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Half a century of great musicals: Part Two, 1977 to 1992

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I began an impromptu survey of half a century of great musicals yesterday covering the first 15 years of my life from 1962 to 1976, inspired by a 40th birthday party last weekend in which each year of the host’s life was marked by a song from a show that meant something to him. Today I continue with the years 1977 to 1992.

1977

Annie opened at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now called the Neil Simon) on April 21. Charles Strouse’s musical, set in Depression-era New York, has emerged as a timeless classic that serves as a permanent pick-me-up for now and forever. The sun’ll come out tomorrow/bet your bottom dollar there’ll be sun goes the refrain from the show’s most famous song and the show is full of such sage advice, including you’re never fully dressed without a smile, that never fails to cheer me up.

I first saw it in South Africa in 1978, where Joan Brickhill – a major local impresario with her husband Louis Burke – played Miss Hannigan (in 1989 they would produce and respectively choreograph and direct a production of Meet Me In St Louis on Broadway, which I would also see). When I first arrived in London in 1979 I found it was still playing at the Victoria Palace, with Sheila Hancock as Miss Hannigan, so that was the first time I saw her! In the years since, I’ve seen it many, many times, in productions from London and Leeds to Sydney last Christmas, with Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks, which he is now reprising in the current Broadway revival which I’ve also seen.

1978

Evita opened at the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre on June 21, two years after the score was introduced via a concept album that I first heard in South Africa when Julie Covington’s rendition of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ became a hit there. It’s a great regret that she turned down the chance to recreate her recorded performance on stage (though I would later see her as Sister Sarah Brown in the original National Theatre cast of Richard Eyre’s revival of Guys and Dolls, with a cast that included Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide, Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit and the late, great Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson in 1982, a production that forever marked this for me as the greatest musical ever written).

But Evita created an overnight star in Elaine Paige in the title role (though she’d been diligently working her way through the ranks since making her professional debut some 14 years earlier in a 1964 tour of The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd). I wish I had seen the original Broadway cast, though, that featured Patti LuPone as Eva and Mandy Patinkin as Che, in 1979.

Hal Prince’s original production of Evita became a landmark staging, too, and no one dared take it on again until Michael Grandage and designer Christopher Oram created a brand-new production at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 2006 that gave it a grand new operatic sweep. It also brought Elena Roger from Argentina to play the title role with a ferocious intensity that stunned me so much I went back six times. That production transferred to Broadway’s Marquis Theatre last year, where it is now in its last week and closes on Saturday.

Also in 1978, On the Twentieth Century opened at Broadway’s St James Theatre on February 19, also directed by Hal Prince (see Evita above), who obviously had a busy year! This fantastic show is a backstage musical set on a train travelling between Chicago and New York, and features a dazzling score by Broadway’s most chameleon-like composer Cy Coleman, whose other credits stretch from Sweet Charity and I Love My Wife to Barnum and City of Angels but in which he was always in service of the story rather than providing his own distinctive signature.

This is one of my favourite of all Broadway scores, and although I never saw her do it, I adore the late Madeline Kahn’s performance on the CD as Lily Garland. I saw the short-lived West End transfer to Her Majesty’s in 1980, though, and also loved Julia McKenzie in the role. There was also a terrific fringe production in 2010 at the Union that was an utter delight – and I’ll never forget as I saw it the night before going into hospital for spinal surgery (a condition not related to the Union’s seating, I hasten to add).

1979

Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway, bringing a decade of landmark collaborations between Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince to an epic close. It is probably Sondheim’s greatest musical theatre masterpiece. In 1980, I would see my first ‘original’ Sondheim musical when Sweeney Todd transferred to Drury Lane, with a cast led by Denis Quilley in the title role and Sheila Hancock as Mrs Lovett, and I had my heart broken when it closed a few months later after only 157 performances.

But the show has become a revered classic since, especially in London (which is appropriate since it is set here), where I’ve seen productions everywhere from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House to the West End (in two separate outings — the reduced cast actor-musician version that I hated that came to the Whitehall from Newbury, before going back to Broadway, and last year’s brilliant transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre production with the glorious pairing of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton). There have also been some great fringe productions, including a promenade one at the Bridewell and a great one at the Union, which was one of the most chillingly atmospheric I’ve yet seen.

