Rodgers & Hart or Rodgers & Hammerstein?

My brother once put the phone down on me because I said I loved Rodgers & Hart but that Rodgers & Hammerstein weren’t nearly as good.  That was ten years ago, but I’m not sure things have changed in my opinions – in fact if anything they’ve become more entrenched.  I am a bit perplexed by my adoration of Rodgers & Hart and my cool dislike of Rodgers & Hammerstein.    After all,  chilly and cardiganed, I did enjoy an evening of The Sound of Music at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre on Tuesday, with its sentimental displays of Austrian independence, stern nuns, Nazis and singing children, and it was exquisite, but I always know that if someone tried to play a Rodgers & Hammerstein song at my funeral I’d insist on coming back to haunt them.

Rodgers & Hammerstein is nothing like Rodgers & Hart.  The dramatic shift in the nature of the partnership means you could be forgiven for thinking that the Richard Rodgers in one partnership is not the same Richard Rodgers in the other.   The alchemic relationship between a composer and his lyricist is a delicate thing of such distilled components that I suppose they will always be destined to produce different results, just like the children a man has with his first wife will look nothing like the children he has with his second.  But if we compare “I Wish I Was In Love Again” with “Edelweiss”, you’d think these musical theatre children were off separate parentage completely.  This was a bit of a brain–fuddling conundrum for years, until I discovered that with Hart, Rodgers would write the melody first, presenting Hart with it only when the tune was absolutely complete. Hart would then write the words. With Hammerstein, it worked the other way around.  The lyrics came first.  The songs evolved in an utterly different way.

Rodgers and Hart is salty without being lewd, urbane, deeply romantic and underlined with a dash of hard-baked sexual cynicism.  I always thought that the relationship between Amanda and Elyot in Coward’s Private Lives could be prefectly underscored by the lyrics to “I Wish I Was In Love Again” : ( The broken dates / the endless waits / the lovely loving and the hateful hates / that conversation with the flying plates/ I wish I was in love again. …The furtive sigh / the blackened eye / the words “I’ll love you til the day I die”/ the self-deception that believes this lie…. ). There is so much experience and ripe knowingness in these lines that it’s astonishing. This was one of the fruits of Richard Rogers’s labour with Lorenz Hart.   Hammerstein’s “OOOkkkkllaahoma!”, with it’s wind-swept, dry plains and the far-away Eastern drama of “The King and I” were poles apart from the world that Rodgers had created in his songs with Hart, with its aim firmly on the city (“Manhattan”), worldweary resignation and heartfelt regret (“Little Girl Blue”) and the sublime exhilaration of early love”(Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”).   Rodgers and Hart were fired by a desire to raise musical theatre songs from the lazy or the tame, with its dreary rhyming of “June”‘s and “Moon”‘s, and soar into a higher vernacular.   There are so many shades of meaning in some of Hart’s lyrics, which rest ambivalently on top of the music.  What does “You Took Advantage of Me” mean?  Is someone willingly surrendering themselves to true love?  Or have they just realized their innocence has been exploited?  (Here am I with all my bridges burned / just a babe in arms where you’re concerned.  So, lock the doors and call me yours….).  Is this some kind of weird sadistic relationship, or a happy ending?  This is highly complicated, adult stuff.

In The Boys from Syracuse Rodgers & Hart put Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors to music.  This is a score that swings, mishmashing olde English with the new and manages many flirty half rhymes (rich in and kitchen, or do to and cute too), but this score also contains the song “Falling in Love with Love” which was covered by a range of popular singers in the second half of the twentieth century,  Their other compositions are ridiculous in their quality “A Ship Without A Sail” is a thrillingly beautiful ballad of mind-numbing loneliness, and there is also something of the pain of the terminally unrequited love with the desperate plea “My Funny Valentine”‘s lyric ‘stay, little Valentine, stay….’.  Does the valentine with his/her slightly weak mouth and tousled hair stay?  It’s all ambivalent, and although the composition is tight and delicious it is wound around with Rodgers & Harts usual melancholy. “There’s a Small Hotel” has all kinds of horizontal implications, whereas “It Never Entered My Mind” is a chilling reminder of the over-confident who play the game of love, and think that a certain someone will always be there to put up with them, only to wake up one morning and “order orange juice for one”, not to mention that, now alone they”have to scratch my back myself” – you can make of that what you will.

Could it have been something of a comedown for Richard Rodgers to go from  “Lost my heart / was dyspeptic.  Life was so hard to bear. Now my heart’s antiseptic….” to “Doe, a deer, a female deer” ? Whilst I am not a Hammerstein-basher, the problem with him as a lyricist is you can see the rhymes coming a mile off. Hammerstein rhymes “way” with “day” in the first scene of Oklahoma!.  The production of The Sound of Music that I saw this week reinstates a song from the original stage production which was omitted from the film, “How Can Love Survive?” .  Half of it is clever, the other half has rhymes that you can spot coming from a mile off.  Nevertheless, Hammerstein’s lyrics cleave to Rodgers melody beautifully.    Hart’s depression and alcoholism wore Rodgers down in the end.  About a year before Hart’s death from pneumonia in November 1943,  Rodgers teamed with Hammerstein.  Together they went on to create the most popular partnership in musical theatre history.  When Hart was asked to co-write a musical with Rodgers set in the American west in late 1942 called Green Grow the Lilacs, Hart replied “Cowboy hats and gingham is not for me.”  But Rodgers knew a man who could : if there was one thing Hammerstein could do standing on his well-born head, it was songs about cowboy hats and some of the American west’s fruitiest red gingham.  And he did it splendidly.  That kind of world suited Hammerstein’s lyrics perfectly.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein partnership was characterised by space; great expansive swathes of it.  Whether it is the grand dustbowl sweep of America, the Austrian alps or distant, Eastern Siam, Rodgers and Hammerstein is very much about looking out.  Very few things on the planet are bigger than South Pacific.  It’s as far from the worldly metropolitan “Manhattan” as you can get without sliding off the globe all together.  The sightlines are in the middle distance and a huge amount of dramatic action takes place outdoors.  There is little place for introspection.  “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning!”  they chant in gleeful joy of a brand new, blue skied, bright American day.  In Rodgers & Hammerstein there are not cities in the way and the horizon beckons in gorgeous magnitude : “Everything’s going my way!”   In Rodgers & Hart the view is internalised; much like a telescope turned inwards, and it is the plain of the human heart that is ploughed for emotional material.  Often “very little is going my way!” is the overriding feeling.  The emotions are not stark, confident or clear.  In this way, perhaps the work of Rodgers & Hart is doomed to have its slightly knowing, melancholic tinge, so bent is it on telling the stories of failed romances, broken dreams, lost loves.  Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work is more outgoing and playful – and certain more sexually innocent.  It can lure the theatregoer into the refreshing charm of a different life, more often than not in a different country.   Although more folksy and less sophisticated, Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at big drama as well as big vistas.  They were particularly good at death (see Carousel and Oklahoma!)  Rodgers and Hammerstein is a glass of cool lemonade to Rodgers & Hart’s short, acerbic gin and lime.

