Angela Lansbury, furiously lit up with self-belief, slaying the audience as she devoured Rose’s Turn in Gypsy; Elaine Stritch weaving seamlessly in and out of song in her jaw-dropping solo show At Liberty; the taste-free sequence of little old ladies dancing on Zimmer frames in The Producers… These, to borrow Oscar Hammerstein’s phrase, are a few of my favourite (musical theatre) things.
Other unforgettable moments also resurface more often than is necessary. I’m thinking of the preview of The Fields of Ambrosia (“Where everyone knows ya’”). “Come early,” insisted assistant director James Menzies-Kitchin, “so you can see everything before I’ve persuaded them to take the worst bits out.”
And then there was the second act opener of the Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson musical in which a stage full of Welsh miners doffed their caps to the Prince of Wales and leapt into song and dance in his honour, a choice that rendered my theatre companion slack-jawed in amazement. The show was titled Always but ‘About Six Weeks’ would have been more apt.
Another of these ‘greats’ came to (and, somewhat swiftly, went from) the Piccadilly Theatre in 2002: Romeo and Juliet – The Musical, the English version of a French hit, which, I’m extremely sorry to relate, has since been inflicted upon audiences in 18 countries in cities from Antwerp to Taipei and, yes, even Verona. Lowlights in London included the nurse glancing at the heroine and singing: “Now she’s in love and everything has changed, Her feelings and her hair have all been rearranged.”
Not, I think we can agree, lyricist Don Black’s finest moment. The casting didn’t help. The nurse was played by Jane McDonald whose accent strongly suggested Verona was one of the dodgier suburbs of Wakefield. In what passed for the script, greeting the lovers in bed she proceeded to scold Romeo: “Yer’ muther-in-law’s not going to like this… especially when she finds out she is yer muther-in-law.”
Pity poor Lorna Want in her stage debut as Juliet. On a bed atop scaffolding about to take the sleeping draught – a medicine bottle with, if memory serves, a skull and crossbones on it – she shrugged and announced: “Here goes.”
It was, as my colleague Lyn Gardner wrote in the Guardian: “Truly tragic – but not in the way Shakespeare intended.” In the Telegraph, Charles Spencer described it as: “Witless, banal, clumsily staged, abysmally written and often buttock-clenchingly embarrassing.”
The thing about Romeo and Juliet is that even people who have never seen the original know the plot. That’s one reason why this, arguably the most malleable Shakespeare play, has had so many TV productions and 12 film versions including those by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann, not to mention the animated Gnomeo and Juliet. But no one sang in those. Maybe Romeo and Juliet doesn’t need music?
Tell that to Tchaikovsky. He turned it into a winningly fervid symphonic poem. And there are four operas: Giulietta e Romeo (1825) by Nicola Vaccai (no, I’ve never heard of him either); Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, five years later, short on tension but the trilling is thrilling; Charles Gounod’s crowd-pleaser Roméo et Juliette in 1867 and Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet at the turn of the 20th century, which gave the world the passionate hit A Walk to the Paradise Garden – but that’s an orchestral interlude. Then came 1957’s audacious and still compelling West Side Story (which Ivo van Hove is directing on Broadway, with two entire months of previews, from December 10, a year ahead of Spielberg’s movie remake, which comes complete with Tony Kushner screenplay.)
All of this sprang to mind after I was knocked out by Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet, now at Sadler’s Wells and touring until October 12. Bourne’s version is assisted immeasurably by Prokofiev’s thrillingly dynamic ballet score – the most successful purely musical interpretation of all – arranged by Bourne’s regular collaborator Terry Davies.
A ‘collaborator’ is key. What makes West Side Story and Bourne’s production work is that they’re not just riding on the coat-tails of a famous title, they are sophisticated rethinks created through intensely detailed collaboration between gifted theatremakers whose mutual respect ups each other’s game.
West Side Story director and choreographer Jerome Robbins argued with book writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to winning effect.
Bourne doesn’t just create choreography: he conceives and directs audience-grabbing drama, his dancers embodying and amplifying music in space defined by Paule Constable’s lighting of Lez Brotherston’s set. Anyone keen to understand how to dramatise theatre space – to understand theatre – should rush.