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Half a century of great musicals: Part Three, 1993 to 2002

Elaine Paige in Sunset Boulevard
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In the last two days, I’ve offered a quick canter through my life in musicals so far, with a show (or sometimes two) for each year of it from 1962 to 1992. Today I continue with the years 1993 to 2002, before concluding tomorrow with 2003 to 2012.

1993

Honk!, then titled The Ugly Duckling, opened in its first production at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre. Seven years later it would win the 2000 Olivier Award for Best Musical, by which time it had been re-titled (via a new production in Scarborough). I saw that very first Newbury production of The Ugly Duckling and also its Olivier Theatre opening as Honk! in 1999, and although the scale couldn’t be more different, it proves that George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s most commercially successful musical (at least until they joined forces with The Sherman Brothers to provide extra songs for Mary Poppins) has (webbed) feet, heart and soul that communicates whatever the theatre space. And it also proves how musicals – and their creators – require tenacity to succeed in the commercial marketplace.

Stiles and Drewe are an inspiring songwriting duo, still working together now some 30 years since first meeting at Exeter University. Last year their original musical Soho Cinders was premiered at Soho Theatre – and is where my own involvement in last weekend’s theatrical party, where the idea for this series of columns was born, stemmed from. The party host wanted a song for each year of his life, and I was asked if I knew how to secure the piano score for a song from Soho Cinders. I simply asked George and Ants, and got it for him.

Also in 1993, Sunset Boulevard opened at the West End’s Adelphi Theatre on July 12. By contrast to the progress of The Ugly Duckling/Honk!, this is a musical that began big, then got smaller – and not just because the stars became less famous or shorter in stature. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has ended up being more famous for the behind-the-scenes dramas around the hirings and firings of stars like Patti LuPone (who originated the role of Norma Desmond in London, but was then denied her contractual right to reprise the performance on Broadway) and Faye Dunaway (fired before she even opened in the show in LA).

But with the right casting, Sunset Boulevard – which I’ve seen in multiple incarnations from the West End and Broadway to Newbury’s Watermill Theatre (which subsequently returned the show to the West End) – can be terrific. Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige, who would both take over the role of Norma Desmond in the West End and then reprise it on Broadway as well, were both sensational.

1994

Passion opened at Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre on May 9. This creepily insinuating Stephen Sondheim musical about an obsessive love that is eventually requited by a very ill woman for a handsome young soldier is one of his strangest yet most rhapsodically scored works. I saw the original Broadway production first when – in another life – I co-founded and ran the Stephen Sondheim Society that was set up to promote his work, and I arranged a group trip to New York to see it!

It was then completely restaged by director Jeremy Sams for its British premiere in the real Plymouth, as opposed to Plymouth Theatre, where it played a pre-London engagement in February 1996, with a cast led by Maria Friedman and Michael Ball, the latter making a bold career choice that saw him leaving behind Lloyd Webber/Les Mis for the first time, which would subsequently pay off handsomely when he played the role of his life in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in Chichester in 2011 and the West End last year. Of course I drove down to Plymouth to see it – and will never forget being caught by a speeding camera as I left left the city afterwards! I was subsequently at the London first night at the Queen’s Theatre on March 26, too.

I also loved Jamie Lloyd’s Donmar revival in 2010, with a cast led by brilliant (relative) newcomer David Thaxton and Elena Roger (London’s most recent Eva Peron in Evita) as a chilling, piercingly needy Fosca. I’m looking forward to seeing the new Off-Broadway production at Classic Stage Company next month, with a wonderful cast led by Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico.

1995

Songs for a New World opened at New York’s off-Broadway WPA Theatre, where it ran for less than a month. But Jason Robert Brown’s eclectic and electrifying song cycle was recorded for a CD that has established its place as a major marker in introducing an important new musical theatre voice in theatre that has gone on to write such shows as Parade (seen in London at the Donmar Warehouse and at the Southwark Playhouse), 13 (produced by National Youth Music Theatre in the West End last year) and The Last 5 Years (being revived at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre in March that the composer will himself direct). Young singers, in particular, love performing his wonderfully self-contained story songs, and Brown is a brilliant exponent of his own work, too, in his regular concerts that I’ve seen everywhere from London to New York and Sydney.

