Tuesday, 26 February 2008

How Many Stars?

To say I grew up liking Indian music would be an out and out lie. In fact I hated it. Sunday mornings when I was very small I would get out of bed and hope that Hammy The Hamster or Andy Pandy would be on television only to be faced by a be-saried Lady standing in a small circle singing “Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan” – the opening music to a TV show which ran from 1968 – 1982. My Urdu fails me so I can’t tell you what the song means! As a four year old yearning for Teddy and Looby Loo this was a major bone of contention - as you could imagine.

Despite the large Indian population in this country, Indian music never really took hold as I was growing up. It was so alien to the music we were all used to, I guess, that we didn’t particularly warm to it for a good few years. Of course these days “World Music” influences all kind of things so it does get into the mainstream from time to time.

It was over a decade ago that Andrew Lloyd Webber succumbed to the charms of Indian music in general and Bollywood in particular as he found himself lured from his kitchen to the television where Channel 4 was screening a series called “Movie Mahal”. The exotic music and dancing really grabbed his attention, and after talking to film director Shekhar Kapur the seeds were sown for a brand new show. As he investigated these Asiatic spectaculars he discovered that all the best songs seemed to come from the pen of the legendary A. R. Rahman, so when in due course the time came to develop the idea for a fully fledged musical it was to Rahman he turned as composer and it was full steam ahead for a spectacular new production!

My own interest in Indian music comes from a very different angle. As I was growing up my father wasn’t really in my life. When I was quite small he left and headed east. His travels lead him to the Indian city of Benares, on the banks of the Ganges, and it was there that he began to study classical music. Indian classical music. Under the guidance of a guru he studied Indian percussion as he learnt Tabla for the next seven years. Unlike western music, to learn a musical instrument in India you need to undergo a spiritual journey – hence the seven years of study. He began performing in his later years in Benares and continued when he moved to Kathmandu in the eighties. The end of the decade saw him return to Europe where our paths crossed again in Germany - the country of his birth. I remember him talking a lot about learning tabla and explaining that they are two drums – one large flat drum made of metal and the main smaller one made of wood and at an angle. His hands moved across them with incredible dexterity creating a whole range of different sounds. At this point he was involved in two musical projects “Eastwind” and “Threeo”. Both projects melded Indian classical music with western sounds and, in the latter case, Jazz. In the last ten years or so this kind of music has flourished under the umbrella of “World Music” and particularly “Fusion”. Sadly my father died before this new found popularity. It would have been interesting to have known what would have happened with his music if he had lived but that was not to be. It was a good ten years after his death before I played the tapes of his music. Surprisingly, although I hadn’t appreciated the music in his lifetime, I found I quite liked it. It’s great to listen to when I need a calming influence. Good chill out music if you will.

So back to the West End where “Bombay Dreams” opened at the Apollo Victoria in 2002 and enjoyed a two year run. The story tells of slum dweller Akaash who has dreams of becoming a movie star and Priya, a director’s daughter, who he falls in love with. As its setting the show uses Mumbai (the former Bombay) which like many Asian countries has abject poverty sitting alongside incredible wealth, so providing two contrasting locales for the story. The musical is a successful hybrid of both “Bollywood” and Western musicals, touching on various elements of Indian life - even the caste system. It’s uber-glamorous staging was a triumphant tribute to the Bollywood spectaculars that are much enjoyed by our Indian community. The colourful kitsch staging even included fountains that sprang from the stage showering the performers as they sang one of the shows numbers. Not camp at all! Alongside A.R.Rahman, the Oscar winning Don Black penned the lyrics of songs that included the gorgeous “The Journey Home” and the romantic “How Many Stars?,” not to mention the energetic hit single “Shakalaka Baby” conjuring up a successful fusion of Asia and the West End.

The show had been on for well over a year before I went to see it, and it turned out to be one of those “almost cried” experiences that I mentioned in my last column. All in all I loved “Bombay Dreams” – I couldn’t believe I had waited so long to see the show. I loved the score, which although a world away in many ways, allowed me to hear many of the sounds I had heard in my father’s music. The staging was a delight and I really couldn’t fault the performances. However the aspect of the show that moved me most was something quite subtle. For there on the side of the stage of the Apollo Victoria sat a musician. Playing tabla.

The cast album is available and is good fun. To my ear though it’s more of a pop recreation of the score than the show I actually experienced – but it contains some great songs none the less. I am only aware of one cover version of a song from the show. I am sure there must be more, but Sarah Brightman performs an effective version of “The Journey Home” on her “Harem” collection.

For more information on “Bombay dreams” check out


Friday, 15 February 2008

I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry 15/2/08

“I don’t know why, I don’t know, but I see a dolphin and it makes me cry”, well actually it doesn’t, but for Martyn Joseph in his early nineties hit single it most certainly did. However, whilst I am rarely moved by aquatic mammals I am often moved by the arts of course. I have stood in front of a great painting and felt it with every inch of my being. I have listened to a song that touched my soul. However, I have never been in a flood of tears at the theatre.

