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Book Review – Patti LuPone: A Memoir

3 Nov

Being Alive: Patti LuPone sings up a storm with a Sondheim classic

In a recent interview for Cabaret Confessional, I was asked some searching questions about my interest in torch singers and in response came up with a phrase – “The ‘bruised’ type of lady singer” – that has been flitting around my mind ever since. I think it sums up what I’m listening for or responding to in a woman’s singing voice, regardless of where she sits in the spectrum of musical styles and genres.

Patti LuPone's new memoir: bruising tales of backstage life

When it comes to representatives from the musical theatre faction, there’s no doubt that Patti LuPone fits the bill on many levels. She is a genuine Broadway Diva. OK, that’s often a carelessly and over used term but LuPone’s qualifications speak for themselves: Broadway’s first Evita; the original musical Norma Desmond; the West End’s first Fantine – that small but pivotal role in Les Misérables, which gave us the immortal “I Dreamed a Dream”; a triumphant Reno Sweeney; and relatively late in a career that’s still going strong after four decades, an acclaimed interpreter of Sondheim’s music and lyrics in a series of revivals that have included Sweeney Todd (Mrs Lovett) and a Tony Award-winning turn as Rose in Gypsy. She has also made some fine albums that endorse her torch-singing credentials, particularly Matters of the Heart (1999) and The Lady With the Torch (2008).

But as she reveals in her new autobiography, Patti LuPone: A Memoir, many of those experiences have been bruising, and one or two left scars that that have yet to heal properly. There is much more to LuPone than her musical career, and if anything, the sections of the book that relate the development of her craft, her association with David Mamet and her life as a working actor, are the most objective, resonant and thoughtful passages. Musical theatre is always fraught. The slings and arrows are so damned personal. Even with Evita, to all outward appearances a career highpoint, LuPone has battles to fight, takes some vicious critical hits and suffers the ravages of vocal damage.

But musical aficionados will skip straight to the lengthy chapters detailing how she won – and, as things turned out, survived – the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. They won’t be disappointed because she tells her side of the story with hard-eyed, revenge-served-cold clarity.

And what a tale of a leading lady scorned it is. From the moment the casting decision is made, she is undermined and threatened by a swirl of media rumours, receives no support from her producers and is handled by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a bumbling incompetence that contrasts rather starkly with the paternal image he has cultivated towards his would-be stars in BBC talent shows like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and Over the Rainbow. He will not be flattered by this portrait. Even at this distance in time, LuPone’s disdain is chillingly palpable. Tellingly, Glenn Close, the actress who eventually played Norma on Broadway after the smoke and mirrors had done their work, doesn’t escape a well-aimed swipe from LuPone’s primed paw either.

There is no reason to doubt her account of events – presumably it was well vetted by the lawyers before it went near the printing press. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that she was anything other than betrayed by a composer whose show could only benefit from the rumour-stirred publicity, but who wasn’t brave or courteous enough to tell the woman at the heart of the storm what was really going on. This is one of the juiciest back-stage tales in the history of modern musical theatre. Like so many other episodes in LuPone’s memoir, it offers a salutary lesson in the importance of good agents and hard negotiation. And of holding out for a decent settlement. Which, satisfyingly, is how The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Swimming Pool came about in LuPone’s back garden.

I Dreamed a Dream: not the Susan Boyle version

LuPone is clearly a formidable personality, one forged in the fires of her early, post-Juilliard days as a touring actress, and toughened by traumatic stints in failed musicals (The Baker’s Wife was one such trial but at least it gave her a signature song in “Meadowlark”). I interviewed her once, briefly, on the telephone for an article on the skill of singing Sondheim. She was brisk, helpful and businesslike, juggling our conversation with a consultation with her web master at her Connecticut home, and presumably had one eye on the clock, as she was due in town for that evening’s performance of Gypsy. Warm pleasantries were hardly the order of the day. And that’s pretty much the impression that emerges from these pages. Fools are not suffered. Cantankerous co-stars – Topol in The Baker’s Wife and later, Bill Smitrovich in the long running television show Life Goes On – are handed the Lloyd Webber treatment. The chorus and dancers on Anything Goes are stingingly rebuked as a group of “C-team players” who “approached their roles in the show with a tremendous sense of entitlement and little sense of responsibility”. At the same time, some burnt bridges are restored. A seemingly terminal rupture between LuPone and the legendary librettist Arthur Laurents is touchingly healed when she approaches him about playing Rose in Gipsy.

LuPone makes some percipient observations about professional behaviour and expectations. But she has acquired a reputation for a certain imperiousness over the years and there are also moments when, pleasingly, her inner Diva breaks through. She doesn’t bother with excuses. Ensemble duties on Les Misérables are not for her, she decides, and one day she gets back to her dressing room after expiring as Fantine, kicks off her shoes and switches off the stage speakers, committing the unforgivable actor’s sin of missing her cue.

References to her close family and the occasional co-worker aside, genuine professional warmth emerges most poignantly at the end of the book when LuPone finally gets to play some of Sondheim’s most notable leading ladies. Why did it take so long? She had regularly included his songs in her concert and recording repertoire – her scorching “Being Alive” had become another signature number – but had never been given a sniff at an actual role. Quite simply, it seems that producers didn’t really consider her a ‘Sondheim’ actor.

