I was absolutely fascinated by this, particularly because as you walked towards it there was a certain point where it just flipped your reflection upside down – very odd! After spending a good hour or so enjoying the French sculptures I took the opportunity to have a fruit juice and pain aux raisin at the Louvre’s terrace café, which was a lovely way to enjoy the warm spring morning and absorb what I had just seen. Anyway, after feeling sufficiently refreshed I did think I should at least give the paintings a go, the Mona Lisa was as unimpressive as I remembered it and, along with the Venus De Milo, surrounded by crowds who just had to see it! Even though the majority of the Louvre’s paintings don’t necessarily appeal to me I couldn’t fail but be impressed by the scale and drama of Velasquez’s The Raft Of The Medusa, and particularly liked Jeune Homme Nu Assis Au Bord De La Mer –Etude (1836) by Hippolyte Flandrin. The last part of my visit was the Italian sculptures which, although very beautiful, didn’t really match the French sculptures for me. By the time I had seen these the crowds were beginning to feel a little oppressive so, after my fifth experience of being physically pushed out of the way by a tour guide, I decided it was time to move on………….. To truly appreciate art a little calm definitely helps more than a crowd!

The highlight of my museum visiting was to come the day before I left. I awoke to a baking hot balmy day where I had no definite plans and as I ate my continental breakfast in my grotty, little, hotel I flipped through my eye witness guide to see if anything caught my eye. Even though the guide book was not particularly inspiring about it I decided upon the Petit Palais, as it said they had a few impressionist paintings. After all I had never been so thought I would give it a shot. Situated near the rond pointe of the Champs Elysees and just round the corner from the Theatre Du Rond Pointe where I had seen “ Les Cabaret Des Hommes Perdu” (starring “Lord Of The Rings”’ Jerome Pradon) last autumn are both the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. Built in 1900 for the Paris World Exposition these are two very impressive buildings. The Grand Palais is now a location for temporary exhibitions, whilst the Petit Palais has a permanent exhibit. It has to be said that the contents of the museum are eclectic to say the least. Art from many different periods, as well as religious iconography, some sculptures and some beautiful decorative arts such as pottery etc. It takes a novel approach in displaying the works by positioning them in complimentary arrangements rather than by period. This may mean that a gallery contains a couple of paintings, a few vases or plates and a sculpture. It really isn’t as hap hazard as it may sound however and proves to be a very effective concept. Paintings by well known artists such as Monet feature as well as names less familiar to me such as Edmond Aman-Jean and George Clavin, and some exquisite ceramics. The best thing about the museum though has to be the building itself. I think it’s possibly the most beautiful building I have ever been into. Very bright and airy with huge windows that provide perfect lighting for the exhibits on the ground floor . It also has a central courtyard containing lovely gardens, where I was able to have little walk and enjoy the sunshine, complete with ornamental ponds. The real highlight of the Petit Palais though has to be the ceilings. I have never seen such perfectly executed ceiling murals as those contained at the Palais. What makes them so stunning? Well, not really the subject matter as it’s the usual pastoral scenes and the ubiquitous cherubs familiar to most ceiling murals. However, as they were painted in 1900 – a much later period than most - they seem to have used a more impressionistic palette, and the favoured colours work beautifully. Delightfully, one vast gallery is just given over to a few judiciously angled mirrors mounted on tables so I was able to examine, at least a handful of, the murals in detail.

As usual a large part of the rest of my visit consisted of trolling round the shops, and of course wandering the city and enjoying it’s ambience! As a non tea drinker quite why I bought a tea pot shaped like a pig I don’t know, but I really do like it a lot. It’s kind of not what you expect! As is my wont I also managed to get a few DVDs of French movies that haven’t been released here (with subtitles of course) and almost accidentally picked up three titles directed by Cedric Klapisch who is best known here for “Pot Luck” and its sequel “Russian Dolls”. Two of these (“Peut Etre”, “Le Peril Jeune” ) featured actor Romain Duris currently very much on the ascendant since appearing in the acclaimed “The Beat My Heart Skipped”. Klapisch seems to be very much a director for the new millennium and has quite an off beat style which makes all of his movies interesting. I will definitely seek out more of his work in future. Whilst you may not be able to get a copy of “Peut Etre” over here I can definitely recommend the movies I mention above!

