Sunday, 10 October 2010

Les Miserables Aux Folles

Les Miserables Aux Folles

As I write, it’s almost a week since I tried to get to the French revolution during a tube strike. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, I was of course attending the 25th Anniversary concert of “Les Miserables” at Greenwich’s O2, but yes a tube strike was beginning that night, so my mind was possibly more occupied on how one earth I would get home rather than the joys of the “Worlds Favourite Musical” tm.

I have to admit “Les Miserables” may be the worlds favourite musical but it probably wouldn’t even make my own personal top thirty. Despite it possessing a fair few good songs in the score, it lacks the qualities that, I think, make for a great musical. Far too many characters die for me to engage with them emotionally, although I may be in the minority here as dozens of audience members sob through the whole piece relentlessly.

However, that aside, the celebratory concert at the O2 was a wonderful occasion. I think possibly “Les Miserables” is at it’s best in this format, away from the ongoing dreariness of the regular stage production. It was beautifully cast with stars from the world of Opera, the West End, Broadway and a small sprinkling of Jonas brother. There were a few occupants of my box who were rather scathing when it came to Nick Jonas, but I found him to be a perfectly respectable light tenor, and was probably a far better Marius than I have ever seen in the four times I attended the West End production (Why oh why????) Unfortunately he was cast alongside a triumvirate of truly exceptional male voices that couldn’t fail to put him in their shadows. Firstly, “Love Never Dies’” star Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras who thrilled with “Do You hear The People Sing”, and also Broadway’s Norm Lewis as Javert. However the real sensation was opera’s Alfie Boe. His rendition of “Bring Him Home” was truly beautiful. I would wager that it has never sounded better. Amongst the other cast members Lea Salonga showed Susan Boyle where she goes wrong with “I Dreamed A Dream” and Samantha Barks was stunning as Eponine and has really grown as a performer since her TV stint on “I’d Do Anything”. Last but not least Matt Lucas’s comic turn as Thenardier showed what an asset he would be to musical theatre should he decide to follow that path.

It was thrilling to hear the score performed with full orchestra and a massive chorus which made it quite spine tingling at times. However the most moving moments came towards the concerts close when the original cast from back in 1985 took to the stage. We heard “Bring Him Home” again as Mr Boe and the original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson were joined by the current West End and touring Valjeans in a beautiful harmony. All that remained was for the original cast to lead the entire company in a rousing reprise of “One Day More” to the whoops and whistles of all in the O2.

Definitely an evening to remember and one that is to be released on DVD shortly.

Also this week, I received my new small shiny disc of the Broadway revival cast recording of Jerry Herman’s “La Cage Aux Folles”. Now “la Cage” is definitely in my top twenty musicals, as I have a particular fondness for it that dates back to 1986 when I worked front of house on the London Palladium production. The recent London revival (on which this incarnation was based) was a pale shadow of the original for me. However it did reveal that it has a particularly strong book and score which cannot really be messed up. As much as the original orchestrations and George Hearn’s definitive Zaza will always be hard to better, the new recording still has much to enjoy. Whilst lacking Hearn’s vocal abilities, Douglas Hodge imbues Zaza with much warmth and emotion and still manages to dazzle with “Mascara” and the iconic “I Am What I Am”. Ably supported by Frasier Crane himself, Kelsey Grammer (who betters Broadways original – Gene Barry) they lead a competent company in this new recording. Whilst I feel “The Best Of Times” and “Cocktail Counterpoint” are disappointing on the album, most of the new orchestrations and vocal arrangements work brilliantly. Where this new recording really scores however, is with the afore mentioned leads. You really do get a sense that these are two men in love and you cannot fail to be moved by “Look Over There” as Grammer sings of the love that Zaza feels for their son. Truly touching. Also the “naughtiness” of les notorious Cagelles shines through. Whilst it will never replace the original 1983 Broadway recording in my affections it’s a worthy addition to my collection.
Available on PS Classics.

So my week has seen my journey from the French revolution to the French Riviera, acts of war to acts of….well drag……, Alfie Boe to a feather boa, who knows what the next week will hold!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, 30 September 2010

It's Liza With A Z

As anyone who knows me intimately can tell you I have rather a big one. Now, now don’t let you dirty mind get you all carried away, what I am referring to is, of course, my comprehensive collection of CD’s and DVD’s. Barely a week goes by without me having to purchase the latest must have item for my listening or viewing pleasure, and the last week was no exception as I was woken with a thud on the doormat not once, not twice but three times (thank you as two CD’s and one DVD arrived. Unusually in this instance all three packages had one performer in common, the show business legend that is Liza Minnelli.

