Thursday, 31 January 2008

What's The Buzz? 31/1/08

What’s The Buzz?

If you were to run a poll asking what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest work is I have a sneaking suspicion that “The Phantom Of The Opera” would win by a mile. If you asked me I would plump for “Evita”, although I think “Joseph” is the most entertaining. However, if you were to ask, Palladium redcoat, Anthony Bristoe he would say “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Suggest he is mistaken and you would be greeted by a befuddled look – in fact his eyes may even well up a little! So this weeks column eschews the EPEMs (Elaine Paige Essential Musicals) of yore to launch, for one week only, the ABEMs (Anthony Bristoe Essential Musicals).

Without a doubt “Superstar” is a musical that has broken ground since day one. One of the earliest musicals to feature a rock score it’s, what often used to be called, a “Rock Opera”. With lyrics by Tim Rice, it was also the first major musical to initially appear as a “concept album”. Released in 1970 the cast included Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan (one of several cast members from the rock world) , Murray Head as Judas and Hawaiian discovery Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. At first the album didn’t do particularly well in the UK, but in America it was a different story. The narrative, of course, is centred on the last days of Christ and this provoked controversy in both countries. What made it particularly contentious is that the narrative took the perspective of Judas and often questioned events from the gospels, as well as omitting the resurrection – never mind that rock music was being used! Despite the consternation of the religious right, the LP became something of a phenomenon in the US making the very top of the album charts as well as inspiring concert tours which paved the way for a Broadway mounting in 1971. The much awaited production starred Jeff Fenholt, Yvonne Elliman and Ben Vereen and, although often accused of being too lavish, had a successful run of around eighteen months. The London version was much simpler and, starring Paul Nicholas as Jesus, opened at the Palace Theatre in 1972 where it ran for around eight years becoming London’s longest running musical up until that time. Let’s also not forget the successful 1973 Norman Jewison movie which also starred Elliman and was filmed in Israel and other middle eastern locations. As different incarnations flourished around the world “Jesus Christ Superstar’s” place in the musical canon was assured. A Swedish production even saw a pre-Abba Agnetha Faltskog as Mary. That’s the blonde one folks!

But what of the music? It wouldn’t be fair of me to say it’s a personal favourite score of mine but, for the purposes of the shows plot, it all works brilliantly. From the slow build of the overture that leads into the questioning “Heaven On Their Minds”, via the heartfelt “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” until it reaches the crescendo that is “Superstar” itself, the shows score certainly contains all the energy, excitement and emotion that the plot requires. Focussing on subject matter that, in previous tellings was known as “The Passions” it is truly a passionate take on a story that we all know.

I think I grew up knowing the show’s title song, although the lyrics I knew as a child began “Jesus Christ Superstar went down the motorway on a Yamaha…” Yes, really! But seriously, by the time I was a teenager, far from being controversial, Rice and Lloyd Webber’s take on the gospels was considered an acceptable interpretation. I first got to know the musical when I saw the movie at school. It was one of those days that snow had descended so not many children, or teachers, had got in. So as the snow continued to fall we all sat in the hall and watched a video. I also remember that we sang “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” in the school choir. OK, so it’s about god technically but, given we also had to sing “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No”, I think that the school choir had a lot to answer for!

So “Superstar” always fell into the category of shows that I liked elements of. I always liked “Could We Start Again Please” in the movie for instance, although it’s setting was very reminiscent of those early seventies “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” Coca-Cola ads. To “get” a musical fully I guess you really have to see it live. The 1996 revival at the Lyceum theatre finally gave me that opportunity. The energy of Zubin Varla’s Judas and Joanna Ampil’s sweet portrayal of Mary Magdalene would have been enough for anyone to fall in love with the show, but this production had a secret weapon. Steve Balsamo as Jesus. His performance of “Gethsemane” remains one of the most exciting and moving things I have ever seen on stage. His voice soared, and I appreciated the song in a way I never had before. I saw this production twice. First I was delighted to take my younger brother Joe. He must have been around fourteen at the time. Joe was really into cars (he is now a mechanic) and The Prodigy. The last kid you would expect to like musicals – or so you would think. The previous year I had taken him to see a couple of shows and he was overwhelmed. He absolutely fell in love with the theatre, and adored “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Watching the show he was palpably excited, he had no conception that a show could sound rocky and have electric guitars! So a few months later when my brother Adam, and stepmother Vina, came for a prolonged visit before moving to Mauritius I headed to the theatre for a second time.