The main difference is. therefore, sex.  There is tons of it in Rodgers & Hart.  Bucket loads of the stuff. “Should We / Shouldn’t We?  or, “I’d Love To, But You Won’t Let Me”  or “I Could Have But I Didn’t And Now I Shall Die Alone” or “Blimey, I Never Knew About THAT”, or “You Had Me But You Behaved Like A Twat So I’ve Left You”  sort of thing.   Rodgers & Hammerstein is a child-friendly, sex-free sort of world (and I’m not just talking about the nuns).   I don’t know what Oscar Hammerstein’s sex life was like, but I’d bet a tenner it wasn’t half as exciting or tortured as Lorenz Hart’s.  The Hammerstein world is different, straight forward, more dynamic in its physical limitations but less dynamic in its psychological ones.  There are no abiding links that I can see, except the composer, who in his relationship with Hammerstein, unlike his relationship with Hart, was unable to set the tone of the song and take the lead.  Hart admitted he had talent, and once told Alan Jay Lerner he could have been a genius but he didn’t care enough to work hard.  He does not appear to have known how sublime a lyricist he was.  For all his failings, drunkenness and tardiness, Hart had an unfailing generosity towards Rodgers, after Rodgers had created his partnership with Hammerstein.  At the first night of Oklahoma! he told Rodgers, “This is one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, and it’ll be playing twenty years from now!”  Hart was dead six months later, his last words being “What have I lived for?”

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to welcoming you again on August 29th! x

Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. Or Are They?

When Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be was resurrected for a brief run at The Union Theatre in Southwark last year, both critics and actors got not a little excited.  Lionel Bart’s 1959 musical ran for 18 months in the West End following its original production and then endured the fate of many splendid musicals; it won an Evening Standard Best Musical Award in 1960 and never played much again.  Anywhere.  For Bart, Oliver! eclipsed the rest of his compositions, but essentially Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be is an loud, obstreperous series of scenes that don’t altogether make a full, satisfying whole, yet its depiction of the world of 1950s brasses, criminals, gamblers and bent coppers is like no other musical I’ve ever seen, certainly not an English one. 

It was originally a play by Frank Norman, who had written his prison memoirs “Bang to Rights” in 1958.  Therefore, when Joan Littlewood’s theatre company picked up the play in 1959 it was already touched with the vicarious shiver of real crime, with a dash of notoreity.  Littlewood asked Bart to write the music and lyrics.  Lionel Bart then revealed himself as the uncrowned King of composing the English whore’s lament.   Give him a walker, a prostitute, or in his words, a brass, and he’ll expose the pain and doubt and fear and love in her.  In the small, scraping, pushing, underworld that Fings inhabits, amongst the knife fights (his taste for writing shows with exclamation marks in the title rears up with the strange song “Carve Up!” about a man who has to have 27 stitches), bookies, cut throat street law, the change in Soho underworld at the tail end of the 50s and the pimps, there are two of the best songs written for women in post-war English musical theatre. What Bart really exposes isn’t the working life of the streetwalker but rather the quiet thoughts that happen behind the scenes, when the knickers get pulled back up.  The song “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” is a heart-breaking ballad sung by a woman, now a retired prostitute, who realises that finally, her place and role in the world is over.  She remains, in a loveless relationship in a decidedly unlovely flat.  Who ever truly considers what happens to whores when they stop whoring?  Her dreams are more tragic for their ordinariness “To think I could have been a housewife, in a bungalow / No stairs…”  but it’s painfully too late : “The ceiling’s coming dahn…and we never even knew / We’ve been too busy doing / What we thought we ought to do….”.  The second, and better known, of these bittersweet ballads is “Where Do Little Birds Go“, which Bart gave to Barbara Windsor to sing in the original production and which Windsor credits with changing her career.

Where Do Little Birds Go” follows a similar idea as “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” in that in hypothetically asking where little birds go in the winter, our whore is, of course, asking what happens when the gaily working good time girl wakes up to discover that the worms have been caught by all the other early birds and there is absolutely nowhere else for this late bird to nest.  These are the moments these tenacious London prostitutes only allow in private,where the plaintive questions of life can be asked.  The world they inhabit will not comfort or keep them.   It is not a coincidence that when Oliver! appeared in 1960 it is Nancy’s song, her whore’s lament of “As Long As He Needs Me” that has them weeping in the aisles and momentarily forgetting the pesky orphan who should be the focus for their sentiments.   Bart recognises her type as soon as he sees her, realising Bill Sykes is just another ponce to Nancy’s brass.

The title song of Fings shows the timeless, exhausted, rolling eye with which native EastEnders gaze on the hapless, educated beatniks who have begun to encroach on their manor in the late 1950s.  “Toffs with toffee noses / And poofs in coffee houses....” etc, not to mention the university chaps and debs slipping in for vicarious thrills from the East End sidelines.  Meanwhile, the near, strident colours of the 1960s are approaching and there is a riot of interior design in the song “Contempery“, in which people try out rubber plants and cactuses in their houses and chuck out their chintz.  This rampant desire for domestic fashion sits awkwardly in the schpeilers (gambling dens) of the male protagonist, Fred Cochran, who wonders whether anyone’s going to bring him a cup of tea and doesn’t understand why he has to have art prints on the wall.    The Lord Chamberlain’s office, spitting blood and prudery at the repeated “piss off”s, “sod off”s and “bugger off”s, frustratingly found their censor system couldn’t work if the play was improvised nightly (which it was).  In his review for the Daily Express, Bernard Levin called Fings “A play of brilliant, bawdy irreverence”.   It shouts and struts and blasphemes.  Aspects of London underground life are successfully celebrated, but not idealised.

Unfortunately, in “Joan Littlewood’s Theatre” by Nadine Holdsworth, something appalling happens.  A load of academics get their hands on Bart and completely misread him.  Holdsworth woefully accuses the production of glamourising criminality. Then again, this is an academic book so only 12 people will read it but get this : “The problematic romanticising of criminality and aberrant behaviour associated with the powerful symbolic presence of The Krays arguably underpinned Littlewood’s production of Fings.  […] Littlewood resorted to representing an exoticised criminal underbelly rather than recognisable everyday domestic and working lives…From the late 1950s, Littlewood abandoned the discourse of the financially deprived but socially rich, proud and resilient Cockney figure embedded in their local geographical community to contribute to an alternative discourse of a criminal fraternity intent on self-advancement through dubious and often violent means.”

The Krays link is representative of the fact that Joan Littlewood held a post-opening night party at a club in The East End.  Would you Adam and Eve it, but it turned out to be ran by the Kray brothers, which is not surprising, because everything in the East End from home furnishing stores to creches seem to have been controlled by the Krays in the East End in 1960.  Her theatre was in Stratford.  If you live and work in a pickles barrel, eventually you’re going to have to come across some pickles. Either way, there is no exotic glamourising of criminality going on in Fings.  There is gleeful musing from some of the men in their peacocking strut of semi-criminal lives, but Holdsworth has made the mistake of confusing gallows humour and bawdiness with glamour, confusing celebration with triviality.  Also, neither Littlewood nor Bart are under any obligation to produce a particular kind of Cockney from “their local geographical community”.  If people are violent, it’s because people are violent.  Bart would just tell you he was displaying the world of his youth, which is his right. 

Her aversion to joviality knows no bounds: “…theatricality, in particular the use of songs, only served to heighten the sense that Littlewood had resorted to exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential and popular entertainment value.”

