Saturday, 28 February 2015

Loserville - Review

Union Theatre, London

****

Book, music & lyrics by Elliot Davis and James Bourne
Directed by Michael Burgen




After perhaps a too short run in London’s West End nearly three years ago, Loserville the British musical written by Elliot Davis and James Bourne and inspired by the Son of Dork album ‘Welcome to Loserville’, bursts back on to the fringe scene in a fresh and exciting production at the Union Theatre. Transporting us back to 1971 and the geekishly wonderful life of Michael Dork, the story isn’t massively unfamiliar in its boy meets girl setup. But what Loserville (a Best Musical nominee at the 2013 Oliviers) adds is a wonderful array of period charm, possessing all the right kinds of awkwardness that quickly turn this show into an exciting musical.

Instantly greeted by our geeks in the opening number Living In The Future Now, the Union’s strong young cast impresses. Leads Michael Dork (Luke Newton) , Holly Manson (Holly-Ann Hull) and Lucas Lloyd (Jordan Fox) give flawless vocal performances throughout, whilst Lewis Bradley’s ‘arch’ nemesis Eddie Arch proves a hit, giving just enough sinister swagger to make the villain of the piece ultimately too hard to hate. Bradley is equally matched by Sarah Covey in her sophisticated approach as Leia Dawkins.

With a strong ensemble, Matt Krzan’s vibrant choreography wonderfully fills the Union’s space, suggesting a brilliant mix of techno drive and high school chic that works extremely well. Bryan Hodgson leads a fine 3 piece band, though there is a slight overpowering in the general mix that occasionally obscures some the ensemble’s fantastic harmonic work. Nothing that cant be fixed, mind.

Helming the show, Michael Burgen is by no means a stranger to the Union. Having previously appeared in the theatre’s acclaimed all male ‘Pirates of Penzance’, he jumps ship quite literally to make an impressive directorial debut. Burgen’s fun, fresh and arguably more home grown approach to the piece, gives it both warmth and heart that the show may have lacked on the bigger stage. Ultimately, its setup of chalk boards, UV paint and VCR props brings out the playful, geekish child in us all and definitely works to the Union’s advantage. 

Loserville isn’t just for geeks. It has a vulnerability that also packs an impressive musical theatre punch. If you love the songs or even simply just missed the show first time around, then catch it now. Together with Davis, (Mc)Busted’s Bourne has written numbers that speak to the teenager in us all. It’s a fun show driven by a great ensemble.


Runs until 21st March 2015

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Ruddigore - Review

King's Head Theatre, London 

****

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Directed by John Savournin


John Savournin

Charles Court Opera are one of the leading small companies, known for their innovative approach and described as “the masters of Gilbert & Sullivan in small places”. For their 10th Anniversary, the company have chosen the lesser known tenth of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert & Sullivan. In 1887 Ruddigore initially struggled following the huge success of The Mikado, but after a few re-writes and a re-spelt title (from the original Ruddygore) it was to triumph.

Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse, has an unbelievable plot. A centuries old witch’s curse on the Baronetcy of Ruddigore condemns the eldest sons to commit a crime everyday on pain of death. Heirs understandably try to find ways around this, or abscond, with perilous and confusing results all round, driving fiancées to madness and bridesmaids to despair. 

It all makes for a fabulous frolic, executed at the King’s Head Theatre with fine singing, acting and an unrelenting energy. Gilbert’s loquacious lyrics are performed at a breakneck pace, yet the skill of John Savournin’s direction and indeed his performance as Sir Despard Murgatroyd is such that every word is savoured and heard and whats more, that it all seems so ridiculously plausible.

The Bridesmaids’ constant and very funny refrain ‘Hail the Bridegroom, Hail the Bride’ is a memorable air, made all the more remarkable by Susanna Buckle and Andrea Tweedale effectively emulating a chorus of 22 voices, whilst Cassandra McCowan makes more sense of Mad Margaret than is often to be found in Ruddigore productions.

The compact company of just eight sound tremendous, with both acts' finales sung with a gorgeous musicality and a remarkable attention to detail. David Eaton as Musical Director, accompanies with great dexterity and detail throughout as Philip Aiden’s choreography keeps the cast on their toes admirably and literally, given the speed at which they move and sing. James Perkins’ seaside pier design atmospherically enhanced by Nicholas Holdridge’s lighting becomes hysterically effective when we are introduced to the ghostly ancestors.

It is profoundly re-assuring to see that in 2014 the spirit of Gilbert & Sullivan is more than alive and well in London’s off-West End. With sparkling melodies, glorious singing and rich characterisation, The King’s Head's Ruddigore makes for a delightful evening of meticulously crafted madness.


Runs to 14th March 2015

Guest reviewer Catherine Françoise

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Oklahoma! - Review

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

****

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield

There is a traditional charm that pervades the Royal & Derngate’s Oklahoma! This show, the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, is at once dark and glorious but above all, crammed with some of the biggest numbers from the Golden Age of Broadway. And here, on Francis O’Connor’s set that has been cleverly designed to be taken on the road, it is beautifully staged.

Set around the turn of the last century, the Oklahoma!’s book glosses over much of the Indian Territory’s troubled history (the actual State of Oklahoma was not created until 1905). Whilst the legacy of the recently ended American Civil War is roundly ignored, the tale does hint at the vastness of the land that was there to be grabbed, as well as the agricultural rivalries between the cattle rancher and the farmer and all alongside the emerging technologies that were seeing automobiles appear and skyscrapers come out of the ground. Famously though, the story bravely weaves its human interest themes as light and frivolous romance seamlessly segues into the dark and damaged side of our fellow man. 

