Thursday, 26 July 2007

The Music That Makes Me Dance 26/7

“Memories, light the corners of my mind, misty water coloured memories of “Barbra Streisand, OK, I admit, it I have been a Barbra Streisand fan for about twenty two years. A closet fan? Well it’s difficult to be a closet fan when Babs is the subject of your adoration……. Anyway as we are in the midst of her London concerts it seems an apt time to discuss all things Barbra.

As a child and early teenager I had pretty much loathed her in all honesty, that is until I heard the song “Evergreen” the theme from her movie “A Star Is Born” and from that moment on I was hooked. It wasn’t long after this that her “The Broadway Album” was released and I was ridiculously excited about this as I knew the song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” was on it and I had got a bit obsessive about the song at the time. I was on tenterhooks waiting for the release. The album didn’t disappoint ,and was one of my first experiences of the music of Stephen Sondheim (a parallel obsession) , remaining a favourite to this day.

So there I am a teenage Barbra Streisand fan, not the hippest of past times I know! I would go to my friend Jackie’s and we would do that very teenage thing of playing each other the songs that had “meaning” to us. It was in this way that Jackie introduced me to Alison Moyet, Prefab Sprout and Everything But The Girl. My legacy to her was Elaine Paige and Barbra Streisand. She liked Ms Paige pretty much immediately but I really had to persevere with Barbra. Eventually I persuaded her to like some of her stuff but it took a great deal of effort!!

It wasn’t long after this that I went into the sixth form. It was really funny but the circle I hung around with got a really awful reputation with the other students, in the sixth form house where we spent our breaks we kind of occupied what became known as “the end room” . Everyone else was really scared of us! To this day I don’t really know why but maybe it had something to with our taste in music! Firstly we had the mods (and modettes) playing their northern soul – and having what they called “serious fun”. “Nobody has serious fun anymore” they would lament, and then dance to their music with the most dour facial expressions you can imagine. It would seem that serious fun was all about being miserable when having a good time! It seemed particularly bizarre when they were doing their moves to the theme from “Rupert The Bear”! Yes Really! Perhaps that was enough to scare anyone! We also had a Led Zeppelin fan called Leper. That wasn’t really his name of course (don’t ask what that was!) but hew was about six foot five and had very long arms and it looked like his hands were dropping off (!?) So everyone called him leper. Then there was heavy metal, a few smiths fans and me. In the space of a lunch time it wasn’t unusual to hear “Stairway To Heaven”, “Wipe Out”, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and “One Singular Sensation” from “A Chorus Line”. Yes, that was my fault too! So I wonder now if this is what everyone was frightened of. Death by show tune?

Well apart from using the five pound record voucher I won for third place in the May Ball fancy dress contest – to buy the “Yentl” soundtrack that’s about it for my Barbra school years. And no, I didn’t enter the contest as Fanny Brice. But it was only a matter of time until I was working full time in Box Office on the huge sum of one hundred pounds a week – this was the eighties! Collecting Barbra began in earnest. Everything from “Hello Dolly” to “Je M’Appelle Barbra”. Obviously we all have songs that we especially connect to either emotionally or because they remind us of a particular place and time and, for me, her songs are no exception. Her recordings of “My Fathers Song” and “Being Alive” have meant a lot to me for many years.

Anyway, by 1994 when she was due to perform her Wembley concerts I must have had everything she had commercially released and seen all of her movies. I had never imagined that she would be someone I would see live so when I realised that the tickets were way beyond my means I accepted it pretty quickly. A couple of months before the concerts were scheduled I got a call from Plum (remember her?) saying I had to keep a particular night free but she couldn’t say why. Of course I knew that the date coincided with the London dates, but couldn’t allow myself to think that I might be seeing Streisand. After all, whatever Plum had organized it was bound to be something nice! Anyway the day came and I met Plum at the Opera Tavern, opposite Drury Lane, along with her sister, Debs. Now Debs really is a Streisand nut so her presence there was the final clue! My suspicions were confirmed. Debs was under the allusion that we were meeting Plum so she could show us the new sofa’s in her newly bought Barnet cottage. In fact even when she had the ticket in her hand Debs didn’t quite realise that we were going to see Barbra that night. Then there was screaming and tears and bed wetting and, well you get the idea!

In all truth I have seen better concerts than the one I saw that night, but possibly none that felt quite so special. From the moment that she took to the stage, singing “I Don’t Know Why I’m Frightened….” the opening line of “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, it was clear that it would be a memorable night. There is something quite magical about hearing her signature numbers and big hits performed live. “Evergreen” was incredible and actually being there when she launched into “The Way We Were” as Robert Redford appeared on the big screen behind her was spine tingling. “The Man That Got Away” had long been a favourite of mine too so when she sang that for the first time I was really pleased and , schmaltzy as it is, I even enjoyed her singing “People” from “Funny Girl”. She even had Wembley Arena carpeted just for the show! I haven’t seen her this time around but I am not sorry. Seeing Barbra Streisand live is really a once in a lifetime thing. To see her twice would diminish that experience.