So when she was first asked to play Mrs Lovett in a concert production of Sweeney Todd, the casting choice came out of left field. “It just wasn’t a part my name would normally be associated with,” she writes. And yet through this initially surprising offer, and a five-year programme of Sondheim productions initiated by Welz Kauffman at the Ravinia Festival, LuPone perhaps finds her ultimate destiny as a musical actress. Her Rose is lauded on Broadway, even by critics who had been the bane of her life, and there is a real sense of music and character combining and being channelled by the actor in a moment of professional completeness.

This is a must-read memoir for anyone who wants to understand better what drives a performer, and an astringent insight into the backstage machinations that are intrinsic to an entertainer’s life. Patti LuPone has certainly earned those bruises but these days, you sense she could hold her own against pretty much anyone.

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Concert Review: Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, Cadogan Hall, London 6th August 2010

9 Oct

Maria Friedman as Mrs Lovett at the BBC Proms: she reprised the role a week later for her concerts at Cadogan Hall

My review of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, which follows, appears in the current issue of SONDHEIM the magazine, the journal of the Stephen Sondheim Society. Also mentioned in the magazine is the tantalising possibility that Trevor Nunn’s eagerly awaited production of Follies will finally materialise at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with none other than Bernadette Peters as Sally. Rumours abound, of course, but that would be genuinely exciting casting. As Peters is committed to A Little Night Music on Broadway until the show closes on 9th January, we’ll have to hold our breath a while yet.

It ought to be disconcerting when a composer to whose work you are about to dedicate two evenings of top class entertainment puts his head in his hands at the prospect and asks, with great feeling, “Won’t you be doing anybody else’s songs?” But few would have understood Stephen Sondheim’s predicament as acutely as Maria Friedman, and accepted his absence from her Cadogan Hall concerts with such good-humoured grace. This, after all, was a woman who had already endured the scary indignity of being arrested by US immigration officials en route to sing at his 80th birthday celebrations in New York for having the wrong visa and could still see the funny side.

Coming barely a week after the euphoria of his salutary BBC Prom, Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim was a revue too far for the man of the moment. But for an audience to whom the concept of too much Sondheim simply wouldn’t exist, it was a chance to hear a mixture of some of his best loved songs in a more intimate setting, in a programme that was also studded with one or two welcome rarities, delivered by one of the most instinctive and sensitive interpreters of his work to emerge from her generation.

Certainly on Friday 6th August, the second night of this short run, Friedman’s emotional connection with the songs – and with an audience that was frequently spellbound by the authority of her performances, song by song – was at its peak, and she achieved the rare feat of rendering the familiar – “Send in the Clowns”, “Losing my Mind”, “Broadway Baby”, “Being Alive” – in fresh shades, drawing us into a sequence of shared personal experiences in which the truths at the heart of Sondheim’s lyrics have rarely been as eloquently expressed.

Friedman’s accompanists, pianist and MD Jason Carr and cellist James Potter, must take much of the credit for the clarity of the evening’s high points, their sympathetic playing blending so perfectly with the singer’s fluid phrasing. But in truth it was a personal triumph for one of Sondheim’s most committed leading ladies from the start, opening as she did with a medley from Passion, recalling her performance as Fosca in the original London production.

She moved nimbly from the ominous, unsettling cadences of those early numbers to a pair of songs from Company – the demanding, urban call of “Another Hundred People” and the tongue-twisting complexity of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” – artfully balanced on either side of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, delivered with the aching simplicity it deserves.

If there were any quibbles still hanging in the air from the previous week’s Prom, they were largely nailed tonight.  At least one critic had found Friedman’s vocals ill-served by the Royal Albert Hall’s sound system. There was certainly no question of that at Cadogan Hall where every word sailed pristinely out across the auditorium.

Another had questioned the wisdom of using so many songs from the undeniably cerebral Sunday in the Park With George in a concert format that gave the Sondheim novice no real handle on the source material. When Friedman told the composer she too would be including a medley from the show, he asked her to please explain the context of the songs so that the audience would have a better idea what they are about. This she did, against her declared better judgement that she prefers to let the songs speak for themselves.

She need not have worried. In fact, the sequence from Sunday was one of the evening’s most intensely moving passages. Playing Dot was obviously a seminal phase in Friedman’s career and her reconnection with the piece through fragments of the title number, “Color and Light”, “Finishing the Hat”, “We Do Not Belong Together” and the rising inspiration of “Sunday” was palpable.

For various reasons, the Sweeney Todd excerpts that opened the second half of the concert were at once the most entertaining and frustrating elements of the programme. Mrs Lovett has wonderful moments of broad comedy and pathos throughout the show, but they require a foil – usually Sweeney himself – to work effectively.  Bringing a delighted member of the audience on stage to bear the brunt of “The Worst Pies in London” allowed Friedman to indulge in Lovett’s essential vulgarity to the full, but a more po-faced purist might think the business involving the gentleman’s lap, her rolling pin and some rather pointed gestures about size pushed things in a far too obvious direction.

And when it came to “A Little Priest”, with Jason Carr standing in as Sweeney but necessarily tied to his grand piano, the discipline that held the rest of the evening together was at its most ragged. “Think Bryn Terfel”, said Friedman archly (and with all due respect to Carr, we probably did). But the compromise was almost worth it for Carr’s glibly acid response: “Think Julia McKenzie”, which went down very well with this audience of Sondheim cognoscenti.

