THE SATURDAY LIST: Open a New Window on MAME!

Cast album of MAME

The legendary Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee musical Mame opened for the first time on Broadway in May 1966. While its anniversary is only tomorrow, if this much-loved titular auntie taught us anything, it’s that any day is a cause for celebration so in the spirit of “It’s Today,” Musical Cyberspace is celebrating the 54th anniversary of Mame with dreams of a revival and who might be a great fit for this star role, one introduced by Angela Lansbury all those years ago.

5. Carmen Cusack

Let’s start with an outlier. Tony Award nominee Carmen Cusack may not have the kind of star power on which producers rely to carry a full-scale mainstem revival of a musical like Mame. On the other hand, she was one of the main draws of the flop musical, Bright Star, with the role of Alice Murphy catapulting her to a whole new level of recognition as a musical theatre performer. She’s also bankable enough to carry a new musical, having had Over Sunset, a new show penned by Tom Kitt, Michael Korie and James Lapine, lined up before the coronavirus pandemic hit. So why not a revival that has a fond legacy to help balance the books? Cusack is charismatic, warm and she has range. She’d likely make good playing Mame.

4. Amy Adams

When Broadway producers need a star that transcends the boundaries of musical theatre fandom, they often turn to Hollywood for someone who can carry a show – an approach which yields mixed results, to be honest. Amy Adams has the singing chops to play Mame and it would be great to see her make a Broadway debut in the role. She’s probably one of the best film actresses never to win an Oscar, despite multiple nominations. Wrapping up her talents in the role in a production that her star power could command could be a winning combination.

3. Sutton Foster

Toni Collette

Two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster is a Broadway darling who can be relied upon to carry a show, which she’s done to great acclaim for two decades since her star-making turn in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Having tacked up additional four Tony Award nominations in addition to her wins, it appears that when Foster steps onstage, there’s no stopping her.

2. Audra McDonald

There are a number of Broadway fans who’d love to see six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald take on the role. It’d be a gamble, perhaps – Mame doesn’t traditionally sound the way most of us are accustomed to hearing McDonald sing – but then again, McDonald has shown she can do far more than hit the high notes that catapulted her to the status of solid gold Broadway divadom. Certainly, her acting work is rock-solid proof that she has what it takes to play the role and her stint playing Lady Day gave us a sense that there more of a vocal chameleon there than a superficial remembrance of her career to date might spark. She’s also got the star power a revival of this show would need. And there’s much subversive delight to be had when considering how that title number might play and shift with a woman of colour in the role.

1. Toni Collette

When it comes to roles that require the kind of Broadway diva that musical theatre fans adore, there’s hardly a case where Toni Collette wouldn’t be right at the top of the list. The last time Collette led a musical on the Great White Way, it was as Queenie in Michael John LaChuisa’s incredible contemporary piece, The Wild Party, an experience which it appears was difficult for everyone involved. The past being in the past, there have been rumours over the past year that a Scott Rudin-produced revival of Mame with Collette might be on the cards and its a dream match of role and performer over which many a Broadway baby has mused. For my part, I think she’d slay it.

Who else could you see in the role? Anyone want to go to bat for Katrina Lenk or Stephanie J. Block? Feel free to head on down to the comments box to share your dream casting!

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THE SATURDAY LIST: Annie by Annie Gettin’ Her Gun

Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN
Ethel Merman in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

Annie Get Your Gun is 74 years old today! This grand old dame of musical theatre premiered on this day in 1946 – imagine what it must have been like to hear those classic Irving Berlin songs for the first time. This show undoubtedly has one of the great song stacks of the Golden Age musicals. With a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, the show has been revived and revised many a time, dropping and adding songs from production to production, with a new curate’s egg of a book written by Peter Stone for a high profile revival in the 1990s. Join me today in celebrating some of the great Annies that have tried to get a main with a gun over the years.

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen any of these performances live – so this isn’t a ranked comparison by any means. (Obviously, I have seen the 1950 film and the 1957 telecast.) Rather, it’s a celebration of performances I’ve enjoyed in the way that every musical theatre kid and superfan on a budget has done for decades – by hunting down every little scrap of everything I can.

1. Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman was the first Annie to ‘sparkle like a crystal’ and in many ways, hers remains the definitive reading of the role. She was 38 years old when she originated the role, playing it once again two decades later in a revival. Opinions differ on what that Annie Get Your Gun was like on stage, some shadily referring to the production as “Granny Get Your Gun,” but on record, its a smash. I discovered this album in high school when I was performing in a community theatre production of the show and I played it over and over within an inch of its life. Classic Broadway.

2. Delores Gray

Annie Get Your Gun was Delores Gray’s first big triumph. Headlining the original London production of the show was a breakthrough for her. Of the early Annies on record, she sounds the most like a singer of the period – the 1940s, that is. Her take on the songs is glossy and glamorous, even when she’s drawling her way through “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun.” Listening to her recordings, you understand why the songs were such big hits of the time. Her turn of phrase has more or a pop sensibility than the showtune mannerisms of Merman. Both have their place.

3. Mary Martin

John Raitt and Mary Martin in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

The second Annie who made a major impact stateside was Mary Martin, who led Annie Get Your Gun on tour. More charming than Merman in the role, the more polished second-act Annie peeks out through backwoods Annie’s eyes early on, something that can be seen in the live 1957 television broadcast based on the show. Martin’s disarming performance earned her a Special Tony Award in 1948 for “Spreading Theatre to the Country While the Originals Perform in New York.” One can see why – she just makes you grin from start to finish.

4. Betty Hutton

Betty Hutton always has to bear the yoke of being the person who replaced Judy Garland in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun. I’d even say that she’s more famous for that episode of show business history than she is for what she did with the role. She tackles both the role and the score with exuberance – but the film is a rather uninspired, sing-at-the-camera kind of affair, the adaptations made to the material not really doing much to illuminate it in a different medium.

5. Andrea McArcle

I have such a soft spot for Andrea McArdle. Maybe it has to do with the connection so many kids make with her when they are presented with the original cast recording of Annie. Whatever the reason, I always light up when she pops up on my playlist. Something that never pops up, of course, is her unrecorded stint as Annie Oakley. She was nineteen when she played the role for the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, rather closer to the real Annie’s age at the time of the events depicted – however far they depart from reality. When you hear McArdle sing songs from the score at that age, there is something genuine that shines through in her voice. Annie’s naiveté never felt so believable.

6. Suzi Quatro

Poster Art for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

I wonder what people thought when they first heard the news that rock singer Suzi Quatro would play Annie Get Your Gun in a British revival of the show. How would the singer of “Devil Gate Drive” and “Daytona Demon” manage the classic Berin score? The results are preserved on a cast recording in which Annie Oakley has never sounded earthier, Quatro serving more Hutton than Merman in her vocals. She is more memorable than Hutton though, perhaps because she sounds so distinctive. There’s a catch in her voice that knits together her take on the role.

7. Bernadette Peters

There are those who did not love Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. Some cry miscasting. Others just can’t get past the revisions. But there’s no business like show business for differing opinions and personally, I’ve enjoyed every smidgen of footage I’ve seen of Peters in the show. The thing is, I guess the issue of whether you like Peters in the role depends on that for which you’re looking. Annie has never been a role that’s depended on an actor disappearing into the role. It was conceived as a diva role, one where audiences delight in seeing the filter through their favourite musical theatre stars. In the context of big-budget musical theatre, it’s also a role that has to be cast with a name big enough to underwrite the show. That’s pretty much what Peters offers. She’s playful when the show calls for broader moments and gives us the vulnerability that is one of her trademarks. Perhaps that’snot everyone’s cup of tea, but it works for me. It also worked for the Tony Award voters in the 1998/1999 season.

8. Reba McEntire

I guess every age has a Merman and a Martin. In the 1940s, Merman put her stamp on the original production, with Martin following in her footsteps. At the turn of the century, Peters’s more Martinesque take on Annie Get Your Gun was followed by the broader Mermanesque stylings of Reba McEntire – a full circle, perhaps? McEntire’s Annie drew universal acclaim and what might have been stunt casting became the stuff of legend. McEntire’s Annie is so unaffected – a perfect marriage of performer and character. Her singing is easy on the ear and her take on the numbers is an idiosyncratic delight.