If any of you are wondering, yes I did make Joe Allen’s my regular haunt yet again. I have given up trying to find alternative restaurants. Why wander round trying to find somewhere I like the look of when I know I can go there, know what I am getting, and get looked after. It’s quite nice to return to a place and be recognized too, I was even asked this time if I wanted my table habituelle! Eating at Joe Allen’s is very much part of the Paris experience for me now so I make no apologies.

I think this was either my seventh or eighth visit to Paris and by now I have got to know the city very well. I know where the bargains are, to look out for V.O. movies at the city’s proliferate cinemas and to buy Pariscope on a Wednesday. Sadly, I still can’t navigate the maze that is Les Halles though, and frequently get lost. This apart, I always feel very at home in the city and know it won’t be long before I am there again. Of course, as I left Paris the sun was blazing and it was like a hot summer day, perfect in fact, without much humidity. As the Eurostar emerged from the channel tunnel, after speeding through the north of France, England greeted me with grey skies and rain. My holiday was well and truly over! However, maybe I will manage a second visit of the year for Christmas shopping! Bonne Idee!

Friday, 8 June 2007

"Cabaret" Aux Folies Bergere

When I knew that I would be visiting Paris again I knew that the opportunity to see Kander and Ebb’s ‘Cabare’t at the Folies Bergere was too delicious to miss. Although he did present a version at the Donmar Warehouse, in 1993, the Sam Mendes Broadway production has never made it to London, so I was pleased to finally get the chance to see it. Albeit in Paris. Albeit in French.

The Folies Bergere is to Paris what the Palladium is to London and the Palace to New York. The home of variety. In it’s 130 year history it has played host to many of the great French and international stars. The legendary Maurice Chevalier, Anna Pavlova, Josephine Baker and Mistinguett are just a few, not to mention the Palladium’s own Tiller Girls. As French “variety” often leant towards cabaret performers, “Les Folies” is a perfect location for ‘Cabaret’, if not it’s spiritual home. I was, however, concerned that the setting would be too glamorous for the shows second rate cabaret bar setting, but the fact that the fascia of the theatre could do with a little sprucing up, and there is the odd bit of internal paintwork that needs administering to, works very much in it’s favour.

Upon entering I discovered a massive, and opulent, foyer painted in aqua with the most enormous brass chandelier I have ever seen, along with two magnificent carousel-style horses. The grandiosity of the foyer made it seem like an “event” even before I had entered the auditorium, and the venue seemed to echo with the ghosts of the past, all adding to the experience. Also the way the auditorium has been transformed for this production is no less spectacular than the front of house. The stalls area had been set out with chairs and tables, with a lamp on each, to give the ambience of a cabaret bar. As walk ways went into the house at circle level it was difficult to work out exactly where the Folies ended and the stage set began. It seemed to slip so seamlessly from one to the other. The sign for the Kit Kat Klub seemed particularly appropriate for Paris as it is reminiscent of Guimaud’s art nouveau metro stations. All in all the design, along with the real life features, were amazingly evocative of what a down at heel Berlin cabaret bar would be like.

Shortly before the show was due to start a discordant violinist took to the stage, to be joined by a Chicago-esque male cast member clad in a dark trousers and an open waistcoat. Kit Kat Klub girls and musicians (for they were often one and the same) all came forward as the band members began to tune up. As one guy stretched another pinched his bum and one of the girls engaged in her own rather provocative stretches, all giving a foretaste of the ambiguity that was to come. As the mood began to set it was evident that I was in for a very good night’s entertainment. And this was still ten minutes before the show was actually due to commence.

As I looked around the audience I noticed many male/male couplings, proving that even though musical theatre is less popular in France than the UK and USA, it does prove to be a draw for gay society – although given the nature of this production it’s hardly surprising. I also noticed the strange “aisle” seats that they have which fold out from the end of rows to maximise potential numbers. Of course these also serve to prevent people nipping out to the loo, and they would no doubt fall foul of London fire regulations!

