Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

Album review – Deborah Shulman and Larry Zalkind: Lost in the Stars, The Music of Bernstein, Weill & Sondheim

23 Dec

Mack the Knife: Shulman and Zalkind whip up a little vortex of menace

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars: standards for grownups

Lost in the Stars is a classy little jewel of an album. It takes a couple of listens for the sheer quality and uncluttered lustre of Deborah Shulman’s vocals to take hold, so understated and subtle are they. But once they have you in their thrall, they yield refined treasure.

The album is based on songs from a trinity of musical theatre composers – Weill, Bernstein and Sondheim – who need no further introduction. The delight is in the ease with which Shulman teases out nuances and revelations from numbers that you might think you know inside out.

There’s an eerie, unsettling version of “Mack the Knife”, for example, which sweeps you up into a little vortex of menace, light years from the bravado that most singers ladle on. And if “The Ladies Who Lunch” replaces the traditional self-scorning attack with a more observational, modulated treatment, it’s certainly a fresh approach to some of Sondheim’s most visceral lyrics. That clarity extends to “Children will Listen”, a lilting “I Feel Pretty” and an assured, stark and mournful “Losing My Mind”.

Shulman’s restraint pays such dividends that it almost seems a shame not to hear how she might handle “My Ship”, here an elegant instrumental solo for her brother-in-law, the trombonist Larry Zalkind, whose contribution to the album is equally fascinating. He leads an accomplished band of accompanists who provide Shulman with some intriguing counter harmonies to work against. The texture they bring to the gently swinging “September Song” and the washed-up, after-hours blues of “Ain’t got no Tears Left” is sublime. Serious without once sounding earnest or worthy, this is an album of standards for grownups.

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 – Renée Yoxon: Let’s Call it a Day; plus news of Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Girl Talk, Marianne Faithfull and a Sondheim cabaret season

24 Dec

Renée Oxon sings “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” on a fire escape in Ottawa. The sound quality on her album, Let’s Call it a Day, (reviewed below) is much better!

Wilson, Jungr and Herbert: the new Girl Talk line-up hits London in February

Congratulations to Barb Jungr, whose album The Men I Love has just been named Cabaret CD of the Year by Time Out New York.

Barb and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived Girl Talk with a new show – I Am Woman. Girl Talk begin a week-long residence at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road on 8th February.

Mari has just released a fabulous slab of electro-pop, with a slash of retro hi-energy, collaborating with Boisounds on a party floor filler, “O.I.C.”, which is available for free download.

Horses & High Heels: Marianne Faithfull's new album, out in March

Marianne Faithfull’s new album Horses & High Heels comes out in March. “I don’t really do conventional,” she warns us in advance publicity. As if we didn’t know. A taster track, the self-penned “Why Did We Have to Part”, is available for free download until 19th January.

Back at The Pheasantry, there is a really good reason for fans of Stephen Sondheim’s work to join the Sondheim Society. In tandem with the Society, producer Sam Joseph has conceived a series of Monday night cabarets starring some of the biggest names from all areas of London musical theatre. Society members benefit from advance notice of the programme and discounted ticket prices. Confirmed so far are: Alex Young (10th January), Sally Ann Triplett (21st February) and Mrs Lovett-to be – at Chichester later in the year – Imelda Staunton (14th March). Future appearances are expected by Rosemary Ashe, Janie Dee, Robert Meadmore, Adrian Grove, Graham Bickley, Michael Peavoy and leading West End musical director Gareth Valentine.

Let's Call it a Day: an auspicious debut from Renée Yoxon

Who’d have thought a physics degree would be the ideal foundation for a career as a torch singer? OK, so she was doing a little music on the side, but Renée Yoxon’s decision to ditch formulae for the jazz clubs of Ottawa is one of those left-field decisions that can occasionally lead to thrilling careers. And on the evidence of her first album, Let’s Call it a Day, this young Canadian could be the biggest female talent to emerge in her field since Diana Krall.

It’s an assured and auspicious debut. Accompanied only by veteran virtuoso René Gely on a selection of guitars – his steel string, in particular, rings with marvellously crisp authority – and occasional piano, Yoxon has reinvented a selection of standards with a refreshing boldness. Not in a revolutionary way, but mainly by re-establishing the lyric as the focus of attention, stripping it away from the overblown tendencies of so many younger interpreters at the moment.

Yoxon’s voice is something to treasure. Like one of the UK’s rising stars, Rumer, with her slightly husky accents and bang-on vocal authority, nothing seems to intimidate Yoxon. The opening track, “The Look of Love”, is a case in point. Bacharach’s off-beat melodies are notoriously tricky to do well, but Yoxon slides through it with lightly-oiled ease.

Undercurrents of melancholy and Billie Holiday-like phrasing seep through her interpretations of “Willow Weep for Me”, a shimmering “The Masquerade is Over” and of course – with an intimacy that’s almost audaciously spare – “Don’t Explain”. Two self-penned numbers, “Let’s Call it a Day” and “Lovers’ Lullaby” add to the album’s sense of freshness. There’s also a French-language version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well be Spring”.

If the final track, “One For My Baby”, betrays her youthfulness and lack of cynicism – catharsis seekers will probably miss the spirit of a wracked and bloodshot Sinatra – equally, it hints at what we can expect from Yoxon in the future. She’s set herself a high bar indeed.

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”.

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: 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.

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

23 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caroline O’Connor performs “All That Jazz”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audition by television: the cruelty of Over the Rainbow

26 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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