My friend Alun who works at The Criterion sobs at the drop of a hat. I remember him telling me that he wept buckets at “Oklahoma”. And that was just at the overture! I witnessed one of these outpourings myself when I went to see “Rent” with him some years back. It was really quite spectacular. I however don’t cry in public. It’s something I am quite incapable of, with the sad exception of funerals! Oh, I almost cry believe me. I can remember several occasions that I have almost cried at the theatre. When the cast sang “Sunday” at the end of “Sunday In The Park With George” it almost happened. The choreography in “Billy Elliot” almost had the same effect. Bizarrely I almost cried at “Fame” too – but that had more to do with me not liking it in truth! I almost wish I could cry to be honest. It’s quite a tense sensation when you feel like crying yet no water comes out. I think the only time it happened was seeing “Finding Neverland” at the pictures when I was shocked to discover one lonely tear trickling down my cheek. I am not really sure if one tear really can really be classified as crying so I do choose to ignore this!

Now put me (alone) in front of a television set at home with a dvd and it’s a different story. With “Steel Magnolias” I am a silly wet mess from the moment Julia Roberts collapses until the funeral, and don’t even mention “Terms Of Endearment”. For pity’s sake I even wept buckets when Kerry Mangel was shot in a bog, while protesting at duck shooting, in “Neighbours”. I really am quite pathetic. We all have our emotional buttons I guess. Well that’s my excuse. There is possibly one thing that moves me to tears more than anything else though. And it’s kind of strange – perhaps even other worldly.

I don’t know why, I don’t know why, but “Doctor Who” it makes me cry. OK so it also makes me laugh, smile and puts me in a pretty good mood but week in week out I cry. For so many reasons. Firstly I suspect it’s because of the emotional connection I feel for this show that was such a big part of my childhood for a few years. So I cried just because it had come back. I cried to see the Daleks and the Cybermen. As for Sarah Jane Smith returning in “School Reunion” I was positively haemorrhaging tears. Most embarrassingly of all when the theme tune came on my mp3 player at the gym (embarrassing in itself) a couple of weeks ago I was nearly weeping on the cross trainer. I guess I could have pretended my eyes were sweating. It’s strange though, I used to like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Noggin The Nog” too but they somehow don’t have the same effect.

Of course it’s also the great strength of the show’s writing that has resulted in me feeling moved so often since its 2005 return. Because of my own life experience parent/child relationships are prone to set me off so the relationship between Rose and her sometimes dead father turned me into a soggy state in minutes. The end of “The Family Of Blood” when the Doctor and Martha visit the old soldier at the war memorial was equally emotional, and as for Rose’s departure let’s not even go there. Seeing people, and indeed planets, in peril also does it for me. The emotion of seeing people clinging onto, and fighting for, their lives is definitely a big trigger for me. Last Christmas’s “Voyage Of The Damned” delivered this in abundance with it’s Poseidonesque disaster movie feel. Thankfully though, the trauma passed as I laughed at the cameo by the Queen and smiled when Astrid was turned into stardust. Let’s face it, given the actress playing the role, was there really any other way for her to go?

I am sure when the series returns around Easter I am to face three further months of weeping on Saturday evenings. I predict tears for the Sontarans as well as the returns of Martha and Rose. The rumoured cameo of Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah is also a foregone conclusion. Who knows what other developments will conjure my woe?

So what else tipped me over the edge in recent months? Well Vera Duckworth died didn’t she? That last episode of “Cranford” had almost a dozen moments that had me all scrunchy eyed and silly. The finale of “Spooks”, with Jo’s death at the hands of Adam. It’s never ending! I should learn not to watch these things really.

It’s only fitting that I end with theatre though, and indeed I did have two “nearly” moments last year. Firstly was actually seeing the happy show that is “Joseph”. God knows what made me want to blub in that instance! I suspect that it was because the show was such a memorable part of my childhood. The other instance was seeing the Sam Mendes production of “Cabaret” in Paris. I would like to think that my almost tears were as a result of the powerful ending of this piece as it illustrated the decimation of the Jews in wartime Berlin. However there is a distinct possibility that it was just because of my dismal understanding of French!

So on that note I will say goodbye for now, and I hope that you have a theatrical experience soon that persuades you to emote in public – discreetly though please! Can anyone pass me a handkerchief?

Friday, 8 February 2008

Wait 'Til You're Sixty Four 8/2/08

“When you are as old I my dear, and I hope that you stay as you are….” So sings “The Old Lady” in Stephen Schwartz’s much loved seventies musical “Pippin”. You get a lot of old ladies in musicals. Whether it’s Hattie Walker belting out “Broadway Baby” in “Follies” or any number of gymnastic grandma’s in “The Producers” musical theatre has a plethora of women of a certain age. In my own professional capacity I deal with many old ladies myself, although on the other side of the footlights of course. They can be cantankerous, rude, difficult, forgetful, energetic, enthusiastic, organized, pleasant and wonderful. Basically they can be just like everybody else whatever their age. Although sometimes the qualities they possess are a little more pointed. I suppose that may be down to old age!

