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MISS-LEADING LADIES – St James Studio

In Cabaret, London theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Before launching into a sassy opening routine of Irving Berlin’s Sisters, Ria Jones and Ceri Dupree tease their audience with a hint of Gypsy’s act one Let Me Entertain You – sung of course originally by that show’s child sisters June and Louise. And in that moment these two gifted performers achieve a rare and elusive vanishing point that sees dramatic irony fade into reality. For Dupree and Jones really are siblings, Dupree by a few years being Jones’ elder brother.

TOMMY – Greenwich Theatre

In London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Amidst the present day plethora of so called “juke box” musicals, in which bands’ and singers’ back catalogues are ruthlessly plundered to provide musical highlights for a show that is either autobiographical or worse still, downright anodyne in its narrative, it is an absolute joy for London to be re-united with Tommy.






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TOMMY – Greenwich Theatre

In London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Amidst the present day plethora of so called “juke box” musicals, in which bands’ and singers’ back catalogues are ruthlessly plundered to provide musical highlights for a show that is either autobiographical or worse still, downright anodyne in its narrative, it is an absolute joy for London to be re-united with Tommy.






OF THEE I SING – Royal Festival Hall

In London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

All credit to Elliot Davis, Senbla and the genius of casting director Anne Vosser too, for assembling such a platinum plated cast to perform the little known Of Thee I Sing. But whilst this one-night-only’s company was majestic, the show itself plumbs the crassest depths of jingoistic prejudice, sexism and febrile farce. Quite how it won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize (the first musical ever to do so) beggars belief.






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ANNE REID & STEFAN BEDNARCZYK IN CABARET – The Pheasantry

In Cabaret, London theatre, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Most famous perhaps for the story and screenplay of Singin’ In The Rain (though incredibly their only contribution to that movie’s musical numbers was Moses Supposes), the Comden & Green partnership was to last the best part of 60 years, going on to include On The Town and Wonderful Town amongst a string of successes.

Reid and Bednarczyk are as enlightening as they are enchanting with a shared respect for Comden & Green that is infectiously appealing. Together, these talented performers bring a masterful combination of humour and pathos to a selection of numbers that reflect some of the best of the American Songbook.






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SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD – St James Theatre

In London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

There is a great deal of debate over how to define a piece like Jason Robert Brown’s iconic debut work; ‘Songs for a New World’. Some see it as a concept album, a young composer experimenting with snippets from a variety of unfinished or dismissed projects, others see it as a thematic song cycle, a collection of ideas about modernity. But in today’s world where song cycles can all too often be a lazy get-out for a composer looking to stage in his songs in a production that desperately needs a good book, it is refreshing to revisit this finely crafted work in a 20th anniversary staging of the show that truly defined Brown as a master in understanding the human condition.






Fiddler At The Proms – I speak to Fiddler On The Roof’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick

In Broadway, Features, London theatre by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Programme cover from the first London production

As the BBC Proms feature Fiddler On The Roof, here is my interview with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, discussing the show.


JB:         Sheldon, you’re one of the few  people who has created a musical that has gone on to become a global sensation and which, until 1979, has held a record for being the longest running show on Broadway.
At what stage in “Fiddler”‘s development did you have any idea of the scale of what you were creating, as far as to how it was going to be received?

SH:         We started our pre-Broadway tryout in the city of Detroit and we were worried sick when we went there, because Hal Prince had gotten us the theatre, but the man who owned the theater said, “You have to be in Detroit for 5 weeks, but we only have a subscription for 3 and a half weeks.” So, for the last week and a half, there was not a ticket sold!

When we got to Detroit, we also found out that there was a newspaper strike and of course, the show was just starting out and there was a lot wrong with it. We could have died in Detroit, but Jerome Robbins, the choreographer,  knew what he wanted to do with the show and every day, he fixed about 8 or 9 things, so the show got better and better. But, we had no reviews. We had no idea what the future of this show was going to be.

Our next stop was the city of Washington, DC. To our astonishment, when we got to Washington, DC, and went to the theater to rehearse, we saw a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. We thought: How on earth did this happen? We said the only way we could account for it was that the people in Detroit had called their friends in Washington and said, “This is a show you’ve got to see.”

The same thing happened when we went from Washington to New York. We get to New York and there’s a long line of ticket-buyers waiting. We thought, My goodness. We must have something special here. Those were the first times that we suspected we had something.

JB:         Where did the original idea for the show, to take the stories of Sholom Aleichem and convert them into a musical, come from?

