Tag Archives: A Little Night Music

Audition by television: the cruelty of Over the Rainbow

26 Apr

Auditions are brutal. Meat racks by another name, as even the greatest Broadway and West End stars will tell you. But at least in the real world, rejection is swift, delivered as if by an exquisitely sharp, stainless steel blade. The cut is clean. Scar tissue minimal, at least in the early years. Healing is quick, hope springs eternal and you’re soon off to the next one. Which is why there is something profoundly unpleasant about the prolonged agony of television-based audition shows. Forget stainless steel. They wield a rusty knife with a jagged edge that will leave gaping wounds in all but the toughest of egos.

Over The Rainbow, currently filling the BBC’s early evening prime time slot at the weekend, is the cruellest so far. For non-UK readers, this format has been used to find ‘stars’ to fill plum roles in various Andrew Lloyd Webber West End productions – to date, Maria in The Sound of Music, Joseph, and Nancy in Oliver! Now it’s the turn of The Wizard of Oz. Every week, a group of would-be Dorothys loses a member and we’re now down to the last eight. Which makes it sound more like an endurance sport, and that is basically what Over The Rainbow is.

Lloyd Webber is obviously a kind-hearted man, and his reluctance to inflict a killer criticism always makes his presence seem a tad disingenuous. The real grit is provided by the judging panel – one-time Mrs Lovett and current Mother Superior in Sister Act, Sheila Hancock (who has been given a Cruella de Ville look for the occasion), West End stalwart and Eastenders actor John Partridge, and former voice of an angel Charlotte Church – who give the participants nuggets of tough love after each performance. Hancock and Partridge at least have the benefit of years of stage experience. Church is less convincing as a tutor-cum-judge. She clearly rates her own diva credentials, seizing the chance to out-belt all the contestants in a group performance of the Streisand/Summer disco anthem “Enough is Enough (No More Tears)”. But her youthful success with operatic arias has left her with zero understanding of theatrical performance.

Between them, however, they epitomise the dilemma faced by any musical producer today. Not a single one of this week-end’s performances was in any way convincing from a theatrical point of view. It’s a familiar complaint from composers and directors that too many young performers bring a pop sensibility to musical numbers. They belt and they emote, they strain and they sob, but the songs – deeply embedded in the characters they have been written to represent – require a more complicated treatment, a more flexible, shaded voice, than the full-on style propagated by today’s pop stars. And here is ample justification for those criticisms.

Week by week on Over The Rainbow, these young women are being coached to sell pop songs as two-minute dramas – principally for the quick-fix demands of television. And with very few exceptions, the challenge is beyond them. They are told to focus on the emotion and the story – often a ridiculous demand if it’s a song of experience. Then they are hauled over the coals for failing to deliver truth and credibility. Witness this week-end’s “Cry Me A River” from Danielle Hope, delivered at maximum velocity to cheers from the audience, with absolutely zero concept of the many subtle layers of irony in Arthur Hamilton’s biting, classic torch song.

Missing the point: Cry Me A River on Over The Rainbow

The two who come bottom of the television vote are then exposed to the further cruelty of a sing-off for Lloyd-Webber – the knife being given an extra twist for the one told that she is the “audience’s least favourite”. Finally, when the composer has delivered his verdict and saved one of them for next week’s repeat ritual, the loser must participate in a ghastly sob-fest rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, bravely smiling through her tears and thanking everyone for taking her on a marvellous journey… to where, it remains to be seen.

My advice to all of them would be to sit down with a DVD of Sunday night’s South Bank Show Revisited (ITV), in which Melvyn Bragg returned to New York to interview Stephen Sondheim on the eve of his 80th birthday. The conversation was heavily weighted towards Sweeney Todd, the subject of a 1980 programme which provided plenty of archive footage – it was great to glimpse Hancock’s Mrs Lovett in the original London production at Drury Lane. There were also brief segments from the New York revival of A Little Night Music, revealing why Catherine Zeta Jones’s Desirée so divided the critics. Her “Send in the Clowns” is an acquired taste.

Catherine Zeta Jones sings “Send in the Clowns” and divides the critics

As an exploration of his canon, it hardly scratched the surface. But to hear the clarity and modesty with which Sondheim answered Bragg’s questions was a joy. And in just a couple of sentences, he encapsulated the difference between a technically proficient singer and a dramatically gifted singer interpreting his songs. This was a far more valuable observation on the art and skill of musical performance than anything uttered during those interminable hours of Over The Rainbow.

