With the UK’s first professional production of The Witches of Eastwick in five years opening at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre, I spent a brief while with composer Dana P.Rowe, to talk briefly about the show and his collaboration with writer John Dempsey.
The show, based upon John Updike’s novel and following on some 13 years after Jack Nicholson created the on-screen role of Darryl van Horne, received its global premiere at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane as a Cameron Mackintosh production. Rowe and Dempsey had already been collaborating since the 1980’s with two modestly successful hits behind them, Zombie Prom from 1995 and The Fix in 1997 (that Sam Mendes had staged at the Donmar).
If there is a theme to Rowe’s and Dempsey’s output, it is the tackling of social issues and commentary via stories that are either faux-horror, or of comic book style structure. Simple fables, often with a literally in-credible or zany storyline, yet all speaking towards a message of simple comment upon the human condition. Where The Witches of Eastwick shines a light upon urban life and relationships and frustrations that have gone awry, Zombie Prom takes a sympathetic view of a high school boy killed in a freakish nuclear power station disaster, whose mutilated corpse returns from the dead to seek re-acceptance from his peers and school prinipals and above all, be allowed to attend the school prom. It’s a ridiculous whacky premise, but at its heart it speaks of an outsider desperately seeking affection and recognition. Rowe speaks with some tenderness and personal experience when he talks of the difficulties of being an outsider excluded from the “in-crowd”.
Musical theatre is no stranger to tackling darker aspects of humanity, though where Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t mince their words with human comment (think of the abusive streak of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, or the menace that overshadows Jud Fry in Oklahoma) so Rowe and Dempsey adopt a different strategy of directness. I suggest to Rowe, particularly with the imagery of Zombie Prom in mind, that the world that he and his collaborator portray is one that could have been drawn by Roy Lichtenstein. Simple images, primary colours, and punchlines that whilst they may be superficially obvious or even shallow, actually speak to us with a poignant irony upon the world they describe, sound out from his compositions and Rowe is quick to endorse the suggested similarities between his work and Lichtenstein’s iconic imagery.
Whilst Rowe’s output with Dempsey has not been prolific, their creative relationship continues to this day, suggesting an artistic harmony and union that has a reassuring degree of timelessness. With Merrily We Roll Along, just closed on London's West End, describing the arc of destruction that shatters the working friendship of a lyricist and composer, it is strangely comforting to find a harmonious and productive partnership that has existed between two creative talents, for so long.
Rowe's craft is simply to take his perceptive perspectives on life and set them to some uplifting melodies. Act one of The Witches of Eastwick closes with the marvellous composition I Wish I May. More than 8 minutes long its a song for the three Witches and the Devil, that is a biography of the ladies and a glorious perspective on how Satan has understood their personae and endowed them with what they think they most desire. It's a vast canvas of a number, that in its grandeur echoes Bigelow's Soliloquy. The song opens with tender heartfelt verses from each woman, before crescendoing to its final stanzas as their diabolical lover makes them all, literally, fly. It is one of those few songs that is truly as thrilling to listen to as it is to watch on stage.
The man's music speak to us all. His songs are classically structured yet written with a timelessness that does not date their message. The lucky folk of Newbury are blessed with Craig Revel Horwood's take on The Witches of Eastwick being with them until September 14th. For the rest of us, it's only a short trip (or broomstick flight) down the M4 for the chance to savour some of the funniest and most stirring musical theatre written.