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Since it opened at The Other Palace earlier this year, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Paul Taylor-Mills have championed new writing, giving a space for writers to try new things in the realm of musical theatre. Not least with the return of Starlight Express for number of special work-in-progress performances. Now, the writing team behind Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Martin Guerre are trying out their show Manhattan Parisienne.
We spoke to the actor Gabriel Vick about these work-in-progress performances, and whether he would utilise them when writing the follow-up to his musical Miss Atomic Bomb.
What’s Manhattan Parisienne all about?
It’s the meeting of the finest French and American songbook songs. It’s sort of Alain Boublil’s love letter to that style of song and cabaret. It’s based around the heyday of jazz in the ‘60s These two characters meet each other in a club by chance and get to know each other slowly, through their shared love of these French and American songs. They discover they have a lot in common. It’s a show about a guy and a girl trying to put on a show so it’s already for a rough and ready quality to it, which means we can get away with this work-in-progress style. We’re basically sitting there with a piano and a bunch of actor-musicians and making something in front of your eyes. Not unlike Once, I suppose. When actors are needed they’ll get up from where they are and play their characters.
So it’s full of songs we’ll already know?
We’re talking songs like “This Could Be the Start of Something Big”, “My Way”, “La Vie en Rose”... You’ll know the songs as they come up. It’s like a greatest hits of the American and French songbooks. But they all relate to the story, they’re beautifully woven in. And then Alain and Claude-Michel Schönberg have written a new song for the show, which means it finds its own voice towards the end too.
What’s different about your versions of the songs?
They’re well known songs, they all have their own style. For instance, with “I Love Paris” by Cole Porter, we’ve tried to make it how my character would perform it. It’s kind of like Billy Joel. We are playing around with the arrangements. It really appealed to me in that way because I love cabaret and I love being lost in the songs - they all have a timeless quality to them.
You’re playing the piano in the production?
That was the massively appealing thing to me as a performer. I’ve never done a show where I’ve been pushed to play the piano as well as I need to for this, so I’ve really had to brush up. The grand piano at the cabaret space at The Other Palace is perfect. Alain walked in there and said “this is where the show has to happen”. It was exactly what he’s seen in his mind.
Yep, I tried not to do that but it ended up being quite a nice moment. I’m quite conscious not to just be the guy who plays a lot of instruments but it always follows me, so I don’t resist it. I play a lot: accordion, piano, trumpet, guitar, and the mandolin thanks to Once. There are some really great musicians in this show. You’re seeing everything live, there no smokes and mirrors. Even “Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi?” is being performed live. And who would have known the West End had a virtuoso harmonica player who can play Flight of the Bumblebee?
What’s it like performing a work-in-progress piece to the public? It’s something The Other Palace have been doing an awful lot of.
I think it’s quite exciting. I saw an advert for Showstopper today, and the audience aren’t going to get the same show twice. I think the audience are always after that experience. There’s an excitement to going to see it, and we have this writer of great repute, too.
Funnily enough, the character I’m playing is a composer who doesn’t have the confidence to bring his talents to fruition and he’s trying to find his voice again. I feel a bit like that. I maintain that Miss Atomic Bomb was really good and I was really proud of it. But it wasn’t received brilliantly and it wasn’t easy to come back from that. So as a human being this part is a real gift because it’s about rediscovering that need to fulfil your potential. Personally, it’s been lovely to play.
Do you think for your next musical you might take this work-in-progress approach?
I think it would feel so much safer. I’m not sure if reviewers are coming in for this, so it’s a safer place. You feel much more confident that you can find something more outlandish and really find your voice.
Manhattan Parisienne is at The Other Palace until 21st October.