Charlotte Wakefield is a delight as Laurey, the orphaned niece of her aged Aunt Eller with whom she lives on the farm that they own and tend. Wakefield has previous form with Rachel Kavanaugh, having garnered an Olivier nomination in the director’s The Sound Of Music two years ago.

The actress epitomises tough yet cute, with a carapace that ultimately holds a vulnerable soft-centre. Initially wary of suitor Curly’s advances, Laurey is in fact desparate for the love he offers. Throughout, Wakefield’s singing is divine, with her handling of the harmonies in People Will Say We’re in Love proving a gorgeous take on the classic tune. Alongside Wakefield, Ashley Day’s Curly is handsome and well sung , but he needs to dig deeper to earn our sympathy. All too often Day glosses over the nuance of his lyrics, losing much of the cleverly crafted Hammerstein verse. But these are early days for the production, though and there is no-one better than Kavanaugh to coax that little bit more from her leading man.

Elsewhere there is doom and delight from the supporting cast. Belinda Lang is fabulous as Aunt Eller. With no apparent kin aside from Laurey, Eller is the loving matriarch not just to her niece but to her wider community too and Lang nails the fiercely protective loyalty that the old woman shows towards her ward.

Nic Greenshields’ Jud Fry offers a chilling take on the tragic desparate loneliness of a man shunned by the world. As Laurey’s hired hand on the farm, he craves her beauty and there is a true terror and menace in his manner. But in Greenshields’ singing of Lonely Room there is also a profound exposition of a deeply damaged man.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie is just so incredibly believable as the girl who sings I Cain’t Say No. Barker shamelessly steals her scenes, but with a performance that deliciously good who cares? Other comic treats come from Gary Wilmot’s exquisitely timed work as peddlar Ali Hakim, whilst James O’Connell’s Will Parker truly gives his all in All Er Nothin and his Kansas City makes for good fun too.

Edging south down the M1 following his recent stints at Leicester, Drew McOnie choreographs in his first ever partnership with Kavanaugh. The flamboyant hallmarks of musical theatre’s wunderkind of dance have been reined in for this is tale, but it still remains a treat to see his interpretation of some of Broadway’s biggest classic routines. McOnie’s work impresses with his movement perfectly capturing the humour of It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage in a whirl of chaps, petticoats and bloomers, whilst the ballet sequence that closes act one is truly a dream. Credit too to Stephen Ridley’s 10 piece band. They’ve been well drilled and as the first notes of that gorgeous Overture sound out, they set the tone for an evening of musical excellence. 

Shortly to tour the UK, Rachel Kavanaugh’s Oklahoma! is a classic musical, wonderfully performed. Go and see for yourselves, you won’t be disappointed. 


Plays until February 28th 2015, then tours

Monday, 23 February 2015

Desperate Divas Cabaret - Review

*****

Tiffany Graves, Tom Wakeley and Anita Louise Combe

Tiffany Graves and Anita Louise Combes are West End leading ladies who amongst other things, have both played Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly even if never in the production at the same time as the other. It was Tom Wakeley however, a former Musical Director of the Kander & Ebb hit, that spotted the potential of pairing the two as a double act. It has taken a couple of years to bring Wakeley’s idea to fruition, but their cabaret Desperate Divas, a collection of show tunes loosely themed around the trials of modern dating, is now finally receiving its premier at the St James Studio.

Graves and Combes are vocal sensations and this show is all the more remarkable for having been put together whilst both actresses are currently rehearsing major openings. Graves is shortly to commence touring as Ulla in The Producers, whilst Combes in preparation for the transfer of last year’s sensational Gypsy, from Chichester to the West End’s Savoy. It was a neat touch that saw the gig open with a mash up of When You Got it Flaunt It together with Let Me Entertain You from each show respectively. The tweaked lyrics may have been a little bit cheesy but the songs provided a classy moment that set the tone for the rest of the night.

The divas’ patter was mostly classy, even if occasionally clunky. But this was their first gig – and when schedules allow these talented women to re-group and perform again, (which they must) their spiel will only get better.

The songs however were flawless, combining familiar numbers (in a set list that was inevitably heavy on offerings from Chicago) together with showtunes some of which have yet to be performed in the UK. One of Combes’ desperate deliveries was Where In The World Is My Prince from William Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine, which included the sparklingly memorable rhyme that she’d been “trained by Nikinsky and coached by Lewinsky”. Other treats of the first half included Graves’ (now clad in a wedding dress – bravo to the backstage dressers for executing such speedy costume changes) Always A Bridesmaid from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, whilst the pair closed act one with Side Show’s plaintive Who Will Love Me As I Am, delivered with stunning harmonies and a thrilling anthemic power.

Graves had played a stunning Sukie Rougemont in the 2013 prodcution of The Witches of Eastwick at Newbury’s Watermill (reviewed here). So to see Words,Words,Words, a bogglingly complex number rarely heard on the cabaret circuit, listed amongst the second half gems, whetted appetites. Graves duly smashed the song, to showstopping whoops from the packed crowd.

Tom Wakeley excelled on piano throughout – ably accompanied by Paul Moylan on double bass.

The pair closed with Chicago’s Class and Nowadays – done to perfection by two singers who could not know their material more intimately nor with greater understanding. That they also threw in a very slick Hot Honey Rag dance routine, tailored brilliantly to the Studio’s confines, was but an added bonus. These women are at the top of their game with voices that are perfectly tuned. Cabaret singing doesn’t get better than this!


