Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Tooby Ooby Walla

Full frontal nudity. I can’t believe I just said that…….Full frontal nudity. Oops I did it again! Well this column is not usually somewhere you find that sort of thing and no, don’t worry, you are safe to scroll down to the photo – no nudity there. In all honesty just as such a thing is rare here it is also rare on the musical stage – but with some notable exceptions….

2008 sees the fortieth anniversary of, that most celebrated of exceptions, “Hair”. Despite having originated Off-Broadway the previous year it was in 1968 that this ground breaking musical debuted on the Great White Way, and indeed in London. Every now and then a show comes along that has a seismic effect on theatre and this trailblazing “tribal love rock” musical seemed to rock the genre to it’s foundations. Long on passion, yet short on plot, “Hair” is a snap shot of a post second world war generation that was striving for change and rebelling against the relatively young Vietnam War. The sixties had seen a sexual revolution happening as well as hard drugs becoming more common place – not to mention the civil rights movement. All of these elements were part of this era defining show and all of them were embraced in one of the most joyful and infectious pop rock scores to hit the boards. And it was practically the first!

As I have said the show is pretty short on story and the only real plot thread is the dilemma of Claude - whether he should be drafted or refuse to fight along with his friends – but with such a great bunch of songs who needs plot?
The show begins with the wonderful “Aquarius”. After all, the late sixties were indeed the dawning of the age of the Aquarius if astrology is to be believed. Also a year later was the dawning of me, an Aquarian, so the song has always been a favourite of mine.
Right at the start of the show we are confronted with a whole list of sexual taboo’s in musical form with the list song “Sodomy”, and only minutes later we get a celebration drug culture with “Hashish”.
Race was brought to the fore with songs such as “Coloured Spade” and “I’m Black” - and delightfully later in the show with “Black Boys/White Boys” where three white girls espouse the attractions of black men followed by a Supremes-like trio who eschew the “chocolate flavoured treats” in favour of “a pretty juicy white boy”. Of course these days political correctness would probably prevent such lyrics, but back in 1968 they were presented in an innocent way, and also one which celebrated our differences.
“Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” continue to be popular thanks to Nina Simone’s ever played version, and “Frank Mills” had a new lease of life back in the nineties when The Lemonheads recorded a version of it. “Frank Mills” is a whimsical little love story that contains the memorable lyric “ I love him, but it embarrasses me to walk down the street with him”. Bizarelly touching!
The wonderful protest/heartbreak song “Easy To Be Hard” is another highlight along with the uplifting “Good Morning Starshine” and the sombre “Flesh Failures” which merges into the effervescent “Let The Sunshine In” when the cast tends to invite the audience to take to the stage.

So bookwriter/lyricists Jerome Rado and Gerome Ragni, along with composer Galt MacDermot conjured up one of theatres biggest hits ever.
It ran for 1750 performances on Broadway where stars such as Diane Keaton, Ben Vereen and Keith Carradine were amongst it’s many casts.
Legend has it that the London run, at the Shaftesbury only closed after 1997 performances because the theatre roof fell down. Many of the London cast went on to become big names in the arts, Paul Nicholas, Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry and Elaine Paige all went on to create iconic roles in other musicals during their careers.
Further afield, the German production saw future disco diva Donna Summer in it’s cast.

So yes, all of the above participated in the full frontal nudity if you are wondering. As stage nudity goes, it has to be said that, “Hair’s” is particularly innocent with them merely entering the stage singing of beads, flowers, freedom and happiness. However it still courted controversy for this scene in it’s day.

There is an adage that great musicals don’t just get written but they get re-written and “Hair” was no exception as it’s journey continued new songs were added and changes were made. Therefore, it was a little odd that when it was revived at the Old Vic in 1993 starring, the now ubiquitous, John Barrowman it was rather too faithful to the original. The revival failed to capture the public imagination, where despite the energetic performances it was felt that the cast didn’t really get what made the characters tick.

