A new look for old(er) musicals and younger talent

Betty Buckley and Paul Nicholas in Dear World. Photo: Eric Richmond
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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I've been writing here this week a lot about musicals and the impact that critics can make on their development, some of the secrets for success (though if only there were cast-iron guarantees for what they were we could all produce them!), as well as a new festival that started just yesterday at the Landor to promote the new work of over 40 writers.

But there are also lots of lessons to be learnt from the past, too, not to mention infinite pleasure from it, and a few London theatres are currently offering a veritable feast of revisited rarities. Only last night we saw the UK premiere of Jerry Herman's 1969 Broadway flop Dear World open at the Charing Cross Theatre; and tomorrow we see the return to London of Chess, Benny Andersson, Bjourn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's 80s musical in a revamped version, at the Union Theatre.

Just last Friday, too, there was the rare joy of being able to revisit a mostly forgotten Ivor Novello show Gay's the Word, a title best known nowadays for being adopted as the name of London's oldest dedicated serious gay bookshop in Bloomsbury.

This backstage musical, in which a leading lady of musicals called Gay Daventry finds a new career running a drama school in Folkestone (of all places) after her latest show collapses during its try-out in Manchester, was itself originally tried out in Manchester in October 1950, before moving to the West End's Saville Theatre (now the Odeon on Shaftesbury Avenue) the following year, opening on February 16. Novello would die less than a month later on March 6, aged just 58.

And though he has a West End theatre generously named after him, his shows went comprehensively out of fashion and have never really come back again, prefigured in Gay's the Word by its nod towards the American musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein that by then were conquering the West End. It's sad, in a way, to see Novello predicting his own future redundancy, even if he never lived to actually see that actually take place; but it also proves, as always, that musical theatre is also partly about fashion.

But it is also about endurance, too – and it's significant that R&H have lived on, revived all the time, whereas this is the first full professional run for a Novello musical in London in over 40 years – and the first time the show has itself been fully revived in London since its premiere.

As Michael Billington pointed out in his Guardian review,

[it] must be one of the first public entertainments to make coded reference to the sexual meaning of 'gay'. Today it survives largely as a camp curiosity that makes Salad Days look positively astringent.

(He also concludes by suggesting that the show "can be safely recommended to all ages from 70 to 80"; Michael is 73). Yet if we are looking at the show's historical pedigree, it should also be noted that the show was surprisingly brave for its time; homosexuality wasn't legalised for another 16 years.

As it happens, we can happily currently test the astringency of Salad Days in London, too, in a riotously odd but lovable revival of that show at Riverside Studios. Salad Days, like Gay's the Word, belong to an idealised, more innocent past, where pianos can merrily make people suddenly dance and feel gay (strictly in the old fashioned sense of the word); but musicals have, in the years since, more strongly embraced gay characters in the (not-so) new fashioned sense, too.

And in the last week, I've seen two student productions of two of the best of them to do so. At Arts Educational School in Chiswick last Saturday, I saw an absolutely stupendous production of Kander and Ebb's 1990s musicalisation of Manuel Puig's novel Kiss of the Spiderwoman, with its dark portrayal of a gay prisoner's burgeoning relationship with his straight political cellmate.

That was spellbindingly caught in the hauntingly articulated student performances of Greg Miller Burns as the gay Molina and Danny-Boy Hatchard as Valentin, with the incredibly striking Genesis Lynea as Aurora, the fantasy movie star figure of Molina's imagination. I once saw Simon Callow give the best performance I've ever seen from him as Molina in a previous dramatic version of the novel at the Bush, but the musical – with its jagged, edgy Kander and Ebb songs dovetailing in and out of reality and presentational numbers, just as their shows Cabaret and Chicago also do – is even bolder and more bracing.

As staged with a visceral intensity at ArtsEd by director Nikolai Foster and choreographer Drew McOnie in a bare, wide studio at ArtsEd, this may just be the best student musical production I've ever seen, integrating dance and movement with seamless fluidity. McOnie's dazzling choreography is a blood rush of style and physicality, like a cross between the work of Tommy Tune and Frantic Assembly, with apparent references to Fosse's All That Jazz and Bennett's A Chorus Line also thrown in.

And their extraordinary student company,  aided by brilliant musical accompaniment from a three piece band led by Tom Deering, perform it with fierce, unrelenting passion, conviction and commitment, to retrieve and reclaim a somewhat neglected Kander and Ebb musical definitively. I've not seen it since the original 1992 West End production went to Broadway the following year, where I saw it again; it's high time for a revival, and this production should now be reworked with professional actors – preferably the same ones who have just done it at ArtsEd, after they graduate!