Photo credit - Jonathan Hilder of Piers Photography

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Scottsboro - My Journey to Alabama

The sign above the platform at Scottsboro Railroad Station

This weekend sees Kander and Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys come to the sold-out end of its acclaimed West End run, a troubling yet brilliant show that first stunned London back in December 2013 at the Young Vic. I knew nothing of this chapter of American history before seeing Susan Stroman's production, but I was to leave the Young Vic stunned by the musical's technical and stylish genius and deeply moved by its tragic tale.

My journey to Scottsboro was actually to begin in the autumn of 2014. The show was about to transfer to the West End's Garrick Theatre and I had been invited to interview flown-over Broadway star James T. Lane, together with whirlwind New York impresario Catherine Schreiber who (along with Paula Marie Black and the Young Vic) was producing. As our conversation ended and the microphone was switched off, a chance remark led me to mention to Catherine that I had an impending business trip to visit clients across the USA. As I outlined my intinerary, Schreiber commented that one of the towns on my route was barely an hour's drive from Scottsboro and how I must visit the museum that marks the Scottsboro Boys' story. She made the necessary introductions and very soon I was in touch with the museum's founder and director, Shelia Washington.  

So it was that one overcast October morning last year I found myself deep in America's Deep South, driving along Alabama's stretch of the Lee Highway and heading for Scottsboro. My car's GPS (sat-nav) suggested that I detour from the fast route and follow the last ten miles into town along an old country lane that hugged the tracks of the Southern Railroad line. The show’s New York cast recording (a London recording is to be released soon) was playing in the car and as trees, track and churches sped by, the emotional power of heading towards that humble Southern town, now stained with one of the last century's most terrible miscarriages of justice, became quite overpowering. I could not have guessed that I was shortly to experience one of the most humbling and inspirational days of my life. 

Writing in The Guardian two years ago, Ed Pilkington succinctly describes the events that led to the arrest of the Scottsboro Boys.

Paradoxically, the Scottsboro Nine had nothing to do with Scottsboro. On the night of 25 March 1931 the boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 19 – were hoboing on a freight train heading west to Memphis, Tennessee, when some of them got into a fight with a group of white youths. The white boys jumped off the train as it passed through the Scottsboro area and complained to the local sheriff that they had been attacked and with that one dubious claim Southern justice cranked into motion. 
The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys' train came from this direction

By the time the train reached the next stop a posse of armed local white men had formed and the group went from carriage to carriage, arresting all the blacks they could find. As they were searching the train, they also came across two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.
The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys' train headed towards this direction

It's hard from the distance of 80 years to appreciate fully what it meant for white women to be found even in the vicinity of black men in 1931. Any physical contact, however remote, was taboo.
That taboo probably explains why one of the women, Price, invented the story that she and Bates had been gang raped – it was a ruse to avoid any risk of being jailed overnight herself. For the black young men accused of raping the two white woman, the risk was of a different magnitude. In the 1930s Deep South it meant only one thing: death. As the Arkansas poet John Gould Fletcher put it, if a white woman swears that a black man even tried to rape her, "we see to it that the Negro is executed".
When the nine terrified boys were taken to the nearest town, Scottsboro and put in the local jail, there was only one question that needed settling: would they be executed judicially or at the end of a rope slung from the nearest tree. There were 13 lynchings in the US in 1931 and the nine came very close to dramatically inflating that figure – the sheriff had to call in the National Guard to hold back a large and angry mob.

Although Scottsboro is the seat of surrounding Jackson County, its town square is surprisingly quiet. There is a tiny shopping plaza that includes a US Marines recruiting centre, whilst around the corner is the proudly emblazoned Scottsboro Gun & Pawn store. By American standards it’s a very small city, lacking even a town centre McDonalds. On realising that I had ventured out without a notepad, the writer's essential tool, I looked around the square to purchase a replacement. There was neither a stationers nor a supermarket to hand but I did spot a homely looking gifts and trinkets store. Wandering in, the charming owner and a true Alabama Lady for sure, helped me out by selling me a blank notepad from her stock of admin supplies. I was profoundly grateful and we struck up a brief conversation for a visiting Englishman turns out to be a rare event in Scottsboro. It was when this delightful shopkeeper asked me why I was in town and I explained that I was there to meet Shelia Washington at the museum, that the hitherto famously warm Southern hospitality turned icy.

Lee Highway, Jackson County ..... there's a pattern emerging in these names. Those men were the Confederate heroes of the American Civil War, who took the South’s battles to the North and ultimately lost. And while time and (some) legislation has moved on, many troubling old attitudes still straddle the Mason Dixon Line. Where most local authorities provide some funding to museums or places of culture within their jurisdiction, Washington was to tell me that the Scottsboro city fathers offer her museum no cash whatsoever. Not one dollar. Her revelation chilled me, for whilst the Jim Crow days may be gone, Scottsboro still remains a town struggling with its identity.


The Scottsboro Boys Museum
The museum is sat next to the eponymous railroad line and as I parked my car, what seemed like a never-ending freight train was rolling by. Travelling slow, it blew its beautiful mournful two-tone horn, an iconic sound that so defines an American train. Aside from the fact that trains fascinate me, I was transfixed. I stood, watched and listened before knocking on the museum door.

Created in a now de-consecrated church and where the former chapel is still filled with pews, it was in this tiny hall in April 2013 that Alabama's Governor Bentley signed the State’s Senate Bill and House Resolution that formally pardoned and exonerated the Scottsboro Boys. If Schreiber is a powerhouse of theatre-producing, then Washington is a beacon to those who campaign for racial equality. She drove the campaign that led to the Scottsboro Boys' exoneration and amongst the good people of the South, she is a hero. 