1980

Barnum opened at Broadway’s St James Theatre on April 30. This circus-set musical has music by Cy Coleman (see On the Twentieth Century in 1978 above), and came to the London Palladium the following year where I saw it with Michael Crawford creating a sensation in the title role. I can’t wait to see the show again in Chichester this summer for the first time since then.

1981

Dreamgirls opened at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on December 20. I saw it on my first-ever trip to New York two years later, and would return to it repeatedly then and I also saw its subsequent Broadway revival in 1987, which turned into a memorial for its director/choreographer Michael Bennett as it began performances on June 28 and he died just days later on July 2.

It was very much Bennett’s triumph as a show, with a seamless storytelling momentum that kept the show moving between different locations. But Bennett was one of the most influential of all Broadway director/choreographers, best known for his work on A Chorus Line (see yesterday’s entry for 1975), but whose choreographic work on shows like Promises, Promises I still can’t resist revisiting in YouTube clips like the one for ‘Turkey Lurkey Time’, one of the most dazzlingly staged numbers of all time, easily discernable despite the poor video quality.

Though a multiple Oscar-nominated film version of Dreamgirls followed in 2006, it always amazes and saddens me that we’ve never seen the show itself in the West End.

Also in 1981, Cats opened at the West End’s New London Theatre on May 11, and gave birth to the global, internationally-reproduced British musical, having many more lives than the nine that cats usually have. It’s a show that put dance front stage and centre in a British musical, so the triumph was very much one for choreographer Gillian Lynne (who is still working now at 86, and directing and choreographing a new production of Dear World that’s opening soon at London’s Charing Cross Theatre).

But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first post-Tim Rice scored musical, set to lyrics by the late poet TS Eliot (who won two posthumous Tony Awards for his efforts for both book and lyrics of the score when the show transferred to Broadway in 1982), is also a tuneful delight. The show also marked director Trevor Nunn’s commercial musical theatre debut; and the whole team was put together and marshalled by Cameron Mackintosh who launched his own career as a global producer with it.

I saw it numerous times at the New London Theatre, brilliantly turned into a site-specific junkyard by designer John Napier, and always loved sitting on the front moving platform which rotated during the show’s opening number and gave rise to the theatrical injunction that audiences would not be admitted while the auditorium was in motion!

1982

Nine opened at Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre (now the Richard Rodgers) on May 9. Based on Fellini’s film 8 1/2, it daringly tells of the emotional breakdown of a serial philandering film director to a haunting, melodic score by Maury Yeston. I remember seeing only part of Tommy Tune’s original incredible Broadway production in 1983: it was my first-ever trip to New York, and I couldn’t afford to see all the shows I wanted to – so half-timed it and went in for the second act only! I’ve since caught up with all of that production on the video recorded of it that’s in the collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and it’s a dazzler.

I’ve also, of course, saw the show’s London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996, starring a miscast Larry Lamb as Guido Contini, but the director of that production David Leveaux and his choreographer Jonathan Butterell subsequently returned to re-stage it on Broadway in 2003 with the far better Antonio Banderas who made it his spellbinding own. I also adored the 2009 film version, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, though not everyone did!

1983

La Cage Aux Folles opened at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on August 21. I remember seeing the show that hot summer and being blown away from the balcony of the Palace Theatre by this hilarious yet touchingly true portrait of a long-term gay relationship under strain from parental duties. The show was way ahead of its time, and watching it as a young gay man, I was both transfixed and possibly transformed by its matter-of-fact approach to portraying gay lives so feelingly. (Never mind that the most its lead couple got to do in terms of physical connection was walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand).

That it opened just as the AIDS crisis was breaking, too, gave it extra resonance, but also allegedly damaged the show’s commercial prospects by the time it premiered in London in 1986, by which time fear of the virus was rampant. Even though George Hearn was imported to recreate his Tony winning performance as Albin, opposite Denis Quilley as Georges, it duly failed in London. I saw it a number of times, partly because a friend I knew from my University days in Cambridge was in it.