Grrr.  Here are two very real problems about the middle class view of working class theatre : First of all, Holdsworth sticks to a rather arbitrary and paint-by-numbers viewpoint often breezily batted about in discussions regarding theatre.  This view is that drama, good solid high quality theatre drama, is fine – you can say something serious in theatre.  People sound a bit posh in theatre.  There is a weight to the words.  But musicals are for the proles, musicals have dancing in them, are tainted by the unwholesome evolution they have travelled through via the mucky route from vaudeville.  Musicals cannot and will not, according to their nature, afford a seriousness.  I don’t know how people arrive at this point of view that music can only belittle and defile that drama which it comes into contact with.  Makes you wonder why Puccini and Verdi bothered really, doesn’t it?  How dare the working classes audaciously present their own London lives in song?  Prostitutes are not a suitable subject for comic songs, for GOD’S SAKE.  Are you MAD?  The other, second issue, is that middle class drama critics are only really happy and satisfied if they go to the theatre and see the working classes being bloody miserable.  They want to see political engagement and common whores railing against injustice and working class sacrifice outside the factory doors or banging away at kitchen sinks.  It suitably scratches the itches of societal conscience.  It placates their liberal, middle class guilt.  It makes them feel that a responsibility has been taken by the proletariat and that something is, conveniently and comfortingly, in hand, in the working class dialectic.  But show them working classes dancing, drinking, fighting and robustly shoving one in the eye for the landed classes and they shuffle uncomfortably in their seats.   The ribaldry inherent in larks, tenacity and that most important East End London characteristic that Bart understood – spirit – are incompatible with shoddy remnants of puritan progressivism.  In short, middle class academics and critics find it inappropriate if working class characters have their own character, rather than a tapestry pattern of social attributes.    Holdsworth writes above that Littlewood was “exploiting a very real social problem for its comedic potential“. Oh, shove it.  The Wolfenden Report in 1957 had already turned gay men and whores into problem statistics to be discussed by the political classes and, of course, rightly so. Its findings were extremely significant for the decriminalising of homosexual acts in Britain. But what does it feel like to actually be a “social problem”?  What does it feel like for other, moneyed, educated people to talk about you as if you’re just a whorish issue waiting to be cleared up?  How many working class people do you know sit around discussing themselves as “social problems”?   And, if you going to attack this show with claims of exploitation, then by definition all theatre that operates on a profit basis where people pay money to look at it is exploitation.  You could say the same about people going to watch Pygmalion and laughing about Eliza Doolittle’s oh-so-funny poor working class accent.    But that’s classic Shaw, so presumably it’s all right.

Yawn.  She goes on.  It’s the gaiety she can’t stand. It’s bad enough to have to look at the poor.  But now they’re out of the box, they’re jumping about like nutters and showing us their scars and their pants.  They’ve got knives in their hands and they’re failing to fulfil middle class fantasies:  “There are no reflective moments….”  and, apparently, it’s a “thinly-disguised freak show”.  But then she makes a point so stupid that I can’t believe an academic can make it.  It was so bovine I had to read it twice.  She writes : ” the infamous title song..laments the passing of a ‘golden age’ when ‘ponces killed a lazy whore’.”  The whole show, Bart’s whole alacrity and brilliance misses her completely.  It never once strikes the brain of Ms Holdsworth that Bart is, in his lyrical irony, revealing a truth.  The line she is writing of sits cosily in a verse that has the lines “Big hoods, now are little hoods / Gamblers now do Littlewoods / Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be/ Times were in days of golden yore / Ponces killed a lazy whore / Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.”  To think that Bart would be as puerile as to use this as a lazy nostalgia is offensive.   It’s ironic, Ms Holdsworth.  Things were, reveals Bart, always as bad as they might have been in the past, never mind as good.  They are, quite simply, just like what they used to be, and that people will continue to make fools of themselves making out otherwise.  Brutality slips to be replaced by a different set of brutalities. Petty crime mutates into another kind of petty crime.   The wheel keeps on turning and the bent copper is, of course, destined to take over the betting shop. This is world these characters inhabit.  Holdsworth has chosen not to interrogate Bart’s lyrics, for reasons that are not clear.  On a different note, in his recent biography of Bart, David Stafford is right to point out that “In its time Fings, in its subject matter, its production style and in the relaxed ensemble of the actors, was nothing less than revolutionary.”

David and Caroline Stafford’s book on Bart is far more illuminating and deftly composed and well-written than any academic text.  It’s highly recommended for anyone who is interested in both theatrical culture of the 1950s and 1960s and also the early birth pains of British Pop.  It was Bart, after all, who discovered Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and convinced Reg Smith to change his name to the more popworthy Marty Wilde.  Why are academics not more willing to engage with the heart and humanity of certain kinds of theatrical figures?  If Lionel Bart hadn’t been, in his own words a working class “homosexual Jewish junkie Commie” with a penchant for vulgar humour, who remained totally musically illiterate, would his work have been received and judged in a different way?   Anyway there’s no need to shovel a load of shit in Bart’s face because life eventually did that for him anyway.  Eventually he was so broke that Cameron Mackintosh opted to give Bart a royalties percentage during the revival of Oliver! in the West End, despite Bart having sold all his rights when struggling for cash 20 years earlier. I’ve had to read a shedload of academic books about literature, and I think they’re wonderful, but as soon as I read any concerned with my former training, musical theatre, I start spitting.  So many glaring, wonderful points pass completely unnoticed.  Why do academics not quite get it?   Perhaps another question is, does anybody care?  But one thing’s clear – when it comes to good old-fashioned cultural snobbery, Fings Are Exactly What They Used T’Be. 

Don’t read Ms Holdsworth.  Read this – David & Caroline Stafford’s enjoyable biography on Lionel Bart – it’s much better!  On Kindle over at Amazon.   http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fings-Aint-Wot-They-Used/dp/1849386617/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346315962&sr=8-1

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Curzon Cruising & West End Wendy

Do not worry readers, this is not a tale of sharking for sexual activity in lugubrious Mayfair.  Curzon Street is not just the home of mad sexual deviants, you know, nor just the grand, snooty home of Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Crawley.  It is also the home of our smartest and most cosmopolitan range of independent cinemas.  On Monday, filling the gap between work and going out to forget about work, I went to the Curzon Mayfair.  It’s an odd place.  The door handles are constructed of  imitation marble like some 1970s nightmare, with “LADIES” and “GENTLEMEN” in italicised, capital script written vertically along the massive handles.  It is the only place in the last five years where, on buying a ticket, you are asked to sign for your card transaction rather than key in the usual pin.  It’s a Euro-friendly time-slip.  In the main lobby of the Curzon Mayfair you could be in Rotterdam. Or Anywhere.  Liverpool or Rome. 

After sitting in the plush seats for two hours, with sleek adverts for high end products bleating out at you (“Our feature film starts in five minutes!  Still time to buy a Berry Bros & Rudd fine wine before the presentation…”) and being repeatedly told there is a iced Madagascan vanilla yoghurt concoction with organic everything called YooMoo in the foyer, it is easy to believe that you aren’t in London at all, but are instead in some European city of bizarre monied decadence, like Geneva.  The sense of geographical discombobulation was worsened by the fact that the film I saw was set in Paris in three time zones.  As I left the Curzon, leaving behind the thick as velvet carpets and the sense of cocooned comfort the cinema promotes, I walked back into Shepherds Market.  I was surrounded, for some reason, by five people all speaking French.  Shepherds Market is – like Soho – one of the very few areas of London that feel terribly Parisian. I wasn’t – for that moment – in London atall.  I had slipped into an imaginative hyper reality of pavement cafes and Romance languages that could place me anywhere in the continent. 