All in all, the second visit was a somewhat surreal experience. On more than one level. It was a few days after the death of Princess Diana when we ventured to the Lyceum. As you may remember, the atmosphere at the time was incredible. The entire country seemed to be emotionally overwrought. It’s a strange thing, mystifying (sorry I couldn’t resist that quote!) but some of Tim Rice’s lyrics seemed to have parallels with everything that was going on at the time. We were being besieged by images of Diana’s “good works” and the many wonderful things she did for her various charities. To hear Judas, at the shows outset, sing “Heaven On Their Minds”, where he first questions what people are saying about Christ, really gave me pause for thought. These reflections echoed through the evening and I ended up viewing the show in an entirely different way. Naturally I am not attempting to compare Diana to Christ but it was certainly an example of theatre at its most thought provoking, albeit in a very unusual way.

Well, as I said, the surrealism was on more than one level. We were seated in what was called “The Tribune”. This was on stage seating, not dissimilar to an amphitheatre. From this position we witnessed that Mary Magdalene liked to pinch the guys bums and that, apparently, some of the disciples liked to wear CKOne. Also, disturbingly, we found ourselves sprinkled with Christ’s blood as one of the cast threw it around with gay abandon.

Whilst, personally, I will never be convinced that “Superstar” is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest work (and neither should it be for such an early piece) it does contain some of what is Rice and Lloyd Webber at their best. Be it Tim Rice’s witty word play, the lovely “Everything’s Alright”, the vaudeville approach of “Herod’s Song” or the heartfelt and rousing “Gethsemane” it really does contain some amazing moments. Simply put, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is one of the greatest love songs in musical theatre, from any composer. What is beyond doubt is that the 1996 London production, for many reasons, remains one of my greatest theatrical experiences.

I suppose before I go I should apologise for sending Anthony up a little. He is not quite that bad. Honest. Ok, well maybe a little… The real truth is that when he talks about “Jesus Christ Superstar” he is passionate and isn’t that what the best theatre should be all about? To rouse passions? I think so!

There are a vast numbers of recordings of the show but my favourite would have to be the Lyceum version. The shows most oft recorded number is of course “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”. The Elaine Paige version on her “Stages” album is great and Petula Clark’s hit 1971 single used a very clever arrangement that incorporated elements of the shows title song. Rebecca Storm took a similar approach but her version has never been that easy to acquire. If you bought last years “Challenge Anneke” charity album “Over The Rainbow” you could listen to the gravel voiced Bonnie Tyler growling her way through it! She brings to it an, entirely appropriate, rock edge in a recording that has fast become a favourite of mine.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

When I Say Run....Run!!!!!!!!!!! 24/1/08

I had a surreal experience a few days ago. There I was watching Saturday night television and what should I see? Raptors. As in dinosaurs. The weird thing was that they were in Kingston’s Bentall’s centre. Now living relatively close to Kingston for almost twenty years I have often been to the Bentall’s centre and I have seen some strange things there believe me. But Kingston has a surprisingly low dino-count I have never seen so much as a Pterodaktyl .

I was of course watching ITV’s “Primeval” where Dinosaurs enter contemporary Britain through “anomalies” and wreak havoc in all kinds of places i.e. it was pretend. It’s kind of odd though when you see locations you know well being used in a TV show or film. What was particularly dis-orientating was that the action took place in the Bentall’s centre along with a department store and bowling alley that were supposed to be part of the same complex. Now if you know Kingston you will know that Bentall’s the department store is within the Bentall’s centre. Makes sense right? Well in “Primeval” the department store was quite clearly John Lewis which is outside and across the road. So, given that there was no obvious damage to all the doors, I can only assume that the Dinosaurs had planned ahead and had keys cut as they clearly snook out of the Bentalls Centre locked the door behind them and crept across the road, incidentally, crossing the path of the 111 bus which I take to Kingston. What’s more impressive is that the nearest bowling alley is the other end of the high street and then some so they will have had to tiptoe down past Marks and Spencer, The Gap, and Pizza Hut to get there. All without the residents of Kingston noticing them! These dinosaurs are clever folk!