1996

Rent premiered at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop on January 25, quickly moving uptown to Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre where it opened officially on April 29. Jonathan Larson’s musical about making the most of living today – in an age overshadowed by Aids – and trying to leave a mark before dying was real and raw, made even more vivid and poignant by the fact that Larson himself would die (not of an Aids-related illness, but of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm) on the morning of the show’s first scheduled New York preview. That performance was then cancelled and instead a sing-through of the show was held in his memory. But the show went on to win multiple Tony Awards (including those for Best Musical, Book and Score) and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and would run in its original production there for over 12 years.

I saw it at its Broadway home soon after it opened, and again when it came to the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 1998, when four of its original Broadway cast – Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Jesse L Martin – reprised their performances. (The original Broadway company also introduced such stars as Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Daphne Rubin-Vega). But the show was arguably too American in its sensibilities and overhyped by the time it came here, and only ran for 18 months.

It has, however, returned regularly to the West End and fringe in the years since in different productions, including runs at the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York’s (in a production that was billed as “Rent Remixed”), and I feel like I’ve seen them all! I saw it twice just last year, on the last day of its New York return to off-Broadway’s New World Stages, and again in a production at London’s Cockpit.

1997

Titanic opened on Broadway on April 23. It’s a musical that had disaster written all over it, and not just because of its subject matter – how could it possibly put that celebrated event on stage?  Yet thanks to a moving and marvellous score by Maury Yeston (whose previous credits included Nine and additional songs for Grand Hotel, both of which have appeared earlier in this list) and a fantastic staging by British stage and opera director Richard Jones, it remains one of the best musical productions I’ve ever seen.

It has sadly never come to London, but I saw an amazing amateur production at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre in 2006 that was simply thrilling as it was able to marshall huge onstage forces to sing this gorgeous score.

Also in 1997, The Fix opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse on April 29, directed by Sam Mendes and starring John Barrowman as someone born into a leading American political family who is being groomed for leadership, and Philip Quast as his uncle Grahame, who won his second (of three) Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. More personally, I met composer Dana P Rowe in a London pub several months before it opened and we began a friendship that has continued to this day! We’ve already got a week in Provincetown booked for this summer (our third consecutive visit together).

Although the original production of The Fix never transferred to the West End, I’ve duly tracked its progress a lot, seeing its American premiere at Arlington’s Signature Theatre in 1998, and subsequent student productions from New Cross in London to NYU in New York! Last year London’s Union Theatre did what may have been the best version I’ve seen yet, and Dana came over to see it and stayed with us. He and his lyricist/book writing partner John Dempsey would go on to write The Witches of Eastwick together that Cameron Mackintosh premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 2000.

1998

Ragtime opened at Broadway’s Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Foxwoods Theatre). Though it never quite managed to establish itself as the great American musical it wanted to be in the tradition of Show Boat, it nonetheless caught a kaleidoscopic sweep of turn of the 20th century history as it portrayed the fates of three American families – WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant – overlapping and interconnecting with each other. The original Broadway production, which I saw a number of times, was phenomenally cast with such amazing performers as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie. It finally came to the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre via a Cardiff concert staging in 2003 that starred Maria Friedman, but was not a success. Nor was a brilliant revival in 2009 that came to Broadway via Washington DC that I saw twice.

I’ve also seen a superb London fringe revival squeezed onto the tiny stage of the Landor in 2011, and more regrettably, a totally misconceived production at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park last year that asked us to view the show through the prism of the crushed ruins of the hopes that America once represented. As I wrote in my review for The Stage at the time,

I’m not sure that Ragtime, with music that is full of anthemic surges and haunting melodies, can really support this metaphoric weight, nor should it need to. [Director Timothy] Sheader’s conceptually bold but ultimately ruinously over-stated physical production layers too much onto the layers that are already there.

I nevertheless saw it twice so I could enjoy the brilliant Rosalie Craig and some other fine actors sing this ravishing score, despite the competing staging distractions!

1999

Mamma Mia! opened at London’s Prince Edward Theatre on April 6 and a(nother) global phenomenon was born. It has run in London ever since, moving in turn to the Prince of Wales and last year to its current home the Novello (where the touring set has been put up, thus reducing its original spectacle a bit). I have loved this musical that craftily works Abba’s back pop catalogue into an original story ever since I first saw it when it opened at the Prince Edward, and have seen it a number of times at each of those venues.

