This week London is getting a rare chance to see Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 Broadway musical On the Town in the show’s first major revival here since it was belatedly originally produced in the West End in 1963, courtesy this time of English National Opera at the London Coliseum.
This new production marks a marriage of the two worlds that Bernstein himself inhabited – on the one hand, his Broadway composing career that was launched with this show and went on to yield Candide (another musical now also embraced by opera houses, and currently being staged at New York City Opera) and of course West Side Story; and on the other, he was a considerable classical composer and conductor, too.
But musicals and operas are very different animals, so what are the challenges of presenting a musical in an opera house? In Stage and Screen, presenter Edward Seckerson commented that Bernstein himself longed for a time when there was no distinction between the various forms of music theatre and that there would be a real interchange between the theatre and opera house.
Perhaps that will finally be achieved with this production, where ENO are matching their resources (a big band and resources) with the best of the West End, casting what Seckerson called “a hot young cast” rather than the dread sight of opera folk slumming it. But the programme also offered a cautionary tale of the dangers of the “cross-over” art in which opera singers have previously tackled Bernstein’s musical theatre repertoire.
Comparing recordings of Larry Kert, for instance – West Side Story’s original Tony – with Jose Carreras ‘interpreting’ the same role, they may have both sung ecstatically of “the most beautiful sound I ever heard – Maria, Maria, Maria”, but that was all that Carreras delivered: a beautiful sound. Both a sense of character (the all-American boy he was playing was hidden behind a strong foreign accent) and real emotion were missing. Again, we heard Candide’s Nothing More Than This interpreted by operatic voice Jerry Hadley and then by British actor Daniel Evans in a National Theatre production. While the former made musical capital of the number, lingering lovingly on each note, Evans offered an interpretation that “made perfect dramatic sense”, in Seckerson’s opinion, dealing with the directness of the words and communicating the emotion of it.
Mary King, the vocal coach of television’s Musicality, was brought in to usefully illuminate the different technical requirements of singing operatically and in the musical theatre. She made an interesting point when she spoke of the challenges of holding a long note: in musical theatre terms, the most interesting part is the front end of it, and from that the singer decays the sound. But in classical singing, the exact opposite occurs – the singer has to fill it out the sound to the very end of it.
Different kinds of sound also played an important part in two more programmes this week. In Arthur Miller – The Accidental Music Collector, Miller expert Christopher Bigsby uncovered a hitherto uncharted facet to the late, great playwright’s career: his brief tenure as a sound archivist in 1941.
At the age of 26, before any of his plays had been produced, he got a three-week job with the Library of Congress to go to North Carolina to collect recordings of the huge variety of southern accents that could be heard; but ended up also collecting protest songs of a community of factory workers who were on strike. It was a formative experience, as Bigsby commented – Miller’s plays are full of different accents, and this helped him to fine-tune his ear for them. But Miller’s keen social awareness was also being diligently honed as he became more interested in what people were saying than how.
In A Map of British Poetry, poet laureate Andrew Motion is providing a 12-part personal journey around the contours and terrain of the poetic landscape, geographical as well as spiritual. And the aural imagination that poetry draws on is perfect for radio. With readings from actors like Simon Russell Beale and Tom Courtenay, and beautifully illuminated by interviews with the likes of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, this is a compelling poetic journey. The only false note for me was struck during a horribly melodramatic reading of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle into That Night – weirdly, the reader was Thomas himself!
Finally, Nicholas Parsons – himself a quiz-master supreme as presenter of The Sale of the Century for 14 years from 1971 – provided a highly entertaining historic survey of the national obsession for the mind-sport of general knowledge quizzing in Masters of the Quiz. While a television programme such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? has made four millionaires (and unmasked one crook) since it was launched in 1998, pub quizzes up and down the land chart a profitable course for their participants, too: one quizzing veteran spoke of how he has earned enough money from the past-time to pay for every car he has ever driven.
Stage and Screen
R3, Feb 21
Arthur Miller – The Accidental Music Collector
R4, Feb 22
A Map of British Poetry
Masters of the Quiz
R4, Feb 26