Of course, shortly I was in Ronnie Scotts grappling with a fatty rib eye steak alongside a diner complaining about her cold shallots, so it wasn’t long before I was reminded of the fact that I was in London.  After a night in the next day, Tuesday, I realised I’d had enough of this “night in” bollocks, frankly, and went out again, this time to see Crazy For You, the show I saw in repertory at the Open Air Theatre and which has now transferred to a particularly ornate and beautiful theatre at the wrong end of the Strand, The Novello.  Those of you who know me know that I find fortitude from shows featuring pink gingham, backflips and shuffle hop steps, but I had reservations about this transfer.  The kind of alchemy that must be in place to render a show successful is a delicately balanced combination of timing, casting, atmosphere and economic optimism.  It’s a brave (or foolhardy) investor who backs a show at the wrong end of the Strand at the wrong end of an economic boom but the preview performance of Crazy For You was oddly brilliant. 

In the Open Air Theatre, the set looked too anachronistic – 1930s Broadway theatre names in small white rectangles made by white light bulbs on a stage where the background is trees and where the musical cues are underlined by a wallop and a whoop from a creature in the nearby zoo.    It also seemed to grapple and grasp for space on what is not only a small stage at the Open Air Theatre, but a shallow one as well.  The Novello, I thought, wasn’t big enough.  It was going to be wrong on all kinds of counts.  Well, I was proved wrong  – the theatre, strangely, seems to suit the set much better than the stage it was originally designed for over in the Regents Park.  The actors aren’t forced to do battle with an over-zealous wind or gusts of rain.  The band, however, seemed to forget there was a roof on, had their amplification racked up to the max, and seemed to drown out half of the lyrics.  I could see the neck veins straining in the ingenue who was trying to make herself heard.   But this technical problem was my only criticism and one that I imagine this week’s preview performances will swiftly iron out.   The actors looked shattered when I first saw this production in August.  Now, settled into their roles and pleased as punch with the West End transfer, the cast has discovered the exuberance which is intrinsically vital to the show’s nature, and have injected the evening with a jolt of shimmy and glitter.  The Greek chorus (or cameos, rather than chorus really, although I’m not sure if you can have a Greek cameo) was particularly effective as Bobby Childs’ conscience, dreamscape and interpreter of plot.  There isn’t a dramatic scene I can think of that can’t be improved by ladies arriving in feather headresses and silver shoes.

The bar was – as always in the West End – woefully understaffed and woefully overpriced, I was stuck behind a large Russian woman in scarlet crepe du chine and an immoveable hair-do who manoeuvred her way into the bar area to order about seven Courvoisiers with ice.  There was a propensity of Europeans in the audience of course, a mark of how the consistently international patrons of West End musicals have changed in the last 30 years.    In the 1980s it was the Japanese and American market, bristling down the Haymarket in large shoulder pads rocking up to The Phantom of the Opera.  Today it’s the new European rich, who are like the Old European rich but without the breeding and snobbery.  The audience are less comprised of the Far East today and more compromised of the near European East; and thank god they are.  Not only are they having a fine old time, but as domestic markets struggle to keep theatres full, to keep actors in work and to keep producers in made to measure suits, the West End is surviving on a constant drip feed of cash injections from patrons East of Berlin.   No one else seems to have the money to spend £60 on a theatre ticket.   I certainly couldn’t have afforded to spend £60 on mine, so had to trawl the internet like a ticket whore, sharking for 2-for-1 deals to grab my piece of vaudeville.

The composer and lyricist of Crazy For You, George & Ira Gershwin, were Russians too, whose parents emigrated from St Petersburg to New York in around 1895, thereby unknowingly exposing their two sons to the Eastern Seaboard’s unique combination of European and American musical fusion and a hungry young Tin Pan Alley in a hungry young country.  And the rest as they say, is serendipitous American musical theatre history.  I suppose precious little has changed in 100 years.  This quintessentially American show is, much like living a cultural life in London today, a European experience.   A hundred years ago, as today, the vibrancy of our cultural life was vitally dependent on money and youth and vigour and hunger coming to the UK from overseas.  As soon as I thought of London’s cultural world as not being in England, I realised that, of course, none of it ever has been.   The show may have rhythm, may have music, may have its girl and its daisies in green pastures, but eighty years after it was written it seems that it still needs its Russians. 

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Does Andrew Lloyd Webber Steal Shoes?

Not an ordinary question to be asked whilst standing at the bus stop, but it had been one of those evenings.   My friend and I were standing at St John’s Wood after a boisterous kofte.

“No,” I said.  “What? Of course he doesn’t.”

“You said he’d nicked something from Ravel.”

“Yes.”

“Well, then.”

There is no Number 13 on the horizon.  “No, not Ravel the shop.  Ravel the dead composer.”

“So, he’s dead.”

“Yes.”

My friend shrugged.

“It’s a different thing,” I said, disappointed that I was having to describe the difference between footwear and musical composition on a rainy street corner in North West 8.  “You can take someone’s shoes when they’re dead; but there are rules about dead music.”

She didn’t get it and held both her palms out, as if to say: “Music?  Shoes?  What difference?  Where’s the bus?”

“You can’t steal dead composers’ works.  There are currently no laws in place about what happens to your shoe collection when you die; which is a gross oversight, in my view.”

The fact is that Andrew Lloyd Webber, whilst no doubt being a splendid person, is know to have “borrowed”, shall we say, from the archives of classical music for some of his musicals.  Ravel (the man, not the shop) and his  Bolero (the piece of music, not the item of clothing) is forever linked to Cats (the musical, not the animals).   Once on the bus, and shaking drizzled droplets out of our hair, my friend became utterly confused and thought I was talking about cats in shoes going cape shopping.  But the sentiment was right.   Not that I dislike MiLord Webber, of course.  I did once work for him and very nice he was too – always knocking on the dressing room doors rather than just barging in like the producer used to in the hope that we would all be in a state of general disarray and undress.   But MiLord Lloyd Webber did compose a new song for this show and for two weeks I tried to work out where I had heard this “new tune” before.  Halfway through a Thursday matinee it hit me – most of it was the same as the theme tune from The Upper Hand, that sitcom where Joe McGann played a housekeeper.

It must have been galling for Love Never Dies to receive it’s mauling from the Press, as The Phantom of The Opera / Melodrama / Electro-pop/Classical-type / Musical is resilient to all attacks.  It ceases to matter that it’s a bit shit.  It ceases to mean anything that it’s overblown tripe.  It ceases to matter that it’s got more ham than a village butcher.  Still they file in – tourists from the four corners of the globe, school trips, middle-aged couples – and watch the chandelier nearly but not actually fall on them, accompanied by a dubious soundtrack of electric organ and classical oboe.  “Listen to the music of the NNIIIIIGGGHHHHHHT!……………….”  Mucus of the night, more like.  Still, I shouldn’t be mean.  MiLord Lloyd Webber has snapped up several West End theatres and fills them with a hearty variety of shows for your pleasure and perusal.   He doesn’t actually have many of his own composed shows in the West End these days and has seamlessly slipped into Producer mode and casting director for Saturday night TV.

Whilst Phantom and the purely saccharine and downright silly Les Miserables / a.k.a. The Glums marches on to revolution without showing any signs of stoppage, good shows are going to the wall.  Betty Blue Eyes – great reviews, a pleasant audience reception but not enough tickets sold – closed last week.  Tourists must still be coming to London – The Glums and The Farter of the Opera, Wicked and Mamma Mia must be taking the lion’s share.  But for the newer musicals trying to elbow their way in to this market is a brutal and murky business.  In three weeks, Crazy For You takes up the transfer that it was always somehow due to have since it opened at Regents’ Park in early August.  The week I saw it, cast members told me that the first weeks’ performances had been littered with producers, to whom a West End transfer for a classic Gershwin musical was essentially considered a no-brainer.  Tap dancing, a classic score, a traditional musical comedy structure (girl meets boy, love arrives, love is challenged, some dancing, some more dancing, adversity is met and bashed over the head, some tap dancing, true love, a happy ending.  Oh, and a comedic turn from a series of small, eccentric cameo roles), the classic “feel good” musical – all these components when shaken together and baked in the middle shelf of a pre-heated oven for an hour and a half produce the Perfect American Musical of the Golden Age.  But – will it survive?