So to the piece itself. It of course begins with the multilingual ‘Wilkomme’n , performed by the Emcee along with the chorus giving a raunchy foretaste of what’s to come. We get our first sighting of, American writer, Cliff Brayshaw as he meets the enigmatic Ernst Ludwig on the train to Berlin, and it’s Ludwig’s suggestion that he seek out Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house. Schneider is asking for more for the room than Cliff can afford but in the end she decides it’s of little consequence and lets him have the room ‘Qu’importe’ (‘So What’). What follows are two of the “performance” songs from the Kit Kat Klub that pepper the evening and sometimes comment on the action in a subtle– or not so subtle - way. ‘Ne Dites Rien A Mama’n (‘Don’t Tell Mama’) is followed by (written for the movie) Mein Herr. It’s not long before Cliff finally meets the Kit Kat’s star turn, Sally Bowles, who shortly after they meet turns up at his flat claiming to be destitute. So begins the romance (and co-habitation) between Sally and the bisexual Cliff. All in all it’s ‘Les Plus Merveilleux Des Bonheurs’ (‘Perfectly Marvellous’). A sub plot develops between Schneider and another tenant, fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz. Schultz offers her the delicacy of ‘Un Ananas’ (‘It Couldn’t Please Me More (Pineapple)’) and a romance develops. Cliff becomes involved in helping Ludwig learn English and, inadvertently, in some rather dubious financial dealings (‘Mone’y) . Later Cliff becomes aware of Ludwig’s Nazi leanings as, at the Schneider/Schultz engagement party, he informs Schneider that an engagement would be foolish as Schultz is a Jew – ‘Demain N’Appartient Qu’a Moi’ (‘Tommorrow Belongs To Me’) . In the meantime Sally enjoys life in her own merry oblivion, not realising what’s occurring around her. As the shows second act continues our characters begin to face some stark decisions. Shortly after Schultz has a brick thrown through his window, Fraulein Schneider makes a difficult decision about their future together. When Sally discovers she is pregnant Cliff offers to take her back to America with him to raise their child away from the horrors that are unfolding in front of them. Sally, forever naïve, fails to see how politics should stop them having the fun life they have in Berlin as she truly does believe that life is a ‘Cabaret’ . Behind Cliffs back, Sally makes a big decision about her pregnancy which succeeds in terminating her relationship with Cliff. Cliff leaves for Paris, with Sally remaining in Berlin. The evening closes as it begins with the Emcee singing ‘Wilkommen’.

Well obviously I have only given an outline of the plot, and a handful of the musical numbers, but I will mention a few personal highlights. The whole Schneider/Schultz sub plot is beautifully done and gives a real heart to the piece. I loved (understudy) Sylvie Neyraut as Schneider who looked a little like Glenn Close and evoked Edith Piaf for me. In a perfectly balanced performance she managed to convey the dilemmas her character faced quite touchingly. ‘Un Ananas’ was great fun – so touching that something , now so commonplace as a pineapple, was once considered exotic enough to be a romantic gift. Also the word Ananas is so much more musical than the pineapple so musically the French lyric improves upon the song. Delphine Grandsart was wonderful as, a brazenly teutonic, Fritzie Klost with an apt mixture of vulgarity and bawdiness – looking astonishingly like British actress Sarah Parish. As Sally, Claire Perot was the perfect balance of vulnerability and pizzazz that the role requires, shining in ‘Peut-Etre’ Bien’ (‘Maybe This Time’) as well as with the Kit Kat girls in ‘Mein Herr’. Her static version of the title song worked brilliantly as well, and really did stop the show. The only part of the show that I felt was overshadowed by the movie was ‘Mone’y, solely because the film version of this is an iconic moment in movie musicals and very hard to forget – even though the stage version was staged brilliantly. As the Emcee David Alexis (also an understudy) was brilliant from the outset, with just the right touch of the sinister, also managing to convey the characters ambiguity in a very sexualised performance without resorting to all out campery. In this production the Emcee rightly takes the final bow as, although he is a spectator to the main action, he comments on the proceedings in a way that lends definition to them. As ‘Cabaret’ goes this has to be the definitive version and it’s no surprise that it ran for almost six years in its Broadway production. It manages to effectively tell of a particular time and place in history when the decadence of the Weimar Republic began to fade to be replaced by the austerity and horrors of the Third Reich. All in all this production of the show manages to entertain and provoke in equal measure, Mendes’ vision subtly conveys the horror of the oncoming war without ever resorting to prurience. He leaves the raucousness and obviousness for the Kit Kat Klub production numbers and deals with the rest of the piece on a very human level. The show is at it’s most powerful at it’s stunning finale. I am not going to describe this in depth, but for the moment when the Emcee introduces the band during the reprise of ‘Wilkommen’ only to discover that the music is playing but the band isn’t there. Nothing hits the pieces message home more than this incident, which reflects the real story of how many bands and orchestras found their numbers depleted while the largely Jewish musicians vanished from sight.