Ok, Ok so I known it’s not real but it can be quite difficult to suspend belief sometimes. Way back in the sixties they had Cybermen on the steps of St Paul’s and Daleks on Waterloo Bridge so it’s nothing new, and can certainly increase the excitement and heighten the fear-factor an octane or two. A recent example would have to be the Matt Damon movie “The Bourne Ultimatum”. I travel through Waterloo station everyday so to see it used to such a great effect in this movie was almost mind-blowing. How they achieved such results in one of the worlds biggest railway stations is beyond me.

Of course, working in theatre, the shoe is often on the other foot as our work locations can often feature in other media. Anyone who has seen the movie “Closer” will be sure to recognize some scenes filmed at Drury Lane for instance. However, my first experience of the camera’s invading one of our theatres was back in the eighties. There I was, sitting in the box office at the Apollo Theatre when a perplexed Amanda Cousins (who was working at the Lyric) came in. Amanda had turned up to work as usual and gone to the back to enter via the stage door only to find it had disappeared. Well, transformed would be a better word really for that morning she found a Soho Sex Shop where the stage door should have been. She was mortified!

Here at the Palladium we have recently seen camera’s invade, but as the TV show in question has not yet aired I will not comment on that! I suspect that the Palladium is possibly the most filmed theatre in London, if not the world. This is of course down to a certain TV show that was launched back in the very early days of ITV. I speak, of course, of “Sunday Night At The London Palladium” which, in it’s fifties and sixties heyday,attracted the worlds biggest stars. Over the years the format has been revived many times and I was here the last time that it happened, when Bruce Forsyth filmed a run of “Live At The Palladium”, between “Saturday Night Fever” and “The King And I”. On this occasion the production really did invade our space though not , ironically, because of the actual filming. Basically the caterers moved in! The training suite within the Palladium box office became the canteen. The actual training room was transformed into a cafeteria and the break room became a fully operating kitchen. Tea urns sizzled, deep fat fryers frizzled and we sat and wizzled. Yes, Ok I know that’s not really a word but at least it rhymes. Why were we wizzling though? Partly because of the delicious smells wafting through. We did have the perk of free meals though – and they were delicious! The other thing that wizzled us was the sight of the likes of Sting, Jimmy Nail and the cast of “Les Miserables” wandering by to go and grab their pie and chips. Not an experience we have every day. So two weeks went by and after the exodus of the TV crews etc we were left with a curious legacy. Fat. Everything seemed to be covered with a thin layer of congealed chip fat. Lovely!

So there you go, Location filming can disorientate the viewer , not to mention disturb those of us who try to live or work in the location. The results can be well worth it though, be it the village of “Cranford” in the BBC’s recent drama, or Shakespearian London in last years “Doctor Who” the imagination of a great film or television production invariably transports us, magically, to a different place or time. But, next time you see a herd of Wizzlesauras stampeding through the foyer of the Palace with John Barrowman (for he gets everywhere!) on their tail spare a thought for the displaced staff members! After all not everyone is lucky enough to get free dinners into the bargain!

Wizzlingly yours


Thursday, 17 January 2008

If You'll Excuse An Expression I Use.... 17/1/08

“So many books!” exclaimed Ilona Ritter, in the 1964 musical “She Loves Me” ,and I know exactly what she meant. Since I was a small child I have been a voracious reader, and given that I have previously touched on other creative forms, such as art and television, I thought it was high time that I mentioned literature.

Armistead Maupin, Emily Bronte, David Leavitt, Charles Dickens, Anne Rice (a somewhat guilty pleasure), Dirk Bogarde and even Enid Blyton have all made an impression on me at various times in my life,but for this weeks column I am going to look at one author in particular whose work I have admired for most of my adult life.

It was back in the late eighties that I picked up a copy of “Kansas In August” by Patrick Gale. It can hardly come as a shock that I was immediately taken by the tale of, English teacher, Hilary a young man with a penchant for tap dancing and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals who longs to be the next Fred Astaire. Instead Hilary finds himself marking essays in his evenings as he listens to the LP of “The King And I”. Life for Hilary isn’t without it’s complications though, such as finding an abandoned baby and unknowingly sharing a lover with his sister, not to mention the little girl downstairs thinking he is something akin to the second coming! This slim volume really captured my imagination, as I was drawn into the world of Hilary and his sister Henrietta. It’s no surprise that some twenty years on I am still reading, and enjoying, the novels of Patrick Gale.