1984

The Hired Man, Howard Goodall’s first professional musical, transferred to London’s Astoria Theatre (now a hole in the ground outside Tottenham Court Road station as it is being transformed into a Crossrail station) from Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre. I saw it during a University holiday and went back a couple more times: Goodall’s thrillingly melodic score – written when he was just 26 – for this adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel of the same name was a sound unlike any I’d ever heard in a musical, choral and English and haunting.

It remains my favourite score of any British musical of the last 50 years. Although it wasn’t a commercial success then, the show has been repeatedly staged in the years since, and I’ve seen it everywhere from off-Broadway to the London fringe and at drama schools (most recently respectively in brilliant productions at the Landor in 2011 and at Mountview last year).  And Goodall is my absolutely favourite contemporary British composer, whether for his wide-ranging classical work or subsequent musicals like The Dreaming (being revived by National Youth Music Theatre next week at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, where I will interview him and his co-writer Charles Hart onstage after the matinee performance on February 2).

Also in 1984, Sunday in the Park with George premiered at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on May 2. This is the first Sondheim musical I saw in its original production on its home territory, and the phenomenal original production starred Mandy Patinkin as Georges Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his mistress and muse Dot. When it received its British premiere at the National Theatre in 1990, it starred Philip Quast and Maria Friedman; I interviewed Quast for the first time then, and in the years since he has long become a very good personal friend.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bTdhHyYUtE

He is now living again in his native Australia, where my partner and I have visited him and his family twice, and he has just been appointed artist in residence for 2013 at Sydney’s National Insitute of Dramatic Art, where he trained himself. Friedman, meanwhile, is currently making her directorial debut with another Sondheim show, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

1985

Les Miserables opened at the Barbican Theatre on October 8, co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company (whose London home it was at the time) and Cameron Mackintosh. The original reviews were decidedly mixed – though history has been slightly re-written to say it was universally panned, that is by no means the case. Nevertheless, Mackintosh was sufficiently emboldened by the public response to press ahead with a West End transfer to the Palace Theatre that December.

The rest, of course, is now history – not least that the show, still playing in the West End, is now the longest-running show of all time there. Meanwhile the current Oscar-nominated film release is giving it a whole new life again, with the cast album this week topping the charts.

I’ve never been a fully paid up fan myself,  though there’s much to admire in its haunting melodies and the epic sweep of Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s fantastic, cinematic production (it is a paradox that the film feels stagey by contrast). I have visited it again and again over the years, though, to savour performances like the aforementioned Philip Quast (so brilliant as Javert in the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall), and more recently Alfie Boe and Ramin Karimloo as Valjean, and Norm Lewis and Hadley Fraser as Javert.

1986

The Phantom of the Opera opened at the West End’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on October 9, where it remains running to this day. Another triumph for Andrew Lloyd Webber (and arguably his most personal show, written about a composer and his obsession with his soprano muse – played in the original production by his then wife, Sarah Brightman), it reunited him with Hal Prince (director of Evita), Gillian Lynne (choreographer of Cats) and Cameron Mackintosh (producer of Cats, as well as Song & Dance). This beautifully theatrical show also owes a lot to Maria Bjornson’s stunning designs. I’ve seen it all over the world, from London to Broadway (where a 25th anniversary gala performance is being staged this weekend), Manchester, Chicago, Las Vegas and Warsaw.

Also in 1986, Chess opened at the Prince Edward Theatre on May 14, after previously being recorded and released two years earlier as a concept recording, with the album cast subsequently doing a concert tour of it. The stage incarnation was originally due to be directed by Michael Bennett, but he withdrew owing to illness (he would later die of an AIDS-related illness) and replaced by Trevor Nunn. Though the show has one of the best scores of any contemporary British-originated musical, the dramatic conflicts in the show’s book have never been fully resolved despite many attempts to do so over the years. But it’s still wonderful to hear those songs live, and I can’t wait to do so again next month in the tiny surroundings of the Union Theatre.

1987

Into the Woods opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) on November 5. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s clever stitching together of different fairytales is a wonderfully complex and rich work that operates on several levels simultaneously, and comes with one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores.

