Tag Archives: Female Singers

CD Review – Julie Atherton: No Space for Air

16 Nov

Julie Atherton: a rocking live performance of “Blind” from her new album, No Space for Air

A closer look at Julie Atherton’s new album in a second. But first… Producers of the mooted 2011 London Follies revival apparently don’t think Bernadette Peters is sufficiently “box office” to carry a production on this side of the Atlantic. So murmurs the rumour mill. Ye gods. Here is one of the great leading ladies of our time – sure, a superstar on Broadway, but also a performer whose status and reputation is global as far as anybody who knows anything about musical theatre is concerned. And she is a luminary among actors who have specialised in Sondheim. You can’t buy the kind of gold dust she would sprinkle across the West End.

Never mind. Let’s wait 10 years. Then Dannii Minogue can give us her Sally, Cheryl Cole can step up to the plate as Phyllis, Susan Boyle’s “Broadway Baby” can raise the roof and Amanda Holden can summon her acting skills to deliver “I’m Still Here” with all the dramatic irony she can muster. And we’ll have the television audience-friendly Follies we apparently deserve. I can hardly wait. So I’ll probably curb my impatience with a trip to Washington DC in the spring, where Peters is scheduled to be a fascinating Sally, and Elaine Page will appear as Carlotta Campion, US producers apparently still being able to think outside the box just a little.

No Space for Air: a fascinating collection of modern pop and theatre songs

Julie Atherton will be a prime candidate to play Sally if there’s a revival to mark Sondheim’s centenary in 2030 – although she’d better make sure she’s got a television profile by then or she’ll have a tough job convincing the impresarios of the future.

Atherton is one of a handful of young West End leading ladies who composers would have been queuing up to write parts for in the old days. She’s a veteran of the cult hit Avenue Q and in the age of juke box musical dominance, through her involvement with the Notes From New York project, she consistently does her bit to promote new musical work in London.

When I saw her in their production of Jason Robert Brown’s chamber piece The Last Five Years last summer, it was clear that she was the genuine article: an actor with the instinctive ability to interpret lyrics in character so that they become part of the dialogue. Even so, I approached her new album, No Space For Air, with some trepidation. Musical actors ‘doing’ pop can be wince-inducing; I refer you to some of John Barrowman’s big finale numbers on the BBC’s Tonight’s the Night.

But Julie Atherton rocks. This modern, thoughtful collection of songs – produced with obvious attention to detail – is provactive and inspiring by turns. There are a couple of theatrical numbers: the tricky tale of “Lost in Translations” from Craig Adams’s Lift; and the most radical reworking of Sondheim’s Follies torch song “Losing My Mind” since Liza Minnelli’s 1989 electric disco collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. But the bulk of the material is from the pens of edgy, contemporary songwriters like Mark Tremonti (“Broken Wings”) and Jake Hook (“Silent Whispers”).

Atherton is well served by arranger and pianist Craig Adams, with a string quartet adding some evocative accents to the pristine sound of the band. She launches into the opening track, “Weak”, with a cross between Emmylou Harris’s crystalline soprano and the finer emotive qualities of Celine Dion, sweet, country-flavoured tones shot through with moments of controlled power. The effect is exhilarating.

“Crawling” matches anything else on offer from the current clutch of young female artists. Atherton’s ability to inhabit a song and tell its story with emotional conviction but none of the artifice that so many singers rely on – let’s call it the curse of X Factor – is refreshing. She switches in a breath from subtle and gentle (“Never Saw Blue Like That”) to quirky and vulnerable (Tori Amos’s “Leather”).

The title of “Encore”, technically the last track on the album, raises the prospect of theatrical resonance but turns all such expectations on their head with a soaring exhortation to live in the present. But leave the disk on the player for a hidden treat: Atherton’s poignant take on the John Denver classic “Annie’s Song”.

CD Review: Home – Rosie Nimmo

13 Nov

Timeclock: Rosie Nimmo’s unsettling exploration of life’s rapid pace

Home: the follow-up to Rosie Nimmo's first album, Lazy and Mellow

Mid-November, with a gale flinging the leaves against the window and a darkening sky that seems to promise eternal winter: it’s the perfect time to be listening to Home, a second album from Edinburgh singer Rosie Nimmo.

