Tag Archives: Musical theatre stars

Album review: Petula Clark – Lost in You

15 Feb

Petula Clark: Crazy, from Jools Holland’s 2012 Hootenanny

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

Lost in You: edgy and contemporary tunes from a superstar

At 80 – how is that possible? – Petula Clark has made her first English language studio album in 15 years. Lost in You is crisply produced, utterly devoid of sentimentality and resonates with a contemplative, moody and arresting contemporary vibe. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia. Even a reinvented “Downtown”, stripped back to an almost bleakly acoustic riff, sounds as if it was written only yesterday.

As a record, Lost in You manages to reflect the nuances of a career that for sheer longevity and breadth of achievement puts Clark among the all-time great entertainers. At the same time, it confirms the lingering sense of a complex and enigmatic performer, a woman who would prefer to let her music speak for her than divulge her views about a world beyond the stage that is sometimes profoundly troubling.

I interviewed her once, in her West End dressing room during her successful stint as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. It was a trepidatious moment. “Downtown” was number one in the soundtrack of my childhood and I’d been a lifelong fan – always dangerous territory for a journalist meeting a hero. But there were no signs of clay feet. Far from being a grande dame, the friendly yet pensive woman I encountered left a lingering impression of artistic integrity and unfussy professionalism.

“Lyrics are very important to me,” she told me. “When I see a lyric and I say ‘Hey, yes! I know what that means, how it feels. It just flows through, your body is almost like a filter. It’s all filtered through your mind and then it comes out through your mouth. That’s it, you know. That’s the way you feel about something.”

A couple of the covers here  – “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” – could have languished as record company-requested interludes between her edgy treatments of more 21st-century material, but there is not the slightest hint of a phoned-in vocal. Everything is handled with that distinctive Clark sound: those unique, idiosyncratic vowels, combined with a subtle technique and phrasing that has defined her work at every turn.

“Reflections” is a self-penned, hymn-like paean to little Sally Olwen, the girl who snatched precious moments of childhood in Wales, even while the machinery of show-business was propelling her to child stardom and beyond.

As the prototype 1950s girl singer, she would rescue herself from the cul-de-sac of novelty pop by marrying a Frenchman and discovering the dramatic possibilities of the chanson, absorbing the potent influences of Brel and Piaf. “Next to You” thrums with barely contained emotion – the mark of a great dramatic singer who doesn’t need to resort to melisma or histrionics to make an emotional connection with the story.

Clark reveals another facet of her versatility on the country-tinged “Never Enough”, which she delivers with subtle verve and warmth. The set finishes with a statelier take on romantic relationships: “I Won’t Care”, a big, modern ballad that is the closest thing to formulaic among the twelve tracks.

Cut Copy Me: a lesson in ethereal pop

But overall, the album’s slightly melancholy, troubled atmosphere, established across the first three numbers, is its most fascinating asset. “Cut Copy Me” is a lesson in dreamy, ethereal pop singing without artifice; the title track “Lost in You”, an echoing piano-driven ballad with nifty key changes reminiscent of Clark’s glory chart years with ace songwriters Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent; and best of all, a fascinating version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”, which Clark turns into an epic, intelligent exploration of human frailty, dappled with cynicism.

80? The maths say it must be so. But on this evidence, Petula Clark has no intention of being out any time soon. Lost in You is a little triumph.

CD Review – Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs from End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics

20 Jun

After a short interview, Tracie Bennett sings “Just in Time” on the Paul O’Grady Show

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: never a mere impersonation

She might have missed out on an Olivier Award – and surely it was by the narrowest of margins – for her performance as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, but Tracie Bennett’s insightful and committed interpretation of the role will be her calling card for years to come.

Her six-month sell-out season at the Whitehall Studios will soon be followed by a UK tour and then, early in 2012, a US run in Minneapolis – on the doorstep of Garland’s birthplace in Grand Rapids – with Broadway the ultimate goal.

In truth, it’s Bennett’s Garland, rather than the play itself, which has generated this momentum. Her Judy, plummeting headlong into an emotional vortex, repels and compels in equal measure, a fascinating study of a legend in rapid decline. And then there are the songs, each embodying in some way the unique spell that Garland held over her audience, even when it was tainted by the lurid voyeurism that too often featured in her late performances.

