The Saturday List: A Fine, Fine Life for I’D DO ANYTHING’s Nancies

The original Nancy, Georgia Brown, surrounded by Broadway cast members Alice Playten (Bet), Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) and Bruce Prochnik (Oliver)

The original Nancy, Georgia Brown, surrounded by Broadway cast members Alice Playten (Bet), Davy Jones (Artful Dodger) and Bruce Prochnik (Oliver)

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, and so one of the things I want to do with The Saturday List here at Musical Cyberspace this month is to focus on women in musical theatre: actresses, theatre-makers, great roles for women and so on. With a wide range of possibilities for themed list, I didn’t know where to begin, but when I remembered that Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s landmark 1960 musical, was celebrating its 55th anniversary this year, I thought it might be an idea to take a look at where the 12 musical theatre performers who competed for the role of Nancy in I’d Do Anything, the 2008 BBC talent show cum reality series that searched for performers to play Oliver and Nancy in the 2009 London revival of the show, are today. Listed alongside the videos performed by the Nancies that opened each episode of the show, here they are.

12. Amy Booth-Steel, whose dress was lime green was the first potential Nancy to be eliminated. This didn’t seemto be too much of a stumbling block for her: some of the credits she has racked up since the show aired include Tori Amos’s musical, The Light Princess, Sister Act and The Sound of Music in the West End and the UK tour of Betty Blue Eyes. See her singing “I’d Do Anything” with her fellow contestants in the week of her elimination below.

11. The “lilac” Nancy, Cleo Royer, was eliminated second. A self-confessed music nut, Royer seems to have faded into the background somewhat, although she appeared in the West End production of Dirty Dancing. Here she is singing “Oom-Pah-Pah”, with all of the other Nancy hopefuls.

10. Tara Bethan – seen here in the orange dress singing “It’s a Fine Life” with the eight remaining Nancies – has performed in Bugsy Malone in London and the UK tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat since her appearance in I’d Do Anything.

9. Following her involvement in I’d Do Anything, Francesca Jackson – who wore the baby pink dress in the competition – has toured in Dreamboats and Petticoats, traveled to Paris to perform in A Little Night Music and appeared in the Barry Manilow jukebox musical, Can’t Smile Without You. In the 2011-2012 season, she performed in the West End production of Million Dollar Quartet. Here she is in her elimination week, singing “Consider Yourself” with her competitors.

8. One of my favourites in the competition, the gold-clad Keisha Amponsa-Banson‘s career bloomed following I’d Do Anything, with appearances in The Pajama Game, From Here to Eternity, The Lion King, Stand Tall: A Rock Musical, Footloose and Little Shop of Horrors all keeping her on the stage, where she belongs. In her final week, the remaining Nancies performed (along with the Olivers) “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”.

7. Sarah Lark, the pale Green Nancy, was an early favourite of mine and ended up as an understudy for the role of Nancy in the West End production that followed I’d Do Anything. She has since performed in two Snow White pantomimes, as Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in Les Miserables. “Who Will Buy?” was the opening number in her elimination week.

6. Dark Blue Nancy, Ashley J Russell‘s musical theatre credits include Sister Act, We Will Rock You, Shrek and The Phantom of the Opera. She also appeared in the workshop of Love Never Dies at Sydmonton. In her final show, the Nancies once again belted out “It’s A Fine Life”

5. Like Sarah Lark, Niamh Perry also appeared as a pantomime Snow White, while also appearing in Love Never Dies, Mamma Mia! and The Little Prince. “Consider Yourself” was the song that introduced her last appearance as a competitor on the show, in which she wore the pink Nancy dress.

4. Rachel Tucker, who wore the yellow Nancy dress, has had a fine career since the show ended. As well as appearing in a reading of Love Never Dies as Meg Giry, Tucker has played Elphaba in Wicked and made her Broadway debut in the Sting musical, The Last Ship. “Food, Glorious Food” was Tucker’s final ensemble number as a potential Nancy.

3. Blue Nancy Samantha Barks is the best known internationally of the I’d Do Anything contestants, having played Eponine in the film version of Les Miserables, a role she played on stage in London. She has also played Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Nancy in Oliver!, Velma in Chicago, Jules in the workshop of Bend it Like Beckham and Mallory/Avril in City of Angels. Placing third, she performed in the final group Nancy number, when all the finalists returned to sing “I’d Do Anything”.

2. Runner up Jessie Buckley – who wore the dark green Nancy dress, turned down understudying Nancy to play Anne in A Little Night Music. Here’s her version of Nancy’s showstopper, “As Long as He Needs Me”, from the final episode of the show.

1. Purple-clad Jodie Prenger won the competition and the role of Nancy in the 2009 UK revival of Oliver!. Appearing in Les Miserables in between the competition and the opening of that productions, she has subsequently appeared in Monty Python’s Spamalot and Street of Dreams, the musical based on popular soap, Coronation Street. Here is her winning rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me”.