Not because Nimmo’s lyrics are relentlessly bleak and introspective – although they have their moments – but because despite a sheen of melancholy, little beacons of hope, comfort and warm humanity flicker across her complex vision of life’s travails. Just when you think the darkness is closing in for good, there’s a nip of something strong and reviving to pick you up and give you a wry laugh.

“The secret’s to enjoy the view

If you can enjoy the people too,”

Nimmo sings with cool irony in the opening track, “Never go Back”. And there’s the rub, of course, because it’s people who tend to get in the way. Nature can be a more rewarding companion. Songs like “Moonglow Music” and the title track are like little oases in a landscape of experience that in other numbers – the desolate “Life Can Pin You to the Wall” and “Low Blue Way” with its aching harmonica (a Nimmo speciality) – is often obscured by mist.

Rosie Nimmo in concert at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (Picture by Marc Marnie)

“The End” is a frank and simple account of leaving things too late in a relationship. Perhaps, as Nimmo suggests in “Listen to Your Own Voice”, it’s ultimately best to be accountable to your own instincts. That way lies inner strength.

This is a wise collection of songs that faces up to some rough realities, not least in the unsettling, driven “Timeclock”, a sensory exploration of life’s rapid passage that really works its way under your skin. But there are moments of joy in the infantile escapism of “Being a Child Again (in the Snow)”, and even the sad tale of “Little Bird” ends on a note of fragile hope.

Nimmo’s style veers between soft, gentle folk and an edgier, almost bluesy quality that keeps you guessing where the mood will lead her. There is some exemplary, unfussy accompaniment from, among others, producer Marc (Hobotalk) Pilley on guitar, keyboard player Ali Petrie (the much-neglected Hammon organ comes into its own on several tracks) and fiddler Mairi Campbell.

Subtle, understated and sure-footed, Home is an intelligent, rewarding piece of work full of quirky hooks and rhymes that send your thoughts spinning off in all kinds of unexpected directions.

Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010

7 Nov

Hits and Misses: from Mari Wilson’s album, Emotional Glamour, which provides much of the musical content for The Love Thing

Dolled Up: Mari Wilson's 2005 album includes the song that gives The Love Thing its name

Never underestimate the power of a few sequins. Romantically bruised, regularly disappointed, ever nostalgic for the music and promise of her youth, never giving up on her quest for stardom, and with an eternally optimistic soul that eventually drives her to modest personal triumph, backing singer Elle has spent most of her professional life waiting for that big break backstage in stinky shared dressing rooms. And when she isn’t waiting backstage, she’s waiting at home for the selfish, feckless bloke who’s never too busy ploughing his own furrow to erode her fading dreams a little bit more. But she is never short of a brave aphorism – or a sprinkling of sequins – to see her through.

Elle is the creation of Mari Wilson, brought to life in a new one-woman musical – The Love Thing – which she has developed with Pete Lawson and features a clutch of beautifully crafted songs written with composer, pianist, arranger and frankly, girl singer’s ideal accompanist, Adrian York. It isn’t an autobiography but the show is largely inspired Wilson’s experiences as a woman and a singer across three decades of show business. And as a result, the character of Elle rings with authenticity.

From a 1960s childhood singing along to Dusty and Dionne – her ‘babysitters’ on the radio – with a hairbrush for a mic and her mum’s sling-backs for a touch of grown-up glamour, she takes us on a journey through the exotic 1980s, and on to the present day. Along the way, she encounters failure (her nearly-hit single bombs; she should’ve gone to the Caribbean and done those sessions with Chris de Burgh after all), serial betrayal, and late, unexpected motherhood. She lays the ghost of her old relationship, and finally meets a man who might, possibly, make her happy. But crucially, she returns to singing and, on her own terms, earns her place in the spotlight – and, albeit still reeking, dressing room. No matter that it’s at the back of a south London pub. It’s a downmarket, refreshingly anti-X Factor affirmation of a long career spent mainly in the wings. And it’s a testimony to Elle’s resilience, her worldly irony and robust humour.

