Mark Shenton’s week: Catching up with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Bob Dylan

Declan Bennett in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Declan Bennett in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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The post-Edinburgh lull (before the storm of September openings) gave me an opportunity to catch my breath, theatre-wise, and finally see a slew of shows last week that my summer travels (and travails) prevented me from seeing the openings of. I’m very nearly caught up now, after I see Mosquitoes at the National and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the West End this week.

It’s a nice problem to have, but if you fall out of sync with the opening-nights schedule, there’s typically such an onward rush of new shows out that you find yourself endlessly chasing your tail.

Yet storing up the treats has been fun. It means I’ve just had a run of great shows (and dodged the bullets of a few I don’t need to see now). It started with the magnificent Fiddler on the Roof at Chichester Festival Theatre the weekend before last, and continued with a return visit to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Jesus Christ Superstar that was one of my favourite revivals of last year. Both are true musical theatre classics now – of their time, yes (1964 and 1970 respectively), but timeless, too, in their embrace of songs and images that have become iconic.

At Chichester, director Daniel Evans and his regular choreographic collaborator Alistair David gave Fiddler a traditional staging – and given that honouring tradition is one of the themes of the show, that’s both respectful and revealing. They trust the show itself to deliver, and it does.

At Regent’s Park, director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie have more freedom to reinvent and re-energise Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock-based concert oratorio, and it thrills as no production of the musical I’ve ever seen before.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a show that helped to provide a bridge between musical theatre and rock music that has led directly to shows such as Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda has cited it as a major influence and when, a few years ago, I met Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, I noticed that one of the tattoos on his arm was of Jesus Christ Superstar’s original theatre logo.

Nowadays, an increasingly number of pop and rock writers from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper to Sara Bareilles all have shows on Broadway, so it’s a two-way street between the pop world and theatre.

Then there are the ‘jukebox shows’ that draw on pop songs of the past to create new musicals – and I caught one of the boldest in this genre yet last week when I saw Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic, which uses songs from the Bob Dylan catalogue to provide a tapestry of sound to play against its anxious story of small community life.

The Old Vic’s artistic director Matthew Warchus worries in the programme about what exactly to label the show – a play with songs or a musical? Actually, I don’t think we need worry what it is, but accept it as a truly original and captivating show, combining Dylan songs we know and love, like Forever Young and Like a Rolling Stone, with other, less well-known rarities.

Given Dylan’s deeply character-driven songs, it’s a pity he never formally wrote a musical himself. This is the closest we’ll come to one, I suspect, and it’s great to have it here. A cast album has even been recorded (at Abbey Road Studios, no less), and will be released on September 29.

Two more musical rarities

A scene from Some Lovers. Photo: Tim Hal
A scene from Some Lovers. Photo: Tim Hall

Unlike Dylan, Burt Bacharach did at least write one great musical – Promises, Promises (exhilaratingly revived at the start of the year by Southwark Playhouse). Now, heading towards his 90s, he’s finally written another – and Katy Lipson, who produced Southwark’s Promises, Promises, has just presented a workshop presentation of it as part of her annual From Page to Stage season at the Other Palace Theatre.

Called Some Lovers, it has a book by Steven Sater, and originally premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2011. A story about a drawn-out romantic partnership between a composer and the woman who supports him, emotionally and literally, it’s like a cross between Marvin Hamlisch’s They’re Playing Our Song and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, but not as funny as the first (scripted as it was by Neil Simon) or as intricate and affecting as the latter.

Though the London run was not officially open for review, the San Diego one was, and Variety critic Bob Verini hit the nail on the head when he said: “Bacharach — in his first stage tuner since Promises, Promises in (can it be?) 1968 — provides sweet, soaring melodies for past and present incarnations of this mismatched pair, while eschewing his once-signature tricky time signatures (understandably, since the characters are so square). But the writing! Some Lovers plays like an extended bout of couples therapy, in which the participants sing around their problems while never exactly communicating anything germane or interesting.”

A far more effective two-hander musical is Thrill Me, Stephen Dolginoff’s deliberately creepy chamber show based on the true story of Leopold and Loeb, a pair of 1920s Chicago students who killed a young boy as part of their intense and disturbed bond with each other. Guy Retallack’s moody, intense and riveting production came to the Arcola last week for a short season after its Edinburgh run.

Having failed to get to Edinburgh this year, I was thrilled to have caught up with it – not least to see the professional debuts of Ellis Dackombe and Harry Downes, who are about to graduate from Arts Ed (and where, to declare an interest, I taught them in their first years).

Repeat pleasures

I’ve often admitted to being a a serial repeater. When I fall in love with a show, I simply can’t get enough of it. I’ve seen the Old Vic production of Groundhog Day six times so far – three times during its original London run, then three times more since it moved to Broadway earlier this year.

Alas, it is closing there on September 17, but I’ll be back in New York next week and have already booked (and paid!) to see it twice more (that may yet extend to a third encore – I still have one night free).

It’s far from the only show, of course, that I’ve become obsessed by. The show I’ve been looking forward to most all year is the National’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 masterwork Follies. I saw its first London production at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987 at least 16 times, and it returns this week to open at the National Theatre in a new production on September 6.

Of course, I’ll be there but in fact it will already be a repeat for me, as I bought a ticket for the very first preview. This is unusual because critics are usually expected to wait patiently until the first night to see the production when it is deemed ‘finished’ and ready by its creative team; but I just needed to see it straight away (but made sure I didn’t write or comment on it anywhere). And the opening night won’t be my last visit: I’ve also already booked for the last night of the show’s run on January 3.