Over the weekend, I went to the 40th birthday of my friend Mathew Russell, who happens to be executive director of Watford Palace Theatre but is a major musical theatre fan, too. And to prove it, he and his partner Bradley Hemmings devised a party that was called 40 years, 40 guests, 40 songs, and included a brilliant musical cabaret that included a song from a major musical of each year he has been on this planet.
And as a wonderfully clever ice-breaker for guests who may not have known each other, everyone was offered a card on arrival for a particular year, explaining the significance of each show to Mathew – and a chance to think about why the year meant something to them, too.
I happened to choose the card for 1986 and the show Chess: the year I began my first full-time job in London, editing theatre programmes and souvenir brochures for the ad agency Dewynters. Two years later I would be at the final dress rehearsal for its Broadway premiere, when my colleague Thomas Mann and I flew to New York to work on the souvenir book for what turned out to be its short-lived Broadway premiere.
Little did I know then that lyricist Tim Rice would become someone I’ve gotten to know in the years since, or little could any of us know how Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, whose first musical this was, would go on to find their back catalogue of Abba songs become the basis of one of the most successful of all musicals Mamma Mia! – coincidentally, Mathew’s choice of show to mark 2008, the year he saw the film version, though he admits he’s never seen the stage one (I’ll have to put that right!). And of course the one begat the other: it was working for Tim Rice on Chess that led Judy Craymer directly to meeting Benny and Bjorn and to creating Mamma Mia!
Reading the cards for Mathew’s year-by-year account of his life by the shows that have meant something to him from each of them provided a brilliant snapshot of how his life has been shaped by the theatre, and reflected in it. Some of the shows are ascribed to the years his own life was connected to them – The Hired Man, for instance, comes up in 1989, because that was the year he appeared in a production himself at Cheltenham Everyman Theatre; for other shows, it is when they first premiered or he first saw them.
It got me to thinking of my own 50 years (and counting) on this planet, which I marked last September. I’m afraid I have to be a bit more puritanical about choosing the shows to mark each year – I can only allow myself to choose the year each premiered, not revived or when I first saw them. Today I choose the shows for the first 15 years of my life – I’ll continue with the next fifteen tomorrow, then continue on Thursday before concluding on Friday. What shows would you choose for your own year-by-year account of your life? Post them below!
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened on Broadway on May 8, the first show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics to be a success, and I was born four months later on September 12, a world away in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sondheim had, of course, already at that point become a major Broadway force as the lyricist only of West Side Story and Gypsy, but confidence in him as a composer was established by Forum that would see him becoming the pre-eminent composer/lyricist of his day – a day that continues unbroken to this one. It would a while before I would discover the joys of Sondheim for myself, of course: soon after moving to London in 1979, I got the London cast album of Side by Side by Sondheim out of the local library – and was blown away by this collection of great songs from his shows written up to 1976.
She Loves Me opened on Broadway on April 23 – one of the most perfect of all musicals. I fell in love with its score first after I fell in love with Barbara Cook, the greatest Broadway singer of my lifetime (who turned 85 last October, and is still singing), and collected all her back catalogue. But beyond the score, I fell in love with the show, too, when I first saw Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company revive it in 1993 at their now long defunct Broadway home the Criterion Center Stage Right, before moving it to the Brooks Atkinson.
That production featured the wonderful Judy Kuhn (whom I recently saw in London in cabaret as I reviewed here, in the Cook role of Amelia Balish; next month she opens in an off-Broadway revival of Sondheim’s Passion that I can’t wait to see, and will be back there for). When the show transferred to the Atkinson, she was replaced by Diane Fratantoni, who I’ve not heard of since! When that revival came to London’s Savoy Theatre in 1995, Ruthie Henshall took the role – and won an Olivier for her efforts.
Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway on January 16 – a show that, in common with the character of WALL-E in the Pixar film, I adore. As I’ve previously blogged,
The lonely waste-collecting robot of the title finds a strange sort of comfort in endlessly replaying scenes from the film version of Hello, Dolly! to himself, including “Put on your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment”. The scenes that spoke to WALL-E now spoke to me: musicals can offer a particular path to redemption and connection to the world, even one (as in WALL-E) that had been all but destroyed.
That film version of Hello, Dolly!, of course starred Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi (and a very young Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackle, who features in those scenes that WALL-E watches over and over again); but the original Dolly Levi was Carol Channing, and it became a show she returned to again and again in the years that followed. I was only two when she first did it, but I’ve since seen her do it twice – in a 1979 London revival at Drury Lane, and then in a Broadway return by her in 1995. I’ve also seen the travesty, in every sense, of the late Danny La Rue playing Dolly Levi in a production at the Prince of Wales in 1984; but more successfully and recently, have been delighted twice over the show at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park in 2009 with Samantha Spiro, and at Leicester’s Curve last Christmas, where Janie Dee played the title role.