Having just had the opportunity to revisit I’d Do Anything and its twelve finalists, do you think the right person won the competition? Who would you like to see more of on stage in the future? And what other shows do you think could have similar series leading up to opening night? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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The Saturday List: 10 Times the Musical Challenged Its Dismissal as a Relevant Art Form

Artwork for the original production of FOLLIES

Artwork for the original production of FOLLIES

Driving in the car this morning, with the original cast recording of Dreamgirls blaring from my speakers, I was reminded just how vital and versatile an art form the musical is. Although many people dismiss the musical as a relevant form of artistic expression, the musical can easily hold its own alongside any form of theatre you might care to mention. So I thought that today, I might put together a Saturday list of just ten times musicals have been completely in step with the world around them, ten times the musical did more than simply entertain – despite its easy dismissal by those with limited points of reference when it comes to this glorious form of theatre.

10. Dreamgirls

Let’s start with the song that made me think about all of this in the first place. I was grooving along with Effie and company when “Cadillac Car” started playing. There’s been so much to read online about cultural appropriation recently, but I had forgotten how directly Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen address the issue in this musical and in this song in particular. This is even more remarkable when one considers that Dreamgirls was written in 1981! The film version, from which the clip below is taken, softens the commentary a little without losing it completely, so you’ll have to track down a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording if you want to absorb to the full impact of Krieger and Eyen had to say – or better yet, catch a production of the show when it’s playing near you.

9. Fun Home

Caitlin Jenner is big news at the moment. Not only because of the actualization of her own identity in what has been a landmark shift in awareness around transgender narratives, but also because of how she is using her celebrity as a catalyst to positively shift the experiences of others coming to terms with their respective identities. In a recent speech, made when accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Awards, Jenner said: “If you want to call me names, make jokes and doubt my intentions, go ahead because the reality is I can take it. But for thousands of kids out there coming to terms with the reality of who they are they shouldn’t have to take it.” More than ever, the worth of open honesty about gender identity in the world that we live in was affirmed. There’s a similar moment of triumph in the current Broadway hit, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home, a song about the recognition of one’s identity: “Ring of Keys”. The performance of that song on mainstream television at the Tony Awards, in which the musical’s protagonist Alison, recognizes her kinship with a delivery woman – ‘an old-school butch’ – in a luncheonette, was a special moment. There’s a huge sense that the time for LGBTIQ issues to take centre stage is now, despite the overwhelmingly and sometimes devastatingly different LGBTIQ experiences that exist internationally. Even in it country of origin, Fun Home wasn’t awarded the Pulizter Prize for Drama. What a difference a year makes.

8. Show Boat

Show Boat was a breakthrough musical in terms of weaving serious issues into the fabric of a show. It’s no mistake that the name Oscar Hammerstein II, who created the show in collaboration with Jerome Kern, appears on three musicals in this list. The man knew what the musical could achieve and he had the vision, the courage and the tenacity to shift the form into something more malleable than the operettas, light musical comedies and revues of the day. Show Boat still told a story of enduring love, but it told its tale against a backdrop of racial inequality, miscegenation and racial prejudice, all of which shifted the potential melodrama of its through-line towards tragedy, without ever straying into the pitfalls of the operatic. “Come now,” I hear the skeptics say, “the show is set in the South. It’s impossible for a narrative set in that period not to reference slavery. Besides, it’s a musical. Like Gone With the Wind, Show Boat views the black experience in a cursory and sentimental fashion.” It’s a common misconception that Show Boat deals with slavery; the piece is set some some twenty years after the abolition of slavery. What Show Boat addresses, is the dynamics of race relations that came about as a result of the abolition. And while it does not approach the full complexity of black narratives of the time, it did not sugarcoat those experiences either. The hardships faced by Joe and Queenie – characters that are written like real people, not caricatures – are not viewed with a patronizing eye. Interracial marriage was treated seriously, its destruction a biting commentary on the prejudice against black people that raged through the country both in the 1880s and in 1927, when the show premiered. And on the production side, Show Boat was the first musical to feature a cast that was racially integrated from the leads through to the chorus. It was a landmark show that acknowledged the complex social and cultural situation of the time.

7. The Wild Party

There has been no other song since the dawn of the 21st century that has captures the existential crisis of the new millennium as lucidly as Michael John LaChiusa’s “People Like Us” in his version of The Wild Party, created with George C. Wolfe. This adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s poem achieves something that Andrew Lippa’s simply does not assimilate: it manages to capture the period brilliantly as well as the reason why the poem and its characters still resonate in this day and age. And this song, this meditation on life, exposes humanity’s deepest personal fears to itself. “People Like Us”, like the musical from which it originates, is strident and glorious, a stark reminder of where we’ve come from and where we are.