While Friedman disappeared in search of a more elegant gown, and to dispense with Mrs Lovett’s top-knots – “The Angela Lansbury memorial hairpiece,” as Carr put it so deliciously – James Potter treated us to a sublime cello version of “Later” from A Little Night Music.

Elsewhere, medleys from Into the Woods and Follies, not to mention her taut, artifice-free “Send in the Clowns” were welcome reminders that Friedman still has plenty to explore as an actor in future revivals of Sondheim shows. She will surely be a memorable Sally, one day, in a full-scale production of Follies, for example, although judging by her determined onslaught on “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” she also fancies a crack at Phyllis.

But in signing off with a profoundly touching “Isn’t He Something?” from Road Show, which has been evolving through various incarnations for the best part of a decade, Friedman could also have been making the poignant observation that we are now pretty much looking at the complete works of this genius.

Sondheim himself has turned chief curator of his canon with the imminent publication of Finishing the Hat, and we must reluctantly accept that the prospect of substantial new work is remote. Friedman and her fellow Sondheim ‘specialists’ must in turn make the transition from muse to archivist, tending and reinvigorating the work through their own reinterpretations and making authoritative contributions to productions of the future, which will reinvent this endlessly fascinating and humane material for new generations. On the evidence of Maria Friedman Sings Sondheim, that process will be in safe hands for many years to come.

News Roundup: Caroline O’Connor, Patti LuPone, Liza Minnelli, Sandie Shaw, Barbara Dickson, Mari Wilson, Barb Jungr, Girl Talk and Juliette Greco

30 Sep

Caroline O’Connor: triple threat gives it large in the West End

Caroline O’Connor seems to have the West End in the palm of her hand if reviews of The Showgirl Within are anything to go by…

Liza Minnelli talks about choosing the songs for new album Confessions

The latest work from Broadway royalty is on its way to me in the shape of Patti LuPone’s autobiography and Liza Minnelli’s eagerly awaited studio album Confessions. Reviews will follow in due course but my appetite has already been whetted by Michael Miyazaki’s tantalising reports on Ms LuPone’s tell-it-exactly-as-it-was writing style and Minnelli’s indestructible gifts as an interpreter of lyrics…

Listen to Sandie Shaw’s live performance of Made in Dagenham

Sandie Shaw has been popping up all over the place ahead of the release of the much-vaunted British film Made in Dagenham, a fictionalised feel-good account of the impact of Ford’s female workers on the equal pay movement in the 1960s. Shaw, of course, is a Dagenham girl who – albeit for a few weeks, before her stratospheric rise to pop stardom – actually worked in the factory. Who better to sing the title track? And what a joy to hear that unique voice, cool and stylish, after too many years’ absence. A clutch of live performances seems to have rekindled her appetite for singing but she told BBC Radio 2’s Steve Wright that she needs loads of encouragement to get back into the studio. If someone wants to start a petition, I’ll certainly sign it…

Barbara Dickson: touring early in 2010

Happy Birthdays this week to Barbara Dickson, who has a major UK tour lined up for early 2011, coinciding with the release of a new album (recording has been going well according to her tweets) and publication of the paperback edition of her autobiography A Shirtbox Full of Songs. I recently interviewed her about her book, and you’ll be able to read all about it soon…

Curiosity value: Forget the sound quality and see how Mari Wilson styles Lili Marlene

and to Mari Wilson, also with a new album release imminent, an eagerly awaited one-woman musical about to test the London water and the revival of the fizzing, wry and brilliantly acerbic cabaret trio Girl Talk scheduled for 2011… Girl Talk will reunite Mari and Barb Jungr, and they’ll be joined by a soon to be announced replacement for Claire Martin…

Autotune be damned: why Barb Jungr is the real deal

It’s X Factor season again, apparently. The Art of the Torch Singer would happily let that pass without any comment whatsoever, but for the great autotune debate. Barb Jungr recently raised the issue on her Passport From Pimlico blog and asks why nobody is making the anti-autotune argument. It seems to me that she’s made it eloquently herself in a couple of heartfelt sentences. And here’s an interesting new angle on her hit album The Men I Love

Juliette Greco: chanteuse sans pareil

Finally, existentialist icon Juliette Greco is coming to the Royal Festival Hall on 21st November for a concert that forms part of the London Jazz Festival. It’s 10 years since I saw this legend of chanson at the Barbican on a highly memorable evening. My tickets are booked and you’ll be able to read the definitive review right here!

Interview: Caroline O’Connor Brings her Inner Showgirl to the West End

23 Aug

Broadway Baby: Caroline O’Connor signals her return to London at the Sondheim Prom

Carolin O'Connor's The Showgirl Within hits the Garrick Theatre on 27th September

I recently interviewed Caroline O’Connor for a major feature on how to perform the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb in The Singer magazine. At the time, she was touring in Chicago in Australia, clearly having a whale of a time as brittle Velma Kelly – “Like a cat falling down the wall, clawing at it just to hang on,” as she described the character – and eager to speak about the impact the work of these titans of musical theatre has had on her successful career.

