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Revival of the fittest – Lost Musicals / Ian Marshall Fisher

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Lost Musicals, Ian Marshall Fisher’s labour of love to bring neglected Broadway musicals back to the stage, has now been going some 16 years. He tells Mark Shenton why his work is about celebrating the writers, not pampering the audience

When Ian Marshall Fisher launched his first Lost Musicals season in 1989 with a Sunday afternoon season in the Theatre Museum’s picture gallery, he never could have imagined that his small but smart idea to restore neglected Broadway musicals to the stage would still be going strong some 16 years and 70 shows later. It has involved over 1,500 actors, who have given their services for free in pursuit of realising his idiosyncratic dream of reviving classic Broadway musicals that had been mostly forgotten about.

Nor could he have guessed that it would have spawned a host of imitators, from New York’s annual Encores! season to similar projects in other cities like Los Angeles’ Reprise and San Francisco’s New Moon, that have led to such international successes as the revival in fortune (not to mention the fortune to be made from the revival) of a show like Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, which was given a new lease of life thanks to Encores!

“I’ve always said that the idea for this is not a cure for cancer,” says the amiable and charmingly garrulous Marshall Fisher, “but the fact that others have followed me confirms my feeling that what I wanted to do way back in the eighties was right on the money. And it makes me chuckle that I am in a minute way responsible for the millions and millions that John Kander has been earning in the last few years.”

But there are key differences between Marshall Fisher’s own approach and those of his imitators. “My original idea was to celebrate the writers in accurately presenting what they had written – and I don’t just mean the songwriters but the bookwriters too. That’s where my series stands alone. Although other series have sprung up in the last ten years, they don’t honour and have a love for the books that I do. Encores! has a playwright, David Ives, on permanent salary, who instead of writing plays spends his time rewriting Rodgers and Hammerstein and George S Kaufman. I’ve only seen an Encores! presentation once but my feeling is that it’s a shame that they are audience-pleasers, rather than writer-pleasers. It seems such a pity to say, I’m going to show you something you’ve never seen before but I’m going to reformat it for you.”

The other big difference is a question of scale. Encores! plays in a vast auditorium at City Center in Manhattan. Though Marshall Fisher has, at times, presented shows at West End houses like Her Majesty’s and the Palace, the project has mostly been accommodated far more intimately at places like the Barbican Centre’s Cinema 1, the Fortune Theatre and now the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells.

“The problem with success is that you always want more success and that’s often about making more money and doing the shows in a way that gets people to spend money to see them, so the venues get bigger and bigger. But that’s never been my point of view. I’ve never catered for the audience – instead, I cater only for what I believe in, which is the writers.”

It means that he concentrates on recreating the words and songs, not the style of their original presentation. “I really believe that you can only do big musicals in one of two ways. Either, as we do them, in a very intimate setting, where in exchange for the original production you have the most incredible intimacy with the material but with enough people on stage to sell the material, or you go back to the original format of how it was done then.”

Lost Musicals was launched with the revival in March of Harold Rome’s 1954 show Fanny, and it is a show that illustrated his approach and priorities perfectly. “I don’t think there is a show playing anywhere in the world that would have been as lavish as the original production. It was the most unbelievable show – there were over 50 people in it, an orchestra of over 30 and a huge circus occupied ten minutes of it.

“But if you take that right down to a concert presentation, and if you’re not going to fill it out with dance and chorus numbers but be true to what was on the written page when it opened in 1954, it brings the audience to the material. The audience sits right on top of the actors and you don’t have the padding of dances and a huge orchestra on stage to come between them and the material. By removing all of that, you are left with what the thing is really all about – the material itself.”

This year, Marshall Fisher is exploring a little beyond his usual boundaries, offering the world theatrical premiere of Evening Primrose, a 1967 television musical with a score by Stephen Sondheim and script by James Goldman that has not been performed or broadcast since its original showing.

“Over the years, the work I have done has been all about very important American theatre writers and all the material they wrote for Broadway that has been forgotten or neglected. But though this was a television project, my feeling is that both writers were theatre people, and unless you caught it in 1967 in its live broadcast or have seen the tape in the library at the Museum of Broadcasting at New York, you won’t have had the opportunity to see it.”

So it ties in with his overriding wish: “My passion has always been about giving people an opportunity to see something that they could not normally see in a very authentic way. It’s not necessarily designed to appeal to people who go to see the musicals of today up and down the high street of the West End. This is for another group: people who are into content-driven work.”

* The remainder of this year’s Lost Musicals season is at the Lilian Baylis Theatre at Sadler’s Wells, with Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings on May 22, 29 and June 5, 12 and Evening Primrose on July 3, 10, 17, 24.

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