6. Oklahoma!

In 1943, people were feeling the full force of World War II. It must have been devastating. Seeing your friends and family going off to war. Hearing news about Hitler. Wondering whether peace would ever return. Wondering whether people could ever rise above their differences and circumstances to make a better world. And in the midst of this, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was born – not simply a musical about a picnic, as some would have it, but a musical about the making of community, about building bridges, about contributing to something bigger than yourself. It’s little wonder, then, that Oklahoma! was a smash hit and that it has endured for more than 70 years, enjoying a landmark revival at London’s National Theatre in 1998 where Trevor Nunn reminded picnic-minded naysayers about everything that Oklahoma! has to offer.

5. District Six

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Broadway isn’t the be all and end all of musical theatre. Internationally, musical theatre also looks the world around it directly in the eye, and District Six: the Musical is one such example. Broadway babies will most likely know David Kramer and Taliep Petersen by Kat and the Kings, their show which ran on Broadway in 1999. Kat and the Kings is, like Kramer’s recent adaptation of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, was also a story set in District Six, the residential area in Cape Town from which more than 60 000 of its residents were forcibly removed during the 1970s at the hands of the apartheid regime. Neither of those shows captured the edginess of Kramer and Petersen’s original collaboration, which brought together, during apartheid, diverse audiences in the theatre, highlighted the trials and tribulations of those who were affected by forced removals and served as a springboard for the careers of many disadvantaged performers. Although a post-apartheid revival of the show was preserved on film, the original production captured a moment in time, reminding us that the arts are also a socio-political record of a country’s history.

4. On the Town

Another wartime musical, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town premiered in 1944. It’s story detailed the events of three sailors on shore leave at that precise moment in time in New York, its resonance clear to all who were living in that context. But there was something that pushed On the Town beyond narrative resonance. Although Show Boat had a mixed-race cast, On the Town was also noticed for its multi-racial casting, most notably perhaps for the presence of Japanese American dancer Sono Osato as Ivy. Why did this particular cast member draw such attention? Well, consider for a moment that the USA’s entry into World War II was a direct reaction to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Think about the heightened conflict between the Americans and the Japanese in the years since that attack. Weigh up what the internment of Japanese Americans meant for those who were forced to relocate their lives and who were subject to incarceration that the government of the time found ways to justify. And then look anew at the original production of On the Town. Ivy is a leading role. She is first presented as a beauty queen, “Miss Turnstiles”. She is the love interest of the US naval officer who is the protagonist of On the Town. And she turns out, like everyone else in the musical, to be just another person trying to make sense of the crazy intensity that World War II forced upon everyday life. Connect the dots, folks – it isn’t difficult.

3. Pacific Overtures

In the context of 20th century history, the 1970s is viewed as something of a pivot point. Social progression clashed with political conservatism. Economic systems faced huge upheaval. Women’s rights and economic freedom were on the rise. It was the time of Watergate, Harvey Milk, the Camp David accords and Idi Amin. Individualism, conformity, community, decolonization, neo-liberalism – all of these were key points of this decade of change. Perhaps one of Stephen Sondheim’s most difficult shows, Pacific Overtures, with its book by John Weidman, takes a look at the effect of shifting global politics by placing the westernization of Japan under the spotlight. There’s so much going on in Pacific Overtures than it’s hard to sum up briefly: at once, Sondheim and Weidman are tracking the (d)evolution of Japanese culture, deconstructing orientalism (a topic that would become the subject of a critical study by Edward Said two years later) and exploring the interface between American and Japanese musical and theatrical expressions. The original Broadway production was filmed and broadcast on Japanese television in 1976, giving us insight into everything that was packed into two hours and twenty minutes of an unadulterated coup de théâtre. If there’s a place to begin, its by watching that broadcast.

2. South Pacific

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were under huge pressure to cut the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” during the tryouts of South Pacific. James Michener, who wrote the short stories upon which the musical was based, was approached by a delegation urging him to add his voice to their outrage at the song’s statement against racial bigotry and the insidious manner in which it seeped into society. One of the critics of the show’s Boston tryout, Elliot Norton, also recommended that the song be cut or, at least, softened. Hammerstein would have none of it, exclaiming that the song was what the show was about. And indeed, South Pacific is about that very issue, how learned prejudices affect our daily interactions. Exposing the lie that Americans uphold one of the ideal of equality that is so prominent in the Declaration of Independence is what earned South Pacific its Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and what makes it endure almost seven decades after its premiere.

