The world is forever changing – you are, of course, reading this column online, not in the paper, but starting this week, my Thursday column will also run in the print edition of The Stage.
So if you read both, there may be the odd bit of duplication. However, the difference here is that it’s more interactive, and you are welcome to enter into a dialogue with me (and other readers here).
But then the world of theatre is forever changing, too, and while actor-musician productions are, of course, nothing new, either, I feel that they’re being embraced in a different way now. One of the very best musicals playing in London is Once, imported from Broadway, for which the cast make their own music.
But it was, after all, Return to the Forbidden Planet that, back in 1990 won that year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Musical of the Year, beating out Miss Saigon (a show that will be coincidentally be coming back to the West End next year).
Forbidden Planet started its life with the Bubble Theatre Company which toured shows in a tent, so it was partly a matter of economic necessity to have their actors doubling up as musicians. But while money is still obviously a factor, possibly more than ever in regional and touring theatre, what was once a way of cutting one’s coat according to the cloth has now matured into a conscious (and conscientious) artistic choice that has brought a new sense of liberation and freedom to the way musicals can be done.
On the reviews page of this week’s paper you’ll also find my review for Craig Revel Horwood’s new touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. Of course the very title lends itself to at least one actor-musician in the show, namely the title character. But here there’s also a cellist and clarinet player on the floor below. And, as I wrote, it
both informs and authenticates this great Broadway folk musical’s paean to community life and traditions that are both radically under threat. Suddenly this resonant portrait of a shtetl on the eve of its destruction in 1905 Tsarist Russia and the diaspora that would follow feels all the more heartbreakingly true and alive. That’s because, more than in any other production of this 1964 stalwart of the Broadway musical theatre that I’ve ever seen, it feels seamlessly inhabited by a real community, bonded together by music and marriages.
It means, too, that a very full-bodied orchestral sound can be offered, too – while many touring musicals will make do with a electronic band of half a dozen or so players, here there are 17.
Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre has just launching a new touring production of the Madness-inspired musical Our House that I’ll be reviewing next week – and as its director Peter Rowe recently told me,
I loved Our House in the West End, but I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t see a band. Those Madness songs need to belong to live performance, and they’re also very theatrical. Looking at early Madness pop videos, they also feel like mini actor-musician musicals, so it feels like familiar territory!
So it’s possible that the approach will serve the musical better. It is also certainly the case that audiences find it exciting to watch the music being made in front of them, and not coming to them through disembodied speakers, piped in either from an orchestra pit or even a room elsewhere in the theatre that is not visible.
As Dai Watts the musical director of Our House told me,
The most notable thing is that it will feel like they’re performing a gig. The music will be coming to you directly from the stage – not from somewhere out of sight and therefore out of mind. It will have the same visceral thrill as you get at a live gig. Madness are such an energetic and visual band, and we want to emulate that quality you would get if you went to see them live.
John Doyle, a director whose pioneering work in the genre has taken Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd all the way from Newbury’s tiny Watermill Theatre back to Broadway, admitted in a 2008 interview, “Of course it wouldn’t work for everything. I’m certainly not going to have Peter Grimes with a cello between his legs.”
But he has also said, with shows like Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that he staged at the Watermill in 2008,
when using actor-musicians allows you to tell stories in a different way. With a tiny space such as the Watermill, you can’t stage cocktail parties and courtrooms, but you can have a man sitting, playing a piano, looking back over his life and conjuring the people from his past. It’s a much stronger image. I’m a great believer, as a director, that necessity can be liberating. Sometimes being limited to working with just three colours on the palate rather than all of them can be a good thing creatively.
No wonder there is a real appetite for them – and a new demand for performers who are able to meet their requirements that has even led to one drama school, the Rose Bruford, doing a specialist training for actor-musicians. “The level of musicianship has increased considerably,” says Watts, adding, “Now we can arrange shows as if we’re arranging them for a pit band.”