I saw the original Broadway production a number of times with a cast that included Bernadette Peters as the Witch and Joanna Gleason as the baker’s wife (a character name not to be confused with the title of Stephen Schwartz’s musical), but it was the original London production that blew me away, in Richard Jones’s pitch-dark production at the Phoenix in 1990, brilliantly designed by Richard Hudson and starring Julia McKenzie and the phenomenal Imelda Staunton. I also loved the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park production in 2010, which saw it played out against real trees, but when the same production was restaged at New York’s Delacorte Theatre in Central Park last year, some of that magic mysteriously evaporated thanks to some problematic casting.

1988

Legs Diamond opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on December 26, with songs written by Peter Allen, who also starred in it. It is another of those legendary Broadway flops I’ve collected over the years, but it has some great songs — some of which would later be recycled into a hit show The Boy From Oz, a stage biography of Allen that Hugh Jackman starred in on Broadway in 2003.

Also in 1988, Carrie was an even bigger flop on Broadway when it was imported there from its Royal Shakespeare Company premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier that year. I saw it in both places then, with Barbara Cook playing the mother in Stratford and Betty Buckley taking over on Broadway, and it was operatically demented in Terry Hands’s overblown staging. But last year’s much smaller-scale off-Broadway revival of the show with Marin Mazzie proved that a gem was lurking inside the baggage that had been imposed on it.

1989

Grand Hotel opened at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) on November 12, with Maury Yeston augmenting a musical by Robert Wright and George Forrest that had closed out of town in 1958. This was the ultimate act of directorial musical intervention and reclamation, with director/choreographer Tommy Tune bringing it to stunning life in one of the best stagings of a musical I’ve ever seen. I saw it numerous times on Broadway. It later came to London to the Dominion in 1992, which was a stupidly cavernous theatre to transfer it to and where it ran for less than four months. But a later London revival, when Michael Grandage directed a brilliant new staging at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 with Julian Ovenden in the cast, was more successful critically.

Also in 1989, Miss Saigon opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on September 20. Cameron Mackintosh produced what was arguably the last of the British megamusicals, and certainly his own last one to date, when he teamed up again with Boublil and Schonberg (who wrote Les Miserables) and added Nick Hytner to direct a show that is still most famous for the life-like helicopter that landed on the stage. It would run for a full decade, becoming the longest running musical in Drury Lane’s history. The Broadway transfer in 1991 became mired in controversy over the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a non-Asian actor, to reprise his West End performance, but he proceeded to do so and won the 1991 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his efforts. There are rumours of a West End revival next year.

1990

Once on This Island opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre on October 18, after opening earlier the same year at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. I saw this Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical in both places, and adored its freshness and musical vivacity immediately. Ahrens and Flaherty’s subsequent Broadway career would include their masterpiece Ragtime (first seen in Toronto in 1996, then transferring to New York in 1998), but Once on This Island still wins it for me for its more youthful charms. Once on This Island received its West End premiere at the Royalty (now the Peacock) in 1994, when Kenny Wax, then working for Imagination, shepherded it from Birmingham Rep; he’s now represented in the West End by Top Hat.

1991

The Will Rogers Follies opened at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on May 1. Another in director/choreographer Tommy Tune’s catalogue of Broadway triumphs – though his choreographic associate Jeff Calhoun recently told me in an interview for The Stage that the Tony Award winnning choreography was, in fact, his – I loved this vivacious Cy Coleman scored musical that staged a biography of the life of the performer Will Rogers as if it was a Follies show. Keith Carradine played the title role in a cast that also included Dee Hoty and Cady Huffman, both of them wonderful. It has never come to the West End.

1992

Falsettos opened at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on April 29. Bolting together two separately premiered one-act William Finn musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, this brought the portrayal of real gay lives that La Cage Aux Folles initiated in musicals resonantly up-to-date, by following the love life of its lead character Marvin including the death of his partner Whizzer from an AIDS-related illness. I’d seen both parts separately – March of the Falsettos when it briefly surfaced at London’s Albery Theatre (now the Coward) in 1987, with a cast that included the late Martin Smith and Simon Green (the latter of whom my 25-year-old self had a major crush on), and Falsettoland in its off-Broadway premiere production (at the Lortel Theatre in 1990, where it had transferred from Playwrights Horizons) – but seeing them both together gave them a force-field of impact that was simply overwhelming. Again, I’ve sadly never seen the double bill here in the UK.

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