SH: A friend of mine and I cannot remember who it was, sent me a novel by Sholom Aleichem called “Wandering Stars”. It’s a big, almost like a Dickensian novel. A big, fat novel about a Yiddish theatrical troupe in Eastern Europe. It was a wonderful book. I sent it to Jerry Bock, he read it and said, “Yes. Let’s make this into a musical.” We thought, Who would be the right person to do the book for this? And we thought, Joe Stein, who we’d worked with. 

So, we sent it to Joe. Joe read it and he called us and he said, “Well, it’s a wonderful book, but”, he said, it is simply too big for the stage. One of the things that makes it a wonderful story is the characters in this theater troupe, but,” he said, “there are about 40 of them and that would just be too big for Broadway. Also, the whole show, the whole story is too big.” “But,” Joe said, “since we love the writing, let’s see what else we can find by Sholom Aleichem.”

So, we began to read other works by Sholom Aleichem and we found the Tevye’s Daughter stories. As it happened, we couldn’t get the rights to them as they were owned by a man named Arnold Perl, a playwright. He had bought the rights and had adapted the stories into a play that was in 3 acts. Each act was about a different daughter.

But, what the stories are about was the changing of tradition. How when Tevye got married, he had a matchmaker as did most of his compatriots, who arranged the marriages. But, his daughters were living in a new world, where the young people were getting more independent and drifting away from traditions and they chose their own suitors. By and large, that’s the conflict in the show. That and the fact that, what was happening in Russia at that time was leading to the expulsion of the Jews from certain areas.

So, the original stories, when we read them, we just found them beautiful and funny and human and we couldn’t wait to start adapting them. Joe Stein did a remarkable job, because what he discovered was that almost none of the dialogue in the stories would work on stage. It was literary dialogue. It was funny, it was charming, it was beautiful, but it was not stage dialogue. So, almost 90% of what’s on the stage had to be invented by Joe. He always had to keep in mind that what he wrote had to sound as though Sholom Aleichem had written it.
JB:         Tell me about that interaction between you as the lyricist, and Joe, who’s writing the book.


SH: That process is pretty much the same in every musical I’ve done. You get together with the book writer, the composer, the lyricist. You talk about the nature of the show you’re doing. Then, I have to wait until whoever is doing the book begins to send me scenes, because I cannot write lyrics until I see what the dialogue sounds like. We cannot have lyrics that sound like they’re being sung by a different person than the person who was speaking dialogue. They all have to come out of the same characters.

JB:         You made a reference earlier to a “new world” and there is a  line in the show when Tevye says to his wife, “It’s a new world, Golda.” That is one of so many lines that are so relevant even today.


SH: Yeah, my wife and I saw a production in Japan earlier this year. It’s been a very popular show in Japan. When we inquired as to why it was so popular, they said that after World War II, the young people who had been brought up before that in very strictly traditional ways, after World War II they began to break away and it was extremely difficult for their parents to deal with this. Since that’s what “Fiddler”’s about, the show was very meaningful in Japan.

JB:         That brings me to the next question. What do you think has created the incredible appeal of the show to people outside of the Jewish audience?


SH:         Well, that was what we worried about originally. However, Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I, we found universal values in the Sholom Aleichem stories. We tried to stress those values. We couldn’t eliminate the fact that these are about Jewish people, but we thought the story values that we emphasized, were universal values. And, it paid off.

I remember, in New York, once the show opened on Broadway, that we had to give a performance for the people who are working in other shows, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get to see it. So, within the first few months there’s what they call an Actors Fund benefit. The theater is filled with actors from other shows. They’re wonderful audiences.

Anyway, I was at the Actors Fund and an Irish friend of mine, a performer named Florence Henderson, at the intermission, came running up the aisle, and she said, “Sheldon. This show is about my Irish grandmother.” That’s the kind of thing I love to hear, because that’s what we were trying to accomplish. Trying to make it a show that could reach out to everybody, not just Jewish people.

JB:         Of course, “Fiddler on the Roof”, with its pogrom and, ultimately, the dispersal of the Jews from Anatevka, signalled the darkening clouds over Europe and the show was written barely 20 years after the end of the Second World War.


SH:         I know. On that tour I mentioned, where my wife and I first saw it in London and then we went to Amsterdam. It was a rather spooky feeling. We were told that the seats we were sitting in had been occupied by Nazis not all that long ago.

JB:         To what extent was there any referencing of the 20th century’s Holocaust when you were writing the show?


SH:         I must say, we did not try to foreshadow the Holocaust. In the original, one of the original Sholom Aleichem stories, there is a pogrom, so we thought, okay, The pogrom is there and we will have the pogrom on stage at the end of Act 1. But, we didn’t make any more of it than that.