Advertisements

Happy 80th Birthday Stephen Sondheim – Your Leading Ladies Salute You

21 Mar

This piece draws on several interviews I’ve had during the last few years with Stephen Sondheim and many of the women (and Michael Ball!) who have sung his roles and songs so brilliantly on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s about just one aspect of his work, but I hope it’s a fitting tribute to a man who has contributed so much to musical theatre – indeed, music itself – throughout the last half-century, as he celebrates a landmark birthday.

Barbara Cook: one of Sondheim's leading ladies

To say that Stephen Sondheim writes exceptionally well for female singers and actors is to deal in a partial truth. The inference is that his male characters are of secondary importance. And of course nobody playing Sweeney Todd, singing in the all-male ensemble of the much-neglected Pacific Overtures, starring as Company’s distressed Bobby or the equally troubled Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, or revelling in Giorgio’s glorious arias in Passion, has any need – or right – to feel short-changed. But the fact remains that his work has had a profound effect on the careers of many of the women who have been closely associated with his roles during the last 50 years.

Where would people like Julia McKenzie, Bernadette Peters and Maria Friedman – who cites him as the reason for her career choice, having been enraptured by the 1980 London production of Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane – be if their professional paths hadn’t encountered Sondheim’s trajectory at critical moments? Hugely successful, no doubt. Such wide-ranging talent will always out. But certainly missing the depth, the experience and the kudos of an indelible association with his work. Each in her way can testify to the extraordinary sensitivity and accuracy of his writing for the female performer, whether strictly in character or taking a particular song away from its theatrical context and turning it into a standalone, solitary gem that reveals yet more meaning beneath the lyrics and the intricate melodies.

And there is no getting away from the fact that in so many of his shows, the female characters often command the stage at critical moments. Follies, for all its multiple themes of nostalgia, the uneasy relationship between past and present, and coming to terms with the impact of time on youthful dreams, is also a celebration of the show girl in all her glory. Ben and Buddy have their show-stopping turns but much of the show’s bittersweet joy comes from the brilliant pastiche numbers and anthems that allow the women to relive their moments in the vaudeville spotlight: Sally’s torch-songs (“In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”), Phyllis’s acerbic, teasing burlesque number (“Ah, But Underneath,” which replaced the original and more complex “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” when the show finally reached London in 1987), Hattie’s poignant take on the rather grim realities of the hoofer’s life (“Broadway Baby”) and of course Carlotta’s show-business survival anthem, “I’m Still Here”.

Judi Dench: wracked masterpiece

Desirée Armfeldt is always the real focus of A Little Night Music while the relationship dramas unravel around her in three-time, culminating in the magnificent “Send in the Clowns” – Sondheim’s most popular and most abused hit – which marks her lowest ebb and the tragedy of bad timing. It’s become a calling card for every star who has played the role, from Glynis Johns and Jean Simmonds to Judi Dench. Sondheim told Dench, “It’s yours now,” when her wracked masterpiece of an interpretation was one of the highlights of the National Theatre’s 1995 revival. But Trevor Nunn’s recent production notably returned Desirée to young middle age with marvellous results. Hannah Waddingham gave a magnificently constrained performance in London, tears only falling in the final stanza to indicate the extent of her desolation. But here, too, is evidence of Sondheim’s ability to capture even a minor character in the moment: “The Miller’s Son”, sung by Petra the maid, is a perfect evocation of a young woman who knows exactly what her destiny is, and that however underwhelming the ultimate prospect of drooping bosoms and a matronly figure, that can wait a while. There are plenty of rosebuds to be gathered in the here and now.

In Company, bilious, vodka-hardened Joanne has one of the standout numbers in “The Ladies Who Lunch”, a lascerating attack on herself and her own kind. Others have sung it to great effect but for many people the original, Elaine Stritch, still has copyright on the role. Just check out the D. A. Pennebaker documentary of the making of the 1970 cast album, as she wrestles with the song to the point of exhaustion, missing her mark, extemporising to Sondheim’s obvious dismay. Take after take slip by until you can almost taste the acrid, used-up atmosphere of the studio. Then she comes in the next morning and nails it with the first take of the day.

Elaine Stritch: has earned her copyright

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ is one of the toughest three-act plays I’ve ever done, you know what I mean?” she told me in a 2008 interview. She calls Sondheim a “romantic realist”. And she’s still singing the song in her one-woman show 40 years later, better than ever.