Caroline was born in the UK – in Oldham, in fact, a town that has produced its fair share of theatrical talent over the years – but her family moved to Australia when she was still a small child, and ever since she has split her professional life between the two countries, with the occasional Broadway foray thrown in for good measure. Thanks to the big Chicago revival and other successful projects, Oz has had by far the better deal during the last couple of years. So with all due respect to her fans down under, the news that Caroline is bringing her new one-woman show, The Showgirl Within, to London (at the Garrick Theatre from 27th September) means that for a little while at least, we can reclaim this firecracker of a star for our own.

Her “Broadway Baby” at the Stephen Sondheim Prom gave a taste of the dynamism we can expect from the show. But it would be a huge surprise if Kander and Ebb didn’t loom equally large in the programme. In the Singer article, Caroline shared centre stage with a host of other musical theatre luminaries, including her heroine Chita Rivera, Karen Ziemba, Joel Grey and Brent Barrett. As a result, I could only use a fraction of the insight and enthusiasm she provided over the course of our interview. So the impending arrival of The Showgirl Within is a great excuse for sharing the conversation in full. Here it is.

Sally Bowles is so iconic among the great female musical roles that even understudying the star in the faint hope that you might get on for a matinee once in a blue moon is too good an opportunity for a young actress to miss. That was certainly Caroline O’Connor’s view in 1986 when, towards the end of her stint in the chorus of Me and My Girl, she was cast as a Kit Kat girl in Cabaret with understudy duties. It required all her pleading and acting skills to earn an early release from her contract to take the job.

“I was dance captain on Me and My Girl, so I had to go and beg my boss to let me go,” she says. “I think I shed tears, even! I said I’d train my replacement without any pay, I wanted the Cabaret job so badly. I’ve never been so excited in my life, being cast in something, because of its reputation. Gillian Lynn was directing, and of course she was so well known at the time because of Cats. Anyway, I was able to take it, and we took the show on the road then took it into the Strand Theatre.

“It was an amazing experience, maybe not the most renowned production ever, but just to get to do that music every night… Also, there is the depth of the story, it’s so incredibly moving. And that’s where I met my husband, too, so it’s had a big impact on my life. We opened on the Tuesday night in London and I went on to play Sally Bowles the following Saturday matinee, so it was a pretty fast intro to play that role that everybody was so familiar with. I remember them saying, “You don’t have to go on because we’ve only been in town for five days and you haven’t even had an understudy call yet.” But I insisted: ‘No, let me at it! I can’t wait to get on.’

Nobody who plays Sally is immune to the shadow cast by Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-winning performance in the film, an experience that gave Caroline her first hint of how fixed some audience’s preconceptions can be.

“When I went on to play Sally, my agent was in the audience and behind him were a couple of American tourists,” she says. “And of course I played the role with an English accent, as that’s what Sally had. And they hated the show, whining all the way through. At the end, as they were putting on their coats, one turned to the other and said, ‘As for that Sally Bowles, well she didn’t even try to do an American accent.’ I thought it was hilarious. You can appreciate it because of the popularity of the film but at the same time, I was a little bit offended because I’d put so much effort into my beautiful pseudo English accent.”

That little baptism aside, Caroline is quick to nail the old cliché that Americans don’t get irony – particularly when it comes to Kander and Ebb.

“You read their shows and listen to them, and think that these are two people who really understand irony and are able to include it in their work. That tongue-in-cheek referring to the general public – as the Emcee does in Cabaret, and Billy Flynn and all the other characters do in Chicago. They look at the audience and they’re saying, ‘You know what I’m talking about.’ It’s quite incredible.

Chicago is such a beautifully written piece of work. Here in Sydney it’s been wonderfully well received. It’s only been 11 years since the show was last here in Australia, and yet it is garnering great reviews and is doing fantastic business. So again it’s found its niche.”

Casual theatre-goers are often surprised to discover that the creators of Cabaret were also responsible for Chicago, and a host of other great work besides. For Caroline, there is always great satisfaction in spreading the word, particularly when it comes to their lesser-known pieces. She first met them in person during the short-lived 1988 production of The Rink at the Cambridge Theatre, where she was understudying Diane Langton in the role of Angel.

“Because Angel is such a demanding part to sing, and Diane preferred not do all the performances, I was playing the matinees,” she recalls. “That meant I was actually contracted to do some performances and I could revel in the extraordinary experience: the storyline, the concept, the humour in their work. It makes it so easy to play as a performer. It’s so beautifully written – they write so well for men, but I just think the way they write for women is mesmerising, a bit like Sondheim. They seem to understand us so well, especially older or troubled women! And when the show came off, there was an outcry because it was such a wonderful piece of work. No-one could believe it.”

Caroline was fascinated by Kander and Ebb’s approach to the London production. They weren’t interested in resting on the laurels of The Rink’s Broadway success.

“What was extraordinary was that they wanted to cut a number at the end called ‘All the Children in a Row’, which I think is a brilliantly written song,” she says. “And Diane Langton had to pretty much audition to have it kept in the show. They wanted to write something new, and [director] Paul Kerrison was so determined to keep it in that he asked Diane to sing it for them, give it everything she’d got. Which made it really interesting – to think that these writers, who were so brilliant, questioned their work and thought maybe it wasn’t quite right. For me all the other stuff was great fun, there were great moments to sing but as a performer, to go out and do that song is so exciting, because it’s like telling the most wonderful story. I remember sitting in the stalls watching this happen and thinking, Oh my God, they’re really not sure. And they’re willing to say no, let’s do something else.

“I also got to do a concert version of Zorba, which is very rarely performed. We were doing Chicago back in 1998-9 here in Australia, and John Dietrich, who was playing Billy Flynn, is a huge Kander and Ebb fan. And because he’d always loved Zorba he decided to produce a concert version of the show, which we did as a late nighter for two nights. It was incredible how many people were interested in coming to see that, because it was such a rarity. I’d no idea, I was a little bit in the dark as far as Zorba was concerned, but I thought it was a fantastic piece of work, too. Probably not as commercial as some of the other pieces, but really interesting.”

Caroline says Kander and Ebb’s work places unique demands on the performer. The choreography, so much of it devised and influenced by the great Bob Fosse, means that you are rarely simply singing a number. Your whole body and imagination is engaged. And it takes a certain calibre of artist to bring that to the stage.

“When you look at the sort of people that were cast in their shows for so many years, the quality of their work, what they can do, their versatility, and not just that they can dance a little or belt or whatever, you can tell what’s required,” she continues. “If you can execute a Kander and Ebb show eight times a week for a long period of time, then you should give yourself a little pat on the back. It’s quite demanding and compared to some other shows – especially the elements that Bob Fosse brought with Cabaret and Chicago – It’s a big ask.

“You have to get the right type of person that’s going to give it all it deserves – and they’re the sort of people you want on the stage: the Gwen Verdons, the Chita Riveras, the Liza Minnellis, the Karen Ziembas. They’re my idols. I got to do the anniversary concert of Chicago in New York and in London, and for me to able to share the stage with Chita Rivera – whether it was just the bows or even being on the same bill – was extraordinary. The fact that she still gets on stage and performs live after all those years of doing eight shows a week, you can see why they held her in such high esteem. She is just so good at what she does. I recently watched a clip of her in Nine on Youtube, and she is so mesmerising. This is a woman that’s been doing it for 200 years, and she’s still as enthusiastic and magnetic as she was.”

Caroline tells a couple of poignant stories about sharing the bill with Rivera that encapsulate the ripples of respect and love generated by association with the creators of great work.

Caroline O’Connor performs “All That Jazz”

“We were rehearsing Chicago at the Ambassadors Theatre and I did “Velma Takes the Stand”, so I’d just watched Chita do “All That Jazz”. Just hearing that voice that I’d listened to on cassette since about 1978 for real was incredible. And after I’d finished I was walking around the back of the auditorium and she called me over with her finger – ‘Come here!’ and I walked towards her, and she said, ‘I would love to teach you the original choreography.’ I couldn’t believe it, it was such an incredible compliment because she thought I could do it. It was so exciting. And you can see why Kander and Ebb wanted to work with people like her, because they could bring out the best in their work.

“It’s terribly sad that Fred Ebb’s gone. When we did the anniversary concert in New York, we were standing in the wings waiting to go on for the bows, and Chita didn’t notice me watching, but there was a photo of Fred Ebb on a card in one of the offices, and she picked it up off the shelf and kissed it before she went on. I felt so moved and honoured to have actually seen that, the appreciation that she had. It was beautiful.”

Caroline has played both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly during her career, but it’s brittle, complex Velma who has occupied her most recently, as she returned to a role she last performed in 1998.

“I took it as a compliment that they didn’t change the choreography!” she laughs. “But we’ve been doing a long run, more than 30 weeks. Physically it’s demanding – because of Fosse’s influence. It’s a totally different style of dance, an incredibly particular way of performing. It’s not just the physicalisation of doing the moves, it’s the intensity and style, and it’s quite tiring.

“When you’ve had a ballet background [Caroline’s early ambitions were classical], all of a sudden your muscles hurt in a different way. You get pains in an area that if you were doing a de Mille or Jerome Robins choreography, wouldn’t be the same. Sometimes they can be very large movements, sometimes tiny gestures that say a 1000 words. And just the intensity of that, moving one finger, can be exhausting. And there are all these people who keep the bible going: ‘No, you don’t move the whole wrist, just circle the finger.’ The concentration that goes into that is really ridiculous but it just goes to show how much impact it has, for the performer to execute it and the audience to appreciate it.

“And it’s not like singing “If You Knew Suzy”. It’s pretty full-on, big belting numbers and intensity. Having to be the character up front, not just singing a lovely soprano song and sounding sweet and pretty. You have to give it everything you’ve got, every ounce of intention – if you’re fighting for your life as in “I am my Own Best Friend”, you’re fighting for supremacy. The audience has to leave at the end of Act One thinking, I wonder who’s going to win.

Caroline says a long run in a show like Chicago brings its own rewards, and she has never tired of it.

“The piece is so powerful, I’ve never been bored with it, because the audience isn’t. And you feed off the audience. I do make sure that I remind myself every night how lucky I am to be able to do it, and that I’ve got everything to lose. Because the character of Velma is interesting. Her journey goes downhill. She’s like a cat falling down the wall, clawing to hang on, before she comes back up at the end. I just remind myself that my job is to tell that story and it’s easy because of the quality of the work.