1. Follies

There are people who think that James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is just about a party. There are people who think that “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” is about Phyllis and Sally. There are people who struggle to see why it’s Ben and not Sally who is at the centre of it all, although Sally certainly does pull one’s attention – after all that’s who she is. But these people aren’t listening to what’s going on. They aren’t watching the show or listening to the score or appreciating the book mindfully. And yet, there are those who simply get it. Who hear in songs like “I’m Still Here” not only a damn good song, but also a deconstruction of American history through the lens of popular culture. Follies also has had the misfortune of suffering a number of revisions and the piece that it was intended to be exists only in legend. One day, perhaps when The Widow Goldman has passed on, Follies will be restored to its original glory, finally able to resonate and be as devastating as it is in its original version.

I am sure that by now you, dear reader, have realised that this is neither a ranked nor a comprehensive list of musicals that responded to a moment in time and that managed to capture it as well as any other art form could. Musicals are, after all, a medium rather than a genre, capably of embracing any number of subjects and styles. What’s your favourite musical that challenged dismissals of the form as a relevant artistic expression? Share it in the comment box below.

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Monday Meditation: I’m Over the Closing Night Blues

The Official Poster for THE VISIT

The Official Poster for THE VISIT

The Visit closed last night. The adaptation by Terrence McNally, Fred Ebb and John Kander of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s classic play shuttered after two months of performances, garnering a handful of Tony Award nominations without winning any. A sense of sombre regret hangs in the air, and musical theatre fans are posting on Facebook, Twitter and message boards about how much they will miss the show.

I wonder how I would have reacted to this closing five or ten years ago. I think I might have been genuinely angry to see a show that has something complex to communicate close so quickly, especially when The Visit appears to do this in a manner that doesn’t shy away from its complexities and achieves a remarkable level a musical theatre technique to boot. I may have lamented the latest victim in a world where simplistic musicals, with arid technique evident in lazy books and sloppy lyrics, crawl on into thousands of performances.

I guess it would be untrue to say that there aren’t echoes of that attitude wrapped up in my feelings about The Visit closing and, of course, there are sad practicalities like people being out of work each and every time a show curtain lowers for the final time.

But here’s the thing. Endings are part of a full life experience, no matter how difficult they are to bear. It’s a clichéd observation, but endings and beginnings are one and the same. Closing nights are a part of the natural order of things. A run in excess of 11 000 performances doesn’t indicate a show’s worth; it’s simply a reflection of the capitalist culture in which a show finds itself produced. We all know from our own high school experiences that the most popular kid isn’t always the one with the most integrity, although sometimes that can be the case. “Nice is different than good,” Stephen Sondheim wrote – and so it is in the theatre as it is in life.

What does a closing night mean for a musical? It can mean a new life. Theatre, after all, is an ephemeral transaction. Without closing on Broadway, The Color Purple wouldn’t be returning this year following what many are calling a production that goes beyond what its original staging achieved. And it was only after many closing nights that La Cage aux Folles found a similarly successful revisionist staging in the 2008 London revival.

Sure, we have yet to see a staging top the respective original excursions of West Side Story or Follies. Even in instances where, say, the former is criticised for not speaking to contemporary sensibilities, I’m unconvinced that there’s someone who can match what Jerome Robbins achieved along with his assistant, Peter Gennaro. Watching “Love and Love Alone” was such a beautiful reminder of the potential power of dance within the context of musical theatre and there don’t seem to be many prominent musical theatre choreographers like Graciela Daniele, who work in such detail to create a communicative language of physical expression on stage. Athleticism too often trumps storytelling.

So while I think it is appropriate to salute The Visit as it passes on, survived by video footage, photographs and its upcoming cast recording, I don’t feel the need to mourn it. The show will live on for as long as it has something to say. Any show will.

This post is inspired by and a response to “I’m Over Being Concerned About What I Shouldn’t Do” in Shirley MacLaine’s
I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

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Musical Theatre Sunday School: The Spirit of Art

Sometimes, thinking about the role of art in our lives becomes abstract, so we forget how fundamental art works can be in transforming our lives.

For the ancient Greeks it was simple: catharsis, a process of purifying and purging one’s emotional state of being. As you watched Agamemnon or Antigone or The Trojan Women, you rid yourself of emotions like fear and pity, resulting in the renewal and restoration of your spirit. Of course, other functions of art, such as social criticism and satire, were evident in classical times too, notably in the old comedies by playwrights like Aristophanes or in new comedies my the likes of Menander. So I suppose even back then, things were more complex than one might guess from a high school course in classical Greek theatre.

What made me think about all of this was an article I read, which appeared in New York Magazine earlier this year. Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel, Fun Home, won the Tony Award for Best Musical last weekend, was asked what seeing her true life story transformed into a musical was like. She responded by writing a comic strip in which she makes some observations that really moved me. Have a read, and see what you think.

