Sunday, 26 July 2015

Songs For A New World - Review

St James Theatre, London

****

Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Adam Lenson


Cynthia Erivo

There is a great deal of debate over how to define a piece like Jason Robert Brown's iconic debut work; 'Songs for a New World'. Some see it as a concept album, a young composer experimenting with snippets from a variety of unfinished or dismissed projects, others see it as a thematic song cycle, a collection of ideas about modernity. But in today’s world where song cycles can all too often be a lazy get-out for a composer looking to stage in his songs in a production that desperately needs a good book, it is refreshing to revisit this finely crafted work in a 20th anniversary staging of the show that truly defined Brown as a master in understanding the human condition. 

The vocal work on display at the St James Theatre is excellent, not least in the performance of Jenna Russell as Woman 2. Russell gives a masterclass in her solo numbers, showing a virtuoso understanding of pacing and pay off. She manoeuvres the comedy of songs such as 'Just One Step' and 'Surabaya Santa' with subtlety and hilarious effect, whilst her 'Stars and Moon' was affable, beautiful and deeply sad all at once. Damian Humbley also impresses and gives some much needed depth to his numbers. He plays the perfect combination of frustration and self-loathing in 'She Cries' and finds the identifiable humanity in the 'The World Was Dancing' that keeps the songs from descending into the unpalatable.

Cynthia Erivo's stunning upper register soars in Woman 1's material, flowing with ease and clarity through the challenging vocal leaps of songs such as 'Christmas Lullaby'. Dean John-Wilson also impresses vocally, tackling the nefariously difficult Man 1 with confidence. His tone and soft notes were delightful, whilst he also showcased his ability to let rip in the show-stopping 'Flying Home'.

Whilst the singing is par excellence, there is a drift in Adam Lenson's direction. All four actors are ever-present on stage, but their presence rarely feels like it adds to the action. Lenson seems content to let his actors leave their hands in their pockets and shrug their way through songs. It does the piece a disservice as there is a definite disconnect between some of the passion and intensity of Brown's score and the accompanying dramatic display on stage.

This production is defined however by Brown's score itself. Even 20 years on, the music has the punch and eclectic elasticity to feel incredibly current. The styles range from swooping love ballad to rhythm and blues and the excitement of Brown's melodic harmonies never ceases to garner a spine-tingling response. It helps that alongside the actors, that Brown's melodies are delivered by a fantastic set of musicians. Daniel A. Weiss' band drives with intensity and suspense, deftly handling the changing styles and emotions of Brown's multifarious score.

Songs For A New World is as exciting to listen to now as it ever was and with this cast it deserves to be seen.


Runs until 8th August
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson
Photo credit: Darren Bell 

Fiddler At The Proms - I speak to Fiddler On The Roof's lyricist Sheldon Harnick


Programme cover from the first London production


As the BBC Proms feature Fiddler On The Roof, here is my interview with lyricist Sheldon Harnick, discussing the show.


JB:         Sheldon, you're one of the few  people who has created a musical that has gone on to become a global sensation and which, until 1979, has held a record for being the longest running show on Broadway.

At what stage in "Fiddler"'s development did you have any idea of the scale of what you were creating, as far as to how it was going to be received?

SH:         We started our pre-Broadway tryout in the city of Detroit and we were worried sick when we went there, because Hal Prince had gotten us the theatre, but the man who owned the theater said, "You have to be in Detroit for 5 weeks, but we only have a subscription for 3 and a half weeks." So, for the last week and a half, there was not a ticket sold!

When we got to Detroit, we also found out that there was a newspaper strike and of course, the show was just starting out and there was a lot wrong with it. We could have died in Detroit, but Jerome Robbins, the choreographer,  knew what he wanted to do with the show and every day, he fixed about 8 or 9 things, so the show got better and better. But, we had no reviews. We had no idea what the future of this show was going to be.

Our next stop was the city of Washington, DC. To our astonishment, when we got to Washington, DC, and went to the theater to rehearse, we saw a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. We thought: How on earth did this happen? We said the only way we could account for it was that the people in Detroit had called their friends in Washington and said, "This is a show you've got to see."

The same thing happened when we went from Washington to New York. We get to New York and there's a long line of ticket-buyers waiting. We thought, My goodness. We must have something special here. Those were the first times that we suspected we had something.

JB:         Where did the original idea for the show, to take the stories of Sholom Aleichem and convert them into a musical, come from?