In the role, Bennett’s portrayal of the Garland concert persona – the twitches, the hair tugging, the restless strutting, that flicking of the microphone lead – is an extraordinary dramatic feat. And her vocal performance, an uncannily accurate blend of Garland’s trademark tics, the on-the-edge tremolo and smudged consonants, goes way beyond mere impersonation.

All of which makes the cast album – for that’s what Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From End of the Rainbow and Other Garland Classics essentially is – an interesting prospect: are we listening to Tracie or Judy?

Bennett obviously has serious vocal gifts of her own, but they are necessarily subjugated to the role in a way that doesn’t usually impact so specifically on a leading lady’s singing performance. Without its dramatic context, it would have been all too easy for the album to dwindle into mimicry, serving neither the artist nor her subject.

Happily, this is never the case. Co-producers Chris Egan and Gareth Valentine have lovingly created an authentic, contemporary, brassy sound that supports Bennett’s throaty timbre – the key to her approximation of the Garland voice – and allows her to showcase the essential emotional highpoints of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away” without ever tipping into parody or sound-alike karaoke.

The handful of songs from the show are joined by a selection from the legendary Carnegie Hall concert – the reference for many of Egan’s arrangements – and the title song from Garland’s last film, I Could Go On Singing. There are also cracking versions of “When the Sun Comes Out”, “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Chaplin’s evergreen, “Smile”.

At times, the similarity with the real thing is breath taking. Bennett is ever respectful of the legend. But there are also occasional moments when she takes off on a little riff – or in “The Trolley Song”, a chuckle – that reminds you this is a dramatic interpretation rather than an imitation.

CD Review – Helena Blackman: The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein

16 Mar

Helena Blackman sings “If I Loved You” live at The Kings Theatre, Portsmouth

Helena Blackman: pretty in pink and commanding of voice

Helena Blackman might have been the runner-up in the BBC’s 2005 quest to find a Maria for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revival of The Sound of Music. But as her debut album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, reveals, she was never going to settle for perennial bridesmaid status.

The diversity of Blackman’s CV since her television talent show days is telling, and suggests that coming first is far from everything. Connie Fisher was such a quintessential Maria that she was the only possible winner – and consequently seems destined to play the role on the road forever. Similarly, it’s hard to see I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger playing anything other than variations on her hearty Nancy, while runner-up Jessie Buckley has, like Blackman, developed a potentially stellar career as a singer and actor based on the breadth and variety of her talents.

That said, I must confess that I approached The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein with somewhat muted enthusiasm, simply because there are more than half a century’s worth of similar anthologies out there. Do we really need another one?

Well yes, it turns out that we do. Blackman’s producers, Neil Eckersley and Paul Spicer, and conductor Mike Dixon, have treated her to a substantial orchestra – much bigger than you’ll find in the average West End pit today. And yet the playing of Richard Rodgers’ soaring melodies is so restrained and sympathetic that the songs emerge as chamber pieces, clear and nuanced, with Blackman in commanding form as she traces their underlying emotional content with obvious pleasure, as if she’s discovering treasure in each line.

With a pure soprano voice that would easily straddle the divide between operetta and musical theatre, she’s something of a throwback to a golden age of pre-pop performers who knew all about lyrical interpretation and melodic lines.

At the same time, and supported here by some sharp, pared down arrangements, she’s quite capable of giving a refreshing twist to familiar material without resorting to contemporary vocal gimmicks. “What’s the Use of Wondrin’?” becomes an unexpectedly modern, gentle piece of introspection, for example, and the wistful “Love Look Away” is beautifully reinvented as a stately ballad, delivered with controlled power.

If the track list contains no real surprises, the real delight is to hear Hammerstein’s words and phrases delivered with such crystal eloquence. There are duets with Jonathan Ansell (“I Have Dreamed”) and Daniel Boys (a profoundly romantic “People Will Say We’re in Love”). The album is book-ended by numbers from The Sound of Music,“I Have Confidence” and that ripe, wise old anthem, “Climb Every Mountain” – perhaps not an obvious choice for a singer whose voice rings with youthful clarity but it’s an unbeatable show stopper to end on and Blackman proves herself more than equal to the task.

In between, other highlights include characterful stalwarts like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of my Hair”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and a splendid “The Gentleman is a Dope”.