So am I a complete Barbra Streisand fanatic? Well no, not really. I have everything she has done (more or less) but I tend to do that with anyone I like – hence 3000 plus CDs. I do however continue to enjoy her music and every now and then go all Barbra and listen to all the old albums again. All I have to do is hear “Evergreen” or “Somewhere” and I am transported back – either to the “end room” or that night at Wembley Arena……

Well where do I start? “The Essential Barbra Streisand” is possibly the best overview, and “The Broadway Album” is an essential for any musical theatre fans. “One Voice” is one of her best live albums and it also features a guest appearance from Barry Gibb for her “Guilty” duets. “The Concert” is the tour I saw, and her new live album is great too. Of her movies “Funny Girl” is the best of the musicals, “What’s Up Doc” the best comedy and “The Way We Were” the best drama. “Yentl”, and “Hello Dolly” also get a special mention! Also on DVD are most of her concerts and, for extra kitsch value, “The Television Specials”. These are very old fashioned, but were highly innovative at the time, and show a Barbra who doesn’t take herself nearly as seriously as she has in more recent years!

Friday, 20 July 2007

Me And My Amazing Technicolor Column

Well I don’t usually write a review of a show after I have seen it, but having seen a preview of “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” I feel compelled to write about it. But “Joseph’s” special.

The first time I saw “Joseph” I must have been eight or nine. I went on a school trip to Leicester Haymarket to see the show and we all had a whale of a time. I remember, during the finale, the actor playing the lead pelted the audience with liquorice allsorts. I am sure in these days of proliferate health and safety regulations it really wouldn’t be allowed, and indeed I cowered in my seat expecting to be killed by a candy hailstorm. My friend Lesley was much braver however and managed to catch a sweet which she then proceeded to nail varnish and cherish as a memento of her love for the show’s star. She still had the all sort in her jewellery box ten years later and I suspect that somewhere in the cottage she shares with her new husband there is still a mouldy old sweet to be found.

The following year saw my next experience of the show, in Chelmsford, where my uncle was playing one of Joseph’s brothers. Possibly I enjoyed the show even more on this occasion. I suspect that in the late seventies and early eighties the show must have played at almost every regional theatre and rep in the country, becoming a huge popular hit that everyone knew well despite it never having had a major west end run.

Around 1980 even “Grange Hill” put on a production of “Joseph”. This wasn’t at all unusual as it was around this time that it became one of the staples for school shows. Then in 1991 a big budget production opened at the Palladium starring Jason Donovan and the musical finally became the huge mainstream success that it is now.

So whether it be a regional version, appearing in a school show or the West End mega hit, there must be many people who count “Joseph” as one of their first theatre experiences or even one of the defining moments of their childhood. In a strange sort of way this results in many of the audience having a strong connection to the piece. This seems to lend a show which, on the surface, seems slight and fluffy a real emotional quality. This is what, I believe, makes “Joseph” special.

Anyway enough of this meandering! Let’s get back to the new sparkling Adelphi production. I must admit that I had forgotten quite how funny the show is, but I was reminded by the lovely Miss Wilkin, at my side, who giggled all the way through! Steven Pimlott’s vision of the piece brings comedy very much to the fore. Humour finds it’s way via the choreography, the set and of course Tim Rice’s ever witty lyrics. This is most evident in the pastiche numbers that the brothers sing which work as brilliantly as ever. I doubt that Lloyd Webber regards Joseph as his greatest work but I think it’s certainly his most entertaining, and as good family entertainment goes the show really can’t be bettered. His score works brilliantly for the show and the shows big numbers “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do” are hard to beat. Lee Mead is certainly a great find in the lead. I doubt the role has ever been better sung and I heard harmonies there which I have never heard before. I mean Jason Donovan was really charismatic in the role and Donny Osmond – well you have to love Donny, but, I believe, Lee Mead really does sing the role better than it’s ever been sung before. It’s kind of ironic that it’s a TV talent show that has lead to a trained and seasoned musical theatre performer landing the lead when, in recent years, it has very much become associated with fading pop stars and TV presenters. I am sure we will hear of Mr Mead for many years to come and Andrew Lloyd Webber has made a great discovery. Nice set of pins too! The only bad point for me was all the screaming coming from the audience. The majority of this didn’t bother me but the stage mothers screaming for the children did seem a little OTT! Never mind though, they will calm down soon! The one thing that had filled me with horror was the prospect of enduring the mega-mix at the shows end. However my fears were unfounded as it really was a great ending to the show and left the audience with a real high to go out on. Let’s not forget that the Palladium “Joseph” was the first to have one of these extended medleys, so this productions is the first and best!