Emotional Glamour: beautifully crafted pop songs written with Adrian York

Mari Wilson never settled for life as a backing singer, of course. She was a big 1980s star and continues to be a very successful artist. But her observations, memories and intimate knowledge of that era – and the highs and conflicts of a singer’s professional and personal life – are central to her portrayal of Elle, and the sympathy with which she plays the role, revealing considerable acting skills in the process.

This is a story told as an hour-long monologue, peppered with asides and re-lived telephone conversations, and interspersed with songs drawn from Wilson’s 2005 concept album Dolled Up (listening to “The Love Thing” sung live in the show, it seems ridiculous that the song wasn’t a huge hit at the time) and the 2008 follow-up Emotional Glamour. They are eloquent, state-of-mind numbers with a clarity of lyric and an emotional tug that pitches Elle’s situation perfectly through a series of scenes. Salt-of-the-earth observations – “Moving In”, with its hints of new beginnings, opens with the disarmingly mundane observation that “Your pants are on the floor” – give way to the darker, torchier sentiments of “Right For You”. “Forever Young” is a fight-back anthem for a generation of women reared on airbrushed celebrity preserved in anti-ageing serum. And “Getting There” is a frank, sophisticated ballad of recovery and survival.

Vocally, Wilson is at the top of her game. In the cramped intimacy (seat behind a concrete pillar, anyone?) of the Lounge in the bowels of the Leicester Square Theatre, she reaffirms her talent as an instinctive interpreter of lyrics, shifting moods in the flick of a very long eyelash and using the limited space to conjure a three-dimensional character with a light touch on the drama.

With their pared down arrangements – and the brilliant York on the piano, contributing sensitive backing vocals and throwing in a cheeky riff from one of Wilson’s 1980s hits, “Just What I Always Wanted” – these pithy pop songs easily make the transition to integrated show tunes. Any small quibbles mainly concern the structure of the piece: the scenes could be more clearly defined, for example, with a stronger sense of the time in which they are set. But at just an hour long, The Love Thing is warm, credible, often very touching and full of potential. Hopefully, this week long engagement has just been the start for a tour de force that showcases the wider talents of one of our best singers in peak form.

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.

Concert Review: Baby Dee and the Elysian Quartet, Shoreditch Church, 16th October 2010

20 Oct

“Black But Comely”: a song of doomed, elemental passion

A Book of Songs for Anne Marie formed the basis for the concert at Shoreditch Church

Baby Dee had already shambled on stage and struck up the first chords of a song about slugs in Shoreditch Church, late on Saturday night, before the audience became fully aware of her presence and let out a welcoming cheer. She turned and smiled over her shoulder with a knowing, ‘this is me, folks’ shrug and launched into one of her characteristically poetic, impressionistic lyrics, accompanied by her own sublime piano playing, sending the notes soaring up into the lofty shadows of the church ceiling.

Wrapped in a capacious coat with dalmatian spotted leggings underneath and something that resembled nothing so much as a red tea cosy on top, she cut a singular dash. Dee could have been an eccentric aunt who had simply wandered in from Shoreditch High Street, put down her shopping and absent-mindedly started tinkling the ivories.

Appearances are deceptive. This avant-garde transexual creator and singer of art songs – a one-time Coney Island performance artist and organist for a Catholic church in the Bronx – might indeed be eccentric. But there is nothing chaotic about her musicianship – she is a classically trained pianist and harpist – or the extraordinary instrument that is her voice: a resonant tenor that occasionally rises in a counter screech or descends into a filthy, cackling vibrato rasp.

Songs about insects feature large in her repertoire – the evening would end with a paean to bees – but the slugs, it transpired, were just the hors d’oeuvre to the main feast: a set largely based on Baby Dee’s mesmerising album, A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, for which she was joined by the assuredly ethereal strings of the Elysian Quartet, an oboist, and a guest cellist whose name, alas, I couldn’t catch because Dee’s spasmodic inter-song links were so sotto voce that the sound system didn’t pick them up.

The concert (a Frieze Music event), played out in front of the alter against a backdrop of flickering candles and beneath strings of  fairy lights, had a hypnotic beauty.

Dee’s free-ranging ballads are eerily, deceptively delicate. Snatches work their way under your skin and re-emerge in dreams, balmy yet ominous. “Love’s Small Song”, for example, is the sort of thing you might expect to hear on the wind if you ever found yourself wondering the passages of an Elizabethan palace in the dead of night. “Black But Comely”, brimming with doomed elemental passion, is, like so many of Dee’s numbers, a torch-song of masochistic brilliance.