SH: A friend of mine and I cannot remember who it was, sent me a novel by Sholom Aleichem called "Wandering Stars". It's a big, almost like a Dickensian novel. A big, fat novel about a Yiddish theatrical troupe in Eastern Europe. It was a wonderful book. I sent it to Jerry Bock, he read it and said, "Yes. Let's make this into a musical." We thought, Who would be the right person to do the book for this? And we thought, Joe Stein, who we'd worked with. 

So, we sent it to Joe. Joe read it and he called us and he said, "Well, it's a wonderful book, but", he said, it is simply too big for the stage. One of the things that makes it a wonderful story is the characters in this theater troupe, but," he said, "there are about 40 of them and that would just be too big for Broadway. Also, the whole show, the whole story is too big." "But," Joe said, "since we love the writing, let's see what else we can find by Sholom Aleichem."

So, we began to read other works by Sholom Aleichem and we found the Tevye's Daughter stories. As it happened, we couldn't get the rights to them as they were owned by a man named Arnold Perl, a playwright. He had bought the rights and had adapted the stories into a play that was in 3 acts. Each act was about a different daughter.

But, what the stories are about was the changing of tradition. How when Tevye got married, he had a matchmaker as did most of his compatriots, who arranged the marriages. But, his daughters were living in a new world, where the young people were getting more independent and drifting away from traditions and they chose their own suitors. By and large, that's the conflict in the show. That and the fact that, what was happening in Russia at that time was leading to the expulsion of the Jews from certain areas.

So, the original stories, when we read them, we just found them beautiful and funny and human and we couldn't wait to start adapting them. Joe Stein did a remarkable job, because what he discovered was that almost none of the dialogue in the stories would work on stage. It was literary dialogue. It was funny, it was charming, it was beautiful, but it was not stage dialogue. So, almost 90% of what's on the stage had to be invented by Joe. He always had to keep in mind that what he wrote had to sound as though Sholom Aleichem had written it.

JB:         Tell me about that interaction between you as the lyricist, and Joe, who's writing the book.

SH: That process is pretty much the same in every musical I've done. You get together with the book writer, the composer, the lyricist. You talk about the nature of the show you're doing. Then, I have to wait until whoever is doing the book begins to send me scenes, because I cannot write lyrics until I see what the dialogue sounds like. We cannot have lyrics that sound like they're being sung by a different person than the person who was speaking dialogue. They all have to come out of the same characters.

JB:         You made a reference earlier to a "new world" and there is a  line in the show when Tevye says to his wife, "It's a new world, Golda." That is one of so many lines that are so relevant even today.

SH: Yeah, my wife and I saw a production in Japan earlier this year. It's been a very popular show in Japan. When we inquired as to why it was so popular, they said that after World War II, the young people who had been brought up before that in very strictly traditional ways, after World War II they began to break away and it was extremely difficult for their parents to deal with this. Since that's what "Fiddler”’s about, the show was very meaningful in Japan.

JB:         That brings me to the next question. What do you think has created the incredible appeal of the show to people outside of the Jewish audience?

SH:         Well, that was what we worried about originally. However, Joe Stein and Jerry Bock and I, we found universal values in the Sholom Aleichem stories. We tried to stress those values. We couldn't eliminate the fact that these are about Jewish people, but we thought the story values that we emphasized, were universal values. And, it paid off.

I remember, in New York, once the show opened on Broadway, that we had to give a performance for the people who are working in other shows, otherwise they wouldn't be able to get to see it. So, within the first few months there's what they call an Actors Fund benefit. The theater is filled with actors from other shows. They're wonderful audiences.

Anyway, I was at the Actors Fund and an Irish friend of mine, a performer named Florence Henderson, at the intermission, came running up the aisle, and she said, "Sheldon. This show is about my Irish grandmother." That's the kind of thing I love to hear, because that's what we were trying to accomplish. Trying to make it a show that could reach out to everybody, not just Jewish people.

JB:         Of course, "Fiddler on the Roof", with its pogrom and, ultimately, the dispersal of the Jews from Anatevka, signalled the darkening clouds over Europe and the show was written barely 20 years after the end of the Second World War.

SH:         I know. On that tour I mentioned, where my wife and I first saw it in London and then we went to Amsterdam. It was a rather spooky feeling. We were told that the seats we were sitting in had been occupied by Nazis not all that long ago.

JB:         To what extent was there any referencing of the 20th century's Holocaust when you were writing the show?