Well Paris isn’t Berlin. However, as I left the theatre and headed into the night I passed a kosher butchers on the street at the side of the Folies, and within moments passed a group of orthodox Jews, leaving me to ponder how different life would have been there sixty five years ago. To view a show such as ‘Cabaret’ in a city that was under Nazi occupation during the war gives it a whole added dimension. How many similar stories played out there , for real, in the war years? Was there a real life Sally Bowles at the Folies Bergere perhaps, and indeed how many of the performers there suffered in the same way we were lead to believe that the Kit Kat Klubs musicians did? It was with these thoughts that I returned to my hotel after seeing not only a marvellous production of a classic musical, but possibly one of the best productions I have ever seen of any musical.


The movie of ‘Cabaret’ tells the same story in a different way and with some different characters, yet it is none the less effective and rightly considered to be one of the all time great screen musicals. Buy the DVD and the CD – both worth a listen. Should you be looking for a recording you could of course get the Paris recording which is now available, but failing that the Broadway version with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson is pretty definitive. Of the many other recordings we do of course have Dame Judi Dench as the West End’s first Sally Bowles on the original London cast album. Judi isn’t nearly as vocally effective in this role as she was in “A Little Night Music” however, although her version of “Don’t Tell Mama” is wonderful. In the nineties JAY/TER recordings issued a “complete” version with Jonathan Pryce and Maria Friedman. Both perform well but the highlight has to be, in her return to the piece, the afore mentioned Judi Dench. This time she takes on the role of Fraulein Schneider and her rendition of ‘So What?’ Is as good as it gets.

From the point of view of the Nazi Occupation of Paris I would recommend Irene Nemirovsky’s wonderful novel , ‘Suite Francaise’ – which (although it only contains the first two parts of an uncompleted five part sequence) gives a chillingly evocative impression of the period. I truly believe that you could not imagine these events unless you were actually there. Nemirovsky was there in fact and sadly did not survive the war following her internment. .

I would also mention the French movie, Andre Techine’s ‘Strayed’ (‘Les Egares’) starring Emmanuelle Beart and Gaspard Ulliel. Like ‘Suite Francaise’ it deals with the plight of the Parisians as the fled their homes because of the imminent arrival of the Germans. Well worth seeing!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Glitter And Be Gay - A Profile of Barbara Cook

It was back in 1986 that I saw this weeks essential performer live in concert for the first time. I had seen Barbara Cook in the BBC’s Arena special “Follies In Concert”, a documentary taking us behind the scenes of the historic all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1971 musical “Follies” at New York’s Avery fisher Hall (at The Lincoln Centre). A few months later whilst I was working front of house on “La Cage Aux Folles” I had the opportunity to see Miss Cook live in person as part of the Donmar Warehouse’s Show People season.
So what did I think of her? In short, from the moment she began singing her oft opening number “Sing A Song With M”e I was mesmerised by the natural charm and style she possessed. At sixteen/seventeen a soprano like Barbara was not the sort of voice I would normally enjoy, but she was (and is) so much more than just a soprano. She possessed the ability to sing almost anything, it seemed, from traditional Broadway songs and standards to more recent “pop” tunes with her natural style and charm she made everything work. The stories and anecdotes between the songs added to the experience immensely as well, and you couldn’t fail to be touched by the warmth radiating from the stage.

Of course the story did not begin there for Miss Cook, as she had already been performing for over thirty years, so before I meander along with my personal remembrances of her I feel we should venture back to the early fifties and her first stage appearances.