Aside from an unexpected flurry of media interest, where two local newspapers and a TV news station had turned out to cover my visit, (for media link see below) I was touched that not only had Washington opened the museum specially for me (it usually opens twice a month), but that most of its Board of Trustees had turned out to meet with me too. I met with Caroline Lynch, the daughter of the now long deceased Dr Marvin Lynch and one of the two doctors who examined the women on the night of the alleged rapes, finding no evidence of sexual assault. The doctor truthfully reported his findings at the time, but they were ignored by the Scottsboro prosecutors as an inconvenient truth. It was not until some years later, that the medic felt safe enough to re-assert his clinical evidence.


Caroline Lynch

It is important to remember that amidst the evil turmoil that surrounded the Scottsboro Boys' wrongful arrest, there were acts of principled bravery from a number of white people. Most heroic perhaps was Scottsboro's Sheriff Matt Wann who supervised the shepherding of the boys, away from the baying mob, to the comparative safety of the town's jail on the night of the arrests. I met with Scottsboro citizen Clyde Broadway, who told of his uncle being tasked by Sheriff Wann to "go buy a skein of rope" to help corral the boys and keep them huddled together away from the crowds. One year later, Wann was to be shot dead on duty.


Clyde Broadway

But what of Shelia Washington and what drives this remarkable woman? Pilkington writes: 
Young Shelia Washington had never heard a single word of the story of the "Scottsboro Boys", as they were then called, despite having been born and brought up in the small town where such visceral history had been made. When her father found her reading the memoir he snatched the volume from her hands and ordered her never to open it again. "He said he didn't want me to know the harmful things that were contained inside," she says.
Shelia Washington

It is Washington's understated strength and conviction that is so profoundly humbling. She told me of her brother who had been brutally murdered in jail whilst serving his sentence. His killers had never been formally identified, let alone brought to justice and Washington is convinced that the murder was racially motivated. She believes she knows the identity of his killers too, but resignedly accepts that there is little she can do to achieve justice for her dead brother. It has been the harnessing of her rage at the injustice meted out to her brother that sparked her to champion the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. Even as I write this, Washington’s next mission is to locate and to mark the burial places of each of the nine men. Her commitment is unshakeable.

Against a backdrop of endemic racism, The Scottsboro Boys’ trials were to prove a focal point for the nation at that time, though as 87 year-old composer John Kander was to tell me recently:
I remembered that when I was just learning to read I would see on the newspaper, pretty much daily in those early reading days, something about The Scottsboro Boys. I didn't know what that was or who they were, but they were always mentioned, they were always called that title. As I began to be able to read and understand more, it seemed to me that they were always spoken of as a group. Then they disappeared altogether.
Whilst the story might have disappeared from the national headlines, it had already cemented a foundation for the emergent American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, one of the key civil rights figures in the 1950s was a steadfast campaigner for the Scottsboro Boys and she in turn was to inspire the support of Martin Luther King. 

Recent events in the USA and elsewhere in the world tell us that the essential cause of the Scottsboro Boys is a fight that still goes on, with America in particular still having deep issues to address. Speaking in the Scottsboro Boys Museum on the day of Governor Bentley’s pardon, Alabama’s Representative Laura Hall said: 


Hopefully, our great State of Alabama can be Alabama the Beautiful, where justice is dispensed equally and fairly without regard to race, sex, social class or religious belief.

Hall’s is a noble hope, sincerely to be commended, but there is much to be done to realise it. It is to the credit of Scottsboro’s Shelia Washington however, that such momentous progress has already been achieved.


Media Links:

Click here to view the TV interview that was filmed during my visit to Scottsboro


Click here to visit the website of The Scottsboro Boys Museum

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Cats - Review

London Palladium, London

*****

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Based on 'Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats by T.S.Eliot
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Kerry Ellis

Back in 1981 Cats re-wrote the rule book of musical theatre. Not just for being the first show immediately recognisable by an image that was to become an iconic brand (those flaming cats eyes with their dancers for pupils - shrewd work, producer Cameron Mackintosh), but for being one of the first through-danced musicals, a concept never before tackled in England. Cats' plot (if there is one) is implausible. Rather, it took the genius vision of a young Lloyd Webber to set this quirky anthology of Eliot verse to music. The rest is theatre history as the show went on to smash box-office records on both sides of the Atlantic.

That Cats in 2015 works at all is down to the show's (now pensioner) creatives and an exceptional cast. Disbelief is quickly suspended and in a production that eschews masks and puppets, the feline transformation is achieved solely through the human skills of the companys' voices, movement and facial expression. At all times the audience can see that these are just people, albeit gloriously costumed and made up, but people nonetheless who with catlike tread and stunning choreography achieve a fabulous illusion. 

Eliot's words are marvellously crafted. They truly don't write 'em like that anymore and his 1930's gems are just steeped in Bloomsbury and a time when trains had First and Third Class carriages, a magical glimpse into an England past. No other writer other than perhaps Matilda's Tim Minchin displays the maverick and eccentric yet profoundly perceptive wit that Eliot masters. Andrew Lloyd Webber's score, played under the experienced baton of Anthony Gabriele and ranging from the haunting minor key harmonics of the Jellicles’ motif, through to the torch-song triumph that is Memory, has evolved into a modern classic.

Legendary choreographer Gillian Lynne neatly re-works her original routines to accommodate the Palladium’s traditional proscenium setting, with modern day dance maestro Bill Deamer adding his talent to staging the coolly jazz-themed Gumbie Cat tap number. John Napier's design has similarly been tailored yet still remains a fairytale setting (beautifully lit) of over-sized trash. (The eagle eyed in the audience will spot that the bashed up car’s number plate has been updated to NAP 70, Napier’s age when the show re-opened last year.)