The first of these was “Cabaret And All That Jazz – The Liza Minnelli Anthology” , a by no means definitive collection largely culled from the recordings Ms Minnelli made for the Columbia label between 1972 and 1992. It’s a real pot-pourri of musical styles from a period where Liza was at her most creatively prolific. Much of the content was already in my collection so I am not going to particularly dwell on the tracks from “The Singer”, “Liza With Z” and the rather wonderfully bizarre 1977 album “Tropical Nights”, nor indeed the album that was to prove her most successful in terms of chart placing, 1989’s Pet Shop Boys’ produced “Results”. What made this album a must have was the inclusion of around a dozen tracks that had hitherto never been released on shiny silver disc. Back in the early nineties I had discovered a rather scratchy old second hand vinyl copy of “Liza Live At The Winter Garden” originally released in 1974. I have been waiting for twenty years for the album to be released on CD – to no avail – so when I saw that almost all of the albums tracks were to be included on this compilation I knew I just had to have it. Sadly the best version of her oft recorded “I Can See Clearly Now” was not included, but what remains includes four Minnelli classics. Liza’s first Broadway show, a decade earlier, was “Flora, The Red Menace”, and at the Winter Garden she performed, possibly the best ever versions of the lovely plaintive “A Quiet Thing” alongside the more rousing “I’m One Of The Smart Ones” from that show. After 1972’s “Liza With A Z” she returned with another piece of specially written material where she sang of people often saying they had a friend just like her with “Exactly Like Me” which possibly even betters the earlier song. However the undoubted highlight, which ranks as one of my personal Liza favourites is her rendition of Charles Aznavour’s “And I, In My Chair” a little known gem, conversational in style, that is almost a one act play in it’s own right telling the story of a woman at a party. This alone was the main reason that I bought this compilation, and one I will never regret.

Bringing things right up to date Liza has just released a new studio collection entitled “Confessions”. It’s a very different Minnelli we hear on this recording, a world apart from many of the recordings on the anthology. Vocally, now she is in her mid sixties, her voice hasn’t the range and energy it had in these earlier recordings, but she more than makes up for that in warmth. The repertoire she has chosen is perfect for the sultry husky tones she now has in a collection of late night jazzy tunes accompanied by her long time pianist Billy Stritch. The mood is set with the rather naughty “Confession” by Schwartz & Dietz where she claims that “I am always in bed by ten, and then go home at four” before launching into a swinging version of the Cy Coleman classic “You Fascinate Me So”, possibly my favourites amongst a collection of standards and little known gems that also includes “Close My Eyes” and Peggy Lee’s “He’s A Tramp”. Of particular interest for Liza fans is the rarely performed “On Such A Night Like This” which dates back to the sixties and was, I believe composed for an un-produced musical that was to have starred Liza alongside Jeanette McDonald, with a lyric that pays homage to her mother Judy Garland, amongst many others. If you are looking for a mellow jazzy album, for late evening, to enjoy alongside good conversation and a glass of your favourite tipple then “Confessions” would make a very good choice.

Lastly I come to the DVD of “Liza’s At The Palace”, when Liza is in front of an audience a magical alchemy happens, and this concert is no exception. Liza makes a few jokes about not being able to do what she used to, but then again who can at 64? Let’s face it Liza at 64 is so much more than many at half her age. Of all the concerts Liza has performed this one is probably her most autobiographical as she pays tribute to both of her parents, and most notably her godmother Kay Thompson. These days Kay is best known for her outrageously camp “Think Pink” number in the classic Hollywood musical “Funny Face”, but other than a recreation of that movie’s “Clap Yo’ Hands” this concert looks to her night club act from the late forties that she performed with the Williams Brothers. It’s quite unlike anything that you ever see these days and really infectious in it’s energy. Of the other material there are three undoubted highlights. Firstly, the specially written “I Would Never Leave You” which is evocative of Shirley Bassey’s recent “The Performance” collection, as it deals with an older performer looking back on her life. A real treat is a rare performance of “I Am My Own Best Friend” that Liza first performed in her brief Broadway stint of “Chicago” in the mid-seventies and has never previously recorded. The third highlight, which I was lucky enough to see her perform at the Albert Hall in 1992, is another Charles Aznavour song “What Makes A Man A Man” which unusually for the period it was written (forty years ago) deals with homosexuality . Particularly unusual is the fact that Liza sings it as a man playing a woman. Not camp at all!

