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Mark Shenton’s week: Bill Kenwright – live at the BBC

BBC Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night, featuring Michael Ball (centre), celebrated Bill Kenwright's long career
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On May 11, producer Bill Kenwright returned to the London Palladium. More than 50 years ago, he got his first London job there as a stage hand on a panto starring Cliff Richard and in which he appeared himself as the second tail of the dragon. This time, it was to have his long career celebrated by BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night for a star-studded special being broadcast on June 2.

With a 73-member BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by veteran musical director Mike Reed and lyricist (and one-time stand-up comic) Don Black as the genial host, a succession of people who have starred in Kenwright’s past and current musical shows took the stage.

Among their number: Joe McElderry, currently Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the longest-running tour in UK theatre history; John Partridge, currently in the tour of La Cage Aux Folles; Lucy O’Byrne, Maria in the tour of The Sound of Music; Michael Ball and Maria Friedman, who starred in Kenwright’s UK premiere of Sondheim’s Passion; Kiki Dee, Kenwright’s original Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers that became his biggest and longest-running West End hit, and is still on tour; Marti Pellow, who played Che in the West End return of Evita; Glenn Carter, who reprised a stirring Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar; Elaine Paige, in fine voice reprising a song from Piaf; and, as the finale, Tommy Steele, who was a boyhood hero of Kenwright’s.

As well as the frequent musical pleasures of the night, it was good to be reminded just how much Kenwright has contributed to the fabric of British theatre, from his earliest days as a producer keeping the bailiffs at bay in an office on Denmark Street, to a career that has now spanned more than 500 plays and musicals, and continues to thrive.

In 2008, the Theatrical Management Association awarded him its special award for individual achievement with the citation: “His energy, tenacity and unstoppableness make him the greatest contributor to regional theatre of our time, and possibly and probably forever.”

Long may that continue: Kenwright admitted the past couple of years have been challenging for him health-wise, but above all he’s a passionate enthusiast and unashamed fan of the theatre. It’s why he and I have become good friends: we recognise ourselves in each other.

Musical curiosities

Last week I caught two musical oddities. Wonderland – not related to the National’s 2015 musical fiasco Wonder.land but based on the same subject, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – was a short-lived 2011 Broadway version with music by Frank Wildhorn. It’s now been given a regional touring outing which I caught at Wimbledon, with a cast that includes Kerry Ellis, Dave Willetts and Wendi Peters. I was frankly baffled that it’s been given another production, even in a heavily revised new version (that unaccountably cuts one of the best songs from the original Broadway cast recording, Go With the Flow – evidently it didn’t). As I tweeted after seeing it:

More interesting is Tick, Tick… Boom!, revived at the Park Theatre, an autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson that preceded his great success, Rent, but now provides a sad coda to it.

One of contemporary musical theatre’s greatest tragedies was his death, aged just 35, on the eve of previews for the original Off-Broadway production of Rent, a show that would become one of the defining musicals of the 1990s. So he never lived to see that success, after years of struggle. He described his lonely journey towards self-definition as a composer in a solo autobiographical musical, originally called Boho Days, that he first performed himself in 1991 ,and subsequently in a festival of solo work.

That was revised into a three-person show Tick, Tick… Boom!, five years after his death. Given how little of Larson’s work we have, every moment is to be treasured, and these powerful, passionate rock songs are recognisably the work of the Rent composer. “What does it take to wake up a generation?” asks one song. He certainly knew the answer.

And another one-star show

Last week I wrote about yet more one-star shows, with reviews for Shakespeare’s Globe’s new Romeo and Juliet and Shit-faced Shakespeare joining those already given for The Philanthropist and The Braille Legacy.

And now yet another has opened: the National’s new production of Salome, adapted and directed by Yael Farber, has also been greeted by open derision in some quarters. Most lethally, on WhatsOnStage, Matt Trueman declared, “Bring me the head of Yael Farber, and, while you’re at it, a side dish of whosoever commissioned this dross.”

But the oddity is compounded by the fact that it wasn’t the show’s debut. It was previously staged in Washington DC, where it won seven of that city’s prestigious Helen Hayes Awards, including those for best play and best director, and rave reviews including this from Peter Marks in the Washington Post: “With a stunning lyricism, South African director Yael Farber applies her formidable imaginative talents to a well-travelled biblical story and propels it on a revelatory new path.”

Of course, tastes may vary from one country to another; but something serious seems to have been lost in translation in its journey across the Atlantic.

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