Theatre Review: End of the Rainbow (Trafalgar Studios, London)

9 Jan

A trailer full of plaudits for Tracie Bennett – with a tantalising snippet of “Over the Rainbow”

Tracie Bennett: inhabits the role of Judy Garland with assurance and commitment

Two triumphant aspects dominate End of the Rainbow, Peter Quilter’s play-with -music that explores Judy Garland’s turbulent season at London’s Talk of the Town in 1968, months before her death, whose run at the Trafalgar Studios has been extended to April.

The first is Tracie Bennett’s visceral, committed performance as the brittle icon nearing the end of a tether already frayed to breaking point. Bennett inhabits the role with tremendous assurance, layering the multiple nuances between fragile hope and bleak despair with such brilliance that you leave the theatre exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure.

She leads a two-hour guided tour of the ravaged landscape of Garland’s pharmaceutically ravaged psyche, veering from brazen diva-dom to wretched neediness via a clawing desperation, without resorting to a single gimmick or clichéd gesture. And that’s just the acting.

When the back wall of William Dudley’s fantastically evocative set – an expensively vulgar, late 1960s Ritzy hotel suite – rises to reveal the band, it becomes the Talk of the Town stage. And Bennett is also revealed as a superb singer, conjuring the throaty Garland vibrato with such uncanny accuracy that at the height of many of the numbers, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play about a long-dead show business superstar.

In this, she is helped immeasurably by Terry Johnson’s meticulous direction and the musical supervision of Gareth Valentine, who discretely helms the band while Garland’s conductor and accompanist Anthony (a nice turn by Hilton McRae, his sympathy for the fading star ebbing torturously away as she becomes ever more unreasonable) effects control on stage.

Using Chris Egan’s sympathetic arrangements with flair, Valentine whips up the authentic sense of a Talk of the Town band of the time, its slightly desperate bounce and verve signifying the authentic struggle for attention over the clatter of cutlery, the chatter of the audience and constant popping of champagne corks – and the battle to keep pace with the capricious demands of the volatile performer they were obliged to serve.

The play is peppered with a selection of Garland classics: “The Trolley Song” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” are typically frantic moments for the band, while “The Man That Got Away”, the inevitable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the defiant “By Myself” give Bennett the chance to extend her performance into the stratosphere. Despite the bang-on-target timbre, at no point is this ever an impersonation or a tribute. You won’t find a more complete dramatic interpretation anywhere on the West End stage.

Judy Garland in her final months: a problem subject for playrights

All of which helps to disguise some weaker moments in the play itself. Garland herself is a huge part of the problem. The histrionics, the unstable behaviour, the drink and the drugs, are all so well known that there is nothing new to say about them. Genuine revelations about Garland’s plight are well nigh impossible, and the play’s point occasionally becomes muddled. A previous attempt by Terry Wale in 1986 to dramatise her life (Judy at the Strand Theatre) stumbled in the same way, although it featured an equally compelling and award-winning performance by Lesley Mackie in the title role.

Peter Quilter’s decision to focus on such a specific moment towards the end of Garland’s life, making it a metaphor for all her trials, might have been more effectively served by a monologue in the Piaf mould.

The characters of Anthony – a kind of everyman figure who represents kindness, reason and ultimately, abandonment (most of Garland’s friends necessarily chose self-preservation in the end) – and Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, who was with Garland at the end, are rarely more than ciphers for Garland to fence with. And in the end, she was mainly fencing with herself. Deans, in particular, remains a shadowy character whose influence on Garland as her talent and life drained away could take more scrutiny than End of the Rainbow allows. So, too, could her relationship with her audience – by this stage in her career frequently combative and abrasive, with an unhealthy dash of sadism on both sides.

But if the play isn’t always quite the thing, Tracie Bennett certainly is. Her performance alone is worth the price of a plane ticket and a hotel in town. And with an album of songs from the show in the pipeline, this role places her fairly and squarely on the top rung of musical and dramatic stage actors. Whether you are a Garland fan or not, catch her while you can.

CD Review – Sondheim on Sondheim: Original Broadway Cast

6 Jan

Montage from last year’s Broadway production of Sondheim on Sondheim

The following review also appears in the current issue of The Sondheim Society’s magazine. A London production of the show is anticipated for 2011.