“In this song he’s sending up a class of dame, of which I am also a member – or have been in my time. I hasten to add, I don’t Martini-lunch any more. So that’s a big kick that I get out of it. When I sing the song, I am part of that whole bunch and I know about them. I am absolutely staggered, dazzled by his ability, his talent. Ability is what I really mean. It’s so believable and so unbelievable at the same time. Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me.”

Bernadette Peters: “Not a Day Goes By” is an emotional peak

For Bernadette Peters (Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George and The Witch in Into the Woods), Maria Friedman (Fosca in Passion and Dot/Marie), Julia McKenzie (The Witch, Sally and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd), the value of gift of a Sondheim role has been proved time and again. Each can, in many ways, define her career by the importance of his work in allowing them to demonstrate not only their talents as singers but as dramatic actors and comedians. And they have also proved adept at developing his songs away from their musical theatre roots. Peters’ signature tune, “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) is invariably an emotional peak in her concerts, for example. Like Friedman, Barbara Cook and many others, her repertoire is enriched by the Sondheim canon.

Patti LuPone has taken Bobby’s last-act song of affirmation, “Being Alive” from Company, and turned it into a virtuoso powerhouse performance. Again, this is possible because of the truth in a lyric that finally resolves the character’s anguish at the end of the show. Given the wealth of female songs in the canon, this might smack of poaching. Michael Ball says, “I always have an argument with him [Sondheim]. I tell him he writes the most amazing shows – difficult bloody things, most of them – and then he always gives the eleventh hour number to the women! That’s why I insisted on doing “Broadway Baby”. But take these songs out of the shows and they’re universal.”

Patti LuPone: virtuoso powerhouse performance

Sondheim’s double-whammy skills as a lyricist and composer lie at the heart of this quality in his work. A few years back in an interview for Gramophone magazine, he told me that a song is written to reflect a character’s state of mind at that particular moment in the play. If a singer can find something beyond that, which gives the song an external life outside the play, all well and good – but that will always be incidental to the song’s primary meaning and intention. “But to have the songs interpreted in different ways helps to keep them alive,” he said.

Julia McKenzie: “He’s a dramatist and a poet. And to the performer, the rewards are tremendous because every song is like a one-act play or at least, a soliloquy. “Losing My Mind” is a soliloquy, even though in Sally’s mind it is the epitome of a torch song. You can see precisely how her day progresses.”

Maria Friedman: “For me, everything he writes about comes back to a very basic thing: love – the desperate need of a human being to love and be loved. As an actor and a singer – I can’t distinguish which one leads the other – both co-exist perfectly when you’re doing one of his pieces because the demands on you are always truthful, honest. If you can get to the core of it, you just have to serve it, not do anything, and it will do the rest for you. But that means quite often you’ve got to be thinking two or three things at once. It’s layered, you’ll be saying “I don’t love you” at the same time as thinking “I wish I could love you”, “I did love you,” all together. On the face of it, it could be quite cold but underneath it’s layered with warmth and hope and yearning. Plus he’s the most extraordinary lyricist, the rhymes are dazzling, so you’ll be working on that at the same time, making sure that they ring and you don’t miss the internal rhymes. And he writes as we speak, so you have to understand how that woman would have talked and the music falls into place.”

Patti LuPone: His songs are very dramatic pieces in their own right, so I don’t have to create another story to sing them out of context. You always want the piece to be universal if it’s going to live and his work is really brilliant in that universal way: there’s that whole concept of theatre, emotion, love. That’s what makes something like “Being Alive” [Merrily We Roll Along] or “Loving You” [Passion] so perfect.

Elaine Stritch: “Everything he says in his lyrics rings a bell with me. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s fake and what’s real. And like Shakespeare, every time you do good work, something new comes out of it. The quality of the material absolutely matters. I love his humour. It’s real humour – real: they call that wit!”

Barbara Cook: I’d known Stephen socially, through the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t actually do much of his work until Follies. I’d occasionally put a song in my act but I always felt that unless I did a whole Sondheim section, they didn’t really abut against the others. I thought of them as ‘art songs’. But when I did Follies [in concert, 1985], I fell deeply in love with his work, and a lot of that was to do with the quality of his lyrics, which are so universal and moving. They are witty and clever, of course, but most of all very emotional. They almost always say something that I want to say. Take “No More” [Into the Woods], a song I’ve been doing a lot in the last year or so. It seems to have a lot more meaning with the world in this difficult state:

“Can’t we just pursue our lives

With our children and our wives?

Till that happy day arrives,

How do you ignore

All the witches…”

link: Sondheim profile for Amazon.com

link: Sondheim article for Gramophone magazine

The Stephen Sondheim Society www.sondheim.org