Crazy For You is a new show, based on a new-ish show that was based on an old show.  Girl Crazy was the original Gershwin show from 1930, which was shaken up and edited by Ken Ludwig in the late 1980s to produce Crazy For You in 1991.  It opened on Broadway, in London at the Prince Edward Theatre, won every award going, made a star of Ruthie Henshall and ran for a couple of years.  Its home in 1993 was The Prince Edward Theatre, a glamorous, glorious feast of Art Deco madness at the salubrious end of Old Compton Street, where Crazy For You fitted ideally into its home, which was basically a building as old as the show inside it.  The Novello, where Betty Blue Eyes has snorted her last, is at the end of the Strand where they forgot to put any kind of atmosphere and which edges, soberly, onto the Aldwych end of Holborn.  Theatreland it isn’t.  Geography is historically vital to how and where theatre productions eek out their survival, but perhaps this won’t be a factor in the case for Crazy For You.  I shouldn’t need to tell any of you about Crazy For You’s  ridiculous musical virtues as a show and if I do – well, then – you’re reading the wrong blog.

Ironically, a show that kicks the recession blues neatly into touch with it’s joie de vivre and optimism may well end up being a victim of exactly the kind of economic gloom that is annihilated whilst watching Crazy For You.  You simply get momentarily swept up in its fabulousness.  It is impossible to see Crazy For You  and not feel better about things, or think that some great cosmic world order has satisfactorily been restored as you leave the theatre.  Like all great classics of the American comedy musical stage, it is a show within a show; and the idea of a theatre being repossessed is challenged by a “Let’s put the show on right here!” fortitude that would suit Mickey Rooney.    The lead character, Bobby, is a man to whom nothing matters other than dancing, which he often illustrates throughout the show.  Rather than dancing and singing suddenly coming at you right between the eyes during an otherwise ordinary narrative, and therefore feeling a bit anachronistic and out of place, in the traditional American musical plot very often mirrors subject content.   And, frankly, what could be more topical than a theatre on which “foreclosure” is imminent?  (“Foreclosure”!  what a euphemism.  How American.  So much more smoke-and-mirrors than our own take-no-prisoners, gruff word: “repossession”…).  The score of Crazy For You is nothing short of remarkable.

This Open Air Theatre production deserves to survive with rampant success.  The thought of actors and actresses killing themselves with this show eight times a week to houses filled only to two-thirds capacity is a depressing one. Crazy For You is an ideal antidote to the risks and petulance and toughness of our current climate.  After all, aren’t the recent riots summed up by : “When I’m dancing I don’t care if this old world stops turning, Or if my bank is burning, Or even if Romania wants to fight Albania.…”?  and some much-needed context for the current financial lunacy provided by this? : “My bonds and shares may fall downstairs –  Who cares, who cares? I’m dancing and I can’t be bothered now!”   I hope this peach of a show gets the long and illustrious West End run it deserves, as their as far too few tap dances in the West End right now.  Perhaps it will survive for a year against the odds; so long as Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t steal any more shoes.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Normal service is resumed

What better recovery from a long-winded MA than a visit to see Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre on Tuesday?  I was slightly bemused by the message in the foyer that “There is moderate swearing in this production – but not as much as the film though”.  Although this production has been open for five years, I hadn’t seen it.  Theatre buddy and myself were deeply impressed by it – not only a wonderful production with excellent choeography, but a strong libretto (which modern musicals often don’t have, and the words between the songs often stick like mucus between the ears), acting standards resolutely high and a sense of true political integrity which is usually the characteristics of “straight” drama.  I don’t know why David Hare should have all the fun when it comes to political integrity.  Musicals should be a space where political passion can be formidably expressed through the tight medium of tap-dancing.  Too many modern musicals play into the hands of those who think a night out at the theatre should be like pouring cosy, sweet semolina into the brains of the audience, and providing a light entertainment that barely skims the surface.  Mamma Mia, you have a lot to answer for.  All power to the politically engaged musical plot, I say.

For those of you who were struggling with the cut and paste from Google language tools, we’re reverted back to our English heading here at The London Bluebird and done away with the Italian grammar.  We are now back on English soil, and our sojourn around the hills of central Tuscany seems as hazy and distant as the site of Shelley’s Viareggio drowning viewed from the city of Lucca.   Mr Bluebird and I have pledged never to fly HorridAir again as it was just so frightful.  A two hour delay at Pisa, being rammed into a distinctly unpleasant National Express bus at Stansted, rolling through the front door at 2am, weeping for a cup of normal tea and a hot water bottle. 

Back in London the skies are darkening and winter is on her way, which is awful for me, as it is every year.  I try to get into it.  I roast chickens, baste animals that were happy clucking around a farmyard a couple of days previously, make stews, cook with cinnamon and hot hunks of ginger.  I watch Strictly, try to think about all that nonsense about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness but it doesn’t work.  There is no mellow fruitiness on the Finchley Road (the Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents’ Association wouldn’t have it).  Autumn is rife with narrow wintry awfulness.  Instead, I’ve done what I didn’t think I would do.  I have gone back to the library following the completion of my MA.

Glutton for punishment I may be, but I’ve gone back to the M E Braddon shelf diligent readers from https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/chick-lit-1860s-style/ will remember as that bastion of 1860s chick lit whose 70 novels are – with the exception of 2 – entirely out of print.  The London Library has been the only place I didn’t want to leave.  I have just read the ludicrous “Birds of Prey” with its murder in the first few chapters and dastardly goings on about inheritances and money in Baywater villas inhabited by sneaky stockbrokers.  Next on the list is “The Trail of the Serpent” which has been recently republished with an excellent foreword by that denizen of neo-Victorian lesbian tomfoolery, Sarah Waters.  I might do a PhD on her (Braddon, not Waters.  Sapphic exchanges in down at heel music halls aren’t quite my cup of tea) and appear to have become addicted, not just to reading Victorian texts, but to the particularly academic manner of reading.  The MA, in terms of its discipline has done its work and I have become indoctrinated in the art of sitting with book in one hand, hot-pink cartridged fountain pen in the other, noting, noting, noting, unsure of where it will get me.  Meanwhile, on the commuting front, I am making quick work of the exquisitely honed Every Man for Himself, from one of my favourite writers, Beryl Bainbridge.  A perfect accompaniment for soupy grey mornings on the bus to Oxford Street, blinking out onto roads with cars still with their lights on at 8am.  Honestly, this being cold for the winter business.  It’s shit, isn’t it? 

The only thing I can think to do about it is get a job working from home so I can sit in warm pyjamas all day and not go out.  But how many jobs are there out there in a time like this, for a fast-typing, fast-talking, musical viewing  book addict with Victorianist tendencies and a habit of singing Rogers & Hart in the bath of an afternoon?  If anyone has any ideas please send to Bluebird, Fourth Shelf, Fiction Section, Third Floor London Library, St James’s Square.  If the postman has problems finding me, I’m the one cowering under the 1870s M E Braddon collection, weeping for the loss of summer.