It was in 1951, some fifty six years ago, that she made her Broadway debut in the whimsical Fain/Harburg musical “Flahooley”. Now “Flahooley” was by no means a big hit, but Barbara’s solo’s were enough to get her noticed and the rest of the decade saw her become Broadway’s favourite ingénue. She followed this by playing Ado Annie in a revival of “Oklahoma” followed by a tour of the same show. Her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in a revival of “Carousel” was followed by her next major role, as Hilda, in the hit musical “Plain And Fancy” (Composed, incidentally, by Albert Hague the TV “Fame’s” Shorofsky!) focussing on America’s Amish community. 1955 saw Barbara as the first to sing the vocally astonishing “Glitter And Be Gay” when she portrayed Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s, then unsuccessful, “Candide”. In later years this show has, very much, become part of the operatic repertoire and Cooks performance on the original cast recording has no doubt influenced the continuing ongoing interest in the piece. 1957 saw a bona fide block buster when she was cast as Marian, the librarian, in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man” where she introduced “Till There Was You” later to become the only show tune to be covered by The Beatles. The fifties were rounded out by Barbara’s first solo recordings. “Songs Of Perfect Priority” was an experimental album of Dorothy Parker poems set to music (the only of her solo albums never to have a CD release) and “From the Heart” (recently re-released by DRG) is a collection of songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. I would describe the arrangements on this recording as both quaint and antiquated but it’s well worth a listen to hear a youthful Barbara Cook at the height of her Broadway career.

As the sixties came, the Broadway musical was still very much a part of Barbara’s life as she starred in 1961’s “The Gay Lif”e and 1964’s “Something More”, but it was the 1963 show “She Loves Me” which provided her with, possibly, the best role of her career. As Amalia Balash a shop assistant in Budapest she performed (what were to become) signature numbers “Will He Like Me”, “Dear Friend” and the breathtaking “Ice Cream”. Barbara also played the lead roles in City Center revivals of both “The King And I” and “Carousel”. Sadly as the sixties rolled on the ingénue roles began to dry up and it wasn’t until 1971 that she starred in her last Broadway musical role to date in the short lived “The Grass Harp” based on a story by Truman Capote. During these years Cook experienced a number of personal problems however she re-emerged in the mid-seventies as a successful concert/cabaret performer aided and abetted by her long time accompanist/arranger Wally Harper.

It was in 1975 that Barbara was to make her concert debut at no less a venue that New York’s Carnegie Hall. This concert was such a resounding critical and popular success that an album was released proving my point that not only was Cook one of the finest exponents of show tunes and the standards but she could turn her hand to pop with equal success.

Pop music was more in evidence on her next album, 1977’s “As Of Toda”y where she included Janis Ian’s “Stars” as well as Carol Hall’s touching “Ain’t Love Easy”. “It’s Better With A Band” followed in 1981 capturing a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall and featuring new specially written material such as the stunning title song and the “The Ingenue” both written by Wally Harper and David Zippel. “The Ingenue” was a wonderful self parody and the lyrics touched on many of the roles she had played some twenty or more years before as well as “The movie roles you long to play they give to Shirley Jones to do”, noting her failure to get the role of Marian in “The Music Man” movie.

It was in 1985 that RCA decided that, as only a truncated version of the score had been released when the show had its Broadway run, they would record Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” in it’s entirety – and Cook was signed to play Sally Durant Plummer giving voice to definitive versions of both “Losing My Mind” and “In Buddys Eyes”.

So this takes me back to where I began my story in the mid-eighties. The Donmar season was a huge hit receiving rave reviews and Barbara Cook became a regular presence on television over the following few years. Particular highlights of this period included an all star “Night Of A Hundred Star” at The Palladium where she brought the house down with her energetic performance of “Carolina In The Mornin”g, as well as the first of several Royal Variety Performances and appearances on the SWET (now Olivier) Awards as well as The Tonys. She returned to the recording studio to participate in a newly orchestrated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” where she played Julie Jordan, a new musical version of “The Secret Garden” and, delightfully, “The Disney Album”, a solo collection of songs from the golden age of Disney animation. Almost every year Barbara would also return to London for a concert or two and over the years she has played at the Barbican, The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Albert Hall and The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The late eighties also saw her triumphant return to Broadway with “A Concert For The Theatre”, and her last book musical to date. Sadly “Carrie” was not the most successful of experiences, despite great excitement at its announcement, it was felt at the time that she was miscast and its said that Barbara was unhappy in her role as Carrie’s mother. She stayed with the show for the duration of its run in Stratford Upon Avon, but did not perform in the short-lived Broadway run – that honour instead went to Betty Buckley.