Sondheim on Sondheim: a welcome new approach to revues based on the Broadway composer's work

Does Stephen Sondheim really play pinball on his Mac when the muse doesn’t show up? The sound effects during one of the recorded asides that punctuate “God”, a witty, self-deprecatory number written specially for Sondheim on Sondheim certainly suggest it. I hope it’s true because if he relies on the odd bit of displacement activity – and a vodka shot or two – to get his writing gear working, it would make the rest of us see all the hours we spend procrastinating, dawdling and daydreaming in a much more positive light.

 Such revelations pepper the revue, which arrived on Broadway to coincide with Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations last April and has been preserved in a two-disk original cast recording that artfully balances entertainment with documentary. And in many ways, they are among the bravest and most revelatory comments he has ever publicly made about himself as a human being and a working artist.

There is an intimacy about his observations that is far more profound than anything Jude Kelly managed to extract, for example, during their interview at the Royal Festival Hall in October. This alone makes for a listening experience that, while completely different from seeing the production at first hand, is compelling –and often touching – in its own right.

On stage, Sondheim’s narration was conveyed through specially filmed interview footage presented on numerous flat-panel screens so that he became a fully integrated character, acknowledged by the performers who could interact with him at several key moments. In a purely aural medium, his commentary inevitably becomes more detached. But thanks to producer Tommy Krasker, a veteran of 14 Sondheim cast recordings, there are still moments of connection that make you blink at the loudspeakers in wonder, not least the final number – “Anyone Can Whistle” – in which you’re suddenly aware that a new singing voice has joined the eight-strong cast for the last stanza; it’s Steve himself, tentatively suggesting that if we whistle, we could do so for him.

If this is showbiz sentimentality, it’s of the highest order and repeated listening doesn’t diminish the impact, coming as it does after Sondheim has analysed his love of theatrical collaboration as compensation for the lack of family life that blighted his youth. As he explains during the course of his commentary, his songs are character and situation based. They are not autobiographical. And yet for those who know and love his work, it’s impossible at certain moments while listening to Sondheim on Sondheim to escape the sense of an artist reaching out to his audience in search of understanding and affection.

“Anyone Can Whistle” is the culmination of a revue that is presented as memoir rather than chronological autobiography. Themes and artistic challenges rather than specific events are the triggers for many of Sondheim’s observations. All that has been important in his life – personal as well as creative – is alluded to.

Important influences and collaborators – Oscar Hammerstein II, Hal Prince, Mary Rodgers – are celebrated. Sondheim’s difficult relationship with his mother is pithily summarised, its long-term ramifications acknowledged. The revelation that he first fell in love at 60 comes almost casually, sandwiched between the charming “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” (Bounce) and numbers from Passion, by any standards one of his most emotionally intense pieces.

The songs, carefully culled, interspersed and, occasionally, amalgamated in telling medleys (never more poignantly than the combination of two of his most dazzling torch songs “Losing My Mind” and “Not a Day Goes By”), become a commentary on Sondheim’s narration. And as has become traditional with a Sondheim anthology, the show’s creator and director James Lapine seizes the chance to raid the archives for songs that were eventually replaced in original productions or revivals. This time, Company proves a fascinating source, the tale of its three endings serving as an excuse to revive two complex numbers: “The Wedding is Off” and “Happily Ever After” (which evolved into “Being Alive”) are worth hearing again, even if they also confirm that sometimes a producer’s reservations about a particular song are spot on.

With great economy, Sondheim describes the process of artistic creation, demystifying his own contribution as part of a collaborative effort, explaining that his work is not self-referential, but that writes for the specific circumstances of a character at that particular moment in the story. “God” is a delicious deconstruction of his own myth, poking gentle fun at his detractors and supporters alike.

It’s ironic that the biggest star of this cast recording is the recorded voice of the show’s central character when the hard work is done by the performers who bring the songs to life with some lightly scripted joshing and interplay that helps to maintain the loose sense of a developing story.

Barbara Cook: one of the wonders of Broadway

Chief among them is Barbara Cook, whose voice remains one of the wonders of Broadway. It might be thickening now in the middle register but the soaring beauty of one of musical theatre’s great sopranos remains a potent force, serving some of Sondheim’s signature numbers – “Not a Day Goes By”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Take Me to the World” and two of Fosca’s ominous, brooding soliloquies “I Read” and “Loving You” – with supremely intelligent interpretations.