But Cats, then and forever, has always been about the actors. As well as some fresh young talent, many feline-hardened veterans from the show’s various former and touring productions have been press ganged into service at the Palladium. Excellence is everywhere, but particularly memorable amongst the cattery are Benjamin Yates’ Mungojerrie, who delivers impossible athleticism with an almost Russell Brand styled insouciance whilst Joseph Poulton’s Mistoffeles and Ross Finnie’s Skimbleshanks are both visual delights. (That junk-yard train gets me every time.) A nod too to Callum Train’s Munkustrap who virtually MC’s the show with a breathtaking agility and of course few West End musicals are complete these days without a Strallen. Zizi’s Demeter duly and demurely delivers.

It is however Kerry Ellis’ name that tops the bill at the London Palladium and with good reason. Her poise as faded galmour-puss Grizabella is as poignant as it is perfect. Where the rest of the cast are shod in dance shoes Ellis, fur all mangy, is forced to totter around the stage in impossibly tawdry heels, defining Grizabella's tragedy in poise and presence. And then she sings.

On its own, Memory is one of Lloyd Webber’s biggest selling singles and much like Grizabella herself, it’s a tart of a song that everyone over the last thirty years as had a piece of. The audience knows it, loves it and their expectations as Ellis, along with Natasha Mould’s Jemima tackles the opening bars, are sky high. Ellis doesn’t just meet those expectations however – she smashes them. And as her Grizabella desperately pleads for affection with the shockingly simple words “Touch me”, this queen of London’s musical theatre quite simply takes the Palladium’s roof off. The moment is electrifying and unforgettable. It has been far too long since the West End was last treated to an 11 o’clock number of such jaw-dropping magnificence.

There is no more to add. As world class musical theatre Cats, with Kerry Ellis, is un-missable.


Now booking until 25th April 2015

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A View From The Bridge - Review

Wyndham's Theatre, London

*****

Written by Arthur Miller
Directed by Ivo Van Hove

Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox

Ivo Van Hove's production of A View From The Bridge, first presented at the Young Vic last year, was one of the capital's 2014 highlights. Transferring across the Thames for a limited run at the Wyndham's, the searching intensity of this sensational piece of theatre has been stunningly maintained.

A View From The Bridge is a classic of 20th century American literature, yet this modern play's themes, drawn from classic lines of Greek tragedy are both universal and primeval. Treachery and revenge amongst immigrant American community, fuelled by an abusive and incestuous craving that burns inside longshoreman Eddie Carbone. Wife Beatrice is neglected as Eddie's infernal desire for orphaned niece and ward Catherine, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, stealthily consumes him.

Performed predominantly barefoot, against Jan Versweyveld's simple white rectangle of a stage that is barely fenced in by a shallow perimeter, the concept is stark. And yet with no scenery, the claustrophobic oppression of a Brooklyn tenement is cleverly suggested. There are moments when the actors appear in silhouette such is the brightness of the arena, the contrast between the dark and the good so cleverly, yet so simply suggested.

Mark Strong reprises his latin Carbone in a performance that is akin to a perfectly-tuned engine throbbing at the heart of a Ferrari. Strong's power of expression and his physical presence are immaculately presented. Muscular and forceful it is easy to see how he has so wrongfully channelled his passion towards the young girl. And yet in a moment of truly rare dramatic intensity, when illegal immigrant Marco challenges Eddie to a test of strength in lifting a chair one-handed, Strong's wannabe alpha-male is simply and virtually - and publicly -  emasculated in an abject and humiliating display of failure. 

Echoing a Greek Chorus, Michael Gould's Alfieri is Eddie's lawyer. Part counsellor to Carbone, part narrator to the audience, Alfieri's character, critical to the narrative is a moral compass that the Longshoreman is bound to ignore. Such is the level of craft, not only in Miller's writing but also in this company's performances that Carbone's destiny is subtly signalled and sensed.

Nicola Walker's Beatrice imbues the complex bitterness of a woman who sees and understands all around her yet is powerless to effect change. Walker's work is flawless. Catherine is played by the gamine Phoebe Fox. Initially unaware of the desire she stirs in the men around her, Fox masters the girl's interwoven naïveté and unintentional provocation. As she wraps her legs around her uncle during an embrace, we shudder.

Emun Elliott's Marco commands both fear and sympathy as he strives, albeit illegally, to earn money for his family back in Italy. Together with his brother Rodolpho (Luke Norris), both characters define the decent everyman of the play - though Miller relentlessly has us question Rodolpho's sexuality even as Catherine is falling in love with him.

Like an expert surgeon, Miller understands the human condition like no other modern dramatist, stripping it to the bones in a play that is as gripping as it is unbearable. As Van Hove’s bloody conclusion leaves you stunned, there is no finer play in London.


Runs until 11th April 2015

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Tom Morton-Smith - Oppeheimer playwright - In Conversation

In rehearsal for Oppenheimer, director  Angus Jackson (l) and Tom Morton-Smith


Last month the RSC presented the world premiere of Oppenheimer, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith, in the Swan Theatre at Stratford upon Avon. (Click here to read my review of the play)

Looking at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who during the Second World War led the Project Manhattan team that developed the USA's atomic bomb, Oppenheimer's subject matter is vast and complex, drawing in history, science, politics and morality. To the credit of all involved, Oppenheimer has opened to rave reviews.

I caught up with Morton-Smith for a brief conversation to understand a little more about bringing this compelling story to the stage. 


JB:         Tom, what drew you to write Oppenheimer?