The nineties saw a continuing concert and cabaret programme for Barbara, and London continued to be a big part of this, especially her seventieth birthday concert at The Royal Albert Hall where she was joined by guests including Elaine Stritch. 1993 saw the beginning of a her ongoing relationship with DRG records when she released “Close As Pages In A Boo”k a collection of songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. A spectacular season at London’s Sadlers Wells followed accompanied by one of her best recordings “Live From London”. Further studio sets followed with “All I Ask Of You”, and “Oscar Winners” which focussed on the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein. Her Café Carlyle season in tribute to theatre legend Gower Champion (“The Champion Seaso”n) was also released on CD around this time. As the new millennium dawned there were no signs of the pace slowing down as she enjoyed a “Mostly Sondheim” season at Carnegie Hall (reprised at London’s Lyric Theatre) where she showcased a selection of Sondheim’s greatest works along with some songs that he wishes he had written. Happily for Barbara, one of Sondheim’s favourites was “Ice Cream” from “She Loves M”e so she got to re-visit that number as well as deliver her own take on “Send in The Clowns” which, for my money, ranks amongst the best versions. A double album of the concert was released along with a DVD version. Fascinatingly the DVD also contains a “master class” with Barbara passing on her wisdom to other performers – offering a fascinating insight into her gifts. Barbara followed this season with “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” a tribute to Broadways golden age where she featured many songs from the era she was a Broadway performer herself. Favouring longer runs rather than on off concert dates on her London visits these days, Barbara brought this show to The Gielgud for a season, but sadly this was curtailed due to ill health. It was shortly after a second season at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket that Barbara’s long time musical arranger, Wally Harper, died. Special tribute must be paid to Wally whose presence in Barbara’s concert was very important indeed. He was extremely simpatico to Barbara and has proved irreplaceable in his absence. However Barbara’s career continues without Wally and she has released a further studio album, “Tribute”, featuring songs new and familiar to her repertoire. 2006 saw Barbara make her solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York the first non operatic female singer to hold this distinction. With Eric Stern conducting, and special guests Audra McDonald and Josh Groban this concert as well was released on CD. So what now for Barbara? Well a further album, “No One Is Alone” was released in the last few weeks based on her most recent Carnegie Hall concert, there can’t be many recording artists whose most prolific period was after they hit seventy! As for the future, she has a busy concert schedule, and although there are no further appearances planned for the UK we can only hope that she will return one more time so London audiences can experience the magic of Broadways greatest ingénue.

Well, as I have mentioned, Cook has been nothing if not prolific, and most of her recordings are currently available on CD. Almost all of her great Broadway roles are now available on CD with the exception of “Something More” which was never recorded. There are even two versions of “Showboa”t on release as well as a lovely studio recording of “The King And I” – a role she played at The Lincoln Centre (Anna that is!) I would most recommend her recordings of “She Loves Me”, “Carousel” and “Follies”. Of her solo recordings she is at best when she sings live so her “Live From Carnegie Hall” is excellent, although possibly the best set has to be 1994’s “Live From London”. Then of course there is last years” Live At The Met” and 2001’s “Mostly Sondheim”. DRG, her current label, seem to be in the process of getting the rights to all the Barbara Cook recordings that are currently out of print and so far have re-released “From The Heart”, “As Of Toda”y, “It’s Better With A Band” and the cast albums to “Plain And Fancy”, “The Gay Life” and “Flahoole”y. Who knows, we may even be able to look forward to “Songs Of Perfect Priorit”y at some point. This year has also seen a “Broadway Legend” release from Sony featuring many of Cook’s performances from her Broadway years. Anyway I look forward to hearing the new release “No One Is Alone” with interest! I really must get down to!