Reba McEntire in ANNIE GET YOUR RUN

9. Jane Horrocks

Jane Horrocks had the sun in the morning and the moon at night when she took on the role in a production of Annie Get Your Gun opposite Julian Ovenden will opening at the Young Vic in London. The trimmed book cut Tommy and Winnie completely, reallocating  “I’ll Share It All With You” to Dolly and Charlie. Of Annie’s siblings, only Jessie survived the cut and as is standard in contemporary productions of the show, “I’m an Indian Too” was deleted from the score. Accompanied by four pianos, Horrocks tackled with songs in a more jazzy idiom than her predecessors. In an oddly anachronistic touch, video footage showed Horrocks’s Annie receiving medals from historical figures like Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. The only response one might have to that: but why?

10. Patti LuPone

Patti Lupone got lost in Patrick Cassidy’s arms in a 2010 concert staging of Annie Get Your Gun at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. Under the direction of Lonny Price, the presentation of the Fields version of the show was staged to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Annie Oakley’s birth. Also featured in the company was George Hearn in the role of Buffalo Bill Cody. LuPone’s performance and strong notices put paid to the bitchy whispers about whether the esteemed Broadway diva was pushing the envelope age-wise at the age of 61. Merman, one might recall, was 58 when she played the role in the 1966 revival and that was a full-scale production – so why raise such quibbles for what must have been a fabulous concert?, PuPone of course, had sung the role in concert before opposite Peter Gallagher. It’s a treat to hear her belt out the songs like its nobody’s business.

There are many other Annies to celebrate – Barabra Eden, Debbie Reynolds, Kim Criswell, Judy Kaye and Susan Lucci among them. Who’s your favourite?

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THE SATURDAY LIST: So Much “Happiness,” So Much PASSION!

Today is the day in 1994 that Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion began its 280-performance run, still the shortest run of the shows that have won the Tony Award for Best Musical. 26 years after its premiere, it remains the most hotly debated and divisive show among Sondheads, the most devoted of its composer’s fans. Some people cannot handle its intensity; others find its ferocity its greatest pleasure. There are those who find it simply melodramatic; they are countered by people who celebrate it as a searingly honest reflection of the human condition.

And that’s before the topic of what Passion explores is even raised. Is it about love? Does it substitute obsession for love? Does its title refer to romance? Extreme desire? Suffering? Sondheim himself has said that the show is about ‘how the force of somebody’s feeling for you can crack you open and how it is the life force in a deadened world.’ Thus, in actuality, it is about all of these things. When one recognises this, to paraphrase Fosca, in the end, you finally see what is beautiful about it.

In that spirit, let’s take a moment to celebrate this lush musical. Here are my five favourite musical scenes from the show – with an honourable mention to “I Wish I Could Forget You.”

5. “Happiness

Radiance. If I had to sum up this song in one word, that would be it. Were it just the opening number of Passion, this is all it might be – and it would be enough. But “Happiness” is so much more than a scene-setter, so much more than exposition. “Happiness” gains more power in its appearances as a motif in the show, with musical fragments reappearing at key moments and words in both dialogue and song compelling us to interrogate its sentiments. Sung at first by Giorgio and Clara, its eventual utterance by Fosca near the show’s end is heart-rending.

4. “Garden Sequence

Passion is full of expertly crafted musical scenes, tiny vignettes that shift from dialogue to song and back again. The “Garden Sequence,” which uses the letters between Giorgio and Clara to enable the scene to comment on itself, is one of my favourites. We see Giorgio toying with words he has shared with Clara as he talks to Fosca, and she sees through him. The love that Giorgio will eventually feel for Fosca is foreshadowed here, with Clara narrating the process as it slowly begins to manifest. The allegory of Passion reveals to us how we are all caught like Giorgio between what the world tells us is light (Clara) or dark (Fosca), an idea perhaps best illustrated in this section of the show. Of course, we’re only protecting our own lightness and darkness onto those we love, so what we discover in the end may be surprising.

