Wednesday, 16 April 2008

What Do We Do We Fly?

One o-clock and you're at the gate, Two o-clock and the flight's delayed, When you finally leave it's eight, And what do we do? We fly!

Well that’s Stephen Sondheim’s take on air travel “What Do We Do We Fly” from his sixties collaboration with Richard Rodgers – “Do I Hear A Waltz?”

Forty years on and it seems the pitfalls of flying have changed relatively little. It was with some trepidation that I began my recent flight from Heathrow to Stuttgart. I had a bad experience coming through the airport last summer and now I was faced with the added stress of the newly opened terminal five. An early start was one thing but getting up at 4.45 a.m. really hurt. Why did I have the bright idea of an 8 a.m. flight? Temporary insanity? Actually my insanity is more of the permanent variety so I doubt that! Anyway, I had already checked in online so that was one hassle over. When I got to T5 I felt quite lost, but a girl clad in an over-sized T shirt emblazoned with an “I” quickly came to my aid. She informed me that as I was prepared I was in for a very easy ride. So I then proceeded to breeze through the fast baggage drop before moving on to the security checks etc. Security was nowhere near as bad as the media have lead us to believe. Aside from the novelty of removing my belt and shoes it was easy peasy. I wasn’t even frisked! I may have to complain!

I suppose the design of the terminal is good, but I was disappointed by the duty free options. I had hoped for new and exciting but I found just the same old selection from the other terminals. Never mind though, I got my bottle of Davidoff’s Echo which was all I wanted anyway! Finally the gate was announced as A23 and I discovered I was practically there already. Sadly I wasn’t a B or C gate so I didn’t get to go on the little train!

I had just got comfortable when I glanced up to discover that the sign saying Stuttgart now said Stockholm, Hmm thought I. A rather loud American passenger then tells us all that they have just told him that it’s now gate 21. Great. So we all traipse down to gate 21. The American then proceeds to tell us that he has been at the airport 24 hours as his flight the previous day had been cancelled because of the snow. Encouraging. Oh, and BA had lost his luggage – last seen in New York. Very encouraging! Next thing we know the sign at gate 21 has changed to Amsterdam and 23 has gone back to Stuttgart so, once again, we all traipse back to other gate. The girl on the desk then informs us that , no, it is definitely gate 23 we need so we all meander back. Bloody hell! All I wanted was a quiet nap before boarding – was that too much to ask? I give up and glance at my Doctor Who magazine instead. Yes I am that sad!

“I haven’t even brushed my teeth” announced the American, “so stay away”. No fear, I think, that’s definitely my plan. At this point two women arrive, rather late, for the flight and the American kindly tells them that its at gate 21 and boarding is closing. Of course they run all the way there as the American laughs before telling them that it has changed. So nice! Anyway, boarding time it is and who should I find is sat next to me on the plane? The American guy, of course. Typical. Thankfully he leaves me alone and engages with an elderly German lady obsessed with which compartment her coat is in, along with the afore mentioned late women. So I finally got my nap, and slept for a good hour. Then I awoke to discover that we were still on the tarmac and hadn’t took off. Great! However, within minutes, we finally began our ascent. After touching down I must have cleared the “flughafen” in ten minutes. The joy of small airports! Never the less, the 4.45 am start had left me pretty kaput for the rest of the day.

I hate planes, sitting three abreast. I hate planes, never get a rest. I hate planes (I hate... Ev'ry single one.) The crossing was rough -- Which wasn't enough, The fun hadn't yet begun.

Yes I guess Sondheim got that right too. Along with a couple of songs in Kander and Ebbs “Steel Pier” and last years cult success “The Drowsy Chaperone” air travel is rarely touched upon in musical theatre. There is of course a recent addition to this list that more than makes up for it. Maltby and Shire’s “Take Flight”

“Take Flight” was slightly unusual in that it saw a new work by the established Broadway team of Maltby and Shire receive it’s premier on this side of the pond – at Meniers Chocolate factory – last year. I didn’t get to see the show during it’s run, but I have recently invested in its cast album so I thought this seemed a good time to talk about it.

Rather than telling a linear story this musical looks at a handful of aviations pioneers and going back and forth between their stories and therefore in time.
The show has four main protagonists. The Wright brothers - the true pioneers of flight. Charles Lindbergh the first man to fly Atlantic – he would be the Lucky lindy who “Never flew so high” in “All That Jazz”. Finally, Amelia Earheart the first woman to conquer the same feat. Earheart is possibly best remembered for her attempt to circumnavigate the globe which ended in her plane going missing during its last leg over the pacific.

On first listening the recording didn’t really grab me. I thought it had similarities with Kander and Ebb’s “Steel Pier” and Sondheim’s “Bounce” neither of which are their creators best work. Obviously hearing a show cold on CD isn’t ideal so it’s often with later hearings that I begin to “get” it. Actually it’s not half bad, and I have found that the score puts me in mind of “Ragtime” whish is actually somewhat of a favourite of mine.

“Take Flights” title, and opening, number is a great start describing as it does literally taking flight and also realizing one’s dreams. The Wrights yearn to be the first to achieve flight, despite their academic shortcomings, and Earheart and Lindberghs aviatory goals. The Wrights seem to be the light relief of the piece with songs often seeming to be quite vaudevillesque – in particular their final one, “The Funniest Thing”. Michael Jibson’s nervous portrayal of Lindbergh illustrates the almost pathological shyness the man had. His reprise of the song “Before The Dream” is quite lovely. As Amelia Earheart, that erstwhile Reno Sweeney, Sally Anne Triplett possibly get’s the shows best number with “A Part Of Me”. This is one of the few songs that may well have a life beyond the show itself. As the CD draws to a close history has already told us that not all of our characters would get a happy ending. However the shows ending is one of optimism as it ends with Orville and Wilbur Wright finally achieving their dream and taking flight.

So, take flight? Yes it’s time for the home stretch and my flight back to London. As I write it’s 7.30pm. My 7.05 plane had only left London at 6.40pm and now isn’t expected to depart until 8.45. My stomach is rumbling and I am tempted to dive into the chocolate I have bought for my friend who is collecting me from Heathrow. Seems fair – after all she will be at work now an unable to collect me. So once again I am sitting in an airport and wondering why on earth I put myself through this. There must be better ways to travel surely? But in Sondheim’s words – what do we do we do? We fly, well what do we do? We fly!

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