Maybe it’s just me but I certainly found many elements of the Adelphi production quite moving. The whole “father estranged from son” thing always gets me a bit -but that’s because of my own personal history. Oddly it was during the mega mix that I felt a bit choked. Now this I can’t explain but perhaps it was just the electric atmosphere that the show had generated that was getting to me. Whatever the reason I certainly had a great time and even though I hadn’t been particularly bothered about going I am very glad I did. A really great night out and, on this occasion, I didn’t have the perilous flying sweeties to contend with!

Well, I will be very surprised if a new cast recording of the show isn’t out very soon and I would suggest you wait for that. However the Jason Donovan recording is available as is the Donny Osmond one. They are pretty similar so just go for your favourite Joe! Of course the DVD is available starring Donny alongside Maria Freidman, Richard Attenborough and Joan Collins. A CD soundtrack was also released although it may be quite hard to find now. The filmed version is a lot of fun though and I would recommend it!

Friday, 13 July 2007

Uncommonly Asked Questions!

The most common question I am currently asked at work is not, as you may think, if I would like a cup of tea. It is of course “can you tell me if Connie is on tonight?” However, we do get asked the most odd questions on occasion…..

Today my first customer informed me that she was going to ask me a really unusual question, so naturally I braced myself and prepared for the worst. What could it be? Did she want the recipe for strudel perhaps, or perchance where would she be able to buy a habit like the Mother Abbesses (Marks and Sparks?). No. This unusual question was “Do you do matinees?” I ask you!

Next came a rather fragile old lady. Bless her! Her twin sister had been to see the show the previous week and sat in the upper circle. She wanted cheaper seats but she felt that it would be too high for herself as she couldn’t manage the stairs. “ I have a walking stick she told me and I have fits.” Naturally it followed that I asked if she was registered disabled, in order to offer the relevant discount, so asked her….”I have a walking stick. Look!” she replied, finally I did manage to ascertain that she was registered, so passed on the relevant information and she was quite happy. Of course she did want to see Connie Fisher AND attend a Wednesday matinee which gave the whole thing another dimension and so had to go and think about it. However she was happy and, clutching a flyer, began to leave. But not before asking one more question. “What’s the managers phone number?” Now this is never a simple answer as we always need to ascertain if the manager is the appropriate person for the customers query so I had to ask her of course. “My husbands looking for a job" . I explained that the best thing would for him to send in a CV rather than telephone and queried what sort of job he would be interested in. “Actor or Usher/Usherette”. Well that wasn’t what I expected to hear. I wonder if that’s how Lesley Garrett got to be in “The Sound Of Music” . Maybe she was only aiming to sell ice creams and just struck lucky!

Far from customers like this being irritating they are one of the joys of the job. Working in theatre we regularly find ourselves faced with the eccentric and the bizarre – although that’s usually just the staff! We used to have a regular Sunday concert customer (one of the Palladiums faithful band who attend EVERY concert regardless of who is performing) who would come into the box office and shout every request. Frequently he would pepper his questions by yelling “the Chinese man keeps calling me a poof”. I believe that he would also call customer relations along the same lines…..Then there was the mother and daughter who would come to see “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” on multiple occasions and had a strange purchasing technique. Firstly they would come to the window and spend around half an hour asking questions about the availability for specific performances in particular detail. Then they would leave the window and go and huddle in the corridor for a further thirty minutes, whispering to each other and furtively peering at us at regular intervals. Then they would finally return to us and ask all of the same questions a further time. Some times they then bought tickets. Sometimes further huddles followed before they purchased tickets. Sometimes however they would leave and return the following day and go through the whole process again.! There’s nowt so queer as folk!

Possibly the most bizarre thing that used to happen at the Palladium is when customers would go to the closed blind and begin asking questions at the closed window rather than going to the obviously open manned window. This wasn’t occasional though, it would happen on a very regular basis. There are also some odd-seeming questions that prove to be asked regularly. On “Saturday Night Fever” we were often asked “Why is there more than one price?” Never before or since but on Fever all the time. Currently we are often asked questions about Connie Francis! It can only be a matter of time before we are asked about Carrie Fisher!

Needless to say we will be endlessly entertained by these uncommonly asked questions and they certainly make the job more interesting. Sometimes however, an appropriate answer is almost impossible to find. Only a few days ago one of my colleagues was asked by a (decidedly middle aged man) if we held tickets back for “all of the beautiful boys”. He then followed this with “Don’t you think I have a beautiful body?” Sometimes words really can fail us!!!!

So the next time you see a customer approaching you, or you take a call, be prepared! Who can say what they may ask you!