Vanessa Williams is under used on the album, although she contributes a rich, creamy “Losing My Mind”. Among the male voices, Tom Wopat delivers a stunning “Finishing the Hat”, Norm Lewis wrings every sliver of meaning from “Being Alive” and Euan Morton brings the developing writer’s dilemma to life in “Franklin Shepard, Inc”.

Sondheim on Sondheim is an expertly produced double album that complements rather than replicates the original stage production. Michael Starobin’s orchestrations are restrained and elegant, supporting some shimmering ensemble work, so that the overall effect is of a holistic collage rather than a staccato series of standalone numbers. This sets it apart from most previous revue-style anthologies and in many ways harks back to the purity and simplicity of that original pioneer piece, Side by Side by Sondheim, albeit with a 21st century angle on the material.

There are some omissions, from the recording at least. Pacific Overtures, one of Sondheim’s most challenging and rewarding pieces, is never mentioned. More puzzling, neither is Sweeney Todd. Given that it is one of his most popular and frequently revived musicals, this seems odd and as the final chords die away, there is inevitably a nagging sense of something missing. But even without the demon barber, Sondheim on Sondheim is a fitting 80th birthday addition to the library of recordings of his work – and one of the best of its kind.

Interview with David Charles Abell, Conductor of the 2010 Sondheim Prom

6 Jan

Judi Dench sings “Send in the Clowns”: David Charles Abell’s fondest memory of an unforgettable night

I recently interviewed David Charles Abell, who conducted last summer’s tumultuous Sondheim Prom, for the latest issue of SONDHEIM – the magazine, the house publication of the Sondheim Society. My review of the prom remains one of The Art of the Torch Singer’s most visited posts, so I thought it would be worth publishing the interview here as well. Abell’s insights into Sondheim’s music, his memories of working with Bernstein, and recall of the logistics of an unforgettable evening, are well worth hearing.

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING

David Charles Abell: the brains behind a memorable night at the Proms (picture by Cory Weaver)

As the sun sets on this annus Sondheimus, many events, award-winning revivals and concerts jostle for attention in the memory. But one – Prom 19 on 31st July – really stands out as an emblem of just what this year-long celebration of one man’s work has meant on this side of the Atlantic.

Simply entitled Stephen Sondheim at 80, the evening was at once unabashedly sentimental and joyously affirmatory: a recognition that Sondheim’s work has earned its place in the wide panoply of classical music embraced by the annual festival; and a chance for his British admirers to demonstrate their affection, rising at the end to salute the man responsible for such lyrical and melodic treasure.

Sondheim at 80 was the brainchild of American conductor David Charles Abell, a long-time London resident, who first approached Proms director Roger Wright in 2007 with the suggestion that a celebration of Sondheim’s 80th birthday would be more than appropriate fare for such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic classical music audience. Wright agreed, and over a series of meetings they came up with a format for the concert that would give a sense of the breadth and variety of Sondheim’s work.

Abell’s passion for Sondheim’s musicals was ignited at the age of 16, when he saw the touring production of A Little Night Music in Chicago. “The Miller’s Song” made an immediate impression.

“Get it while you can, basically,” he says. “At that age, when your sexuality was just awakening, it was a very powerful song. The first time a musical gave me a life lesson. Mind you, I didn’t act on it immediately but it stayed with me. As did the whole show: the cleverness of the lyrics, the singing, the beauty of the production, the intricacy of the plot. It’s a work of perfection, I think.

“Then I was in New York [Abell is a Juillard School and Yale University graduate] at the time of Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Sunday… took me two or three times to get. Now it’s probably one of my favourite shows because it has such personal resonance for anyone who works as an artist. And I saw Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. I happened to be sitting in the box that she appeared in as the Witch at one point, and she stepped on my toes – ‘Oh sorry, honey’ – as she tried to get into place.”

Ironically, despite a 30-year career as a leading conductor and musical director, Abell’s professional connection with Sondheim’s work had been limited to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (for the Covent Garden Festival in 2001) and some concerts. He had, however, worked for some time as Leonard Bernstein’s assistant in the 1980s – a relationship rooted in his experiences singing in the boys’ choir at the 1971 Washington premiere of Mass, Bernstein’s ambitious allegorical treatment of the liturgical structure, and as assistant conductor on its 1981 revival.