Flora, the Red Menace opened on Broadway on May 11. As I wrote in a review of a London fringe revival last year, it
may be a footnote show in the history of Broadway musicals, but it has left an indelible footprint – it marked not only the first Broadway collaboration of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (who would go on to become one of the most enduring of all Broadway songwriting teams), but also featured the Broadway debut of a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli in the title role, for which she won her first Tony Award.
On a personal note, the first full stage version I saw of it was one I produced myself – at Cambridge’s Arts Theatre in 1992, starring Susie McKenna (now better known as the queen of the Hackney annual panto, which she directs every year) in the Minnelli role!
Cabaret opened on Broadway on November 20, by the same songwriting team behind Flora the Red Menace. But whereas Flora ran for less than three months and only 87 performances, Cabaret would run for nearly three years and 1165 performances. It’s first West End outing in 1968 would star Judi Dench as Sally Bowles. But it was Flora’s original star Liza Minnelli who, of course, would make it her indelible own when she starred in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version, one of the greatest film musicals of all time.
I’ve seen it myself onstage in many stage incarnations, but the best of them was the 1998 Broadway version that expanded and developed on Sam Mendes’s 1993 Donmar Warehouse production, co-directed for Broadway by Rob Marshall before the latter would go on to direct the film version of another Kander and Ebb show Chicago, and Rufus Norris’s 2006 West End version that has recently been revived at the Savoy.
Hair first opened at off-Broadway’s Public Theatre on October 17. This counter-cultural musical, conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by by Galt MacDermot. has one of the greatest pop scores of any modern musical. The original West End production at the Shaftesbury in 1968 had a cast that included the young Elaine Paige – plus Marsha Hunt, Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry and Oliver Tobias. I wish I’d been around for that. The original run was famously brought to an end when the roof of the theatre fell in – a fate that I wished would occur when Rock of Ages recently ran there, but it survived! I’ve since seen the show revived many times, but never more excitingly than in a fringe production at the Gate Theatre in 2005 that director Daniel Kramer updated to set amidst the Iraq War instead of the Vietnam one.
Promises, Promises opened on Broadway on December 1. The only original Broadway musical to be written by pop writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it showed that pop and Broadway could usefully overlap and inspire each other – a trend that has continued to this day with writers like Elton John and Bono amongst those currently on Broadway. I adore Promises, Promises – I loved the 2010 Broadway revival with Kristen Chenoweth, though the one I wished I’d been around to see was the 1969 London premiere with Betty Buckley making her West End debut – who is coincidentally back here right now to star in the London premiere of Jerry Herman’s 1969 flop Dear World and I’m meeting later today for an interview!
Coco opened on Broadway on December 18. With a score by Andre Previn and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, this biographical musical of the life of Coco Chanel saw the title role played by Katherine Hepburn in her only musical role. The history of Broadway is littered with curious flops; as an inveterate collector of flop shows on both sides of the Atlantic, this is one that I most wished I’d been around to witness for myself. Its pedigree is amazing: besides Previn and Lerner, the creative team also included Michael Bennett as choreographer, and a cast that also featured Bob Avian, Graciela Daniele and Ann Reinking, all of whom would become choreographers in their own rights.
Company opened on Broadway on April 26. Stephen Sondheim’s ground-breaking first collaboration with Hal Prince as director blew the modern musical apart: a show which took the lid off narrative conventions in musicals as it revolved not around so much a plot as a state of mind. This most audacious and exciting of modern musicals remains a thrilling surprise every time you see it; I can only imagine the shock that must have greeted its original production.
Two of the best productions I’ve seen were Sam Mendes’s 1995 production at the Donmar Warehouse, starring Adrian Lester as Bobby; and the 2010 revival at Sheffield Crucible, with artistic director Daniel Evans. Prince and Sondheim would go on to collaborate on four more of the most influential musicals of the 70s: Follies in 1971, A Little Night Music in 1973, Pacific Overtures in 1976 and of course Sweeney Todd in 1979.
Follies opened on Broadway on April 4. I wish I had seen the original of all Sondheim’s musicals (it wasn’t until Sweeney Todd came to London in 1980 that I saw my first Sondheim in a production of the transfer of its Broadway original, and not until Sunday in the Park with George in 1984 that I saw my first production of a Sondheim in its original production on its home territory of Broadway).
But there’s no production I wish I could turn the clock back to see again more than Hal Prince’s original of Follies; not just for its legendary cast, but also for the physical staging and most of all the joy of seeing it with completely fresh eyes. Its a musical about a nostalgia for a fast-vanishing past (set in a theatre that is literally about to see the bulldozers) that has itself become infected with a nostalgia for past productions in the years since it was first created.