Play Therapy

Click on the image above to read Alison Bechdel’s PLAY THERAPY

What does art do for you? Do you have a musical that you find transformative or healing? I know Fun Home feels like that for me, particularly because of the sense of identification it creates within me. I’d love to hear about yours. Head to the comments box below, and let’s chat.

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THE SATURDAY LIST: Ten Best Moments at the 69th Tony Awards

Tony Awards 2015

Poster for the 69th Annual Tony Awards

The 69th Annual Tony Awards took place last Sunday, so with almost a week to reflect on how the ceremony landed, it’s time to share my list of the ten best moments at this year’s ceremony. Many of these observations are based on my Facebook updates and Tweets from when I watched the presentation, which didn’t measure up to a couple of others in recent memory, largely due to choices made around the hosting of the show and some choices made about what to include in the televised show and what to leave out. Nonetheless, the Tony Awards still had its highlights – and these were those that spoke most strongly to me.

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Wins Best Play

It was great to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time winning Best Play, in a year that was pretty good to British nominees. It is so difficult to do justice to the Best Play nominees through extracts at the ceremony though. Certainly “The Grand View of the Year in Plays” feature at this year’s Tony Awards‬ didn’t work; neither did the isolated moments that preceded the actual award presentation itself. I personally love the longer clips from years gone by, some of which were showcased in Broadway’s Lost Treasures. And once again, the weird phenomenon that there is actually no distinction, when it comes to plays at the Tony Awards, between the writing and the production of the Best Play, raises its head. (The playwright involved here is Simon Stephens.) Any solutions for the Tony Awards?

9. Alex Sharp wins Best Actor in a Play for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

Everyone loves a good acceptance speech. This was quite a night for the recently graduated Alex Sharp. Pure gratitude. (The runner up in the acceptance speech category is Kelli O’Hara, who won for The King and I after years of not winning. A career award, perhaps, but I am glad she won a Tony at last.)

8. The Greys Introducing Fun Home

When Joel Grey opened up about his sexuality earlier in the year, many people asked, “What’s the point?” I didn’t. I think it is always a moment to celebrate, especially since we still live in a world where there is so much uncertainty around gender identity and where people struggle to come to terms with themselves, let alone with how others might treat them. So it was great to see Joel Grey and his daughter, Jennifer, introduce the performance of Fun Homem a show which must have a special resonance in their life. And besides that connection, this was just an introduction that felt genuine and polished and not as though it was trying too hard. (Here’s some red carpet footage of the pair; their introduction in full doesn’t seem to be up on YouTube.)

7. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori win Best Score for Fun Home

A groundbreaking win, with this award enabling two women to win all of the writing awards for musical theatre at the Tony Awards. Kron had just won the award for Best Book, which is why her speech is short and sweet here. It’s a pity these moments were excluded from the televised broadcast.

6. Judith Light

This might seem arbitrary to some, but I am a big Judith Light fan. Every Tony Awards night, I wait for ‪her to appear. And when she does, I am never disappointed. This year we saw some flawless presenting work from this generous and talented woman. (The runner up for the “Hostess with the Mostes‬‬‬'” award is the fabulous Debra Messing.) ‪

5. “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit

“Love and Love Alone” sounds like a classic John Kander and Fred Ebb number: a simple vamp underscoring an intelligent observation about life – with a twist. It was great to see Chita Rivera on stage performing this number with Michelle Veintimilla, with the older and younger versions of Claire dancing opposite each other. There was something about this that was reminiscent of Follies. The segue into the second song felt arbitrary and although the number clearly has the Kander and Ebb stamp on it, I felt that it played weirdly out of context and that the performance would have been stronger showcasing “Love and Love Alone” on its own. The full sequence of that song has a great emotional arc, although its ending isn’t fully satisfying with something unrealised in that moment. Watching this, it also struck how rare it is to see dance as storytelling in a major commercial musical these days. Have people lost faith in the kind of musical theatre dance that characterises, communicates narrative and deepens the storytelling?

4. The Performance from An American in Paris

Sorry, Singin’ in the Rain, but An American In Paris is my favourite 1950s MGM movie musical. The dance in this extract from the new stage adaptation of the film was superb, with incredible fluidity and control. Following the extract from the ballet, “S’Wonderful” and “I Got Rhythm” reminded everyone what a great song it is. Does “I Got Rhythm” ever disappoint, no matter what Gershwin catalogue show it ends up in? And the design is so stylish! It was great to see the show pick up Tony Awards for Best Orchestrations (Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky and Bill Elliot), Best Choreography (Christopher Wheeldon), Best Lighting Design (Natasha Katz) and Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley and 59 Productions). (There is a part of me that wished that Brandon Uranowitz or Max von Essen picked up the Best Featured Actor prize. I’ve got nothing against Christian Borle, but Something Rotten seems to be a deeply awful show and I kind of resent it winning anything at all.)