TMS: I've been interested in writing a play about physics for quite some time, mostly because play writing should always be about writing what fascinates you. I developed a bit of a hobbyist kind of fascination with physics in my 20's and ended up reading lots of popular science books, and reading lots of history books on it, as well. When the RSC invited me to pitch to them the biggest idea I could think of, I thought, "Okay, let's go with a play about physics." There's not much bigger, than a play about Oppenheimer, and the building of the atom bomb.

JB:        Even before then, going back to school, was it science or arts for A Levels? 

TMS: I was all arts. I was never very good at maths or science at school. It just never excited me. My A-Levels were Media, Theatre, and English lit. I went to do drama and creative writing at drama university and then went to drama school afterwards. I've never been formally trained or interested in physics. I was very much coming at it from a lay person's point of view. 

So I was teaching myself the science aspect of it at the same time as I was learning about the biographies and the history. That was the easiest way for me into the science, to learn it through the people who were discovering it and talking about it.

Physics is so wonderful just in the way that it's talking about the tiny world, as well as talking about quanta and quantum and atoms and you're talking about the movements of the stars and the planets. It's so rich in metaphor. When you're talking about atoms falling apart and splitting, and energy being released, and you're reading about the scientists who discovered these things, you can't help but find the metaphors and the links between the science and the people, and what they're going through. And then, when you're talking about something like the Second World War, which split the world down the middle, it was just full of appropriate metaphors. 

JB:       I remember, as the play was coming to the end of its rehearsals and just before it previewed, that you tweeted saying how you wished you could telephone "the 2011 you" and tell you about how the play looks now on the Swan stage. What happened in 2011? Is that when you first pitched to the RSC? 

TMS: Yes, that was the first time. It's hard to make a living as a playwright. I've been working full time in retail (at Waterstones, the booksellers) for the last 10 years. Every point that I get in my career, where I'm just at a wobble, I'm trying to go, "Do I want to continue with this, or is it about time I start thinking about having a proper career, and a proper job?" Then you get a little seed of interest from somewhere that goes, "I guess I'll keep going for a bit longer." 

It was at that point that the RSC gave me the seed commission where they gave me a little bit of money, and said, "Go away and write the first draft of this play. Bring it back to us in a year, and we'll talk again then." At every point that I returned with a new draft of the play, it made it over that hurdle, so it built and built. I was convinced that at some point, they're just going to say, "Okay, that's great, but it's not for us," and then it would be dead in the water. Thankfully, that didn't happen. 

JB:         Have Waterstones celebrated your association with them?

TMS: I don't know. I never really told head office or anything. I always ordered in copies of my plays in the stage play section of the bookshop, and faced them out with a little recommendation.

JB:     One of the things that struck me as I said in my review, was seeing Oppenheimer, this character from history, albeit modern history, exposed in such detail on stage. Your work reminded me of what Peter Shaffer achieved in telling us all so much about Salieri in his play, Amadeus. What were the challenges that you encountered in writing Oppenheimer? 

TMS: The wealth of information that I needed to get across, in order to tell the story of Oppenheimer. You need to tell the history of Communism in America. You need to tell the major points of the start of the second World War, and how the Russians came to be involved, and you need to clearly explain where we were scientifically at the time, and what that science was. All the politics and the history and the science, trying to gauge how much your audience knows and how much you need to tell them. That was always quite tricky, and quite a balancing act. I'm a strong believer in not underestimating your audience, so the first 10, 15 minutes of the play, I just throw them in at the deep end and throw everything at them and unpack it later, hopefully.

JB:       The play has broadly received rave reviews. Tell me about what your reaction has been to the play’s reception. 

TMS: It's one of those weird things. Until you put it in front of a paying audience, you don't really know what you've got. Before then, everyone's saying: "It's great. It's going really well. It's really exciting." Then you’re sat in the Swan when the lights go down, John Heffernan walks on and then you're stuck in that room with 450 paying members of the public for the next three hours.

From that first moment, when they laugh at one of my gags, that's a bit of a relief. By the end, the responses that I've gotten from the audiences and the way they've been applauding and the way that they've been so attentive, certainly toward the end of the second half, where it starts getting darker and more uncompromising, on most nights you can hear a pin drop. I saw every preview night. It was an amazing feeling, to be in that room, when everyone is so attentive. 

JB:      Grant Olding's music adds a further dimension to the play. How closely did you work with Grant as the music was coming together? 

TMS: When we started putting together the creative team, they put me and Angus Jackson, the director, together first. We did some workshops and I had written the songs included in the play into the script. When we got to the point where we were putting together the creative teams for the production, we got Robert Innes Hopkins, the designer, and Scott Ambler, the choreographer, lighting and sound, and of course, Grant, as well. That's when we started pulling people together.

I didn't meet Grant until the very first day of rehearsals. We had a bit of a chat, and he kept popping in to the rehearsals as we were going, and he would keep sending over bits of music that he had written. If it worked for what we wanted, then we'd keep it. If it wasn't quite right, Angus would say, "Actually, can you do something a bit more like this?" It was great just to occasionally get an email through, during our lunch break. "Oh, Grant sent some more music. Let's listen to it.” If it was an underscoring for a speech or for a scene, we'd start using it in rehearsal. The music became very knitted into the rehearsal process.

JB:       It struck me that the play would translate well to the screen. Is that something that was (or is) ever in your mind?

TMS: Some bits would. I don't think all of it would. The direct address stuff and the more poetic elements wouldn't transfer directly onto screen. It's always tricky when you're writing a play that requires lots of short themes, that you don't want it to seem filmic. The language is of a heightened level, that would actually seem a bit odd on film. 

If I was to ever consider turning it into TV or film, it would maintain its overall structure, but for a different media. 

JB:         What next for you? 