Of course most of us know “Hair” best because of Milos Forman’s movie version of 1979. Some of the songs were ejected, and a more structured plot was introduced along with making some of it’s character’s barely recognisable by really only sharing the stage characters name and nothing else. For instance, as played by Beverly D’Angelo, Sheila Franklin was no longer a radical peace protestor and was instead a high society debutante.
The famous nude scene is not even featured – the nearest we get are some buttocks bared during a skinny dipping sequence.
The movie is not without it’s highlights though and has much to enjoy.
Twyla Tharp’s choreography is stunning. Seeing horses “dance” on their hind legs in Central Park as Ren Woods sings, for my money, the best ever version of “Aquarius” is just one stunning moment. Quite how she choreographed horses is beyond me but the human beings get ample time to shine too as her creativity is unleashed through the films two hours.
Another highlight of the movie is Cheryl Barnes. It is said that Cheryl was working as a maid when she accompanied a friend to an audition. Of course Cheryl got the part and gets to sing a devastating “Easy To Be Hard” in New York’s Washington Square. It’s this location and Central Park where the majority of the action takes place and this is why the latest revival of the show is of particular interest.

Yes, forty years after it first appeared in New York, and almost thirty after it was filmed in Central Park, “Hair” has returned – and this time to the park itself. Much like Regent’s Park in London, New York has long had an open air theatre – the “Delacorte” - and what better place for a revival of this show.
This concert version opened in July and runs until 7th September so if you are heading to NY then you can still see it. The good news is that it’s totally free! I will leave it to you to discover how to get the tickets. After all if you are going to NY then I am already jealous! I am so not going to make it easy for you!!!!

See the movie! Very cheap on DVD.
I have heard several recordings of “Hair” and they all have their merits. The movie soundtrack has the great versions of “Aquarius” and “Easy To Be Hard” I mentioned.
If you caught Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls” you might like her version of the latter song which is on the 2005 Actors Fund of America benefit recording, along with many of the current crop of Broadways leading performers – including Liz Callaway’s lovely “Good morning Starshine”.
Everyone from Elaine Paige and Sarah Brightman to the Lemonheads have recorded songs from “Hair” and many are worth a listen, however I recommend going camp! Camp? Well, if you get Shirley Bassey’s “Something” album from 1970 you not only get her stunning version of “Easy To Be Hard” but you get Shirley at her most psychedelic as she performs many songs from the late sixties in her own spectacular fashion! Go Shirley!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

So You Want To Be A Nun?

So what is it with all the Nazi’s? I worked for years in the West End without a Nazi in sight but in the last few years they seem to be everywhere. It’s ironic really. There were less than a handful of musicals which included them amongst their characters, and now not only have most of them been produced, but more have been created.

First we had the comedy Nazi’s of “The Producers” and from then on it appeared that London’s theatrical producers well and truly jumped on the bandwagon. “Cabaret” with it’s take on pre-war Berlin has only just recently closed in fact. That show even managed to follow me to Paris where I saw it at the Folies Bergere - albeit in a different production. Of course Nazi’s (and nuns) are much in evidence at the Palladium currently where “The Sound Of Music” has been in residence since late 2006. It is also rumoured that some of the actors on stage as Nazi’s also appear as nuns at different points of the show! The less said about that the better!

Now of course we have two new musicals featuring Nazi’s. Over at the Theatre Royal Haymarket we have Ruthie Henshall singing Michel LeGrand in “Marguerite”. This show also presents us with a quirky piece of casting. Yes, erstwhile Captain Von Trapp, Alexander Hanson - who spent a whole year standing up to the Third Reich, appears to have gone over to the other side and become a Nazi general. Now it goes without saying that he is an actor and obviously only playing a role, but what wonderfully contrasting roles they are.