3. The Performance from On the Town

The performance from On the Town kicked off with Tony Yazbeck singing a winning “Lucky to Be Me” in his glorious voice. Starting off in the house, he flirted with Josh Groban, gave flowers to ‪Anna Wintour‬ and danced with Chita Rivera and Rita Wilson as he made his way to the stage. One of the first things that I thought was how amazing the score of On the Town is. When Yazbeck arrived on stage, he was joined by his co-stars and the ensemble for “New York, New York” on the gigantic stage at Radio City Music Hall. I loved this. This show is a true classic.‬‬ I was sad the show walked away empty handed and would have loved to see the show win Best Revival of a Musical.

2. Tommy Tune’s Grace

Tommy Tune‬ is all grace. I loved his introduction to the award for Best Directing in a Musical, in which he remained dignified following the Tony Awards basically offering him the worst tribute medley ever after as a compensation for not allowing him to receive his Lifetime Achievement Awards. All television audience were able to see of that moment was a short clip of Tune receiving his award, which launched into three snippets of songs from shows in which he was instrumental in bringing to Broadway: “We’ll Take a Glass Together” (from Grand Hotel), “Our Favorite Son” (from The Will Rogers Follies) and “My One and Only” (from My One and Only). One minute of performance from start to finish. That was no tribute; it was a travesty. A disappointing moment from the Tony Awards saved by an icon’s magnanimity. The clip I’ve chosen to represent this moment is the acceptance speech we all should have seen on the televised show.

1. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home

The performance of the night, and the best moment of this year’s Tony Awards, was “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home. As the clip was introduced, I thought that the clip might kill me. It slayed me. I was a teary mess by the end of it. Sydney Lucas is phenomenal. This is magnificent stuff. If you haven’t yet discovered this absolute gem of a musical (which took home the Best Musical prize too), do it.

So that’s my list for today. What were your favourite moments at this year’s Tony Awards? I’d love hear about them via the comment box below.

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

It’s not often that you look back at a forgotten musical, even when it comes to many of the most notorious flops, and can see very clearly why it is has been forgotten, why it flopped – or both. All American is precisely such a musical. Although the original cast recording of the show has been in my CD collection for the better part of two decades, I’d only really listened to it once before hauling it out so that All American could be this Friday’s Forgotten Musical – and now that it’s had a couple of spins, it probably won’t come off the shelf for another listen anytime soon.

My memory from listening to All American all those years ago is that it had great music, but that pretty much everything else was dispensable. Returning to it now, the music by Charles Strouse still seems to be the strongest ingredient of the piece. The lyrics, by Lee Adams, also seem to contribute a great deal to the mix, but there was something about them that made me hesitant. By the time I hit “It’s Fun to Think”, I was convinced that the lyrics weren’t well matched to the narrative. Two tracks later, “Nightlife” left me without the shadow of a doubt that this was the case. The song is sung by Susan, a character that recalls Kim in the Strouse and Adams’s earlier collaboration, Bye Bye Birdie. Both characters want more than the limitations her mundane confinement allows; in Susan’s case, it is because she has been gated for trying to sneaking into the men’s dormitories. Fine. But when Susan starts singing about Cole Porter and wanting the beguine to begin to a tune that might have represented hip theatre music a decade earlier, the piece starts to damn itself as a piece of storytelling within the context of the musical as a whole. A pity, because taken on its own terms, it’s a fine song.

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

This kind of rift intensifies when the score is paired with what’s going on in the plot. Fashioned by Mel Brooks from Robert Lewis Taylor’s novel Professor Fodorski, the narratives seems to grate up against the score, and everything seems to take a turn for the worse in the second act, for which director Joshua Logan crafted the book. Everyone on the creative team seems to lose track completely of what they are trying to say and the way in which they are trying to say it. What is most peculiar about this inconsistency is that Strouse and Adams were so in step with the milieu in which they were writing just a couple of years earlier that they were able not only to dramatise situations and attitudes contemporary to the time in Bye Bye Birdie, but also to satirise them. In All American, they are are so out of touch that the generation gap between the professors and their college students barely exists. It’s ironic then, that the it was in fact the generation gap between the writers and the director, Josh Logan, that seems to be most commonly attributed to the failure of the show. Strouse comments:

Josh was from a different generation, he looked at America, college, the youth culture in ways that were different from ours. Many times, later on, he told me he felt he had put his finger into the show the wrong way. He had seen it in more of the flesh and blood realities of the characters than we had, and, because of that, their physicality became more important than the satirical point of view we had initially envisioned.