SH:         I must say, we did not try to foreshadow the Holocaust. In the original, one of the original Sholom Aleichem stories, there is a pogrom, so we thought, okay, The pogrom is there and we will have the pogrom on stage at the end of Act 1. But, we didn't make any more of it than that.

However, somebody recommended a 1952 book called "Life is With People", which all 3 of us read, that documented many chapters of life from Eastern European Jewry before the Second World War. We read that book and found that there was a lot that we could use. Many of the people that were interviewed said one of the things they remembered about pogroms was that pillows would be destroyed and that there would be feathers flying all over the room. So, we took that idea and used it in the show.

I remember seeing the show in New York once. My wife and I were sitting opposite from 2 people on the other side of the aisle. They were elderly, gaunt people. They looked like they had, at one time, been in a concentration camp. During the pogrom, I thought they were both going to have heart attacks. They were looking at the stage, you could see that they were riveted to the stage and we thought, Oh my God, they are reliving an experience. It was a really spooky feeling.

JB:         On that subject, have you ever found yourself at productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" that have made you cringe?

SH:         Oh, yes. My wife and I went on a "Fiddler" tour. It was being done simultaneously in London, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Helsinki. We just went from one to the other. The one in Copenhagen, was terrible. We were told there had been a kind of battle between the two directors with this theater company that both wanted to do it. One of them was given the assignment and then he went on vacation to prepare for his production. While he was away, the other director did the show. He didn't understand it and he did awful things to it. My wife and I couldn't believe what we saw. It was just awful. We cringed.

JB:         Where did the title of the show come from?

SH:         We had long list of titles. As a matter-of-fact, the title that originally we wanted to give it was "Where Papa Came From", because Joe Stein's father and Jerry Bock's father and my father all came from different places in Europe. That was one of the titles we had, but we made a long list of titles. One of us had seen the Marc Chagall paintings (The Green Violinist and Le Violiniste)  with the fiddle-player who looks, actually, he's not standing on a roof, he's actually suspended a little bit above it. But, it looks like he's standing on the roof. So, that was also one of our titles.

Then one day, Hal Prince who was producing the show, came to us and he said, "Guys, I need a title." So, we showed him the list. He ran his finger down the list and when he got to "Fiddler on the Roof", he said, "Aha! This suggests music and I want people to know the show is a musical." So, that's the title he chose.

And, by the way, Joe Stein and I, we have very different memories of that particular story. Joe insists that when Hal Prince saw the list, he said, "What's number 7? Whatever number 7 is, that's going to be the title of the show." I said, "Joe, Hal would never do that!"


Le Violiniste by Marc Chagall


JB:         You're one of the Broadway greats. What are your thoughts about why so many of the great musical theatre composers are or were Jewish?

SH:         My thought about that is that those of us who were brought up in a, more or less, orthodox synagogue are very much used to a very emotional kind of singing that takes place in those services. So, we grow up with that in our head.

The other thing is that, at the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century, there were many professions that were barred to Jewish people. There were things they wanted to do but they weren't allowed to. But, they were allowed to entertain. Once people like Irving Berlin established themselves, they were beacons for other people to follow. Other people who had talent that - okay, if I can't be this,if I can't be that, maybe I can go into the entertainment business. I think that that was one of the reasons that so many shows were written by Jewish people. 

JB:        Sheldon, thank you very much for your time.



Sheldon Harnick

Taken from an interview first published in February this year 

Saturday, 25 July 2015

American Idiot - Review

Arts Theatre, London

****

Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day
Directed and choreographed by Racky Plews


Amelia Lily and Aaron Sidwell

It has been nearly three years since Green Day’s American Idiot played in the capital and Racky Plews’ take on the show, filling the summer slot at London’s relatively bijou Arts Theatre, delivers an energy and sound that is rarely seen in the West End.

The opening television sequence of various cable news snippets throws the audience into the story’s recent historical time, ingeniously drawing them into a single TV set which replaces the more lavish multiple-screen settings, typically found in a larger scale production. Sara Perks’ design work makes effective use of background art around the stage, mimicking a captive glued to the TV set and thus cleverly and appropriately setting the tone for the opening number, American Idiot.

The show's distinctly modern-era story era follows three young men, Johnny, Tunny and Will, struggling to make sense of a seemingly directionless post 9/11 suburban wasteland, filled with nothing but misinformation, mediocrity and vacuous reality. As in nature so in life – vacuums are abhorred – and it is variously drugs, military service and disparate relationships with girls that fill the boys lives.