“Kander and Ebb are probably my biggest influence as a performer, and I hope they continue to be so because I’ve still got my eyes on Kiss of the Spider Woman! Isn’t it tremendous that you can look at a composer and writer, and think, I could have a lifetime career just looking at your work, because it suits my voice and my personality. I feel really blessed that there is this work out there I can relate to and appreciate. “

Concert review: Stephen Sondheim at 80 (BBC Prom 19), 31st July 2010, Royal Albert Hall

1 Aug

David Charles Abell: conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra as it revelled in the original orchestrations (picture by Cory Weaver)

There was never going to be any doubt about the warmth of the reception for Stephen Sondheim when, as eagerly expected, he approached the stage at the culmination of the 19th BBC Prom in this year’s season, conceived to celebrate his 80th birthday. But even he, with his customary humility on these set-piece occasions, must have noted the length of the ovation. The atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall is unique when the audience rises en masse to greet its heroes, and here was London’s chance at last to salute in person this great “playwright in song” (his words, but who could put it better?) in a year packed with performances and festivities to mark this staging post in his life.

Every element of the preceding concert had been brilliantly layered to heighten expectation and nudge up the myriad emotions of the 5,000 or so Prom-goers gathered to honour the composer. And nobody disappointed, least of all the stirling BBC Concert Orchestra with Sondheim specialist David Charles Abell on the podium, revelling in the chance to take some of those famously complex melodies away from the limitations of the pit and, in returning to the original orchestrations, allow them to breathe with new freedom as they soared out across the heads of the promenaders.

In an evening studded with delights, there were two strokes of genius. The first was to partner the great British actor Simon Russell Beale with Daniel Evans – surely one of the finest ever male singers of Sondheim – for the opening number, “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience”, from The Frogs. His comic timing was a joy, and his on-stage rapport with Evans struck sparks. As the evening went on, each of his subsequent appearances (not least in a sublime rendition of “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid”, when he and Evans were joined by a soft-shoe shuffling Julian Ovenden and, gloriously, that well-known twinkletoes Bryn Terfel) should have had producers wracking their brains for revival ideas to showcase this hitherto unexplored side of his career. What a fabulous Buddy he would make in Follies.

The other moment of genius occurred at the start of the second half when Roderick Elms sounded the first eerie chords of the Prelude from Sweeney Todd on the Albert Hall’s resonant, awe-inspiring organ, and a collective thrill of uneasy delight shuddered down the spines of the audience. There can be no more purposeful passage in musical theatre; it took me all the way back to Drury Lane in 1980 when, from a seat high in the Gods, I was terrified out of my skin by the shrill blast of that factory horn and the mesmerising, darkly funny tale of revenge that followed.

Carolin O'Connor's sassy "Broadway Baby" whetted the appetite for her forthcoming West End run - The Showgirl Within

Evans was quite brilliant in revisiting his success as George, reviving his partnership with Jenna Russell’s Dot for two numbers, “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Move On”. There was also a stellar turn from Caroline O’Connor, back in London after a long tour of Chicago down under, and all set to bring her one-woman show to the Garrick in September. Her “Broadway Baby” was sassy and smart, with just the right hint of desperation. And so what if Judi Dench’s “Send in the Clowns” was slightly more wracked than of yore? This best known of Sondheim’s entire-plays-in-a-single-song has never been in better hands and nobody, apart from the maestro himself, was received more warmly by the assembled masses.

The ensemble numbers were triumphant, even allowing for the limited stage room – The Proms Sondheim Ensemble provided well-rehearsed support, losing just the odd word here and there – and “A Weekend in the Country”, another offering from A Little Night Music sent us spinning out to the bars for the interval, full of anticipation for what was to come.

Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman had already joined forces for a touching “Too Many Mornings” but both really came into their own in the second half: Friedman with Bryn Terfel, making the case yet again for a full-scale revival of Sweeney Todd with these two in the starring roles as they devoured “A Little Priest” with divine timing and characterisation; and Ovenden with “Being Alive”, another of Sondheim’s great ballads, in which he conveyed utterly Bobby’s conflicted state of mind in Company.

The real lump in the throat moment came, however, Glee-style with “Our Time” from Merrily We Roll Along, delivered by soloists and a chorus from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. They brought this touching, optimistic pop song to life with charming simplicity, setting us up for the tumultuous affirmation of “Sunday” and – the only time when on-stage proceedings looked a little ragged, but who could be blamed when all eyes were trained on the steps to the right, where a flurry of activity signalled the imminent appearance of the man of the moment – finally, “Side by Side by Side”. It was the only way to end an evening that will live long in the memory, and the artists seemed as reluctant to leave the stage as the audience was to wave goodbye to the modest figure who was responsible for everything they had been listening to.

Who pays the songwriter?

2 Jul

Audra McDonald sings “Stars and the Moon” from Jason Robert Brown’s musical, Songs for a New World

Jason Robert Brown: taking on the sheet music file sharers

A singer is largely defined by her repertoire, whether she writes it herself or – as is the case for most people – digs into the great treasure chest of work produced, and constantly added to, by a myriad talented songwriters. Their product becomes a vital part of her currency, so forking out a very little for the sheet music that will allow her to study the song, learn the notes and words, come up with an arrangement that suits, give a professional-looking audition, sounds like a no-brainer. Just so the talent on which she is building her own gets a little payback.