3. “Loving You

What is so incredible about this complex score with its motifs that are so expertly arranged and inverted and manipulated and juxtaposed is how it distils itself into moments of such pure simplicity. It is like a light that shimmers through crystals, dancing about onto some surface and then, when the conditions are just right, projects a rainbow into our lives. “Loving You” is one of those rainbow moments. The show’s detractors are quick to argue that what Fosca articulates is not love, but how many of us haven’t defined ourselves in this way, by a love that isn’t returned, and still called it love? There is a reason that Barbra Streisand was able to massage this song into a relatively conventional romantic pop duet with Patrick Wilson: what it says connects with our universal experience of love, including the lies we tell ourselves about it. Fosca at least has the awareness to realise that what she feels and acts upon is out of her control. How many of us are ready to admit that?

2. “I Read

“I Read” is as brilliant an introduction to a character as there ever was. It captures Sondheim at his most poetic in a lyric that is as layered and evasive in some moments as it is forthright and literal. Though this song, he makes Fosca, like Rousseau’s Julie who she has just mentioned, a great mystery. Fosca, who is as broken in her soul as she is in her body, somehow becomes someone in whom we see our own selves and our own desires to free ourselves from whatever breaks us. It’s disquieting, masterful theatre-making.

1. “No One Has Ever Loved Me

Those who wonder what Passion is about might do well to listen to the penultimate song in the show, one of Sondheim’s most beautiful creations as it puts into words what so many of us seek in our lives: ‘Love without reason, love without mercy, love without pride or shame.’ That’s what passion is, not something ‘pretty or safe or easy’. This moment of catharsis is just one of the things makes Passion worth the journey.

Want to share why Passion is special to you? Feel free to head on down to the comments box to share your favourite moments with me.

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THE SATURDAY LIST: Happy Birthday, “Sunday”!

SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE Logo

Does anyone still finish a hat? Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine certainly had when Sunday in the Park with George made its Broadway bow on this day in 1984. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is one of the great musicals of that decade, a show written when Sondheim was working his way out of the pits of despair into which Merrily We Roll Along had thrown him. Working in a new creative context with a new collaborator at a time when he must have been questioning his own artistry must certainly have added something to Sunday in the Park with George, which grapples most profoundly with what it means to be both an artist and a human being.

To celebrate this blue, purple, yellow, red anniversary of a green, purple, yellow, red musical theatre gem, here’s my list of the five most graceful, sophisticated and imaginative moments that make the show so special to me.

5. “Sunday”

For sheer beauty, there is little to top “Sunday” in the musical theatre canon. It is the kind of song during which one can hardly breathe. Sondheim sets a single sentence to music that swells and swells until it reaches its climax. And when your breath returns, the tears flow. Forever…

4. “Finishing the Hat”

“Finishing the Hat” captures – as does “Color and Light” earlier in the show – the simultaneous torture and joy of making art. It is such an intimate moment, stripping down the making of art to the instant when artists are at their most powerful and their most vulnerable: the moment of creation. It captures how artists, no matter the medium in which they work, get to a place of connection in which there is an understanding of everything that defines our humanity, ironically by disengaging themselves from the real world and people that surround them. Knowing that George can make a hat ‘where there never was a hat’ makes us understand why he treats Marie the way that he does. It also shows us how she hurts him as much as he hurts her. It sets up the layers of pain that come to light in “We Do Not Belong Together” and lays the foundation for everything that can happen when things come together on a perfect “Sunday.”

Sunday in the Park with George Poster 1984

3. “Putting It Together

“Putting It Together” is a song that I love as much for its life outside of the show as for what it says inside it. I first heard the Julie Andrews version created for the show that took its name from the song, which shifts the artist’s process to a performer’s. Different words, but the sentiment remains the same – a prime example of how specificity can prompt universality. While it perhaps doesn’t cut close to the bone in as obviously an emotional manner as other songs in the show, it does prompt other questions about what it means to make art today – questions that I think we are facing even now as the world comes to grips with what Covid-19 will mean for the arts in general. That aside, I find this song and the scene that is built around it so rhythmically exciting, a completely thrilling ride to its neatly punctuated conclusion.

2. “Move On

My experience of this song has been: “The longer you live, the truer it gets.” So much of modern life seems to be about grappling with feeling trapped by a world that doesn’t care whether you exist or not, about getting stuck in a rut, about being unable to connect with something that gives your life meaning. It offers the ultimate life lesson: ‘Anything you do, / Let it come from you.’ This is probably the most fulfilling thing anybody can do – and finding the courage to do this is all (!) it takes.

1. “Children and Art

I’m sure that I would not be alone in naming this really unassuming song as my favourite in the score of Sunday in the Park with George. I find it phenomenally moving, this simple sentiment expressed through the character of Marie in an almost glancing manner. The effect of placing the painstakingly crafted lyrics within such an expertly constructed piece of music – suited to both the concept that unites the score (the short musical phrases that make up the whole, in the way that the dots come together to form the image in the painting) and the character (whose age is reflected in the lack of long phrases and the placement of the song in the voice) – is pure magic. It is a superb piece of work.

Want to share why Sunday in the Park with George is special to you? Feel free to head on down to the comments box to share your favourite moments with me.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: MR CINDERS

The London revival cast recording of MR CINDERS

The London revival cast recording of MR CINDERS

Last weekend’s post about my favourite 1920s musicals reminded me about the simply smashing Mr Cinders (1928), prompting me to give the London revival cast album a listen, with the view of featuring in this week’s Forgotten Musicals Friday column.

The show is typical 1920s musical comedy, based on Cinderella, but with the genders switched, and there are a number of songs written in the style that The Boy Friend would parody roughly a quarter century later. Even though this is the real thing rather than a parody like Sandy Wilson’s popular 1950s show, Mr Cinders plays with the same sense of camp pastiche that The Boy Friend has. The show features a score by Vivian Ellis and Richard Myers, with a libretto by Clifford Grey and Greatorex Newman.

My favourite number is, I think, the one that has become most popular outside of the show, “Spread A Little Happiness”. “Tennis” is loads of fun; the numbers that involve the two nasty brothers, “Blue Blood”, “True To Two”, “Honeymoon For Four,” are all quite witty; and the Mr Cinders-Jill duets are both sweet, although I was more partial to “One-Man Girl” than “I’ve Got You”, which attempts to substitute wit for character and get away with it, but doesn’t quite succeed in my view.

I wasn’t crazy about “On The Amazon,” which sounds like it might have been funny just shy of a century ago, but perhaps hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the score. There are, however, two super ensemble numbers, “On With Dance,” and the “18th Century Drag”. The latter, one of those trademark musical comedy songs in which a new dance style is introduced (which was parodied in recent memory in Young Frankenstein‘s “Transylvania Mania”), is delightfully complex.

I would really recommend this recording to anyone. Listening to the score made me wonder what the book is like. It can’t be too hopeless, with revivals having been mounted sporadically since the 1980s, so it leaves me wondering why this show isn’t more popular with high schools and community theatres. I think it should be.

Want to add your own thoughts about Mr Cinders? Head to the comment box and share your views! I’d love to hear what you think about this show.

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Monday Meditation: I am Over Being Polite about Homophobia

Seyi Omooba's post on Twitter

Seyi Omooba’s post on Twitter

The controversy surrounding Seyi Omooba’s comments about homosexuality and her casting as Celie in The Color Purple at Leicester’s Curve Theatre and the Birmingham Hippodrome has been big news in theatre communities worldwide the past two weeks or so. The calls for her to be removed from playing this role, one that is resonant with the LGBTQ community, have been heard and it was announced last Thursday that Omooba would no longer be playing the role. Many view this as a suitable punishment, but while it might offer a form of poetic justice, I don’t think it’s enough to constitute any kind of justice that is restorative or true.

Indeed, when the discussions around this situation focus exclusively on the removal of an actress from a role whose experience and values she doesn’t share and whether that’s right or not, I fear that we have missed the point. This situation is bigger than that. This situation is yet another example of prejudice at work in our society.

“But these are her own personal views!” people have written in objection to the reaction against Omooba. I can imagine the same thought running through people’s minds as they read this column. They’ll continue, “This isn’t hate speech. It doesn’t incite anyone to violence. Doesn’t she have the right to her own beliefs?”

Seyi Omooba

Seyi Omooba

Omooba absolutely has the right to her own beliefs. This does not mean, however, that she is free from the consequences that expressing her opinion may bring, especially when what she believes helps to perpetuate a society where LGBTQ people are oppressed.