Of the three, Aaron Sidwell’s Johnny gives a solid lead performance, combining charisma, presence and humour. Steve Rushton as Will and Alexis Gerred’s Tunny manage to define the frustrations, anger and yet also the hope of their generation.

One of this musical’s curiosities is that the show's girls, whilst vital to its plot, are also strangely marginalised in the narrative. The harshly named Whatsername is played by Amelia Lily (she of X-Factor fame and now making a creditable crossover into musical theatre) whilst Raquel Jones is stunning as the show’s Extraordinary Girl.

In what can prove a tough gig seeking to replicate a band, Mark Crossland does a stellar job as musical director. Alex Marschisone [drums], Brock Eddowes [Bass] and Tommaso Varvello [Guitar] combine to produce a sound that offers up a worthy tribute to the original band.

Plews' vision of the show’s staging and dance is inspirational, reflecting a broad, hands-on grasp of modern popular culture. In her programme notes she speaks of having grown up to Green Day’s pop-punk sound and her work not only defines a respect for the music, it also evidences a profound understanding of Billy Joe Armstrong’s nuance. Powerful stuff.

Whether you’re a fan of quality new musical theatre or just love the music and want to experience the songs of a generation, then go. Green Day’s American Idiot is one of the most exciting and invigorating shows in town.


Runs until 27th September

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Richard II - Review

Shakespeare's Globe, London


****


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin


Charles Edwards

Simon Godwin hones his focus in on the fallible nature of authority, in a smartly paced production with plenty of humour. His Richard II is an examination of the facets of hierarchy and begs the audience to consider the true origins of power. Is the right of Kings truly a gift from God? Or is it an innate and simplistic ability to rule justly and fairly, possessed of any man willing to seize the opportunity? Therein lies the central conflict between Charles Edwards' enigmatic Richard and David Sturzaker's earnest Bolingbroke. 

Designer Paul Wills has crafted a technically intelligent set, casing every wall and pillar in a slightly decayed gold leaf. The extravagant opulence of Richard's court is immediately captured in the garishly blanket plating of every surface, yet the hidden rot of his rule is also reflected in the decay. Just as the surface of the very walls is aged and scratched, so Richard's personal fa├žade can only last so long. Richard himself, clad as he is in light creams and further gold, often disappears into his own throne, lost in the architecture of his surroundings and blind to the threats of the more darkly clad Bolingbroke, Northumberland and Willoughby. 

As Richard, Edwards' central performance captures the glib swagger of a man raised in a form of regal captivity. We see the young boy crowned in a coronation prologue and in so doing understand Richard's inability to see beyond the needs of his immediate entourage and desires. He is not inherently selfish, simply a man told since his pre-pubescent years that his actions are the will of God. Edwards is especially strong when physically handing over the crown to Bolingbroke. The former king is reduced to a linen clad waif, not mad, simply unable to fathom the recent turn of events. Edwards delicately portrays the sickened confusion of a man who has lost his spiritual foundation. 

Godwin keeps the play motoring along and whilst a couple of actors seem to slightly rush their lines, it gives the production a sense of welcome pace and comedy. Exchanges between Richard and his courtiers are fired off with precise timing and a catty wit. These scheming felines spit snide remarks behind closed doors and in one scene cackle over some odd catwalk-like entertainment. It all feels very 'high fashion mogul'. There are also some fantastically funny set pieces that lift what could've been a rather drab second act. Sarah Woodward and William Chubb, as the Duchess and Duke of York, do fine work on their knees in a farcical squabble over their sons’ misdeeds, whilst the biggest laugh of the night came from a sequence involving as many thrown gauges as you are likely to see in a single scene. 

If the production lacks anything, it is perhaps a degree of narrative investment. Sturzaker's Bolingbroke is likeable and well acted, but lacks that enigmatic zeal that would convince an audience of his ability to rally the disgruntled Lords to his cause. Also, both the Dukes of Richard's court and Bolingbroke's eventual sympathisers lack a sense of individual identity. They blur into a mass of camp malevolence and haughty aggression respectively, which robs the play of a sense of character depth. 

This aside, Richard II delivers in terms of a charismatic central performance from Edwards and a slick sense of pace throughout. Godwin's direction has clarity and his deft touch for the light-hearted encourages the audience to find humour in the pomp and reverence of sovereignty, as well as pity for a young boy King doomed by ideals thrust upon him.