“I don’t think I ever talked to Lenny about Sondheim, which would have been interesting,” he says. “Mass was interesting and innovative – and Steve would probably say, pretentious. And he might be right because Lenny was a pretentious person, in a good way: he was ambitious and wanted to do new things artistically. Steve does as well and they’re very similar in some ways, and of course they worked together years before I knew either of them.

Mass was a great piece of American musical theatre but deeply flawed as well. I think Steve doesn’t have a lot of time for it because he’s about specific characters, specific situations, specific problems, specific goals. And this was about a universal theme, an allegory, although there is allegory in Steve’s work as well, like the archetypal characters of Into the Woods.

Being Alive: Julian Ovenden’s intense interpretation was another highlight of the evening

“But Steve will work from an everyday idea – the Baker and the Baker’s Wife want to have a baby – and take you to a grand theme: sometimes people leave you halfway through the woods, they die. And it’s devastating. And when you get there in the show, it’s shattering. But that’s the brilliance of his work. It will help you to deal with something as a person. That’s why people are so crazy about his work. They’re crazy about Bernstein as well, and the interesting thing about them is that when they worked together on West Side Story, they tempered each other and produced one of the great pieces.”

With his partner Seann Alderking, a musical supervisor and arranger, Abell edited the score of West Side Story for Bernstein, researching the different versions and getting the parts into decent order, clearing up what Abell recalls was “a mess”. More than 20 years later, they would find themselves doing something similar with some of the numbers for the Sondheim Prom – after Abell had been through the difficult process of choosing the programme in consultation with Roger Wright and concert director Martin Duncan.

“In preparation, I listened to all of the original cast albums, even though I knew most of them pretty well,” says Abell. “But now I was listening with a view to what was going to work in the Albert Hall, at the Proms, for people who might have heard Mahler the night before and would hear Mozart the night after. What would they appreciate? What would resonate with them? Which songs would work in a 6,000-seat arena, which has a pretty large reverberation time? Not a patter song like “Not Getting Married Today”, because there are too many lyrics for that space. At the same time, you want to present his most compelling melodies.

“I thought we should present the music in its original form as much as possible. If you hear Mozart at the Proms, it’s likely to be done by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments. So I felt we owed it to the audience to create the theatrical context, use the original orchestrations as much as possible. Another gala might be all about mash-ups, and that’s great. But for the Proms, I wanted to have a sense of being there at the original premiere of these shows. The Follies Overture was the original orchestration from 1971, with a few extra strings, and it was pretty much what you would have heard back then, when they had big orchestras – around 30 players. We only have 21 on Love Never Dies [Abell is the Lloyd Webber show’s musical director] – and that’s the biggest there has been in the West End for years.”

But it was a huge challenge. While some of Sondheim’s shows have been edited, with scores available in modern, computerised format, others are not in such great shape. As Abell explains, musical scores are often left in the same state as they were at their last performance, full of additions and deletions, musicians’ marks and notes. It’s very hard to find a definitive text. The original orchestrator’s score is not the best source because it might contain wrong notes and rhythms, later corrected during rehearsals, try-outs, previews and tours.

“I knew I couldn’t put that sort of material in front of the BBC Concert Orchestra, so Seann put the parts from some of the numbers [particularly A Little Night Music and Company] into Sibelius, a music notation programme, and created a full score that, in most cases, we were able to compare with Jonathan Tunick’s originals – he allowed me to go and look at them in his New York apartment – and make sure that we were being accurate. Every song took a week to get into shape! We also asked Jason Carr to do some orchestrations on Sunday… The original orchestrations are very small, so we asked him to create symphonic versions and he did a brilliant job. They’re based on Sondheim’s piano score so it is the original sound, just bigger.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the evening was the line-up of performers. Abell says they got nearly everyone they wanted, with artists willing to alter longstanding personal arrangements and juggle demanding professional engagements just to take part. Would Bryn Terfel give up part of his holiday? Yes, he would. Could Jenna Russell manage to be at the dress rehearsal, dash across town for a run-through of Into the Woods at Regent’s Park and get back to the Albert Hall for the concert, while making sure her baby was all right? Yes, she could. Would Daniel Evans be able to work around his duties as artistic director at the Sheffield Crucible, which severely limited his rehearsal time? Absolutely.