Anita Gillette, Ron Husmann, Eileen Hurlie and Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Anita Gillette, Ron Husmann, Eileen Hurlie and Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

To backtrack a little, maybe it is worth mentioning the plot of All American at this point. Professor Stanislaus Fodorski is a Hungarian immigrant, recently arrived in the United States to teach in the science faculty at the Southern Baptist Institute of Technology. Fodorski soon marks his mark, teaching engineering by comparing it to football, which in turn benefits from being approached scientifically. Fodorski finds himself attracted to the Dean of the college, Elizabeth Hawkes-Bullock, while the show’s secondary romance follows two of the students, Susan Thompson and Ed Bricker.

The similarities to Bye Bye Birdie are obvious, with two romances – an older couple  and a younger one – built around popular obsessions of the time in both shows. But here, Strouse and Adams found themselves with Brooks and Logan instead of their Bye Bye Birdie collaborators, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion, whose path had diverged from that of their colleagues when they had decided to work with Bob Merrill in Carnival! the previous season. It’s an object lesson if ever there were one about how important it is to find the right collaborators and to do whatever it takes to make sure that everyone is working on the same musical.

Youthful antics in ALL AMERICAN

Youthful antics in ALL AMERICAN

What All American is able to offer, if a cohesive musical is nowhere to be found, is a couple of great songs, notably “We Speak the Same Language”, “Once Upon a Time”, the abovementioned “Nightlife” and “I’ve Just Seen Her”. “What a Country!” uses a distractingly similar hook to “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” from Oklahoma!, but the lyrics are still fun. These are all preserved on the cast recording featuring a strained performance by Ray Bolger and the intolerable vocals of Eileen Hurlie om the one hand, and the very agreeable delivery of the Ed and Susan’s songs by Ron Husmann and Anita Gillette on the other. In fact, if nothing else, the cast recording reveals how skewed the balance is between the two plots: Ed and Susan should be more prominent in the score. Consequently, the cast recording is not one that prompts the thought, “What went wrong?” The flaws of All American make themselves felt very clearly on disc. Other thoughts? “Physical Fitness” sounds a bit like something Leonard Bernstein might have chucked out of Wonderful Town and “It’s Fun to Think” seems like something that could slot into a Rodgers and Hart musical from the 1930s. But what can you do?

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

So the big question: is All American fixable? Well, I think it offers as good a case for a ‘revisal’ as any, and at least the three writers are still with us, even if the youngest of them is 86 years old. If all three were robust enough to take on the task, I don’t see why they shouldn’t. Except, of course, the men who saw youth culture for what it was in the 1960s will see things through different eyes, which might leave us back at square one. Maybe the easiest fix would be to shift the 1960s setting to post-World War II and to tweak things from there. Could All American be reinvented a glorious 1940s-styled period piece? Who knows? I guess only a full production would reveal the answer, and I’d be willing to give it a shot.

To close off, here’s a recording of what most people consider to be the hit song of the show – but which of course was a trunk song from ten years earlier that eventually found its home in All American. On the cast recording, you have to suffer through Bolger and Herlie’s vocals and be able to look past them to find any beauty in the song, so here’s Frank Sinatra crooning “Once Upon a Time” in a way that lets the song speak for itself.

While you’re listening, why not share some of your own thoughts about All American in the comment box below. I’d love to hear your opinions!

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THE SATURDAY LIST: Ten Love Songs by Lerner and Loewe

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

This Saturday has caught me in a romantic mood once again, and it has been a while since I compiled a list that focuses on a specific musical theatre writing team. I thought perhaps a list of ten of my favourite love songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe might be in order. Lerner is by no means by favourite lyricist – as regular readers of my blog will know – but he has earned his place in the musical theatre canon, although I don’t think he can ever match up to the likes of Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim. I even called Lerner the Tim Rice of his day once, which still holds true to a large extent for me. Perhaps Lerner would have had a better time in the heyday of musical comedy, when he would have not been required to craft his lyrics so specifically to character and situation, because it’s almost always in those aspects that his lyrics fall short. I guess my point is that I don’t believe he was always as meticulous as he should have been given the era in which he was writing. But that’s opening up a whole can of worms into which I don’t really want to delve today, so let’s just jump into the love songs of Lerner and Loewe. Oh – and by the way, this is a countdown list, so I’ll be working towards my favourite as the list continues.

10. “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady

The bottom spot on this list was either going to belong to this song, or to “I Talk to the Trees” from Paint Your Wagon. But even though the lyric of “On the Street Where You Live” is flawed, it at least has a a winning accompaniment that doesn’t push into ideologically shaky territory by using generic rhythms to indicate cultural heritage, as Loewe does in “I Talk to the Trees” by associating generic Latin American rhythms as a character marker for Julio. (“I Talk to the Trees” has its own fair share of lyrical transgressions too, making ample use of purple imagery.) As for “On the Street Where You Live”, Lerner would have been better off if he had he written something like:

People stop and stare; I don’t care at all –
For there’s nowhere else in town that could compare at all

– and thought up something different for the ending. At least that way, we wouldn’t have to suffer through that truly awful ‘bother me’/’rather be’ rhyme that is second only to the suggestion that Eliza should be taken out and hung, like a drape, for her transgressions against the English language.