I don’t believe what I’m hearing

Gather round, kids.  What’s not to like in the following ensemble of wonderful-ness? :  Gene Kelly plays a movie star in a fab white trilby and hardly has his tap shoes off in the film’s 103 minutes,  Donald O’Connor is his fizzball-of-energy cohort composer, Debbie Reynolds is the charming ingenue and Jean Hagen is the woman whose voice is so harsh it could strip paint.  It’s a comic depiction of Hollywood by Hollywood, but its knowingness never turns to cynicism; it parodies film-making whilst still holding it in affection.   Singin’ In the Rain is a musical liked by people who don’t like musicals.

The infectious exuberance of its superb score, direction and tap dancing – marked by Kelly’s athletic slant as choreographer –  is the best reason for watching it.  Many nights in Bluebird Towers have been spent reclined on the sofa with a glass of red joining in by harmonising on You were Meant for Me and then getting up to dance haphazardly around the room, narrowing missing smashing into the television.  But, reading further into Singin’ In The Rain is a fascinating business ; you see only a series of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the reality and artifice of the screen.  This is a film concerned with the space between what an audience sees and what an audience hears; and makes us conscious of the discrepancy between the two.  Not only that, but even without the ears, the eyes alone can fool; what Hollywood looks like from the outside rarely has anything to do with what is going on within.  Hey kids, ain’t that the truth.  This film is contrived to show the nature of artifice, how it manipulates and suspends belief, but also its merits and purposes.  Any film musical is going to be far removed from reality by its nature; what Singin In the Rain creates is a reality based on artifice – a hyper-reality, if you will.  The brilliance of the 13 minute story-within-a-story sequence Broadway Melody is a riotous display of colour, dance and scenery that presents the film’s plot in microcosm in an expressionistic vision.  While comically lampooning film-making, and stripping away the lies and artifices that audiences end up having to consume, it is marked by a self-referential affection towards film-making.

At the outset, then, we meet Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), silent movie stars at a film premiere of their latest release.  The Royal Rascal is a melodrama set in France during the Revolution and featuring dashing sword fights and protestations of love set to a background of guillotin-ing.    Lina and Don, who are capitalising on a “Are they? Aren’t they?” love affair which the studio has artificially created, must first meet the terrifying Dora Bailey, the gossip columnist du jour.

Don Lockwood, debonair and thrilling, meets his adoring public in front of the Gaumont Theatre.

The principal issues of the film are raised in Don’s first monologue, in which he gives a potted summing-up of his career thus far.  He comments that he was raised on “Shaw….Moliere, the finest of the classics” whilst the montage we see on the screen features him and his great friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) singing and dancing for nickels in bars.  Whilst Don comments that he had a “rigorous classical training” we see him and Cosmo dancing with violins and playing in nightclubs to people who quite clearly detest them.  This section features the fantasic performance of “Fit As A Fiddle” in which Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s outfits are so loud they threaten to drown out the music.  This opening speech of Don’s makes it clear : what the studio feeds the publicists is contrived nonsense, and Don is beginning to feel it.

After the premiere of The Royal Rascal, Don and Lina professionally flirt and bow to the audience, and we soon discover that he actually cannot stand her, and she has the kind of voice that the studio must conceal, lest it break windows.  She is also so indefatiguably consumed by her own publicity that she believes Don is really her fiance, and that she is nothing short of marvellous.  Doggedly, Don follows Lena to the after-show party hosted in Beverly Hills by their producer.

After Cosmo’s crappo car breaks down (good at tap-dancing, bad at oil checks)  and Don is attacked by a load of 14 year old girls, he thumbs a lift from young lady Debbie Reynolds (playing Kathy Selden) who proceeds to not give in to his polished seduction routine and thinks that Don is, well, rubbish actually.  His films don’t impress her because she is a serious actress.  Honestly, she gives him a right drubbing.

Don pimps Kathy’s ride by jumping in her convertible and pouting gorgeously all the way to Beverly Hills, like the renegade, maverick starlet he is.

However, her moral superiority is short-lived; they unknowingly turn up to the same party, she as a dancer and he is a guest of honour.  When she jumps out of a cake, the game’s up – you aint no classical actress lady, you’re a vaudeville hoofer just like our Gene.  Coo.

Our Debbie proves she aint no Sarah Bernhardt.  Gene would like to go out with her, despite her scary shower cap.

After singing and dancing All I Do is Dream of You Debbie isn’t in the mood for any of Gene’s nonsense and is so humiliated by him discovering her real job that there is nothing left to do but smash a load of pineapples in Jean Hagen’s face.

Lina Lamont remains unimpressed by the new “Donald O’Connor Face Pack” range.

Lina gets Kathy Selden sacked from her dancer’s job, the cow.  Don spends time looking for Kathy, and Cosmo takes it upon himself to cheer Don up by a brilliant rendition of Make ’em Laugh in which he dances on a disused film set.  This is helpful, thank you Cosmo, but does not solve the main problem : talkies are in, and Lina’s voice will be revealed for all to hear. It’s a scandal.  Hollywood explodes into a vast amount of medleys performed by 1920s ladies shaking cocktail stirrers, but Don is not having his cocktail stirrer shaken.  Where is Kathy?

Even Donald O’Connor’s famous Geoffrey Palmer impression fails to cheer Don up.

But hope is in sight.  Whilst Don goes for a stroll and concentrates on looking handsome he bumps into Kathy Selden, who is filming a dance at the same studio.  Unable to tell her how he feels without the appropriate scenery, because “I’m such a ham”, he does it the Gene Kelly way, folks, by turning on hundreds of lights and creating a moonlit effect for a dance scene where he looks damn nice in a cricket jumper.  (Do the Americans even have cricket? Either way Gene makes it obvious to Kathy whether he bats or bowls.)

At last, Don assists Kathy with the decorating.

Terrified by Lina’s astonishing pipes “What’s WRONG with the way I talk?  Whadds the big idea?!!”  studio sets her up with a vocal coach.  Don too must also attend voice school.  Cosmo pops in to help out but it all goes footwards when the boys deliver what is my favourite dancing sequence on film.  Ever.  They turn a tongue twister “Moses Supposes his Toesies Are Roses” into a jazz tap routine and song.  And it doesn’t matter that it makes no sense.   Should you wish to see it in all its original splendour here it is (although if you work in office, headphones on, and volume UP please, otherwise you will prob get told off) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKlub5vB9z8&feature=related

Wowzers – I love a man in two tone shoes – look at them go.

Gene and Donald thought they had the “Countdown” audition in the bag, until that bitch Vorderman bagged it.

The first day’s filming on the new talkie is a disaster, due to problems of where to place Lina Lamont’s microphone : (“I can’t make love to a bush!!”)   Their director seems to have a nervous breakdown.  A preview leads to the studio thinking Don and Lina are through when the sound goes out of synchronization and no one can fix it.  The audience leave thinking the film – and Don and Lina –  ridiculous.  Lina is too thick and ditzy to understand this, however.  Back at Don’s Spanish / Mexican / French-themed uber Hollywood chateau, him, Cosmo and Kathy try to find a way out of it.

The road ahead is Vaudevillian, they decide – or at least Kathy does whilst she is doing the washing-up.  They will turn the film into a musical : The Dancing Cavalier. Nothing can be worse than actually having to go back on the road in vaudeville, and they might just make the world’s first screen musical.  They celebrate.