I dealt with one of these old ladies just a few days ago. She was at great pains to tell me that she might get a little muddled. However there she was with a plastic folder containing all the information she needed. In fact she was very organized. It was a painless transaction. During the course of the sale she informed me she was ninety two. Ninety Two!! I mean, let’s face it, most of us will be lucky to live that long and she was going out and about in the West End of London buying theatre tickets. It’s ironic to think that she was probably born the year that the First World War broke out yet I work with people who weren’t even born when the Falklands conflict occurred.

Of course in the entertainment industry there is also no shortage of old ladies treading the boards. It’s fascinating to see some of these performers and think of their lengthy careers and the theatrical legends they worked with. For instance, I recently saw the legendary Broadway star Barbara Cook in her eightieth birthday concert. Her concerts are often fascinating as she intersperses the songs with anecdotes and stories about her career and the people she knew such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein. Off the top of my head there are also Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury and Chita Rivera still going strong into their seventies and beyond. In Rivera’s case she is still dancing up a storm too. However, I think the prize must go to “Coronation Street’s” Betty Driver though who is still going strong, and pulling pints, at 88.

I remember twenty years ago seeing Elisabeth Welch in a show - she too must have been around eighty at the time. The name didn’t mean much to me back then, and probably means even less to you. What made Welch exceptional was that she was a black performer who had been a star on Broadway and in London from the 1920’s onwards – a time when there weren’t that many black stars around. Not only this but she had songs specially written for her by Noel Coward, and introduced Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”. She had a long and varied career although, I believe, it suffered in the fifties because of the McCarthy witch hunts – but I would need to research that so don’t quote me! Infact if you know the Sondheim song “I’m Still Here” there are few performers who it seems to “fit” more than Welch. I got to meet her that night and remember her saying “like The Ritz, how wonderful” when she heard my name. I also got to meet a real legend that night as Alan Jay Lerner was in the audience. He died a couple of years later so I am pleased that I got an opportunity to shake hands with the man who made Eliza Doolittle sing in “My Fair Lady” and King Arthur declare his passion for “Camelot”. One of the greatest lyricists the theatre has ever seen, so a true privilege!

Of course not all old ladies tread the boards. For some of them, like my neighbour Kitty, their lives can become quite mundane and certainly lacking in glamour. I mention Kitty as she showed real bravery a couple of weeks ago. Almost totally deaf, and blind in one eye, she doesn’t really let being ninety two get the better of her. There she was watching “Emmerdale” when she had a knock at her door. On this occasion she really shouldn’t have answered. She was greeted by two men in their mid thirties. One of them pushed her back and held his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams as the other made his way through to her lounge and started ransacking the place. She politely asked the first man to move his hand as she couldn’t breathe then was ushered into her lounge as they tried to break into a suitcase. “Please don’t break it” said Kitty, “I can unlock it for you!”. Apparently they seemed really surprised as she calmly opened the case. At this point they asked her where “the money” was. “Oh you want the money do you?” said Kitty “I can give you the money!” And she took them to her bedroom and threw the money on the bed. The last think they did was ask her for her switch card and the pin number. She calmly told them the first four digits that came into her head. “They can take my money and whatever they like but I’m not letting them harm my health”! she told me the following day. Apparently her blood pressure had only gone up one point. Her bravery by remaining calm was quite astonishing. These old ladies! I ask you!

Well I can’t finish without mentioning an old lady I saw on my bus home a few days ago. Probably in her late seventies, with flame orange hair a la “Rita Sullivan”. A man she recognized boarded and they got into a conversation which I found really touching. “I can’t remember where I know you from” she began “I’m having a senior moment!” . The next bit I caught was her saying “I lost my partner a while ago”. “What did you do with her?” replied the man. A bit flippant I thought. “Well she died” said the old lady, “she died very suddenly it was a real shock although she was eighty four”. I was really moved by this tale, particularly that she was comfortable enough to talk to the man about it. After all he was of a generation that is possibly a little less enlightened in regards to same sex relationships. Now the next thing she said almost moved me to tears! “Her family are very religious so they only allowed close family to the funeral. I feel like I never really got the chance to say goodbye”. Honestly I could have wept as she said “I know I’ll never find another partner”. It was a really tragic story. …… “I really do miss Bridge” she said (Bridget?) “it’s always been a lovely way to relax, having a good game”. So there you have it! It was her Bridge partner all along! I felt rather silly it has to be said.

So there we go! A whole cart load of old ladies, and I think that’s more than enough for one week!!