However, somebody recommended a 1952 book called “Life is With People”, which all 3 of us read, that documented many chapters of life from Eastern European Jewry before the Second World War. We read that book and found that there was a lot that we could use. Many of the people that were interviewed said one of the things they remembered about pogroms was that pillows would be destroyed and that there would be feathers flying all over the room. So, we took that idea and used it in the show.

I remember seeing the show in New York once. My wife and I were sitting opposite from 2 people on the other side of the aisle. They were elderly, gaunt people. They looked like they had, at one time, been in a concentration camp. During the pogrom, I thought they were both going to have heart attacks. They were looking at the stage, you could see that they were riveted to the stage and we thought, Oh my God, they are reliving an experience. It was a really spooky feeling.

JB:         On that subject, have you ever found yourself at productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” that have made you cringe?

SH:         Oh, yes. My wife and I went on a “Fiddler” tour. It was being done simultaneously in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. We just went from one to the other. The one in Copenhagen, was terrible. We were told there had been a kind of battle between the two directors with this theater company that both wanted to do it. One of them was given the assignment and then he went on vacation to prepare for his production. While he was away, the other director did the show. He didn’t understand it and he did awful things to it. My wife and I couldn’t believe what we saw. It was just awful. We cringed.

JB:         Where did the title of the show come from?


SH:         We had long list of titles. As a matter-of-fact, the title that originally we wanted to give it was “Where Papa Came From”, because Joe Stein’s father and Jerry Bock’s father and my father all came from different places in Europe. That was one of the titles we had, but we made a long list of titles. One of us had seen the Marc Chagall paintings (The Green Violinist and Le Violiniste)  with the fiddle-player who looks, actually, he’s not standing on a roof, he’s actually suspended a little bit above it. But, it looks like he’s standing on the roof. So, that was also one of our titles.

Then one day, Hal Prince who was producing the show, came to us and he said, “Guys, I need a title.” So, we showed him the list. He ran his finger down the list and when he got to “Fiddler on the Roof”, he said, “Aha! This suggests music and I want people to know the show is a musical.” So, that’s the title he chose.

And, by the way, Joe Stein and I, we have very different memories of that particular story. Joe insists that when Hal Prince saw the list, he said, “What’s number 7? Whatever number 7 is, that’s going to be the title of the show.” I said, “Joe, Hal would never do that!”

Le Violiniste by Marc Chagall

JB:         You’re one of the Broadway greats. What are your thoughts about why so many of the great musical theatre composers are or were Jewish?


SH:         My thought about that is that those of us who were brought up in a, more or less, orthodox synagogue are very much used to a very emotional kind of singing that takes place in those services. So, we grow up with that in our head.
The other thing is that, at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, there were many professions that were barred to Jewish people. There were things they wanted to do but they weren’t allowed to. But, they were allowed to entertain. Once people like Irving Berlin established themselves, they were beacons for other people to follow. Other people who had talent that – okay, if I can’t be this,if I can’t be that, maybe I can go into the entertainment business. I think that that was one of the reasons that so many shows were written by Jewish people. 

JB:        Sheldon, thank you very much for your time.



Sheldon Harnick
Taken from an interview first published in February this year 






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AMERICAN IDIOT – West End

In London theatre, Musicals, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Arts Theatre, London
****
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael MayerLyrics by Billie Joe ArmstrongMusic by Green DayDirected and choreographed by Racky Plews