Runs until 18th October
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Mack and Mabel - Review

Festival Theatre, Chichester

****

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart
Directed by Jonathan Church



Anna-Jane Casey leads the company in a spectacular Tap Your Troubles Away

There is much about Jonathan Church’s Mack and Mabel at Chichester that displays the very best of modern British musical theatre talent. Amidst a tale of humour and tragedy, the production frames a collection of performances and creative work, much of which is flawless.

Michael Stewart’s book, revised by his sister Francine Pascal, famously tackles a complex history. Telling the true story of the love between movie director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, the star he discovered, is a challenge. The show charts Normand’s rise from deli delivery girl, to the heights of Hollywood fame, before an early death hastened by addiction and scandal – and all played out against a collection of numbers that blend melancholy with the madcap farce of Hollywood’s silent slapstick golden years. It is a combination of tableaux that has longed proved a challenge to its (stage) directors.  

Michael Ball plays Sennett in a performance that imbues the Hollywood director’s vision and ruthless singleness of purpose with a magnificent stage presence and masterful vocals. Ball is arguably unmatched in his abilities – and his range: imperious in Movies Were Movies and perceptively tender in the beautifully crafted I Won’t Send Roses defines his place in the musical theatre pantheon.

Broadway import Rebecca La Chance makes her UK debut as Mabel – and it’s a tough ask. If her performance lacks the impish defiance that her opening number Look What Happened To Mabel demands, she makes up for it with a powerfully scornful Wherever He Ain’t. La Chance’s work in act 2 impresses as she captures Normand’s capricious management of fame alongside a drug-fuelled decline. Her final solo Time Heals Everything (set in the 1920’s and with La Chance clad as a gorgeously shimmering flapper – great design work from Robert Jones) offering a scorching torch-song in its interpretation.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is as inspired as it is ingenious. The little touches that include a trio routine that kicks off Wherever He Ain’t are a treat – whilst the big ensemble numbers all impress. Hundreds Of Girls wittily combines projections with dance (as well as some eye-watering work with beach balls) whilst Hit ‘Em On The Head weaves a Keystone Cops yarn into a routine whose technical excellence suggests David Toguri’s ground-breaking work at the National Theatre more than thirty years ago.

Act two’s penultimate number Tap Your Troubles Away has long been the show’s big dance routine and in a revelatory move, Mear intricately links Normand’s addictions with the flamboyant splendour of his  tap-dancing company. It’s all black waistcoats / basques and red shoes, led by the jaw-dropping Anna-Jane Casey’s Lottie whose feet become a blur of brilliance. Mark Inscoe’s William Desmond Taylor is an elegantly competitive cad to Sennett, whilst Jack Edwards’ Fatty (Arbuckle) similarly adds a convincing layer.

Robert Scott conducts his 15 piece ensemble (heavy on brass and reeds) gorgeously – setting the scene with one of the finest overtures in the canon.

The show runs until September before embarking on a nationwide tour. With Jerry Herman’s classic melodies, Michael Ball’s peerless performance and Stephen Mear’s dance work it’s well worth catching. 


Runs until 5th September and then tours.

To read my review of Mabel's Wilful Way, a Mack Sennett two-reeler and watch the film itself on YouTube, click here

Monday, 20 July 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Review

Opera Holland Park, London


****

Music by Will Todd
Libretto by Maggie Gottlieb
Directed by Martin Duncan


Fflur Wyn and James Cleverton

Returning for a third (and now almost sold out) season Opera Holland Park’s take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a 70 minute jaunt through a classic tale that has been re-worked into an enchanting opera.

Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb have taken the best of Lewis Carroll’s story and distilled it into words and music that include some delicious nods to blues and soul, as well as the most ingenious of stagings.

Ushered in through a gap in the woods, (so kids’ vivid imaginations are fired up right from the start!) the audience are invited to promenade around Holland Park’s Yucca Lawn as the opera’s different scenes are played out on 4 separate performance spaces set amongst the Lawn’s trees. Leslie Travers’ designs are simple yet vivid - the Mad Hatter’s sloping tea-table is a work of genius as is the singing “drink me” bottle, with Maud Millar giving life to an entertaining aria. 

Fflur Wyn is Alice and she captures the attention of her enthralled crowd. Never once patronising, her Alice defines curiosity and decency in a way that children will easily recognise.