“It was a magnet, people wanted to do it,” says Abell. “That’s why we had people who would normally be soloists in the West End willing to be in the ensemble. Everyone mucked in, learned the choreography and music. And all the kids from the BBC Performing Arts fund did it for free. We had to ask them to show up at 9am in their concert gowns at the studio in Maida Vale so we could make sure the colours matched. There they were in their high heels. It was a collaboration, and that’s the joy of working with great people. They bring things you wouldn’t have thought of.”

So what of the man himself? Abell had kept Sondheim informed during the months of preparation. Most of the artists were established exponents of his work, with the exception of Simon Russell Beale – a personal friend of Sondheim – whose singing ability was already known, and Caroline O’Connor, who Abell had worked with in a production of On The Town at the Châtelet in Paris, and knew would be ideal for “Broadway Baby”. All the same, Abell wonders if Sondheim knew quite what to expect. But he threw himself into the fullest possible day with the zest of someone half his age.

“Steve flew in overnight, arrived at the airport at 6.30am, I guess went to the hotel to wash his face, then came straight to rehearsal where he stayed for three hours,” Abell recalls. “He made some incredibly useful suggestions, mostly to do with his own work – lyrics in the published scores that he wasn’t happy with – and asked the singers to adjust a couple of things. He made one or two remarks about tempo, which were very useful to me. He was just really helpful. He’s a theatre man who knows what’s possible at the last minute, and what isn’t.

“Then he went to his hotel, met some friends, came back to give a talk with me at the Royal College of Music, went and met more friends, came to the concert, then to the party, and met more friends afterwards! I don’t think he slept until two in the morning. What tremendous energy, and what a kind, generous colleague. And that’s what he considers himself to be, a colleague.”

Abell never doubted Sondheim’s right to be the subject of a Promenade Concert. As a conductor whose work has straddled opera and musical theatre, and the dreaded crossover – “I know, it’s a terrible word, but you understand what I mean” – he feels there are apt comparisons to be made with, for example, Puccini. Although from different worlds and times, both men’s strengths lie in story telling, being inspired by the characters and circumstances to write their best music.

“Then, [Steve] can create, have the characters learn something in the song,” he says. “And by teaching them something, he teaches the audience something. So I would put him up there with Puccini, certainly. It’s all contextual, because Puccini was a late 19th/early 20th century Italian from a world where people expressed themselves very differently. Steve grew up in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, and he expresses himself through what he saw and sees in New York society. The contemporary pieces – Company, parts of Merrily We Roll Along, Follies – are very specific to their time and place. Only a hard, successful New York woman like Phyllis could sing those lines, “Leave you, leave you…” But there’s also a universal theme from those situations.”

Abell also never doubted that the evening would work, musically and artistically. He says that from the first rehearsal, the soloists, the direction, the choreography, the orchestra, all gelled. On the podium, he looked from the start – and with justification – like the cat who’d had the cream. And like many among the audience in the hall and at home, the highpoint for him was Judi Dench’s consummate performance of “Send in the Clowns”.

“Not just because she was so great, she sang and acted it so beautifully,” he says. “But from a conductor’s perspective. Technically, it’s a difficult song because you’re always waiting for the singer and you’ve got to come in with the pizzicato on the double bass, on a certain word on the downbeat. Luckily, I had a wonderful principal bass player in Dominic Worsley, who listened to Judi and played at exactly the right moment for her, so I didn’t have to worry about it. That song is difficult, harder than anything that goes fast.”

Abell’s association with Sondheim’s work is about to blossom yet further, with a production of Sweeney Todd in Paris next year, at the Châtelet, followed by Pacific Overtures, in Japanese, in Kanagawa and then, possibly, a Follies somewhere in Europe. But the Stephen Sondheim at 80 Prom will linger long in the memory for its emotional impact.

“It sounds pretentious but what defines Steve’s work for me is the philosophy, and the life lessons,” he says. “I always feel I’ve learned something when I hear one of his songs. Sometimes it’s just entertaining and of course you’re delighted by it. But others resonate and you think, oh yes, that’s my life. By the time he was writing those great shows in his thirties and forties, he understood an awful lot about human nature.”

© Piers Ford

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”.