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A musical about the dark underbelly of Times Square in the 1980s may sound like a difficult elevator pitch for a Broadway musical, but Cy Coleman, David Newman and Ira Gasman's The Life defied many critics when it originally opened in New York twenty years ago. Hot off the success of the Tony Award-winning City of Angels, The Life reunited composer Cy Coleman with Australian director Michael Blakemore who collaborated on this edgy and difficult show that followed pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and runaways in a powerful melodrama.
“It's absolutely fresh – it tells an amazingly interesting yarn” comments Blakemore as we speak mid-rehearsal for the UK premiere of the show that opens next week at the Southwark Playhouse. “It has an extraordinary story line in the tradition of West Side Story – the tragic melodrama, it doesn't hold its punches, it moves fast, covers a lot of territory and has a rousing conclusion.”
UK audiences may be forgiven for not knowing too much about The Life given that it has taken two decades for the show to the reach London since the original Broadway outing which achieved a modestly successful run of 466 performances.
“We weren't a big success but we ran for over a year and got all the awards and I felt that the show should be seen in England” Blakemore explains. “The five top rate British reviewers came to New York and gave us good reviews so I thought it would follow naturally to Britain, but British managements were all so nervous of the subject matter. It is quite tough, it deals with prostitution in a very realistic way – they wouldn't touch it. I think it's got an audience in England and it is Cy Coleman's most ambitious score, it's thrilling. I just felt it deserved an airing.
A former Associate Director of the National Theatre, Michael Blakemore has achieved success in both plays and musicals and in 2000 became the only individual to win Tony Awards for best Director of a Play and Musical in the same year for Copenhagen and Kiss Me, Kate. Returning to the musical after a gap of twenty years and in the intimate setting of the Southwark Playhouse this new London production brings with it a whole new set of challenges.
“It's a big, big show to be doing at Southwark but I've got a first rate cast who are all working extremely hard – we're exactly where we should be at this time” he comments, as the show prepares to begin previews. “It becomes far more intimate, it gains a great deal but obviously it loses a bit too. We had a lot of money to spend on Broadway, we had wonderful sets designed by Robert Wagner. Now we have terrific sets designed by Justin Nardella but you know, instead of having 200 dollars we have tuppence. Doing a show in such a limited space means the cast don't have to worry so much about projection – the audience can come to them and not the other way around. I think the West End, which is doing very well and I'm delighted by that, it's getting increasingly more expensive and I suppose increasingly safer. The lively work in theatre in general is happening on the fringes. I wanted to participate in that I suppose.”
Original musicals not based on pre-existing source materials can be difficult to secure investment at the best of times, let alone a show that handled such extreme subject matter in the commercial sector.
“The show went through many transformations” Michael comments. “It was originally the idea of lyricist Ira Gasman, he had already written some lyrics and took the idea to Cy with a treatment and they both got together, not being scriptwriters and cobbled together a book. Then they did a workshop of that and people agreed – the music was terrific, the lyrics were terrific but they were a bit wobby about the book because of the subject matter and the fact it didn't quite tell the right story. Then David Newman was brought on board and he did another book. Then I was brought on board and I thought it needed some changes, so we worked together and we got it on.”
In the gossipy world of Broadway the show's transitions were much commented on, especially following the successes of City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies which had won Cy back-to-back Tony Awards for Best New Musical earlier in the decade.
“I think we got it pretty right” Michael states boldly. “It had already accumulated an ambiguous reputation – everybody thought the music was great but were worried about the book and subject matter. We opened and we got some critics who gave the show a rave, other people didn't like it – a very divided press. That's usually an indicator of really interesting work. Interesting work always polarises opinion, as Look Back in Anger did years and years ago. We had our champions, when we lost the Tony to Titanic there was a long article in the New York Observer saying we were robbed. I have to say I felt that, I thought that the outstanding score really deserved to be acknowledged a bit more broadly. I wanted to take the show on another outing.”
Despite not winning the Tony the musical helped push the nature of modern musical theatre and once again showed Coleman's diversity as the beating heart of the American musical over four decades.
“I think he as a musician – he writes about American aspiration so well in numbers such as “There's Got to be Something Better Than This” in Sweet Charity. There's this exhilarating sense of something coming up from below, often ironically rendered as it is in that number. We have a similar number in The Life and this subject matter releases the capacity for exhilarating expectation. We have a very talented company I have to say. The young people are very, very good.”
It may have taken 20 years to finally land in the UK, but audiences are no doubt in for a treat when The Life officially opens at the Southwark Playhouse next week. "I knew Cy very well and we were great friends" Michael comments, rushing to throw himself straight back into rehearsals. "I wanted to bring the show to England as a tribute to his memory".
The Life runs at The Southwark Playhouse from 25 March.