So, following “Kansas In August”, it wasn’t long before I explored his previous novels “Ease”, the story of, Domina Tey a middle aged writer who escapes her life for a little adventure, and “The Aerodynamics Of Pork”. The latter tells of the sexual awakening of Seth a young violinist about to start at music college, running in parallel with the story of Mo a lesbian policewoman in London until their stories collide. Like “Kansas” both novels are quite brief and can be read in one or two sittings. With supporting casts of quirky and entertaining characters these novels are largely light hearted but also often have the capacity to move.

With these early novels Gale was often categorized as an up and coming gay writer, but it’s probably unfair to describe his books as gay novels. Sure, gay characters appear in his stories but more often than not in the same way that “Coronation Street” features them. Sometimes they may just be minor characters, or sometimes at the forefront of the action but I feel that it’s the characters themselves that drive the plot rather than issues such as sexuality etc.

Whilst “Aerodynamics” was the first of several of Gale’s novels to feature a Cornish setting, his next “Facing The Tank” took us to the fictional setting of Barrowcester (pronounced Brewster), which has oft been mentioned in his later work, for the first time. Possibly the most richly comic of all his novels, it tells of American academic Evan Kirby as he goes to the cathedral town to study angels and demons. The people he meets during his research are almost modern day Dickensian characters, including a young gay man who has to “come out” to his parents and reveal that he is actually straight and the elderly mother of a bishop with a taste for hash brownies. The novel unfolds in to what is almost a, very English, “Tales Of the City” before taking a peculiarly supernatural twist as it reaches it’s conclusion.

Of his next few books I confess that “The Cat Sanctuary” and “Tree Surgery For Beginners” didn’t quite grab me on the first reading, however 1995 saw the publication of a novel that literally blew me away. “The Facts Of Life” is a family saga telling of Edward Pepper, a German Jew who manages to escape the Nazis to settle in the UK, eventually falling in love and marrying Sally, the doctor who nurses him through TB. The highs and lows of their relationship are explored, as Pepper becomes a respected composer, but it is only a matter of time before tragedy knocks at their door. Many years later the story moves to the lives of Pepper’s grandson and granddaughter, and Pepper’s own prejudices as he struggles to relate to the complications of their modern lives. I don’t want to give too much away about the novel as I would much rather you read it, I would however say that, even though Gale’s humour is still evident, “The Facts Of Life” remains one of the most poignant novels I have read to date. On more than one occasion I was moved to tears (kind of embarrassing when I was on the bus!) and it’s exploration of the family dynamic provides much that we can all relate to.

It’s curious, but I think that as I, and my literary needs, have matured as a reader Gale has matured as a writer. The caricature-like individuals that populate his early work have faded into the background as very real, very human people take their place. More than ever I never quite know what to expect from his books but I always know they will be a satisfying experience. This has been borne out by his books of the new millennium. Although all of his fiction stands alone it’s not unusual for characters and locations from earlier novels to re-appear and “Rough Music” in particular draws on elements from “The Aerodynamics Of Pork”. Touted as his most autobiographical novel to date, it contains the humour and heartbreak which characterize his best work, touching on difficult issues in the process. However, as with the gay aspect, in my opinion, it’s most definitely the, characters that drive the plot rather than heavy issues.. Seemingly ordinary people with, perhaps, extraordinary things going on beneath the surface. “Rough Music” is a book which I thoroughly enjoyed, and received much praise from the critics, as did “A Sweet Obscurity” and “Friendly Fire” which followed. Now with his latest novel, “Notes From An Exhibition”, Patrick is poised to take on a whole new audience.

Yes, “Notes From An Exhibition” has been selected for Richard and Judy’s Book Club 2008, so it’s probable that many people who really couldn’t tell the difference between the aerodynamics of pork and little bits of baby will now become aware of Patrick Gale’s fiction.

The novel tells the story of the late Rachel Kelly, a Cornwall based bi-polar artist, her Quaker husband and her family. Going back and forth in time and focusing on different family members in different chapters the novel slowly unravels it’s mysteries whilst subtly creating new ones. Who is Rachel and where did she come from? How did her son Petroc die? Will Morwenna ever return from her wanderings and what prevents Hedley from returning to London after Rachel’s funeral? It really is a wonderful frustrating jigsaw of a book which, even though it doesn’t quite reveal all of it’s secrets, ends in such a hopeful way that it doesn’t matter. After completing the novel it’s characters haunted me for days to the point where I felt compelled to contact Patrick via Facebook and share my thoughts.