Not quite, it would seem. Jason Robert Brown has been having  a fascinating and lively exchange of views on this subject with an ambitious young performer on his excellent blog.

Brown is one of the finest modern American writers of musicals. His complex, profoundly human, songs rightly feature in many an audition repertoire.

In what sounds almost like an idle moment of curiosity, he decided to investigate the extent to which the sheet music for his own songs were being ‘shared’ online, and as the scale of the situation became clear, he began politely requesting on file sharers’ posts that they didn’t do it with his songs any more. After all, $3.99 isn’t a whole lot to spend on something so important to your progress and if you really can’t afford it, the library will help. Either way, the songwriter gets his or her (modest) royalty, and that seems like a good deal.

Many responded respectfully, although with sometimes staggering naivete that they were doing anything dubious. But one feisty correspondent took him on. His patience and reasoning are as impressive as her articulate but way-off-the-mark argument is staggering. This is a hitherto overlooked but very important element of the whole music file sharing debate – and one which all aspiring singers should study.

Why Was She Born? The Legacy of Helen Morgan

11 Apr

Helen Morgan: a strong legacy for today's torch singers

It’s been a fine week on BBC4 for lovers of old- and new-style torch singing. The channel’s celebration of the Great American Songbook was stuffed with profiles, documentaries and performances rich in the genre, from a biography of Ella Fitzgerald to a welcome repeat of Walk on By, a series on the history of popular song.

One of the highlights was a BBC4 Sessions concert featuring Gwyneth Herbert giving an exemplary take on the Ruth Etting classic, “Love Me or Leave Me”, Melody Gardot’s exquisitely underplayed “Over the Rainbow”, and a great “September in the Rain” from Sharleen Spiteri – all demonstrating that the torch song has never been in better hands.

But most poignant of all was the excellent Clint Eastwood-produced exploration of the life of lyricist Johnny Mercer, The Dream’s on Me. One hundred minutes sped past in a succession of comments and performance snippets – Julie Andrews, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Maude Maggart (singing a wonderfully touching “Skylark”, accompanied by Jamie Cullum.)

During one of the numerous interview clips of Mercer talking about his craft he mentioned, in passing, Helen Morgan as an example of somebody you would write a particular type of song for. It struck a real chord. Morgan was briefly a huge Broadway star and created the role of Julie in Jerome Kern’s Showboat. But even by the time Mercer referred to her in the 1970s, she had been dead for more than 30 years, and today her name is scarcely heard.

Her style of singing in a light, throbbing soprano, is light years from modern popular taste. Yet Morgan was one of the first of the great torch singers. And a few weeks ago, I had no hesitation in drawing a comparison between Jessie Buckley’s intense, touching way with torch songs in her performance at Pizza on the Park, and Morgan’s way of luring the listener into her lamentations of love gone wrong.

When Helen Morgan’s picture flashed across the television screen, it reminded me of what sparked my interest in the torch idiom over two decades ago. So after focusing on some of the young singers who have piqued my curiosity in recent weeks, here’s a trip back to the roots of the genre.

Helen Morgan was a tragic figure – not in a hell-raising Amy Winehouse way, although she was equally profligate with her talent. When things got too troubled, she’d quietly have another brandy, eventually fulfilling a destiny that was pretty much prescribed in her first starring role as the doomed Julie. But it says much for her legacy that every now and then, a modern performance can still evoke her name and a nod back down the years to a great, if shooting, star.

Helen Morgan sings “Bill”

This is an article I wrote about her in the late 1980s, which hasn’t seen the light of day until now. It’s a bit stodgy and essay-ish in places – and naïve in its approach – but I’m posting it here because in many ways it sums up the elements of torch-singing that I continue to find so compelling – and because I can illustrate it with video, something that would have seemed impossible back then!

Why Was She Born? – The Legacy of Helen Morgan (1988)

Morgan's voice had a unique, pleading quality

Since its plaintive genesis in the early 1920s, the torch song has proved a consistent link between a galaxy of female singers who in other respects could hardly differ more greatly. As an idiom, it provides a historic, if unlikely bridge from Fanny Brice to Barbra Streisand, from Judy Garland to Kiri te Kanawa, from Ruth Etting to Shirley Bassey and from Jane Froman to Dusty Springfield. None of these ladies has ever limited themselves to the genre of the torch song. But each at one time or another has sung from the point of view of the woman on the losing side in love.

If Fanny Brice lit the first torch with her rendering of the classic “My Man”, (“Mon Homme”), consider how Billie Holiday interpreted the same song as a blues number and made it in turn her own. And if Edith Piaf ran the gamut of emotions, she certainly included in her repertoire chansons of a very torchy sentiment. All of these singers at one time or another have reflected through the torch song the suffering of a woman at the hands of a man who does nothing but let her down, but whom she can’t help loving.

Just as the idiom has become more lush and plangent, more downright dramatic, so it has tended to obscure its quieter and more tremulous origins. Now that Dame Kiri has extended her range to include classic torch by George Gershwin, and with a revival of interest in Dusty Springfield’s fulsome entreaty, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, not to mention the interest that never went away in Garland bemoaning “The Man That Got Away”, it is high time to re-evaluate the contribution of the women who started it all with such sentiments as “Why Was I Born?”