TMS: I don't know, really. I've got several projects I've been working on, off and on, for the last couple of years, that I've got some interest in. I'm just trying to wait and see which one of those will run first. Writing this play has taken up so much of my life the last few years, it will be quite refreshing to turn my brain on to something else. 

JB:     Tom, thank you very much indeed and congratulations again on Oppenheimer.



Oppenheimer continues at The Swan theatre until 7th March 2015

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gods and Monsters - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London

****

Written and Directed by Russell Labey

Ian Gelder and Will Austin

There is some fine new writing to be found in the world premiere of Russell Labey's Gods and Monsters, a play that examines the life of Hollywood director James Whale, best known for creating the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movies. We meet Whale as an elderly man suffering from the effects of a stroke. Painfully aware that his mind is beginning to unravel, Labey's play pitches Whale into encounters that take him to the very thresholds of his reason. When a youthful and ultimately irresistible Mr Kay, a movie geek, arrives at the director's Beverly Hills mansion to interview the old man, his meltdown commences. But it is when Clayton Boone, Whale's newly hired gardener with the form of an Adonis becomes an ever persistent distraction/attraction to the ageing filmmaker, that his fate is sealed. And as with so many of the best Hollywood stories, Tinseltown's shimmering curtain is slowly raised to reveal a tawdry, even if sensational, sadness.

Ian Gelder is Whale in an outstanding performance. On stage almost throughout, his lust for the two men is a brilliant portrayal of desperation, not just for sex, but also to be freed from the torment of his mental and physical decline. A thunderstorm triggers horrific flashbacks to the horrors he witnessed as an army captain in the trenches during World War One and the blurring of the eras in Whale's mind is not only carefully performed by the actor, it is also a show of intuitive stagecraft from Labey. The suggestion that the Great War may have influenced the vision of one of the 20th century's most gifted horror-movie directors offers an intriguing nuance to this already carefully layered tale.

Making his professional debut, Will Austin is the perfectly formed Boone. Austin's gives an impressively convincing performance as the straight, muscular jock disgusted by Whale's lust. Judging by the audience gasps on press night, it is clear that in the nude, he impresses too. Will Rastall and Joey Phillips who between them play a raft of younger characters, flesh out the story well and it is fair to say that both actors rise to the challenge of a naked wrestling scene without fluffing their parts. Lachele Carl's turn as Whale's house maid adds just enough hispanic to the mix to seal the Californian setting.

The play's projected designs are a neat idea from Louise Rhoades-Brown and Jason Denvir even if their execution is occasionally clunky and over simplistic. The story's tragic endgame plays out entirely on screen and is handled with a perceptive sensitivity that is only enhanced by John Chambers' subtle background music.

The programme credits Harry Patterson, millionaire novelist as a generous supporter. Bravo sir - for as with most Danielle Tarento productions, the play's artistic standards are amongst the best to be found on London's fringe and these don't come cheap.

This troubling story makes for excellent entertainment. Passionate, human and above all telling a gripping tale. Not for the faint-hearted perhaps, but for those who like to be pricked out of their comfort zone by theatre that is sharp and challenging, Gods and Monsters is a must see.


Runs until 7th March 2015

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

She Loves Me - Review

Landor Theatre, London

****

Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed by Robert McWhir


Emily Lynne (l) and Charlotte Jaconelli
It's been more than twenty years since She Loves Me was last performed in the West End. This charming confection of a tale, penned by Harnick and Bock at the same time as they were writing Fiddler On The Roof, only had a short life on Broadway in 1963 although went on to enjoy award winning revivals on both sides of the pond in the 1990s. Drawn from Hungarian Miklos Laszlo's 1937 play Parfumerie (which in turn was to also inspire the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie You've Got Mail) the plot revolves around an unlikely pair of star-crossed lonely hearts, who fall in love through an exchange of letters, whilst working side by side in the same perfume store and (initially at least) both blissfully unaware of who their paramour truly is. The story is as heart-warming as it is corny and in today's digital era, playing to a modern audience, it is barely more than a frothy fairy tale.

Yet this production of She Loves Me is another example of London's fringe theatre at its very best. Robert McWhir is one of the few directors in town who can strip down a forgotten show from Broadway's golden era and with a talented cast, make it sparkle with sentiment, wit and fabulous melodies.

Charlotte Jaconelli and John Sandberg play Georg and Amalia, the hapless lovers. Jaconelli a finalist on TV's Britain's Got Talent and already an accomplished recording artiste, makes a brave stage debut in a leading role with a performance that occasionally wobbles, but which will surely smooth out as she settles into the run. It is when Jaconelli sings though that this remarkable young woman defines herself as one of the leading voices of her generation. Her voice fills and thrills the compact Landor with amongst many songs, her Will He Like Me? being a particular treat. Sandberg carries the male lead with confidence and gusto. Half way through the second act, his treatment of the show's title song, with a cleared stage to himself, is a glorious demonstration of panache filled showmanship.

Credit to casting director Benjamin Newsome, who has selected a cast of gems for McWhir to work with. In a key supporting role at the parfumerie Emily Lynne’s Ilona Ritter is a combination of flawless voice, movement and comic timing, with her two big numbers, Ilona and A Trip To The Library, both proving perfectly annunciated songs. Matthew Wellman is a definitive moustachioed love-rat Steven Kodaly, whilst Joshua LeClair’s Arpad, the delivery boy desperate for a job in the store itself, sheds the years brilliantly to play the keen teenager.