Not for Gene the post-pub tea on the sofa with a slice of marmite and toast.  Oh no.  On arrival at Gene’s house, you must pirouette through his front room in the small hours, folks.  The only fit way to celebrate at Gene’s gaff, having decided to make a musical, is to perform “Good Toes, Naughty Toes” in front of his custom-built bar – a bar which, as Don Lockwood is so profoundly wealthy, is customized by Moroccan style fringed stools, with bases made from solid gold interwoven with strands of Lana Turner’s hair.  Classy.

Good Morning, which was actually filmed in the early hours, featured in an anecdote of Debbie Reynolds’ years later; she told how her agent  decided against her receiving the “vitamin injections” that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had to keep them going during long filming days.  This may explain why Debbie looks knackered and Gene and Donald look like they’re tripping off their faces.  Debbie Reynolds’s feet bled throughout the filming of the routine.  Years later she said that the two hardest things she had had to do in her whole life were childbirth, and making Singin’ In the Rain, which should tell you how happy she was.  During filming at MGM, Fred Astaire found a weeping Debbie Reynolds sitting under a piano, where she miserably told him how Gene Kelly didn’t think she was up to the job.  Astaire helped her, taking her through her dancing scenes.

He may be an Oscar winner, but Gene still has trouble trying to tell the difference between Debbie Reynolds and a wet lamppost. Or he’s still off his face on vitamin injections.

….what goes up must come down, chaps.  The injections wear off.  Our stars are reduced to a vegetative state.  MGM must replace their batteries else filming shall not continue.

Cosmo has an idea – his first since the film began.  As Lina’s voice is so awful, they will use Kathy to dub her.  The audience will never knew they are being duped, the peasants, and he won’t tell Lina either.  It’s going to be a triumph!  Don celebrates outside in some quite bad weather.

Gene taps beautifully, to distract from the fact that he is committing fashion suicide by teaming brown shoes with a grey suit.

Gene practically has to swim through his epoch-making dance, so heavy is the rain.  A small amount of milk was added to the rain vat to ensure the droplets showed up on screen.  Even with a temperature of 103 he carried on dancing through this sublime performance.  What a trouper!  It’s simply Gene at his fabbest.

The producers are up for it, but the plot will need to be entirely shifted to accommodate the musical element.  Don and Cosmo wander around the producer’s office in 1920s plus fours and come up with a plot, all of which is a run-in to Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donen’s baby, The Broadway Melody. Cyd Charisse plays a vamp and gives it all she’s got.

Cyd Charisse tells Gene how it is – from the end of her very very very long legs.

“Do they have those in my size?”  asks Don.  “I’m desperately trying to remedy the brown shoe situation.”

At the end of the Broadway Melody – a story of a man who gets processed through the sausage factory of the entertainment business – Gene’s character (a Broadway hoofer) emerges jaundiced and sullen at the other end regarding both work and romance.  Salvation arrives only when he remembers the passion for dance that first inspired him.   Broadway, in all its glories and depravities, will always bring the silver-shoe tapper back to his original passion – which is to look snazzy in a boater and dance, dance, dance.

From this moment on, it’s a question of tying up the various loose ends; Kathy dubs Lina’s voice, in between Don telling her he loves her, Lina gets wind of it but remains as brassy, ditzy and ineffective as ever, and the premiere looms.  The Dancing Cavalier is a resounding success and the audience scream and shout for Don and Lina after the screening.  Lina is given enough rope to hang herself with when Don, Cosmo and the produce RF Simpson, enable her to go out and talk to the audience so they can hear her.  Disappointed by her screeching, the audience request that she sing.  Uncooperatively, Kathy stands behind a curtain and dubs Lina’s singing.  Cosmo and Don pull the curtains back and expose the sham movie-making procedure for what it is, and reveal Kathy as the true star.

When the facade is stripped away it reveals only another contrived reality – the curtain rises on Kathy, and the movie theatre audience in the film discover something new.  But we the audience at home do not.  We feel the vocal truth and artistic integrity of the film we sensed all along has risen to the surface and the gifts of the talented are truly realised.  The triumph of  hard Vaudevillian graft and romance has not only won Kathy and Don true love but also access to successful film production: the final frame – Kathy and Don embracing in front of a movie billboard of their latest film Singin’ In the Rain – is the last example of self-referential artifice, of a film within a film.   That reminds us that all the removal of artifice leads to is the presentation of an even more surreal reality that Hollywood hangs itself on.

A great musical film depends on a special alchemy, the triple thread (singing, dancing and acting) must be intact and all performers must gage the temperature of those performances correctly, or else the whole thing collapes like a badly-cooked souffle.  I think that the true measure of this alchemy does not make itself known until the film is screened in its final version.  The extra something special isn’t about the filmmaking procedure, because it is more than the sum of its parts; it’s more to do with a sense of completeness that can only be apparent with viewing.  I think Singin’ In the Rain is one of these films, in that its ultimate alchemy is so enchanting  that no one could have possibly planned it.

Fred Astaire visits the boys on set which was nice as his suit gave everyone something to laugh at.

Dear Bluebird Readers, this week my challenge is for you all to find a copy of this film from somewhere – steal from Aunts, ransack old video cupboards of random old people, and watch it.  I defy you not to find your spirits lifted.  Please post your comments to the blog entry – I’d love to know what y’all think.

I found a brilliant blog about this – also on WordPress – at the following site.  If you’re interested in reading more about Singin’ In the Rain check it out!:       http://filmwhat.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/an-embrace-of-artifice-%E2%80%9Csingin-in-the-rain%E2%80%9D-through-a-%E2%80%9Cbroadway-melody%E2%80%9D/

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

A night in Albania

This, apparently, is St Alban, who was a fourth century Christian martyr.  That’s a sword he’s holding there, ladies.  When Christianity was legalised, they realised “oops!” and feeling a bit embarrassed decided to make him a martyr and named a lovely small Hertfordshire city after him.  “We shall maketh a city from your name, Saint Alban,” they said, “And they shall fill it with Jigsaw, Crabtree & Evelyn and ladies hairdressers.  But, strangely, it will always be difficult to park there.”  St Alban was well chuffed.

Well, he has been deposed. 

On Sunday the new saint of St Albans arrived and it was this chappie who has featured before on this blog and who in this picture has forgotten to put his shirt on:

“Go forth, Lee Mead,” said the elders of the town.  ” You are our new saint.  Go knock those ladies bandy with your rendition of hit songs and showtunes and strut your sexy stuff.  The city is yours and belongs to you and your pretty hair.”  And so St Mead set out for Albania, to conquer its streets and win over its womenfolk.  This was simple, as the menfolk were drunk in the hostelries, watching England get battered by the Germans in Ye Olde Worlde Cup. 

We at Bluebird Towers have paid homage to Mead before on these electrical pages.  His career has been followed from the beginning and we think him talented and charming.  So, can you imagine the thrill of a front row ticket to see St Mead in Albania? I went with my theatre buddy, both of us in a state of excitement about the gig, and both of us melting hysterically in the oven-like heat of last Sunday.  I was so confused (I believe this is known as “Mead-mushed”) that I ended up paying for a Pay and Display parking ticket on a Sunday.  Apparently I didn’t need to do this.  Oh well, I can now park in St Albans legally until 11.45 tomorrow morning.   Parts of St Albans go back to the 12th century; but unfortunately, this part is the Pay & Display machine in the London Road car park, which doesn’t give change out properly.   Like all old towns that were based on a medieval lifestyle (central market place, church, abbey, alleyways, small shops, syphilis) motorcars do not like St Albania.  Car parks are splattered about by town planners in the most haphazard of places.  My theatre friend got delayed in the one way system, which was set up as a traffic calming measure in 1392.