[pullquote] I was struck by how brave and ultimately humane [Jerry Springer – The Opera] is. It's a musical about seeking redemption, validation and celebrity[/pullquote]

Exactly a decade ago, another show that defiantly offered a full freak show of society's oddities opened at the National in Jerry Springer – the Opera, after prior development at BAC. Seeing it again ten years on, in another student production at Guildford's GSA, this remains the most audacious of modern musicals, with the single most densely populated and thrilling melodic lines of any British show since Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus, of course, makes a notorious appearance in the show himself, to admit that he's a "little bit gay"; others to appear include God ("It ain't easy being me"), the virgin Mary ("raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by an angel, raped by God!"), and Adam and Eve, amongst others. Its little wonder that when the extreme religious lobby finally got around to seeing (or rather hearing) what it was about, they were outraged.

Yet seeing it again at GSA, even in a production that didn't fully bring out all of its finer nuances but went for provocation instead, I was struck by how brave and ultimately humane the piece is. It's a musical about seeking redemption, validation and celebrity – the pursuits of the cult of reality television that has taken hold even more strongly in the years since this show was premiered.

Student productions offer a chance to see old shows again in a new light, but they also offer the chance to see the talent of the future, too. The National Youth Music Theatre have long been at the forefront of offering kids the chance to explore their musical talent, but they've also offered notable opportunities for composers to test work out on them, too. Howard Goodall and Charles Hart have written two hugely distinctive musicals to commission for them, and a couple of weeks ago I saw the second of them The Dreaming, first produced by the company in 2001, revived again at the Rose in Kingston.

Some of the NYMT graduates of the past, including Sheridan Smith and Michael Jibson (who were both in the original NYMT production of Goodall and Hart's first musical for the company of The Kissing Dance), were at the Rose, too, to watch their successors; and it was fantastic to see a brilliant company bringing one of Goodall's most haunting scores to freshly imagined life. I can't wait to return to the Rose this summer when NYMT revive Richard Taylor and Russell Labey's version of Whistle Down the Wind, originally written for and produced by NYMT in 1994, where Andrew Lloyd Webber saw it -- and secured the rights to produce it, but then worked on his own version instead.

The NYMT have also commissioned a new musical The Other School from composer/lyricist Dougal Irvine, with a book co-written by Irvine and Dominic Marsh, that will be staged at the St James Theatre in August, so I can't wait to see that either. Last year I saw another young company from the Musical Theatre Academy offer a London production for Irvine's In Touch, which as I mentioned just yesterday is a fantastic way for composers to see their shows on their feet.

And sometimes a drama school can offer a chance for a composer (and me) to hear their work a second time. In 2005, Chichester's Minerva Theatre premiered Jason Carr and Edward Kemp's Six Pictures of Lee Miller;  I caught it then, when it starred Anna Francolini in the title role. When I reviewed it back then for the Sunday Express, I wrote,

The shadows cast by America’s foremost theatre composer Stephen Sondheim hang heavily over it, and in particular his show Sunday in the Park with George leaves this one in the shade. In fact, Jason Carr and Edward Kemp’s musical could be re-titled Sunday in the Darkroom with Lee, as it provides an ambitious portrait of the real-life story of an American society woman who became a wartime photographer, and along the way encountered a cast list that also includes artists Man Ray and Picasso and writers Jean Cocteau and Gertrude Stein. Anna Francolini, one of our best but most under-rated musical actresses, plays the title role with stunning intensity and commitment.

And seeing it again this week at RADA's Vanbrugh Theatre, it was hard not so shrug off the feeling that this is a little bit of a vanity project: Kemp has been in charge of RADA since 2007, so he's giving his own work a platform. His contribution is, in fact, the weakest of the show, and directing it himself, he has failed to wield the necessary pruning sheers.

Yet it also provided a stunning vehicle for the marvellous Jessie Buckley in the title role. She's come a long way since being the runner-up Nancy in the TV search for a star for the last London revival of Oliver! She subsequently appeared as Anne Egerman in the Menier Chocolate Factory's A Little Night Music that then transferred to the West End, before going to RADA to train formally.  Now, as she completes that training, she is already lined up to make her first post-RADA appearance as Miranda in the new production of The Tempest opposite Roger Allam's Prospero in the summer.