9. “How Can I Wait?” from Paint Your Wagon

Numbers when people dance with other people’s clothes make for good romance it seems. It worked here in it would work when Disney staged “Once Upon a Dream” in Sleeping Beauty. There’s a kind of uninhibitedness about this kind of expression through imaginative and transgressive role play that makes the emotions felt, in this case by Jennifer, feel completely convincing in the world of Paint Your Wagon.

8. “I Loved You Once In Silence” – Camelot

This song comes late in Camelot and the tendency is to take the tempo a little more “up” than it should be. Although this perhaps makes sense towards the end of a long show, it’s a song that needs space to land dramatically. It’s a key moment for Guenevere, balancing her first number, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and needs to reflect the development of her character since the top of the show. Bouncing the number along doesn’t help that cause. But Camelot is that most frustrating kind of musical, the flawed masterpiece, a show with a huge emotional impact that seems never quite to have found its best form.

7. “The Heather On The Hill” from Brigadoon

There’s something so seductive about this song, sung in Brigadoon by Tommy and Fiona as they gather heather for Charlie and Jean’s wedding. We all know that Fiona’s been ‘waiting for [her] dearlie’ and here, it seems, he is. I’ve loved this song since the first moment I heard it in a revue in which I performed in 1997. That led me to seek out Brigadoon, a show which has always appealed to me more in idea than in execution, although I’ve come to like it more as they years have passed. But however I feel about the show, I’ll always adore this song.

6. “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot

If love is timeless, then this is a song that does its best to capture that sentiment. Lancelot’s thoughts on how he could never leave Guenevere at any time of the year are accompanied by a seductive melody. With a set of lush orchestrations, it’s time to swoon. Yet there’s a curious shallowness that keeps this song from creeping up higher on my list. The song always makes love feel so full of promise and possibility, but there’s an emptiness that remains once it’s gone. Perhaps the kind of love here is a romantic ideal of courtly romance, an idea of love rather than love itself. I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. Any ideas?

5. There But For You Go I – Brigadoon

Sometimes the biggest battle of being in love is admitting that you are. This song is one of the big moments in Brigadoon, but it so often turns out being a big blustery ballad and I think that is why it passed me by for a long time. Enter Robert Goulet and his understated and beautifully acted interpretation of the song – and now the song is something that is haunting, compelling and something that you want to admit someday, no matter how difficult it might be.

4. “Gigi” from Gigi

I discovered this song long before I discovered the film, as a youngster playing songs that I found in the seat of our piano stool. Besides its simply enchanting melody, I think something in this song immediately connected with me. I often feel quite funny and awkward, as Gigi is described as having been, and I think that I also wanted – and still want – someone to see past that and love me the way that Gaston realises he loves Gigi in this song.

3. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady

Some people will argue that My Fair Lady is not a love story, but they’re most likely confusing it with its source material. Pygmalion is not a love story; My Fair Lady is. The ending has something to do with it, so do other key moments in the score and certainly this song does too. Sometimes love is hard to express. Sometimes the expression is restrained. That’s what makes “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” so moving. It holds back what is there. But those who deny that it’s there would have a difficult time convincing me that it’s not.

2. “How To Handle a Woman” – Camelot

“How To Handle a Woman” is a song that is, in fact, about how to handle anyone you love. Love them. That also means putting aside things like your job, so that you can have the time to love them. It means being passionate about them. It means engaging with them, and loving them actively. Arthur doesn’t quite get it right in the end, but hopefully we aren’t all destined for a tragedy of classical proportions. And hopefully, we know that trying to get it right means getting it wrong sometimes. We’re all flawed, and getting that across is a huge part of what makes Lerner and Loewe’s take on Camelot so effective.

1. “I Could Have Danced All Night” – My Fair Lady

The My Fair Lady naysayers may come after me with fire and pitchforks now, but that’s probably not going to change my mind that this is my number one love song by Lerner and Loewe. In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza would be buoyed by her mastery of the English language. Here it is the moment, she says, ‘when he began to dance with me’. Capturing Ebiza’s ebullience in the moment of the recognition that it is the connection made between herself and Higgins as a result of her mastery of the English language is what shifts “I Could Have Danced All Night” into love song territory. And no matter where it ends, that first moment of joy is unique.

So that’s my list for today. Which Lerner and Loewe love songs you would choose for yours? Any that you’re passionate about that didn’t make my list? I’d love hear about them via the comment box below.

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