I’ve seen it on numerous occasions all over the world subsequently, from the invited dress rehearsal prior to its opening on Broadway (where it was the first show to open after 9/11) to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Manchester and even the first night in Stockholm (where all four members of Abba saw it together for the first time).

I’ve also been present for various anniversaries, including the 5th in London and the 10th in New York – at the latter, Broadway was blocked off and a huge street party took place in front of the theatre after the performance, as I blogged about at the time here.

The downside to Mamma Mia’s success is that it has spawned any number of imitators that have attempted the same trick of creating an original musical around an existing pop catalogue, and the results have often been dismal, from We Will Rock You (Queen) and Tonight’s the Night (Rod Stewart) to Viva Forever! (The Spice Girls) — the latter of which is produced by Judy Craymer, who brought Mamma Mia! to the stage (and then just as successfully to the screen, where it became the most successful film musical of all time).

According to a report in yesterday’s New York Post, Viva Forever! is even now being re-rehearsed and re-worked: Michael Riedel says that the overhaul

is geared to making Viva! more audience-friendly. Out: much of Saunders’ script about a group of teenage girls seeking fame on an American Idol -type show. In: more dancing, singing and audience participation (that is, dancing in the aisles all night long!). In other words, Viva Forever: The Concert!

2000

The Wild Party opened both on Broadway and off – barely a month apart in two separate versions by different composers! The Broadway version, composed by Michael John LaChiusa, opened at the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson) on April 13 (after previews from March 10), but was beaten to the start line by the Off-Broadway version, composed by Andrew Lippa, which opened at Manhattan Theatre Club on February 24. I saw both, and each had their merits as they set a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March to music.

It was easy to see why both composers rushed to adapt the poem, which had only recently at that point come into public domain so that no licence was required or rights payable, at the same time,  but the fact that both shows got produced simultaneously managed to cancel each other out and led to potential audience confusion as to which one they were seeing.

LaChiusa’s version, produced on Broadway, had a fantastic cast that included Toni Collette (the Australian film star of Muriel’s Wedding), Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt, Tonya Pinkins and a scene-stealing Sally Murphy, but was rather too dark for Broadway; paradoxically, Lippa’s lighter version, produced off-Broadway, was more readily commercial (and fielded a less famous but no less wonderful cast that included the glorious Julia Murney, Brian d’Arcy James, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs). There’s a fantastic song in Lippa’s version called ‘Raise the Roof’ that I once heard do just that when it turned up in the annual Hackney panto a few years ago!

2001

The Producers opened at Broadway’s St James Theatre on April 19. This musical adaptation of the 1968 Mel Brooks film of the same name was adapted by Brooks himself and even had its songs composed by him. A show about trying to create a flop turned into a gigantic hit itself, partly thanks to the stellar casting of original duo Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as a small-time Broadway producer and his accountant sidekick.

But that casting also proved to be the show’s ultimate Achilles heel; without them, it was never as good. When Richard Dreyfuss, originally cast to lead the London premiere in 2004, withdrew at the 11th hour, Lane was duly parachuted in to replace him, and helped establish the show here. 

I love this show’s brilliant showbiz gags and equal opportunities offensiveness to theatrical aspiration, gays and Nazis, and apart from the Broadway and West End originals, I’ve also seen it on tour in the UK (with Peter Kay as Roger de Bris) in Cardiff, and in a fantastic student production at ArtsEd last year, directed by Russell Labey and choreographed by Drew McOnie.

2002

Hairspray opened at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre on August 15. After the success of The Producers in 2001, Broadway got its confidence back in musical comedy, a form it had long ago invented and patented but had more recently seen usurped by the British pop operas of the 80s. And it was on its best form in Hairspray, adapted from the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, with a witty pastiche 60s score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (who are soon to be represented in London by the score they’re providing for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The transition between cinema and theatre was not one way, of course, with both Hairspray and The Producers restaging their musical versions for movie cameras.

I saw the show in New York with the brilliant Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad, and then again when it came to the West End’s Shaftesbury with Michael Ball stepping into the high heels and dress as Edna, for a role that he would play for a longer run than any other he has ever done. No less irresistible were newcomers Marissa Janet Winokur and Leanne Jones as their Broadway and West End daughters respectively.

Continue reading Half a Century of Great Musicals:

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