I also wish I’d been present at the 1985 Lincoln Center concert version that had a cast that included Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, Lee Remick, Carol Bunrett, Eliane Stritch and more. I first saw it when Cameron Mackintosh did a spectacular, extensively re-written version for its West End premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987 (though it had received its UK premiere two years earlier at Manchester’s Forum Theatre in Wythenshawe). I went at least a dozen times to see a cast that included Julia McKenzie, Diana Rigg and the late Daniel Massey and David Healy as the central quartet.
I’ve seen many productions since – including two revivals on Broadway in 2001 and 2011 – but none have ever fully resolved the tensions between the show’s instant nostalgia and its here-and-now audacity of taking the lid off the crumbling relationships being played out in the midst of a crumbling theatre.
Jesus Christ Superstar opened at London’s Palace Theatre on August 9. It had actually been premiered on Broadway the year before, after being released as a concept album in 1970, and was the first of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musicals to be professionally staged. (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was first premiered as a schools’ production, and would only reach the professional stage in 1973). The first West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar was far more successful than its prior Broadway one: by the time it closed in London in 1980, it had chalked up a run of 3,358 performances to become the longest-running musical in West End history up to then – a record since smashed, of course, in turn by Lloyd Webber’s Cats and then by Les Miserables (one of Superstar’s successors at the Palace).
Jesus Christ Superstar was the first West End musical I ever saw, as a child on my first-ever trip to London from South Africa, before my family actually moved here. I still love this score now – one of my favourites of all of Lloyd Webber’s. But last year’s production at the O2 failed to do it for me: as I wrote in my review for The Stage,
Everything’s not alright, alas, about a production which isn’t so much a musical as a deafening, deadening travesty of a great show. Jesus Christ Superstar is one of Lloyd Webber’s finest hours (or two) as a composer, but this production is arguably the lowest level yet of its commercial exploitation.
Also in 1972, Pippin, which opened on Broadway on October 23, is one of my all-time favourite scores, with my favourite theatre song, ‘Corner of the Sky’. I first saw a production of Stephen Schwartz’s musical in South Africa when I was growing up, and still have that cast album. But I’ve never seen a really satisfactory production; perhaps the imminent Broadway production, directed by Diane Paulus, will finally be that, that is transferring from a run at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre, where it closed last weekend.
A Little Night Music opened on Broadway on February 25, 1973. Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film, staged by Hal Prince, is another show I wished I’d seen in the original production. But I’ve been sated by subsequent versions from the National (with Judi Dench as Desiree Armfeldt in 1995) and the Menier Chocolate Factory (in 2008, which subsequently transferred to both the West End and Broadway).
Mack and Mabel opened on Broadway on October 6, and closed the following month, on November 30, after a run of just 66 performances. But Jerry Herman’s score has lived on as one of his most beloved, and the show has duly received a number of outings, especially in the UK, attempting to reclaim and restore the show’s fortunes. But as I wrote in my Stage review of the Southwark Playhouse production last year,
The show’s tremendous overture – famously turned into an ice dance by Torvill and Dean – long ago created a cult. In performance, though, the tensions between the upbeat songs that are constantly disrupted by the downward trajectory of the ill-fated true-life romance between silent film maker Mack Sennett and his star discovery Mabel Normand have proved difficult to solve.
That’s been borne out by West End outings for productions in 1995 (transferred from Leicester Haymarket, with a new happy ending unhappily imposed) and 2006 (transferred from Newbury’s Watermill Theatre) proved. But the score remains a marvel, and I just wish I’d seen the 1981 production at Nottingham Playhouse with Denis Quilley as Mack and Imelda Staunton as Mabel.
A Chorus Line premiered at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater on April 15, quickly transferring to Broadway’s Shubert Theatre, where it officially opened on July 25 and would run for the next 15 years, chalking up a run of 6, 137 performances and setting the record for the longest-running musical of all time up to the time it closed in 1990. That record has, of course, since been eclipsed by The Phantom of the Opera. I saw the transfer of the original Broadway production to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the last day of its run there in March 1979 – which also happened to be the first West End musical I saw after moving to London from South Africa earlier that month. I’m looking forward to seeing it back in the West End next month for the first time since then when it returns to the London Palladium.
Also in 1975, Chicago opened on Broadway on June 3. The original production of Kander and Ebb’s show ran for just over 2 years and I truly wish I’d seen it – especially when Liza Minnelli stood in for Gwen Verdon! But the 1996 Broadway revival, based on a concert staging whose origins are still clearly visible, has long outrun it, to become the longest running musical revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Its West End run, which ended after 15 years last year, means that it holds both those records in the West End as well.
Starting Here, Starting Now, a musical revue of songs by Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire, opened at Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club. I saw a production in South Africa a couple of years later, and fell in love with their work. I also love their sequel Closer than Ever, which I saw in its original Off-Broadway incarnation – and a quote from my review of which for a now defunct American theatre magazine made its way onto the original CD packaging, which was the first time I’d ever seen one of my quotes in print!
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