So some twenty years ago I read of Hilary Metcalfe, cycle riding, tap dancing, musical loving English teacher who was corny as Kansas in August and high as a flag on the fourth of July. You could certainly do a lot worse than try out this story for yourself. Indeed, I hope that my little meanderings on Patrick Gale inspire some of you to pick up a book, and I am sure that the Richard and Judy effect is going to have a big impact . Perhaps a film or TV adaptation will even come to fruition too. Over the years he has had many projects in development even “Kansas In August” commissioned by the Really Useful Picture Group at one point! Actually though, and apologies to Patrick here, I must confess that I might prefer him to stay one of own secret passions rather than the next big thing!

So finally, on more than one occasion I have wondered what might happen in the future to the characters in the novels I have read and I am sure you have too. How did Ebenezer Scrooge adapt to his new, kinder, temperament? Did the Famous Five’s George grow up to be a radical lesbian? What happened to “Tales of the City’s” Mouse and Mary Ann (read “Michael Tolliver Lives” and you get the answer to that one!) Well in my brief, Facebook, correspondence with Patrick I had a little treat as he teasingly suggested what Hilary might be up to now. However, whilst I urge you to explore his work, that forever remains my secret!

Happy reading


Friday, 11 January 2008

No More Champagne And The Fireworks Are Through

So said Benny and Bjorn many moons ago. Indeed, it’s true, we are well into January and the party season is truly behind us, but as a colleague of mine is fond of saying, it will soon be Christmas! So anyway, we are back to the business we call “show” and yet again I have to keep my eye open for topics for the column.

So far I have drawn a complete blank so I thought I would exclusively reveal that Connie Fisher likes my cake! Yes it’s true, I am sure you will all sleep soundly with that comforting news as you brave the potential snow and cold. It was at the annual office Christmas extravaganza (ok, ok just a party) that she tasted the aforementioned fancies. There was two kinds of banana tea loaf and a Caribbean Christmas cake. You do this in a “bunt” with lots of coconut and pineapple and sickly glaze but it is actually very nice, albeit sweet! Suffice to say I had more than one piece. I think Connie did too as she told me she liked it at least three times. Her suggestion that I provide for her cake scoffing scene in “The Sound Of Music” is unlikely to bear fruit (cake) however. I demand a very high percentage of the profits for such a contribution. And two banana cakes you may ask? Well, you are supposed to make it with hazelnuts, which I of course did, but we have a rather difficult and high maintenance person here (that would be Nic Myers) with a nut allergy. Tempted as I was to see him turn purple and watch his eyes pop out of his head I made an extra one with sultanas instead. So there you go, a paragraph on cake, I doubt you were expecting that!

The party had been a great success and, more than a little Merlot-logged, I headed off to get my train. Now that was a slightly bizarre experience. The train pulled out of Waterloo only for an announcement to ring out saying “this is the 9.40 service to London Waterloo calling at Staines, Windsor, Walford, Emmerdale…” well you get the idea! It was only a week before Christmas, so I suspect most of the other passengers were also a little squiffy, and everyone started panicking. “Is this train going to Richmond?” “Am I on the service to Reading?” , “When Did You Last See Your Trousers?” hmmm I think that last one was actually a 1980’s farce! Anyway everyone hoped the train was the right one as it continued to tell us it was heading towards Waterloo despite the fact we were hurtling in the opposite direction. It really was a train with an identity crisis – or, as I like to think of it, a Bi-Polar Express.

So I got safely home and Christmas came and went. I saw what happened when Kylie met the Doctor, Joseph met Maria and Benazir Bhutto met her maker. Mince pies, Turkey, Quality Street and champagne were consumed in inappropriate quantities and before I knew it a new year had arrived. All the festive Christmas boxes had been ticked, I had even been kissed under the mistletoe. I am not sure the mistletoe kiss really counts however as it was by a dozen lesbians as the midnight bongs chimed signalling the new year. Oh well!

So I guess that’s about it for this weeks column. A suitably theatre inspired column will come soon I am sure. All that remains is for me to announce that, for readers of last weeks preview/review, a single is about to be released from the forthcoming Allan Ferris musical “A Tale Of Two Valleys”. The track is a duet between Christopher Biggins and Aiofhe Mulholland entitled “All I Ask Of Foo”