“I am less the writer of these songs than I am their unfit mother,” she writes in the album notes, hinting at the weight of experience from which they poured. The lyrics are vital to understanding her work but were ill-served by the venue’s acoustics on this occasion, at least for those of us at the back of the hall. Even so, their dark, brooding preoccupation with loss and ruin, studded with flashes of celestial hope and references to nature and the seasons, provided a compelling leitmotif.

The playing was sublime. Dee herself ambled between piano and harp – creating moments of broad comedy defined by some jaunty ‘travelling music’ courtesy of the Quartet – playing each with an absorbing delicacy. But perhaps the most exquisite moment of the evening was when she descended from the stage for a yearning accordion solo, gazing up into a spotlight: defiantly unclassifiable, away with the fairies, but a mesmerising class act.

Book Review: Bloody Mary, Mary Coughlan

13 Oct

She’s Bad: Mary Coughlan sings up a storm at the recent Tribute to Kirsty MacColl in London

Bloody Mary: not your average showbiz autobiography

If Holiday, Piaf and Garland wrote the torch-singer’s handbook between them, Irish siren Mary Coughlan has spent the best part of her 54 years doing her utmost to surpass to their collective example and write the final chapter.

But despite her best efforts at self-destruction, she has come through the requisite abused childhood, the drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and hospitalisation, the car crashes (marital and literal) and dodgy recording contracts to emerge as one of the genre’s most magnificent interpreters: a genuine survivor who, in those darkly wry Kirsty MacColl lyrics that she nails so instinctively, has “been an awful woman all my life”. And who has also, with the great torch-singer’s alchemy, transformed that ‘awfulness’ into the sublime ability to hold her audience entranced as she spins her musical tales, with their self-referential undertones, in a voice like honeyed whiskey poured over gravel.

Coughlan’s autobiography – Bloody Mary, My Story (Hachette, published on 4th November) – could have been just another misery memoir. Instead, it’s a raw, often bawdy and rollicking, clear-eyed look at the several lives she’s packed into half a century.

From the prologue, in which she is sharing the hearse with her mother’s coffin and issues a last, desperate plea for a way to take control of the chaos, to the domesticity and gentle optimism of the closing pages, a remarkable lack of bitterness and self-pity is one of the book’s most compelling qualities.

The journey to sobriety requires the ransacking of some pretty appalling memories, but there are also countless high spots and occasional passages of almost Utopian tranquillity. Who would have thought, for example, that the hell-raising Mary who blazes her way across the music business was also a one-time macrobiotic fanatic drifting through a commune-style existence in the dwindling wake of the hippy movement?

The House of Ill Repute: experience and circumstance strike sparks

Coughlan never shirks responsibility for her own behaviour, least of all in the heartbreaking – and frustrating, for everybody who has ever fallen under the spell of her voice or worked hard to make it heard – passages that deal with her alcohol intake and its impact on her children. But it’s always clear that to a great extent, this is a shared responsibility. The sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the shadowy grandfather and uncle who stalk the early pages, her mother’s textbook denial, and the relentless beatings meted out by her father (there is ultimately rapprochement, forgiveness, a coming to terms) were surely the triggers for teenaged Mary’s break for freedom, her flight to London, and a restless spirit that, even as others spotted her considerable singing talent, would find ever more ingenious ways to undermine and waste it.

Given the amount of time she’s spent under the influence of one recreational substance or another, it’s a wonder that Coughlan can still find her way through the lyrics of a song, let alone recall the finer details of such a roller-coaster life with such clarity. Her professional breakthrough came in 1985, with an invitation to appear on The Late Late Show. Her spontaneous acapella rendition of “Strange Fruit” remains one of the programme’s watershed moments, blasting her into the nation’s consciousness as a fascinating interpreter of lyrics who could stake a claim to her own territory where jazz, folk and blues and meet. Even by that stage, she’d lived a hell of a life and, by her own admission, was hardly prepared for the kind of exposure, expectations and above all, business decisions that come with such rapid stardom.