Other gems in a cast that is excellent throughout include James Cleverton’s Rabbit and Robert Burt’s suitably worn down modern-day dad, doubling up later as the Red Queen, axe ever at the ready. Keel Watson’s lugubrious baritone offers up a shisha smoking caterpillar whose big number is the Wonderland Blues, but be warned: the show is un mic’d and whilst it is a credit to the performers’ classical training that so much of the vocal performance is clear, there is a drawback. Sit too near the orchestra (who also promenade from set to set along with the audience) and you may find the music drowning out the words. I (along with my guests, 4 year old Layla and her father) missed all of Watson’s blues work and there were moments elsewhere of voices not being heard over the orchestra – so as you wander, think carefully about where you position your cushion. Matthew Waldren conducts his roving 11 piece orchestra perfectly and even if at times the lyrics become inaudible, Todd’s melodies and the on-stage action, more than hold one’s attention.

Whilst Layla wasn’t bored (just), much of Gottlieb’s caustic wit passed her by and the show will be best enjoyed by children aged 6-7 upwards. That being said, in an era saturated with CGI’d Disney animation and streamed electronic stimulation, for kids to be given a glimpse of opera, set amongst the trees and with performers and musicians weaving around and amongst them, can only make for a wondrous show. Opera Holland Park’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a classy summer treat.


Runs until 1st August 2015

Friday, 17 July 2015

Mabel's Wilful Way - Review



As Mack and Mabel previews at Chichester Festival Theatre (to be reviewed here next week), I chanced upon a DVD of one of Mack Sennett’s famous two-reelers, Mabel’s Wilful Way, made in 1915. 
Not surprisingly the DVD came with no accompanying press release and  nor did the movie itself list any credits. Even so, this short film (13 mins) provides a fascinating glimpse into the Tinseltown of 100 years ago. 


Mabel's Wilful Way (1915)



Directed by Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand
Produced by Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman for the Keystone Studios





Mabel’s Wilful Way is a two-reeler that unusually was directed by both Mack Sennett and his (and the movie’s) glamorous star, Mabel Normand. Set in an amusement park its mischief defined the comedy of the era.

We first meet Mabel dining with her parents in the park restaurant. Her moustachioed father and celery-eating, domineering mother are formally clad, as is Normand herself. When the chance arises, Mabel slips away from her parents’ stern control and in chapter two of the tale, entitled Short Funded Pals, she meets two young miscreants, one played by Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle who are sneaking their way onto the park attractions as they have no cash. 

To say too much would spoil the story, but Sennet and Normand set out to entertain as the three young people embark on an afternoon of stolen fun. Ice creams are pilfered, carousels joy ridden and water fountains and food are frequently aimed at hapless individuals' faces. Watch the film and think of Jerry Herman’s Mack singing I Wanna Make the World Laugh and you start to get an understanding of how brilliantly crafted some of Herman’s writing was.

The excellence on screen is of course from the actors and the performances that the director has coaxed from them. By definition there is no sound to a silent movie, so aside from the occasional written captions, all emotion and interaction be it love, comedy, anger or ridicule has to be conveyed through movement and facial expression. And in that regard the performances are genius. There was no "easy way" in those days (a parallel today might be the growth of CGI in cinema, replacing what would previously have required carefully crafted physical photography) and whilst the later Hollywood classics of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singin' In The Rain (1952) were to portray two very different sides of fictional silent-era movie stars, both Norma Desmond and Lina Lamont represented an era when a very different set of demands and expectations was placed upon a performer. 

Mabel’s Wilful Way includes scenes of Normand and Arbuckle feeding what appears to be a genuine bear and later larking around on a helterskelter, the rotund actor generating considerable momentum on his descent, to maximum comic effect. Their behaviour soon attracts the attention of the LA Police Department, who arrive on the scene administering justice with frequent truncheon blows to the head and body. Let's not forget that in the early 20th century Keystone police brutality was a source of comedy. 

Viewed through a modern prism, the movie is troubling. There is one black character in the tale whose role is to put his head through a hole in a board and have soaked sponges thrown at him in much the same way as balls are thrown at a coconut shy. Even worse, (worse?) he is played by a white actor in black slap. 1915 was the Vaudeville era of the racist minstrel show. The civil rights movement was a long way off and in a largely segregated America, the black man was a laughing stock - an aspect of history that Jerry Herman conveniently side-stepped. 

Herman’s Mack Sennett sings that Movies Were Movies when he ran the show - albeit a show built on racial prejudice, comical police brutality and an abuse of animal welfare. Since then Hollywood has largely cleaned up its act though as recent tragic events elsewhere in the USA remind us, America still has some way to go.

Time Heals Everything? Let’s hope so……


Mabel’s Wilful Way is available free on YouTube here