With the release of a full-length, universally well-received recording of Showboat, it might be appropriate to focus on the woman who made its two classic torch songs, “Bill” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine” her own. Her name was Helen Morgan and she might be even less remembered here had not Robyn Archer selected her as an example for her show A Star is Torn.

Helen Morgan made these two songs her own by stamping the torch style with her own delicate lilting soprano. At least two recordings of her renderings survive and are reasonably available. The later pressings can be heard on what amounts to the first cast recording of Showboat which is actually a record of the show’s 1932 revival.

They are remarkable not only for their clarity but for the freshness and immediacy of Morgan’s performances at a distance of over half a century. Her voice has little in common with modern popular tastes but through its unique pleading quality and her astute use of a natural huskiness on key lyrics, it is quite heart-rending in its subtlety.

“I See Two Lovers” – a quintessential Helen Morgan performance

Anybody seeking for an introduction to her lamentably brief recording career should start right here. The extraordinary effect she achieved owes much to her own talent and the light orchestra or band backing favoured by artistes of the day, and little to the dramatic and histrionic lamentations of her future sisters in song. Perhaps the closest we can get these days is to listen to Julia McKenzie’s interpretation of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” in Follies. This is at once a pastiche and wholly authentic.

Song of  Dreamer: great close-ups of a troubled torch singer

Although tracks by Morgan turn up from time to time on compilation albums (FLAPPERS, VAMPS AND SWEET YOUNG THINGS, Living Era 1982, AJA 5015), it is largely thanks to the Take Two label that a sizeable volume of her work has been gathered together. They have compiled a generous selection for the album HELEN MORGAN-Legacy of a Torch Singer, (1986, TT220) although it is rather biased in favour of her earlier material. Much of this is of interest more for its definitive period flavour than as classic torch singing.

It is really in the sessions recorded in the thirties that the depth of Morgan’s voice had matured considerably from the tremulous high notes which mark songs such as “Just Like a Butterfly”. But there are some real gems on this album, most especially the hauntingly regretful “I See Two Lovers”, which also turns up on the album FALLING IN LOVE AGAIN – Classic Female Vocalists of the ‘30s (Conifer 1987, TQ 155). This recording demonstrates to perfection the wistful catch in Morgan’s voice, a sadness which she was able to convey through restraint rather than high drama.

For a more general introduction, Take Two dips into the careers of four singers including Helen Morgan on its album THE ORIGINAL TORCH SINGERS 91980 TT207). The others are Fanny Brice, Libby Holman and Ruth Etting. The latter was probably the most prolific female recording artist of the thirties and numerous collections of her material are widely available. She seems to have endured the test of time more readily than Helen Morgan, while Fanny Brice is better know as Funny Girl these days.

Helen Morgan was a performance chanteuse who, apart from her major stage roles, sang in nightclubs and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies. She might have been a great film actress but after an auspicious debut in Applause the right parts never came along. She might have been an even greater recording artist but performing was her forte and she did other things only as time permitted. Nevertheless diligent searching can result in the discovery of rare pressings, including previously unreleased radio broadcasts which are increasingly becoming a source for the nostalgia buff.

Perhaps the greatest torch song of all is Gershwin’s “The Man I Love”. Yet Morgan never recorded the song commercially. It would be nice to think that an unpublished pressing or wireless performance lurks in a vault somewhere awaiting discovery. In its original working, as sung by Morgan, it would undoubtedly be a far cry from the lavish interpretations of more recent times.

As it is, we can still appreciate the difference in concept between then and now by listening to Helen Morgan’s soufflé-light rendering of “Why Was I Born?” which in accordance with more modern tastes is usually belted out over a rich orchestral backing. Suddenly, to hear how it was originally performed is to hear how it should be performed. The surprise is genuinely moving.

And Helen Morgan perhaps more than any other singer of her generation comes closest to crossing the line between torch and blues. Not that her voice bore any resemblance to Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday. But listen to her interpretation of “Frankie and Johnny” and hear how the divide between them is not so great after all.

There was clearly a brief revival of interest in Helen Morgan’s career after her sad life was given typical Hollywood treatment in a 1954 biopic (The Helen Morgan Story, with Ann Blyth’s singing voice dubbed by Gogi Grant, herself a great torch singer of the 1950s). Collections of her rarer recordings including standards like “Body and Soul” and “More Than You Know” were issued, usually pairing her off with Fanny Brice. There is also a 1969 album issued by RCA Victor in its vintage series which boasts a very discering selection of her material.

These recordings are obviously harder to come by but well worth seeking out. In many ways the quality of these pre-digital mastering issues is clearer than more recent efforts, mainly because the sound is completely true to the original.

Helen Morgan in characteristic pose atop a grand piano

Despite the quality of her more obscure material, the greatest testimony to her rare talent as a torch singer is her legacy of the show-stopping standards which enraptured her audience wherever she was performing, usually characteristically perched atop a grand piano. That such a quality can still capture the imagination after so many years is surely a reason for restoring Helen Morgan to her rightful place in the gallery of all-time-great female performers.

Love Me or Leave Me – a feature I wrote for Gay Times on the classic torch singers, from December 1991 read

Handing on the Torch – a piece for The Wire magazine, tracing torch singing from its roots to modern smart pop read