Hayley Mills, who starred as the title character of Disney’s 1960 hit film Pollyanna, needn’t worry. While I’m not ready to challenge her reputation as the figurehead for unfettered optimism (or, depending on your point of view, tooth-rotting sweetness), I am looking, as many a self-respecting musical theatre aficionado is wont to do, on the brighter side.
I am, of course, delighted that The Stage and many other publications have been guiding us to complete shows to stream during lockdown. But what about when we need a quicker fix to ward off the despondency lurking at the backs of our minds?
The answer lies with songs – the small but mighty musical art form with (usually) a beginning, middle and end through which a moment, an emotion or a state of mind is captured.
In the hands of good musical theatre writers, they are tiny, taut dramas. That’s why a good voice is just one element in a great song. And having only a good voice is why some songs are perfectly performed but, dramatically, are perfectly dull.
Take Judi Dench, who was in a run of onstage interviews at the Bridge Theatre in London. She’s not a singer, as such, yet she has appeared in musicals including the original London production of Cabaret. John Kander, its composer, told me she was the finest ever Sally Bowles, and there are rehearsal and performance clips on YouTube to show you why.
In the hands of good musical theatre writers, songs are tiny, taut dramas
Most recently, she maintained her dignity (just) in the Cats movie. Her casting, on paper, looked like payback, since she had been due to lead the original 1981 stage production singing Memory but was forced to quit when her Achilles tendon snapped in rehearsals.
Before this, she starred in André Previn, Johnny Mercer and Ronald Harwood’s 1974 musical The Good Companions. A now more than faintly quaint musical, adapted from JB Priestley’s 1929 novel, it follows the (mis)fortunes of a jaunty group of travelling players, the Dinky-Doos. Search YouTube for her number, Darkest Before the Dawn, a wistful little song of hope given true tenderness by Dench.
For sublime silliness, stick with Dench and her reputation for pranks with her appearance in 2002 at Some Enchanted Evening, a tribute to Richard Rodgers. In these trying times, I prescribe searching for her performance, at the tender age of 67, joining Brendan O’Hea to sing Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music.
For more pure happiness, check out another actor not celebrated for musical gifts. When the West End shut down, Daniel Radcliffe was in Beckett’s Endgame at the Old Vic. But in 2011 he sang and danced up a storm as the window-washer who vaults his way up the corporate ladder to run the World Wide Wicket Corporation in the Broadway revival of Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, Radcliffe led the company in the climactic number Brotherhood of Man – reader, I was there on opening night and burst into tears of joy – and he did so again at the Tonys. That performance was televised, so check it out online on YouTube.
Who knows if the long-awaited transfer of London’s Donmar Warehouse revival of City of Angels will return when theatres reopen? That said, smart and tart as Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s jazz-drenched songs are, my heart belongs to Coleman’s score with Dorothy Fields for Sweet Charity.
Bob Fosse’s film version – his screen debut – is wildly self-indulgent, but Shirley MacLaine, who’d been in the original stage production, is glorious, as are Chita Rivera and Paula Kelly as her best friends. Holed up at home, it’s impossible not to sympathise with them as they sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.
Chess has had, forgive the pun, a chequered career on stage. But its score contains marvels, not least the duet I Know Him So Well. If you’re in need of a laugh – name someone just now who isn’t – proceed immediately to your favourite search engine and look for the version by French and Saunders, especially as so many have been robbed of Saunders’ surprisingly moving Madame Arcati in Richard Eyre’s Blithe Spirit, another victim of the closure.
Back in 2012, conductor John Wilson sent the spirits of a jam-packed Royal Albert Hall into orbit with the encore for his Broadway concert at the BBC Proms. Taking Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel spoof of a 1920s ‘cheer-up’ song, Anna-Jane Casey and the 79 top-flight players of Wilson’s whip-smart orchestra – plus, seemingly out of nowhere, a flotilla of dancers – launched themselves at Tap Your Troubles Away. In current circumstances, I can think of no better advice than watching it online, loud and widescreen, and joining in with the lyric: “When a sky full of crap / Always lands in your lap / Drop a curtsy / And tap your troubles away!”
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict