Just recently I was writing how I’d seen three consecutive musical gems in London  with three American musicals, but that week wasn’t over yet. By the time it was over, I had seen one more American show – flawed in the writing but flawless in its execution – and then a true British musical theatre masterpiece that has earned its place in the theatrical canon already, but this year has gained an extra heartbreaking resonance.
Both are history shows of sorts, chronicling great society upheavals. The American musical is Ahrens and Flaherty’s Dessa Rose (review here ), currently being given its British premiere in a beautifully accomplished and intensely moving production at Trafalgar Studios 2.
Ahrens and Flaherty wrote two of my favourite Broadway scores of the last quarter of a century in Once on this Island and Ragtime, and have also had three other major Broadway credits that didn’t succeed – My Favorite Year, Seussical and Rocky (that closed just last weekend on August 17). But their body of work has also included a number of off-Broadway musicals, from the irresistible Lucky Stiff (their first score for an adult musical, first produced in 1988) to three shows produced at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre – the wonderful A Man of No Importance (which I recently saw beautifully revived in a student production at the Royal Academy of Music), Dessa Rose and The Glorious Ones (which received its UK premiere in 2012 at the Landor Theatre).
Dessa Rose has their usual haunting integration of sweeping melodies set to heartfelt words; it’s only in the sometimes jarring narrative joins that the show is let down. But director Andrew Keates and his choreographer Sam Spencer Lane manage to impose a seamless flow on it, and it is performed with spellbinding intensity and integrity by a cast led by the wonderful Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson as two women whose paths collide in the racially-segregated south of mid-1850s America. They are stunningly supported by actors like Miquel Brown (mother of Sinitta!), Jon Robyns, Sharon Benson and the exquisite Abiona Omanua.
Andrew Keates, who last year bravely revealed he was HIV positive at a West End AIDS gala, is just as bold as a director. A few years ago he directed a hauntingly wonderful fringe revival of The Hired Man which crammed this huge show onto the tiny stage of the Landor. Now, coincidentally, I followed seeing Dessa Rose with a brand new production of The Hired Man that was directed by Nikolai Foster for the National Youth Music Theatre at the St James Theatre, with a quite exceptional cast of young actors aged 13 to 23.
I’ve long felt that this musical is easily the best British-created musical of the last thirty years (and yes, I include The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables), and it never fails to resonate. This year, more than ever, that is true. As composer Howard Goodall puts it in a programme note:
In a year of poignant anniversaries, I cannot think of a more perfect synergy than for NYMT to be performing The Hired Man this week in August. The most obvious resonance is with the start of the colossal tragedy of the Great War in this month exactly one hundred years ago, a catastrophe that impacted on every family, village and town in Britain, captured – I hope honestly and movingly – in the second act of this musical.
He’s absolutely right. The show is its own deeply poignant reminder of how the war impacts on one small Cumbrian community, and cuts deep. With Goodall’s gorgeous melodies, incredibly rendered by a cast of actor-musicians under the expert musical direction of Sarah Travis that leads with strings, I spent most of the second act in a puddle of tears.
And that’s also partly due to the youth of the performers playing it. As Goodall goes on to remark in his programme note,
At the St Symphorien military war cemetery near Mons last week for an Anglo-German commemoration of the anniversary, I was struck once again by the shocking youth of the slain – the first British casualty in that conflict, laid to rest at St Symphorien, thought to be 17 (though, like Harry Tallentire, there were surely others who were younger still but who gave deliberately inaccurate dates of birth to ensure they were involved). Those lives, cut so horribly short had reached the same point as the young performers you see today on stage. Seeing school students play these parts in a frightening reminder of this fact.