Thursday, 29 November 2007

29/11 Swing Your Razor High Sweeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 22 November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Last Time I Saw Paris 15/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 November 2007

I Miss The Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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