However – always cunning when it came to camouflaging her dependencies (at one point, she kept the vodka hidden behind a life ring on the seafront close to her home; the book is peppered with such darkly humorous anecdotes) – she found a niche in Ireland’s cultural set, even trying her hand at film acting in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits, and soon found a loyal international audience as a singer. Coughlan’s descriptions of how outward appearances were so at variance with her inner turmoil go well beyond the usual triumph-over-tragedy truisms of the average showbiz autobiography.

Equally, Bloody Mary is a fascinating account of the resilience of a great talent, and how difficult it is to sustain a level of success in an industry that is notoriously difficult to navigate. Personal troubles aside, Coughlan has endured most of the clichéd setbacks familiar to any performer who’s survived beyond their first 10 minutes in the spotlight.

And she clearly is a survivor, indomitable in spite of herself, finally at peace with her talent and, as she says, now singing some of the best material she has ever performed: bleak, Brechtian torch songs that resonate with grim wit, longing and, yes indeed, hope. Bloody Mary offers a powerful explanation of how the clash of experience and circumstance strikes something unique in a singer’s voice and enhances the revelatory quality of the lyrics she sings.

The House of Ill Repute, Coughlan’s most recent album, is being re-released to coincide with the publication of her autobiography, complete with new tracks.

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.

Concert review: Gwyneth Herbert, An Exploration of the Sea, Britten Studio, Snape, 1st October 2010

2 Oct
A legend in her own living room: Gwyneth Herbert’s acoustic version of “My Narrow Man”

Gwyneth Herbert: a vocal chameleon in statement shoes

It was quite a night to head up to Snape on the wild side of Suffolk for the premiere of Gwyneth Herbert’s sea-inspired new song cycle. The heavens seemed to be hurling buckets of water in rapid succession at the windscreen, making the A12 in the rush hour even more of a challenge than usual.

In the 30 seconds it took to dart from the car to the dry haven of the Britten Studio foyer, some of us had good reason to consider returning our waterproofs to their manufacturer with a stinging reference to the Trade Descriptions Act. Out on the salt marsh, curtains of rain continued to blow in from the North Sea. Autumn had arrived with a wet fanfare. Could Herbert’s experimental piece – the fruit of a six-month Aldeburgh Residency – possibly live up to such an appropriately elemental setting?

Yes, indeed it could. First, however, she sharpened our appetites with a set based mainly on songs from her most recent album, All the Ghosts, setting off at a cracking pace in statement heals and polkadots. “So Worn Out” was an instant showcase for one of the most fascinating, multi-textured female voices on the scene. Herbert can veer from smoky blues to a keening falsetto in a single phrase – a stiff challenge for the dextrous sound engineer, on his mettle throughout the evening. One minute, she has the sweet, clear timbre of the innocent folk singer. The next, she’s growling Grace Slick-style with the throaty rasp of a leather-lunged survivor. She’s a vocal chameleon, and it suits the rich imagery of songs that tell eccentric, sad, joyful and vibrant stories of life in London town that ring with authenticity.

All the Ghosts: vibrant stories of London life

Herbert’s virtuosity, and her eclectic taste in obscure instruments, asks a lot of her band: guitarist Al Cherry, Dave Price on a multitude of percussion, and Steve Holness on the double bass. And they did her proud through a roller-coaster repertoire, from the jaunty ode to a quaint boyfriend (“My Narrow Man”) to the melancholy torch-song “Some Days I Forget”, as close to an English chanson as you will find. “My Mini and Me” rang bells with anyone who finally has to say farewell to their first car, and “Annie’s Yellow Bag” struck a bittersweet blow for creative individuality. Sung live, “Put Your Mouth Where Your Money Is” came across like a gallows march for the critics, and despite Herbert’s disarmingly cheery wink, had some of us shifting uneasily in our seats.

But for me, the most affecting moment in the first half was the detour she made via a song from the score Herbert was commissioned to write for a screening of the Marion Davies silent film The Patsy. Even out of context, “Not the Sort of Girl” was an exquisite portrait of a whimsical creature, brought to life by Herbert’s plain, restrained vocal work.