We went to a very good restaurant for dinner – full marks to L’Italiana, 3 French Row for the most excellent garlic bread – where I spent most of the meal being sprayed with orange squash by a three year old.  I turned and said, “Calm yourself, my child.  I know it is exciting that St Mead is on his way to sing to the citizens of this fair town but restrain your excitement – oh and take your father’s wallet out of your mouth.”  We then lost the arena – it was tucked away behind a series of streets but when we eventually got to it it was obvious that there were No. Men.  In.  The.  Building.  Atall.  In fact, there was one – he sat behind me and whirred a vibrating fan contraption throughout the first song which alarmed me when I first heard it, I can tell you – but mainly the arena was a testosterone-free zone.   In the hottest auditorium on the hottest day of the year we settled into our seats in the front row but slightly off to one side.

By now my theatre buddy was too excited to do anything but giggle and wiggle about in her seat and I was so hot my head had melted.  They did eventually whack up the air con, but by then the place was filled with so many women that the room just went into oestrogen overload and it all went nuts.  How could it not go nuts when all of a sudden Lee Mead jumps out of somewhere in the first of a series of well-fitting outfits and starts singing “Paint it Black”?  Of course, at the beginning, the audience was sitting down and not very interactive.  But pretty soon he whipped everyone up into a frenzy and I for some reason got the giggles.  You have to interact with people on stage.  I suggested to my friend that perhaps she could show her interaction by straddling him or something, because there is nothing worse for a performer than a flat house.  I was once in a bad play (I was never in any other kind, it seems) and saw a heavily sunburnt Jeremy Paxman sitting in the front row picking bits of fluff out of his ear and looking miserable.  I am not saying that the audience on Sunday were miserable, as they were certainly not, but it might explain my over-zealous bopping in my seat, clapping, shouting and whooping that generally carried on for the next hour and a half.  I was just egging it all on, you see.  I wasn’t really just an aging teenybopper excitedly whooping at Lee.  It was a professional decision, you see.  Cough cough.

After the opener, we had a series of self-penned songs and covers.  There was only four musical theatre numbers all night, two of which were from Joseph.  He would have been stampeded out of the town if he hadn’t sung them.  The musical theatre songs being kept at a minimum was a clear and welcome indication that Lee is not veering dangerously into Michael Ball territory (an evening of showtunes performed in drycleaned jeans with a brass buttoned jacket ensemble).   Instead he looked a bit like a smart hipster and jumped about like a happy bean, ripping through “Nothing Else Matters”, “Gonna Make You a Star” and then “Close Every Door”  (there wasn’t a dry seat in the house…)  in very fine voice – until something extraordinary happened.

His support for the evening was due to be the porcelain doll-like Niamh Perry, currently chanteuse of Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies”, but she was laid up with a stomach bug.  Instead a lady from New Zealand arrived with a violin and a husband.  He played the piano and she accompanied him doing a series of Turkish rondos, ballads inspired by a holiday to Ireland called “Memories of Martin & Mary” – I can only imagine that given the feel of this piece Martin and Mary died during the course of this holiday – and ditties inspired by the view from her New Zealand house by the sea.  Her technical brilliance was exceptional, but the dancing that accompanied the music was uplifting and disturbing at the same time.  I wonder what Lee thought of this from the wings – maybe he was watching what remained of the World Cup from his dressing room – but the pace of the evening rapidly jerked off from rock and pop ballads to musical reflections of the view from violin lady’s cottage.  However, her extraordinary warmth seemed to win us over, as she chatted about how lucky she felt to be there.  She must have been very warm because she was wearing knee high socks in a heatwave, which is takes a certain kind of sartorial rakishness to pull off, I imagine.   But unfortunately the energy and frenzy of the evening had dissipated.

Something had to be done.

Mead was forced to retrieve the evening from where it was drifting somewhere off the coast of New Zealand.   “I shall lose my sainthood if I don’t pull this one back.  We’re in pretty choppy waters!”  he must have thought as he adjusted his famous curls and braced himself to deliver the audience a dose of his finest.  And, in the name of all things saintly, he did.  It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.  He bounced back on stage in a new suit and sang “Kiss” and gyrated about with such enthusiasm that the roof nearly came off the building.  After banging on about women and girls ruling his world he sauntered towards the steps at the side of the stage and before we could say “Coo – he’s going to sit on our laps”, he was dancing about in front of us in the first row.  And then he started moondancing and people practically lunged forward offering their wombs.  There was a collective sigh , and then he was up on the stage again.  And it was like the violin lady never existed.   

He knew exactly what he was doing, of course.  By the end of Act I I was scribbling furiously in my seat trying to remember the set list and putting my thoughts down.  None of it is legible now.  I had to have a chocolate ice cream before I felt normal again.  A charming and sophisticated performance – with the exception of the moonwalking – had completed Act I.  I am ashamed to mention that, as he introduced me and my theatre friend’s favourite song, we both responded with an audible “Urghh” from the front row that sounded as if one of us was in pain.  The second half brought us a Beatles cover, a song from his album which he didn’t seem to have the right words for, unfortunately, and we were granted the sight of watching his keyboardists embarrassingly supply backing vocals for “Jesus Christ Superstar” (one of whom was miming) which was so surreal it was worth the price of the ticket alone.  Mead’s top note at the end of this one broke the sound barrier. 

If there’s one thing I like it’s a bit of stool-singing.  I don’t mean singing that you do on a toilet, I mean singing that you do sitting on a stool.  There was one stagehand whose sole job it was to bring on the sainted stool and take it off again twice an act.  We had two acoustic guitar and/or piano numbers like this – which was not enough – that showed the true smooth tone of Mead’s voice.  Now, many musical theatre singers simply cannot do this.  Having been somewhat vigorously trained to bellow out a loud vibrato at any given point, they often loose the knack of singing very softly.  They think the louder the better.  They think Ethel Merman.  Sometimes, they don’t let the lyrics speak for themselves.  They also have a tendency to underestimate the technical ability required for softer, more intimate singing – they think it’s what people who aren’t proper singers do.  But it is, sometimes in the quietest of ways (those who heard Frank Sinatra singing in recording sessions were often surprised by his natural voice, which was very quiet).     But, thankfully,  Mead is extremely good at this.  His voice actually sounds better when he performs in this way.  It is rare that a musical theatre performer can understand and do justice to both types of singing, but he can.  And he should do more of it.  Preferably on a stool.  Wearing tight trousers.  Oh, you get the gist.

Chatty links between songs and a measured interaction with the audience also kept it all flowing professionally. Small segments of personal memories related the importance of songs and how the artist chooses to sing them and – just when he appeared to be fully worthy of his sainthood – he picked up a small child from the audience and sang to her.   This was not the same small child who had been throwing drinks at me earlier. 

He did what good professionals do – took a hard job, made it look easy, performed with lots of energy, behaved graciously and thanked everyone for coming to see him.  Then the good people of the city sainted him (the Patron Saint of musical ballads) and he drove back to Hampstead.  He seems to understand the value of two extremely important things; always play to your strengths as a performer and be very, very considerate to your public.  He also comes across as astonishingly genuine for someone in showbusiness.  If he continues doing this I imagine pretty soon he’ll be filling bigger arenas and branching off into other areas of acting work than theatre.  A tall order?  Well, watch this space.

St Mead of Albania getting used to his saintliness

St Mead of Albania getting used to his saintliness.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.