In closing, all of these items come highly recommended for fans of Liza both old and new. I hope you enjoy them!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Once Upon Another Time

In the last few weeks the show-biz forums have been well and truly buzzing. It seems people were well and truly up in arms! How could Andrew Lloyd Webber have the audacity to produce a sequel to “The Phantom of The Opera?” How dare he write a follow up to the greatest musical ever? How dare he re-use a song he had already put in another show? These questions were only the tip of the iceberg as it seemed that almost everybody had an opinion on the subject. Also, let’s not forget all the armchair critics who had heard this or heard that or had spoken to someone who had seen a preview and they had thought all manner of things. Well everybody is entitled to an opinion I guess so now the dust has settled a little and the show has had it’s glittering premier and been reviewed by the critics I thought I would offer mine.

I would say, in producing “Love Never Dies”, Lord Lloyd Webber possibly has a little audacity but then again writing a rock musical about the gospels in the early seventies was a lot more audacious, as was setting a whole musical on roller skates back in the eighties. However, I do concede that “The Phantom Of The Opera” is a hard act to follow so it was certainly a bold move. I don’t necessarily believe that “Phantom” is the greatest musical ever written (actually I like “Evita” a lot more) and, yes, I do realise that’s almost as controversial as saying Susan Boyle isn’t the greatest singer. Of course, it’s all down to personal taste, but what is beyond dispute is that “Phantom” is one of the most successful musicals of all time and amongst the best loved. For this reason many of its fans feel a real sense of ownership when it comes to the show and have very fixed ideas about what happens next or indeed if anything should.

The real controversy around “Love Never Dies” seems to be that Andrew Lloyd Webber took the chorus of “Our Kind Of Love” from “The Beautiful Game” and re-used it as the title song. Well, as Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret” once said “who cares, so what!” Almost as long as musicals have been produced composers have recycled tunes – and in many cases lyrics. Back in the thirties the Gershwin’s used “The Man I Love” in “Strike Up The Band” before cutting it and later re-used it in “Rosalie” before cutting it again. Irving Berlin’s “Mr Monotony” had a similar history. In the 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein show “Me And Juliet” Richard Rodgers used the theme he had written for the previous years NBC documentary “Victory At Sea” as the shows big ballad “No Other Love”. 1958 saw a young Jerry Herman write the little remembered revue “Nightcap” for which he wrote a rather lovely show tune with the rather original title of “Show Tune”, then eight years later he used the tune again in the rather more well known “Mame” as “It’s Today”, and indeed wrote yet another lyric for it as the title song to his compilation show “Jerry’s Girls” in 1985. So whatever the rights and wrongs are on re-using a tune Lloyd Webber is in very good company. Almost every successful composer has utilized a “trunk song” (yes there is even a term for it) at some time or another. Fraulein Schneider, in particular can back this up as “Maybe This Time” was an album track for a young Liza Minnelli many years before it found it’s way into the screen version of “Cabaret”.

So now that I have commented on some of the criticisms levelled at “Love Never Dies” you may be wondering what I thought of it myself. In short I loved it, enjoying it far more than I have ever enjoyed “The Phantom Of The Opera” and believe that it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best score since “Evita” full of romantic and sweeping melodies the likes of which are too rarely heard in the West End in these days of rock compilation musicals. Ramin Karimloo gives a towering performance as Paris’s former Opera Ghost particularly in his stunning first act number “’Til I Hear You Sing Once More” that proves he is one of the best voices ever to grace the musical theatre stage. Equally sublime is Sierra Boggess as Christine Daee and I can only hope that this former Little Mermaid’s career has legs and we get to see much more of her in the future. Of the supporting cast Summer Strallen shines and does everything that Summer can do so well and shows us that she has well and truly inherited those Langford genes and Langford legs!

The opening projections which ethereally create the back drop of Coney Island are mesmerising as they magically draw you into the carnival with carousel horses and twinkling lights . Bob Crowley’s set designs are stunning and very much in the spirit of Maria Bjornson’s work on “Phantom”. Where as, I believe, Ms Bjornson took much of her inspiration from the art of the period such as Edgar Degas, Crowley seems to have taken similar inspiration from the Art Nouveaux school and his designs particularly evoke the work of Alfonse Mucha and the architecture of Albert Guimet in sumptuous fashion. Along with it’s majestic score all of these elements combine to provide a lush and dramatic nights entertainment at the Adelphi.

If all the internet chatter is to be believed the show is still likely to be tweaked a little before it makes the journey to Broadway and any attention it receives can only improve on what is already a delightful evening at the theatre. Personally I would have liked the shows final moments to have ended with a couple of bars of the title song to give it the rousing finish it deserves. But listen to me, it seems I am starting to show signs of “ownership” myself. It must be catching!