That gift for conjuring characters in the space between the stage and the audience became even more apparent after the interval. For the eagerly awaited second set, Herbert and her band were joined by writer Heidi James and idiosyncratic folk trio The Rubber Wellies for a piece described as “An exploration of the sea”. Weaving the spoken word with Herbert’s evocative lyrics and audio tracks, the enlarged group proceeded to paint an aural seascape, populated by figures who sprang readily to life in the mind’s eye.

Herbert explained how she’d been inspired by her walks on the Aldeburgh shingle, by random conversations and encounters, to create a song cycle that roams far and wide for its references. In her pungent lyrics and engaging melodies, tavern drinkers rub shoulders with the redoubtable Fishguard women who repelled the invaders at the end of the 18th century; a captain thinks longingly of home; the brilliantly-sketched Miss Wittering – my favourite – sighs her way around the decaying gentility of her seaside hotel. And all are linked via Heidi James’s absorbing tale of the beachcomber, obsessively cataloguing her finds and sorting them in the shack, her “museum”. You waited agog to find out what the next list of detritus would contain.

The audience was enthralled. This was a mesmerising set, peppered with moments of drama, that found its way to the heart of our intense, ambivalent relationship with the seaside. There was, for example, a minute of eerie magic as Herbert, who had disappeared from sight, hypnotically rolling pebbles across the stretched hide of a drum to replicate the ebb and flow of the sea, reappeared at the back of the auditorium, her siren voice floating unaccompanied down to the front row.

As a subject, the sea plays to all Herbert’s strengths as a songwriter, and she has responded in kind with laments and shanties to stir the heart. Any quibbles are minor – a cluttered stage, which sometimes prevented her from moving fluidly from mic to piano, for example, and the lack of an imaginative lighting plot that would have heightened the drama – and will surely be resolved as the piece evolves from being a freshly minted work in progress.

This is only the beginning for Gwyneth Herbert’s sea song cycle, which surely has an exciting future in live performance and – please, Mr Producer – a good recording.

EP Review: Someday – Maini Sorri

30 Sep

Maini Sorri’s biographical video for her participation in I’m a Hollywood Star features clips from several songs featured on Someday

Someday: deceptively simple lyrics combine with melancholic undertones to generate an ABBA-esque frisson

Not everyone can take a quirky little ditty and make it credible. It takes sincerity, a deal of musical sensibility and a belief in the ultimate message of a song that is probably greater than the sum of its parts. Maini Sorri seems to have the ability in spades. How about this for a couplet?

“Truth is you were selfish and a phoney.

I shouldn’t have trusted you and your baloney.”

It’s one of my favourite snippets from her new EP Someday, a small collection of five songs that frequently reveal a melancholy undercurrent beneath their whimsical lyrics and well-crafted melodies. Does that sound reminiscent of a certain other Scandinavian outfit? I’m not suggesting that there are huge similarities between Sorri’s work and the nuances of Benny and Bjorn’s finest numbers. But in the deceptive simplicity of lyrics that can sound banal, even childlike, at the first hearing before they work their way under your skin, and the layered arrangements, guitar-driven and piano-based, with their minor accents, it’s impossible not to detect a hint of ABBA’s mastery of the accessible pop tune with the dark back story.  And it’s no surprise that she cites Agnetha Faltskog as one of her main singing influences.

Sorri is a Finn who lives mainly in Sweden and is gifted with a pure, crystalline voice that easily covers the ground between pop and the more mainstream reaches of modern folk. Her accent – more shades of that ABBA-like appeal – gives these songs an air of innocence, a lack of guile, that surely belies her all-round musical strengths. She knows exactly what she’s doing and the sound she wants to achieve, and the result is a modest little box of jewels, from the catchy, twinkling intro of the title track (don’t be fooled, it soon gets elemental and philosophical, and has its eye on the great hereafter) to the gently contemptuous “I Shouldn’t Have Trusted You” (source of the baloney reference) and the sadly defiant “I Am Leaving”, which is also offered in Finnish as “Lahden Yksin”.

My first thought on playing “Someday” was that it has a certain Eurovision quality – in a good way. I don’t know if Sorri has tried her luck yet in the Finnish or Swedish selection processes for the contest, but reading her thoughtful and intelligent blog posts on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has ambitions in that direction. With a growing following – not just in Europe but also in the US and Canada – this could be a prime time for her to make that particular move.

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. “