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David Benedict: Musicals need great singers far more than they need stars

Kelsey Grammer in Man of La Mancha. Photo: Manuel Harlan

I’m guessing that not many of you know the name Ervin Drake, but he wrote Frank Sinatra’s regretful hit It Was a Very Good Year. In 1968, the late Mr Drake had a less than good year with his Broadway musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra retitled, winningly, Her First Roman. Expectations ran high since ‘Her’ was Leslie Uggams, fresh from the Tony award-drenched Hallelujah, Baby!, while the Roman was Richard Kiley, hot from his second Tony award win, this time for his performance as the Man of La Mancha.

Despite such wonders as Many Young Men from Now and What Are We Doing in Egypt?, not to mention the jaunty ensemble number I Fell in With Evil Companions (And We Had a Wonderful Time), Her First Roman was scuppered not by its score but by its book, a threadbare, wrong-headed adaptation of Shaw. It lasted 17 performances. That was a serious comedown for Kiley, since Man of La Mancha notched up an eye-widening 2,328 shows. As with Topol and Fiddler on the Roof [1], Kiley became synonymous with the role, playing almost all of the six-year run but returning for two of its later Broadway revivals. And at all of them, audiences thrilled to the show’s musical and emotional centrepiece with his glowing baritone voice ringing out, driving the monster hit The Impossible Dream.

I mention this since, after a 51-year silence, Man of La Mancha [2] is in London. What kept it so long? Did the rights holders consider it a golden goose and play hard to get until the right creative team/venue came along? In the last year of their deal with English National Opera to bring musicals to the Coliseum, producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit were so convinced of its status, they heralded it in the programme note as “One of the greatest Broadway musicals ever written”.

Man of La Mancha at London Coliseum starring Kelsey Grammer and Nicholas Lyndhurst – review round-up [3]

Near unanimous two-star reviews (an exception being a generous three from our Tim Bano [2]) may encourage a rethink, but their overestimation probably rests on its 1960s outing when it waltzed off with five Tonys, including best musical, in a year with hot competition from another show that recently resurfaced in London: Sweet Charity [4]. The latter’s credentials are even more impressive. The original starred Gwen Verdon, was choreographed and directed by her husband, Bob Fosse, and boasted a score by Cy Coleman including If My Friends Could See Me Now and Big Spender. Years ago, Coleman told me he nailed down the latter’s famous down’n’dirty, bump-bump rhythm so power-hungry Fosse (and subsequent directors) couldn’t mess with them when choreographing the number.

Coleman was ideally teamed with lyricist Dorothy Fields, whose superbly vernacular lyrics include the wonderfully character-and-class-specific “We’ll ask the local jet-set / To dine on our dinette set” and the sublime Brooklyn-toned rhyme “And all through the service / While the bride and groom look nervous…”

The Achilles heel of both shows is the book. Both are products of 1960s thinking shot through with badly dated sexual politics. Charity’s director Josie Rourke tries to make amends with a superbly defiant ending via Gareth Valentine’s new, utterly uplifting addition of an anthemic arrangement of There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, but even that can’t save Neil Simon’s creaky, naive script. The lengthy group rape scene in Man of La Mancha is worse, and nothing in either the script or production even attempts to address it.

Sweet Charity at London’s Donmar Warehouse starring Anne-Marie Duff – review round-up [5]

Musicals are written for performers for whom singing is the most electrifying thing they do. When an actor is in full musical flight, book problems vanish. Casting someone good enough to hold a tune who acts a song can prove impressive, but it misses the unique, exultant point of musicals. (Watch anyone throughout the 40-strong cast of the National’s Follies and you’ll see what I mean.) This, sadly, is where both productions have gone awry.

Verdon and Kiley burst into an extra dimension when they sang. London leads Anne-Marie Duff and Kelsey Grammer can carry a tune but, watching them, you tense up. Duff lends Charity heartbreaking poignancy but, musically, she’s never more than game. Grammer has vibrato and good intentions, but the power is in the (over)amplification, not the voice: his singing strength is sapped by his droll, gruff manner. We shouldn’t be applauding his ability to get through it, we should be transported.

If that sounds picky, consider this: in the opening weeks of Sweet Charity, Daddy Brubeck was played by Adrian Lester. He swung in for his sole number and by virtue of his vocal authority and, above all, the blissful ease of his joyous singing, flooded the theatre with pleasure. Alas, that showed what was missing elsewhere.


Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict [6]