Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Even More Viewing

There's been quite a few television programmes about musical theatre over the past few weeks. Sky Arts have a programme called 'Backstage With Disney On Broadway'. It's 20 years since Disney produced 'Beauty and The Beast' as a stage musical. The show tells the background story to not only 'Beauty and The Beast' but the other Disney animated films which have since been bought to the stage, such as 'The Lion King,' 'Aladdin', 'Mary Poppins' and 'The Newsies.' This last show is new to me. I had never heard of it. If you don't manage to catch this show when it's broadcast,  then you might be able to see it because Sky Arts shows a lot of it's programmes in a sort of cycle, which means if you don't see it the first time round, it is very likely to be shown at a later date, and time, or, if you have Sky+ or, as we do, Sky Q, then you should be able to find it on catch-up, so you can download it. With our Sky Q box we can at least record around 300 hours of programmes (not that we're likely to store that many at any one time.) we can at least watch things which have been record, particularly when there's so much on, as there was over Christmas.

Then, over Christmas there was another treat. It was called 'West Side Stories: The Making of A Classic", and tells the story of how the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical was conceived and bought to the stage in 1957. Loosely based on William Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' but given a contemporary (well, 1950's) New York setting, the documentary concentrated more on the dance which was used in the show, which explains why Bruno Tonioli was one of the presenters (he is one of the judges on the popular BBC1 show, 'Strictly Come Dancing.') It has always been one of my favourite shows, basically because it has a very strong score, which has barely dated. I have the movie on DVD, which came out in 1961. As I say, the score hasn't dated, nor has the theme of tolerance and racial division, probably more relevant today than when it was first produced. The film looks as fresh as the first day it was released, although perhaps the costumes might look somewhat dated, but the style of the whole thing, the use of colour, graphics and the fact that it was filmed on the actual streets where it is set, makes it quite remarkable. It went on to win no less than 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. 

Then, last Friday, BBC Four gave us the first of a three-part documentary series called "Sound of Musicals With Neil Brand." The first episode did a short history of the musical, from the early 20th Century. Neil Brand, who is someone I haven't heard of before, gave a very academic reading of some of the most iconic songs from musicals, how they were written as well as how they were constructed as well as the background study on several classic musicals. He touched briefly on 'West Side Story," "Annie Get Your Gun" which was being shown in rehearsal at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre. Another bit of history was the background to "My Fair Lady" and had rare footage of Julie Andrews, who was the original Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production in 1956 and then came to London for the transfer when it played at the  Theatre Royal Theatre, Drury Lane.  The next two programmes are going to cover the story of more recent musicals and no doubt will cover those shows created and produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, such as 'Phantom of The Opera."

I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but when I was at Rushmoor School we went to see the original London production of Oliver! It must have been my first experience of a West End musical. I can't think how the teacher, Mr Crutchley, managed to get tickets for such a top-rated show. It can't have been opened very long when we went. We didn't pay for the tickets, so, even to this day, I have no idea who paid for them. I suppose around 25 of us went, on a Saturday. Quite a challenge for one man to take a group like us to London. I think I would have been 10-11, because the show opened in 1960, and, as I say, we can't have gone to see it barely months after it opened. I remember quite vividly the set, designed by Sean Kenny. A year or so later we went to see another musical 'Pickwick' which was on at the Saville Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue. Since converted into a cinema. The show starred Harry Secombe. 

I think I became interested in not just theatre, but also musicals, because my grandmother was a good pianist (something my elder brother, Robert seems to have inherited.) She had a piano in her sitting room at Mill Farm,  Cardington, where she lived. On the top of the piano were scores for a number of musicals which would have been running at the time (the late 1950's, early 1960's, which included "My Fair Lady" and "Salad Days.") The last I mention was a show which was produced when I was working as a Student A.S.M. at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham in 1969. It was an exceptionally hot summer that year, and, as part of the season of shows, the programmed show which was scheduled to be staged, "The Country Wife," a Restoration comedy by William Wycherley. Because of falling audiences, due to the heatwave, it was decided that it would be better to abandon the Wycherley play and instead do "Salad Days," which would have been cheaper to stage. The costumes and wigs for a Restoration Comedy would have been too great. It was therefore the first time I'd worked on a musical. It's probably a bit twee and simplistic for modern audiences, about a magical piano which makes people dance. It was originally staged in the early 1950's, and the music is pleasant but I don't think it would go down too well with a modern, early 21st century audience, more used to shows such as 'Les Miswerables' or even 'Wicked.' The Artistic Director of the Everyman Theatre at the time, Michael Ashton, who directed this production of "Salad Days," was responsible for writing a musical himself. It was called "The Young Visiters." It was based on a book written by a young girl called Daisy Ashford. The musical was given a West End run and starred Alfred Marks and an actress who was in the company at the Everyman, Vivienne Ross, was also in this show. She was the female lead in the production of "Salad Days" at Cheltenham. She was in  the ITV soap 'Coronation Street'  as Stella Rigby, a friend of Bet Lynch when she was landlady of the Rover's Return pub, as Stella Rigby, another landlady who ran The White Swan.            
(Incidentally, I have spelt 'Visiters' correctly. It is how Daisy Ashford spelt the word, as a child would, when the book was originally published.)

Further to what I mentioned about Oliver!, in around 1968, at about the time I was leaving school, I was attempting to get into theatre, stage management in particular. I had an interview at R.A.D.A. (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) with the intention of doing a Stage Management course there. I went with my mother and aunt to London for this interview. I remember we went by train. We went from Sandy railway station, because my aunt lived near Sandy, so I suppose it was the best station to go to London from. When I'd had the interview (I didn't get into R.A.D.A. if you're interested. Read my earlier posts on my stage management experience working in 'rep.') After the interview, my mum and aunt went off somewhere in London on their own. No doubt they went to do some shopping. I want to see the film of 'Oliver!' which had then recently just opened at the Odeon, Leicester Square. It's a good transfer of a stage musical to the big screen, the dances are good and the production design is good, but it does seem a bit tame when you think how they did the movie version of 'Les Miserables.' Far too bright and well lit and clean to be convincing as Victorian London. I have since learnt that the young lad who played Oliver, Mark Lester, had his voice dubbed by a girl, which must have been a bit of an insult.


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