McWhir also works wonders with the show’s outstanding ensemble. The close harmony work, occasionally sung a-cappella, is sensational with Rosie Ladkin and Annie Horn in particular maintaining a striking presence throughout. The comic highlight of the night however rests with Ian Dring doubling up as both the elderly Mr Maraczek the parfumerie’s owner and as a Waiter in a romantic nightspot of questionable repute, offering a bewigged performance of outrageous camp-ness suggesting Joel Grey crossed with Julian Clary.

As ever, McWhir's creative crew are formidable. There is not too much dance in the show, but nonetheless Robbie O’Reilly’s work again shows how well her ideas partner the directors'. Ian Vince-Catt on keyboards conducts a stringed duet that give a finely reduced interpretation of Bock’s original score as David Shield’s designs seal the Hungarian illusion of the piece. His art nouveau painted backdrop and mini-trucks that whirl around the stage to create the store, a café and an apartment as well as exterior settings are inspired creations.

A period piece for sure, but Harnick and Bock have written some fabulous songs and opportunities to see works this rare, performed this well, don’t come around often. Like a tube of Maraczek’s eponymous beauty cream the production oozes romance and as Valentine’s Day approaches, there are few shows that match the fabulous feel-good factor of She Loves Me.


Runs until 7th March 2015

Photo credit: Darren Bell

Monday, 9 February 2015

Sheldon Harnick - In Conversation

Sheldon Harnick

As She Loves Me opens at south London's Landor Theatre, I spoke with lyricist Sheldon Harnick about the show, and about his career.


JB:         Sheldon, you and Jerry Bock had a partnership that, along with She Loves Me (and other shows) was to create in Fiddler On The Roof, one of the world’s most celebrated musicals of the last fifty years. Please tell me, what was the start of your association with Jerry?

SH:         Jerry had worked with a writer named Larry Holofcener. I think we both came to New York about the same time, around 1950. I was aware of Jerry and Larry's work. They had songs and revues and so did I, so, I knew their work.

Then, we all heard there was to be a production of a show called "Mr. Wonderful", starring a splendid entertainer named Sammy Davis, Jr. All of us wanted to be the ones to get the job to write the score for that show, but Jerry and Larry got the job. It was an odd job, because the first act was a musical and the second act was Sammy Davis, Jr.'s nightclub act, so all they had to do was write one act. But … the story that I was told was this ...

As you know, there's an enormous amount of pressure on a Broadway show, because there’s millions of dollars riding on it. Under that pressure, the story I was told, was that the creative team were not able to come up with the rewrites that they needed on the road and so they had to call in another lyricist to help out. One thing led to another, and I was introduced to Jerry.

We hit it off immediately and Jerry's publisher, a man named Tommy Valando, worked an actual miracle. He got Jerry and me assigned to do the score for a new, Broadway musical even though we had yet to write a single song.  An impossible thing!

So, we wrote the show. It was called "The Body Beautiful" and although thar show was not successful, that was what started our collaboration. Then, we got the job to do another show called "Fiorello!", about Fiorello La Guardia, who had been a very popular mayor of New York. That show was fairly successful and Hal Prince produced it. Then, all of three of us worked together again on the next show, "Tenderloin”



JB:         So, what drew you to She Loves Me?

SH:         Well we had started working on "Fiddler" and then we had to stop working on that and we started working on "She Loves Me" and then came back to "Fiddler" later...

The show's producer involved, Lawrence Kasha  got in touch with Jerry and me and asked if we knew the movie "The Shop Around the Corner". Well, We both knew and loved the film.

Kasha said that he had the rights to it and would we be interested in adapting it as a musical? We were delighted, because we loved the film so. Then he said, "I want the book to be done by a writer named Joe Masteroff." As it happens, both Jerry and I had just seen a play by Joe Masteroff. We both were very taken with the play, so we said that Joe Masteroff would be fine. Then, the next problem was to get a director. Jerry and I suggested Hal Prince, because he had worked with us on "Fiorello!" and "Tenderloin" and we knew that he wanted to direct more.

So, our next show was "She Loves Me". 

The New York production ran about 9 months and did not earn back its investment and we had many post-mortems trying to figure out why the show hadn't worked. But, it didn't.

What was lovely though was the London revival in the 1990's starring Ruthie Henshall. That was just lovely.

Anyway, back then, what was odd was that all of us that had worked on She Loves Me just loved the show, we loved working on it.

A year went by without any productions after it closed and we were heartsick. As a matter-of-fact, when the show was nominated for a Grammy, the recording industry award, I didn't go to the awards ceremony because I didn't want to be disappointed again. Actually, the show won the 1963 Grammy (for Best Score From An Original Cast Show Album) , so I wished I'd been there!

And then after a year or so, we would get letters from little theatre companies across the USA, saying "We don't understand why the show didn't work on Broadway. Our audiences love it." Then, there were more and more productions around the country and we kept getting these letters. So, the show became known as a cult show,developing quite a following.

Then, finally, there was a revival of it on Broadway, a beautiful revival in 1993, and the following year after that, suddenly it exploded. There were about 60 productions around the country and "She Loves Me" became a show that was regularly done.

JB:        Then it came to London. What are your feelings toward seeing your work in London?

SH:         It's like seeing it anywhere. If it's a good production, I love it. I think it was only recently that there was a production in France of "She Loves Me". I went to see it and I invited Michel Legrand to be our guest, and it was an awful production. Within the first 15 minutes, Michel just turned to me and said, " Sheldon, this is terrible." And I couldn't argue with him and it didn't run very long.

If a production is good and makes me proud of my work, then I'm thrilled to see it. If it's bad, then I wish I was somewhere else.

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.


Programme design  from the first London production


JB:         Moving on to talk about "Fiddler" now.

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, held the 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:         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.



She Loves Me plays at the Landor Theatre until 7th March 2015