Furthermore, while Omooba’s statement isn’t a call to genocide, it lays the foundations of the pyramid of hate that leads society to atrocities of that nature. Microaggressions matter. Microaggressions lead to prejudice, discrimination and ultimately violence. And let’s face it: there is nothing indirect, subtle or unintentional about Omooba’s words about homosexuality. She’s past the stage of microaggression. Comments like hers sustain the world in which the murder of Matthew Shepard was possible. In which the assault, strangulation, torture, and burning of David Olyne was possible. In which accusations of witchcraft, imprisonment and the corrective rape of lesbian teenagers in Cameroon is possible. In which transgender people are killed in countries all over the world. In which the criminalisation of homosexuality with sentences like long-term imprisonment and death is possible.

This last description is the law of the land in Nigeria, the country from which Omooba hails.

Removing Omooba from this role doesn’t address the problem of her prejudice or the problems that prejudice like hers creates. I’m at the point in my life where I won’t support the career of people like Seyi Omooba in any way until not only an apology but also clear restitution is made the perpetuation of an oppressive worldview such as this one.

The Color Purple OBCR

The OBCR of THE COLOR PURPLE

Saying you’re sorry isn’t enough – and let’s be clear, we haven’t even seen the most glancing of apologies from Omooba yet. There have been calls for handling Omooba gently, thus acknowledging her potential to change, but it has been reported that she was given the opportunity to retract her statement or to express any change in her views before the action of removing her from this production of The Color Purple was taken. She did neither. At this time, she has demonstrated no potential to change.

My voice might only be a single one, but my resistance is important. I can’t control this woman’s hateful views, but I can control my response to them. Maybe you’ll join me in not purchasing cast recordings on which she is featured and not supporting any production in which she is cast. Maybe you’ll join me in continuing to address her casting with the production companies that cast her. This is bigger than The Color Purple. And maybe, once Omooba has put in some work to help counteract the oppression of LGBTQ people who are trying to live lives free from discrimination, then we can consider shifting our behaviour towards her and those who support her.

Monday Meditations at Musical Cyberspace are is inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions. This post responds in particulate to the chapter titled “I’m Over Being Polite to People with Closed Minds.”

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The Saturday List: Five Bees-Knees Musicals of the 1920s

How’s tricks, everyone? Today’s “Saturday List” takes a look at my top five musicals from the 1920s. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on these nifty little shows and, as always, I’m keen to hear about some of the musicals from this decade that you think are the cat’s meow – so feel free to share your thoughts using the comments box below!

Gertrude Lawrence in OH, KAY!

Gertrude Lawrence in OH, KAY!

5. Oh, Kay!

There are a number of shows that I could have placed into this fifth spot, none of which I truly prize above the other. Honourable mentions, then, must go to Strike up the Band, Dearest Enemy, The Desert Song, Funny Face and No, No, Nanette. In the end, I chose George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Oh, Kay! because it is the show that gave the world that most enduring of standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” There are other delights in the score, including the ebullient “Do, Do, Do,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “Fidgety Feet.” Together, the numbers encapsulate the great appeal of the Gershwins in the 1920s: catchy lyrics and heartfelt sentiments married to the kind of music for which the term “earworm” was invented. It wouldn’t be hard for you to guess then, dear reader, what tune is spinning endlessly in my mind as I’m typing up this column.

An album cover for MR CINDERS

An album cover for MR CINDERS

4. Mr Cinders

I love a Cinderella story. I’m also a sucker for a good partworks collection. One such series was  The Musicals Collection, which allowed me to add the highlights of a cast recording and a magazine to my CD rack once a fortnight. I knew many of the shows that they featured already, but there were several that were new to me, including this little gem by Vivian Ellis, Richard Myers, Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman.  A reverse gendered version of this most beloved of fairy tales, Mr Cinders toys with social class by placing Jim, a servant at Merton Chase, opposite Jill, an American heiress at the neighbouring home, The Towers. The usual fizzy 1920s plot devices knit together the appealing score, which includes a breakout hit (“Spread A Little Happiness”), a collection of witty numbers for the two nasty brothers (“Blue Blood”, “True To Two” and “Honeymoon For Four”) and a pair of delightful ensemble numbers  (“On With Dance” and “18th Century Drag”). Having enjoyed a couple of revivals towards the end of the last century, Mr Cinders has all but disappeared over the past two decades. Here’s hoping for a second rediscovery of this charming little musical!