Amelia Lily and Aaron Sidwell
It has been nearly three years since Green Day’s American Idiot played in the capital and Racky Plews’ take on the show, filling the summer slot at London’s relatively bijou Arts Theatre, delivers an energy and sound that is rarely seen in the West End.
The opening television sequence of various cable news snippets throws the audience into the story’s recent historical time, ingeniously drawing them into a single TV set which replaces the more lavish multiple-screen settings, typically found in a larger scale production. Sara Perks’ design work makes effective use of background art around the stage, mimicking a captive glued to the TV set and thus cleverly and appropriately setting the tone for the opening number, American Idiot.
The show’s distinctly modern-era story era follows three young men, Johnny, Tunny and Will, struggling to make sense of a seemingly directionless post 9/11 suburban wasteland, filled with nothing but misinformation, mediocrity and vacuous reality. As in nature so in life – vacuums are abhorred – and it is variously drugs, military service and disparate relationships with girls that fill the boys lives.
Of the three, Aaron Sidwell’s Johnny gives a solid lead performance, combining charisma, presence and humour. Steve Rushton as Will and Alexis Gerred’s Tunny manage to define the frustrations, anger and yet also the hope of their generation.
One of this musical’s curiosities is that the show’s girls, whilst vital to its plot, are also strangely marginalised in the narrative. The harshly named Whatsername is played by Amelia Lily (she of X-Factor fame and now making a creditable crossover into musical theatre) whilst Raquel Jones is stunning as the show’s Extraordinary Girl.
In what can prove a tough gig seeking to replicate a band, Mark Crossland does a stellar job as musical director. Alex Marschisone [drums], Brock Eddowes [Bass] and Tommaso Varvello [Guitar] combine to produce a sound that offers up a worthy tribute to the original band.
Plews’ vision of the show’s staging and dance is inspirational, reflecting a broad, hands-on grasp of modern popular culture. In her programme notes she speaks of having grown up to Green Day’s pop-punk sound and her work not only defines a respect for the music, it also evidences a profound understanding of Billy Joe Armstrong’s nuance. Powerful stuff.
Whether you’re a fan of quality new musical theatre or just love the music and want to experience the songs of a generation, then go. Green Day’s American Idiot is one of the most exciting and invigorating shows in town.

Runs until 27th September






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RICHARD II – Shakespeare’s Globe

In London theatre, Plays, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Shakespeare’s Globe, London

****

Written by William ShakespeareDirected by Simon Godwin
Charles Spencer
Simon Godwin hones his focus in on the fallible nature of authority, in a smartly paced production with plenty of humour. His Richard II is an examination of the facets of hierarchy and begs the audience to consider the true origins of power. Is the right of Kings truly a gift from God? Or is it an innate and simplistic ability to rule justly and fairly, possessed of any man willing to seize the opportunity? Therein lies the central conflict between Charles Spencer’s enigmatic Richard and David Sturzaker’s earnest Bolingbroke. 
Designer Paul Wills has crafted a technically intelligent set, casing every wall and pillar in a slightly decayed gold leaf. The extravagant opulence of Richard’s court is immediately captured in the garishly blanket plating of every surface, yet the hidden rot of his rule is also reflected in the decay. Just as the surface of the very walls is aged and scratched, so Richard’s personal façade can only last so long. Richard himself, clad as he is in light creams and further gold, often disappears into his own throne, lost in the architecture of his surroundings and blind to the threats of the more darkly clad Bolingbroke, Northumberland and Willoughby. 
As Richard, Charles Spencer’s central performance captures the glib swagger of a man raised in a form of regal captivity. We see the young boy crowned in a coronation prologue and in so doing understand Richard’s inability to see beyond the needs of his immediate entourage and desires. He is not inherently selfish, simply a man told since his pre-pubescent years that his actions are the will of God. Spencer is especially strong when physically handing over the crown to Bolingbroke. The former king is reduced to a linen clad waif, not mad, simply unable to fathom the recent turn of events. Spencer delicately portrays the sickened confusion of a man who has lost his spiritual foundation. 
Godwin keeps the play motoring along and whilst a couple of actors seem to slightly rush their lines, it gives the production a sense of welcome pace and comedy. Exchanges between Richard and his courtiers are fired off with precise timing and a catty wit. These scheming felines spit snide remarks behind closed doors and in one scene cackle over some odd catwalk-like entertainment. It all feels very ‘high fashion mogul’. There are also some fantastically funny set pieces that lift what could’ve been a rather drab second act. Sarah Woodward and William Chubb, as the Duchess and Duke of York, do fine work on their knees in a farcical squabble over their sons’ misdeeds, whilst the biggest laugh of the night came from a sequence involving as many thrown gauges as you are likely to see in a single scene. 
If the production lacks anything, it is perhaps a degree of narrative investment. Sturzaker’s Bolingbroke is likeable and well acted, but lacks that enigmatic zeal that would convince an audience of his ability to rally the disgruntled Lords to his cause. Also, both the Dukes of Richard’s court and Bolingbroke’s eventual sympathisers lack a sense of individual identity. They blur into a mass of camp malevolence and haughty aggression respectively, which robs the play of a sense of character depth. 
This aside, Richard II delivers in terms of a charismatic central performance from Charles Spencer and a slick sense of pace throughout. Godwin’s direction has clarity and his deft touch for the light-hearted encourages the audience to find humour in the pomp and reverence of sovereignty, as well as pity for a young boy King doomed by ideals thrust upon him.

Runs until 18th OctoberGuest reviewer: Will Clarkson
Photo credit: Johan Persson