I am reliably informed that, until recently, there were only four musicals with these elements in the cast. “Cabaret”, “The Producers”, “The Sound of Music” and one so obscure that even I haven’t heard of it. You can’t blame me for being a little bewildered that they (the ones I HAVE heard of) have all been in town within the same period. I seriously suspect that, given the subject matter of “Imagine This” the West End is to have a few more Nazi character’s treading it’s boards before this year is out.

I suppose that this proliferation of show’s does give us pause for thought to remember some of the greatest atrocities the modern world has ever known. We should remember, so that’s no bad thing, but I can’t help feeling that in the world today we need more uplifting show’s. Something that gives us a reason to smile. You get the idea. “The Sound of Music” delivers this in abundance of course and I feel that a large part of this is down to our chorus of nuns. You really can’t beat a comedy nun. They really aren’t comedy nuns, in this instance, but working in a theatre we do see some funny things on occasion. It was shortly after the show opened that I popped next door into the theatre only to become trapped within a group of giggling nuns clutching glasses of what I could only assume was gin. My assumption was erroneous as you may realise. The afore-mentioned sisters of theatrical indulgence had merely left the auditorium (via the front of house) after their opening number and were clutching their glass votive candle holders. I would prefer to believe it was gin but alas that’s just my warped mind!

The unintentional comedy this moment provided me did make a good case for nuns treading the boards. I am sure there are many musicals already featuring them but am at a loss to name many of them, although I do feel the time is right for the sisters to do it for themselves and shine in the footlights. I strongly suspect that, legendary flop, “Bernadette” had it’s fair share of nun’s and I believe that they feature in Maury Yeston’s “Nine” shortly to become a movie featuring Daniel Day Lewis. Mr Day Lewis’s great versatility aside he will NOT be playing a nun!

Back in the eighties the Fortune Theatre saw one of the sisterhood’s finest moments with “Nunsense”. It really was one of the oddest show’s I have ever seen. The plot was basically that the nun’s needed to raise a large sum of money at short notice so were putting on a show. Bizarrely this was because most of the order had been the fatal victims of the cook’s tainted vichyssoise. Luckily for the remaining nuns they had been out playing bingo so hadn’t shared in that particular last supper. Now luckily (by selling greetings cards) they had managed to raise enough money for the majority of the sisters to be buried. However the Reverend Mother had squandered some of the capital on a VCR, and four nuns remained unburied. In the deep freeze no less! It’s no surprise therefore that it’s a really odd show. One of the songs was even called “We’ve Got To Clean Out The Freezer” – and one (rather forgetful) nun had the wonderful name of Sister Mary Amnesia! You couldn’t make it up could you? It really was the strangest, yet hysterical, show and in the US many sequels have followed. But twenty years have passed since “Nunsense” played the West End and what the world needs now is nuns sweet nuns – or at least a new Nun musical. Needless to say, I am not without ideas…..

First off the block is “The Singing Nun”. Back in the early sixties a real live singing nun from (I believe) Belgium had a hit in the pop charts called “Dominique” and it even ended up inspiring a movie starring Debbie Reynolds.

Possibly a better bet, which could perhaps include some breath taking special effects, would be a stage version of Sally Field’s 1968-1969 sit com “The Flying Nun”. It failed to strike gold as a TV show, but if flying monkeys can keep audiences in thrall at “Wicked” then why not a flying nun. The possibilities are endless.

Then of course there is art Sister Wendy Beckett. I am not sure of how this sister turned art critic could be immortalized on the West End stage but it certainly makes for an interesting idea. Even better, why not have a show featuring three all singing, all dancing, nuns? “Once upon a time there were three little girls from the convent, one liked to strum her guitar and sing, one had a taste for the impressionists, and one thought she could fly – well I took them away from that. My name’s……….god?”

Yes I am being quite ridiculous but am not incorrect in suspecting that, following on from all the shows featuring Nazi’s, the day of the nun may be fast upon us. Yes, one of the big rumours at the moment is that “Sister Act” is heading towards the stage. So give it a year or so and we could all be makin’ whoopee with the best of them…..

p.s.Thanks to Anna Keighley for services to nun googling!