Movie Poster for THE STUDENT PRINCE

Movie Poster for THE STUDENT PRINCE

3. The Student Prince

My way into Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s The Student Prince, as in so many matters musical theatre, was through my grandmother. My grandmother’s record collection was the source of the first musicals I encountered, but it wasn’t until she guided me towards knowing The Student Prince. I was gathering some movie musicals for my gran to watch on her new flatscreen TV and The Student Prince was one of the films she asked me to find. When I sat down to watch it with her, I had prepared myself for something I’d have to endure. I found myself seduced by the giddy romance of this tale, in which love and life experience transforms the staid Prince Karl into a man who has to choose between the kingdom for which he is responsible or Kathie, the woman he loves. (In the interest of full disclosure, it was partly the dreamy Edmund Purdom and Mario Lanza’s heartfelt vocal for Prince Karl’s “I Walk With God” that sealed the deal for me, even though I know this song was written for the film rather than the original stage production. But as I mentioned before, one song can be the gateway to the entire journey.) What is particularly bittersweet about The Student Prince is that Kathie – to some extent, given the period – is able to exercise her own agency in bringing Karl to his final decision. Her choices, thoughts and emotions matter as much as his. I don’t know where it would play, but I’d love to see a contemporary revival of this show.

The National Theatre's THE THREEPENNY OPERA

The National Theatre’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA

2. The Threepenny Opera

I always respected Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, but I never truly loved it until I saw the National Theatre’s live broadcast of their 2016 production, a new adaptation by Simon Stephens that was directed by Rufus Norris. Watching the incredible cast bring this interpretation of the material to life, I felt within me everything that, until then, I only understood academically about this brilliant piece of theatre. Its unforgiving commentary on human vices such as corruption, exploitation and hypocrisy remains as incisive today as it must have been at its premiere in Germany in 1928. (In truth, perhaps it was watching the United States cut of the 1962 film that had disenchanted my ability to perceive its brilliance.) Besides its thematic heft, The Threepenny Opera also numbers in its score some jewels of songwriting, “Pirate Jenny” (which I had the privilege of seeing Bea Arthur sing live in Just Between Friends as she shared her memories of the brilliant Lotte Lenya’s performance of the same song) and the “Jealousy Duet” (which Arthur intones most memorably with Jo Sullivan on the 1954 cast recording of the show) among them. What I enjoy most about The Threepenny Opera, I think, is how layered it is. It’s serious stuff, but it’s so funny. It plays with you as you watch it.  And isn’t play one of the things we desire most when we go to the theatre?

Cape Town Opera's SHOW BOAT

Cape Town Opera’s SHOW BOAT

1. Show Boat

One of the most fascinating things about Show Boat is the sheer number of iterations of the show that have played the world’s stages since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created this landmark musical. These are largely documented in Miles Kreuger’s Show Boat – The Story of a Classic American Musical, offering a rare and detailed tour through the production history of the show up until the time of its final revision in 1990 before going out of print. What makes Show Boat survive the ages? Certainly, its classic score has something to do with it, the grand lyrics and gorgeous melodies of songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” being unforgettable, as is the wit of numbers like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the radiant joy of “Why Do I Love You?” and the devastating rawness of “Bill.” That said, there are many great scores that have slipped into the recesses of time. May I submit the idea that it is Hammerstein’s integrity in handling the themes that emerged from Edna Ferber’s novel that lends the show its continued relevance? For in addition to its central love story, Show Boat tackles the shifting dynamics of race relations in the face of a society that espouses the ideal of freedom for all but still treats people unequally in reality. This idea is strongly resonant with our times and in an age where Oklahoma! can be explored with a contemporary sensibility, as is being done in the production directed by Daniel Fish that is currently in previews at the Circle on the Square theatre in New York, perhaps the time is right for Show Boat to be reinvented yet again.

 

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