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They say that musicals are never simply written, they are re-written. It takes a highly committed cast and truly talented creative team to turn a show that hasn't necessarily worked the first time around into a more substantial hit. Whilst it may certainly be a show that deals with an unlikely subject matter, director Thom Southerland has developed an unrivaled reputation for creating great reckonings in little rooms, and as his inaugural season at the Charing Cross Theatre draws to a close he is preparing to go out on a high with the European premiere of Maury Yeston, Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan's glorious musical Death Takes a Holiday. Despite not being as well known as the composer's other shows including Nine, Phantom and Titanic, this haunting and sumptuous romantic musical promises to provide audiences with an unforgettable theatrical experience.
“The music is just stunning” gushes Gay Soper, the seasoned West End actress who plays Contessa Evangelina in the musical alongside Maxwell Caulfield, Zoë Doano and Chris Peluso. Speaking to the company midway through rehearsals for this highly anticipated staging, it's clear that the love of the material and beauty of the score is revered by all of the performers.
“It epitomizes Maury's fabulous way of writing romantic music” says Zoë, who is creating the central role of Grazia whose love story and brush with Death provides the show's central arch. ”Maury is one of my favourite composers, he writes for sopranos, you don't really get that from any other modern composer” she comments.
Anyone familiar with any of Yeston's Tony Award-winning scores will attest to their sheer scale and beauty, evoking a certain romanticism as well as displaying a inimitable European sensibility. Where Death Takes a Holiday stands out from the pack is in its central theme that provides an entirely refreshing outlook on a traditional love story.
“The show has a grandiose idea, it deals with mortality” explains Maxwell Caufield, the celebrated star of stage and screen whose role in 'Grease 2' has awarded him cult status amongst musical theatre fans. “This past year everybody seems to have had brushes with death or people around them have died and even the iconic figures of our times. There has been an end to a time of innocence, as if the last two World Wars hadn't taught us that people are self destructive. The more comfortable world that we had created for ourselves in the wake of the war, through unification and becoming the global village, that has been turned on its head again. We're in serious danger of becoming more territorial and bringing down the portcullis. The show does provoke big ideas I think, that's the hope. As well as providing a lyrical evening.”
Based on the play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, the musical surrounds a family who have a near-death experience, after which Death decides to literally take a holiday from taking souls and stays with the family to try and understand why people on earth fear him so.
“It's about what we learn from death” says Zoë, “Grazia, she's the heroine who is surrounded by life, she has everything she wants, but the only thing that makes her feel alive is Death. The first thing you see is her being thrown out of this car – she has had a near death experience, and how that changes you as a person is basically what our story is, how people are changed, can you live your life as you did before or do you see the possibilities? It puts life into perspective. The journey that every character has with Death is interesting, each character has a relationship, every single person in this house has had an experience and the story comes from how they all deal with him being there. You ask yourself – if you were to meet death how would it make you feel?”
The role of Death himself is in the hands of the tremendously talented West End leading man Chris Peluso who has recently starred in roles such as Chris in Miss Saigon and Gaylord in Showboat, traditional romantic leads who audiences can easily come to understand.
“One of the challenges was approaching the character of Death from an emotionally naïve place” he explains, “Death begins the play never understanding human emotion – he's this all encompassing spirit. He goes into this world not having any emotional or social experience. The challenge is being true to that but without making him boring, but also being true to that and finding a true honest emotional naivety. It's difficult for a grown man – making that believable is a challenge and I've liked taking that on. Finding his growth and his learning the emotions for the first time, realising how real these emotions are. He realises that love is stronger than death, the love will still be there even when people die, and that's what he can't understand.”
Whilst the show certainly deals with weighty issues, the humour is certainly inherent to the musical as a whole and keeps the show alive.
“Reading the script I laughed a lot, it's weighty and witty” comments Gay. “When I first read it, to me it was extremely comedic, it's very melodramatic, it's intriguing and we have a style that we haven't possibly developed yet. It's only when you run the whole thing that the feel of it suddenly comes like a revelation. My character has been a widow for 30 years and I have a touch of dementia. Because of this extraordinary experience that we have collectively with Death living in the house, I'm one of the only ones who can see it, perhaps because I'm closer to death I can see through outward appearances. Through the experience of him staying with us over this long weekend my head becomes clear and I lose my dementia.”
Finding and developing the humour from the original production has been a challenge for the whole cast and creative team, and it's this aspect that will most probably come as a surprise to those audiences who are familiar with the material.
“I think that the tone of the original was unclear” explains Chris, “we've taken out some of the more campier moments, we've honed in on the aspects of the love that death finds and the aspects of death being an exhausted soul who needs this holiday from the war. We've shied away from the ridiculousness of it – that's inherent from the situation. It's tightened it up a lot. I think that allowing it to be funny because of the situation rather than winking that it's funny is what we've done.”
“We're trying to make it work for a British sensibility” continues Maxwell. “Thom has exhumed it and we're endeavouring to give it new life.”
“We've really talked about the comedy and the comic relief” Zoë explains. “We have played around with the idea that you'd be terrified, if we played it all jolly nobody would care – there's no danger. Thom especially really wants to zone in with what's happening in this house, all of a sudden this presence comes into this house and changes everything, that's what people care about. It's going to be very different to how it's been done before, but in a good way.”
If any director has the ability to breath new life into a musical it's Southerland, whose previous successes include knock-out productions of shows such as Victor Victoria, Parade, Allegro and Yeston's own Titanic which he has mounted all around the world.
“Thom is a wonderfully inclusive director” Maxwell states, “he's just been inviting a lot of discussion from us all in terms of not only our own characters perspective on the narrative but actually the overall arch of the show. He's very open to ideas, some he bats away and some he embraces with great enthusiasm so you feel very invested in the show rather than being moved around like a pawn. His speciality I'd say is staging, there's great fluidity in moving people around the set. It's a very busy show, there's a lot of characters.”
"Thom is such an amazing director" echoes Gay, "I've seen so much of his work and I've always wanted to do something for him. The challenge of the piece is to tell the story as truthfully and honestly as we can and that's Thom's skill - I can't wait to see how it's all going to gel. He has decided to go in a different way to the New York production, it's more Brechtian.”
The cast are all fully aware of the challenges surrounding the show, both its intriguing title and unique style that set it apart from other shows currently running on and off the West End.
“To me the first selling point is the hauntingly romantic score, it just is gorgeous" Chris states. "The melodies and the romance is just gorgeous. To me my personal favourite part are the themes – thinking about life and death, how love can alter one's perception of life and death. One way or another you're going to be thinking about these things.”
“I don't really know what the audience are going to think” laughs Gay, “it's an open ended question, it leaves you with stuff to think about. It's about young people having the time of their lives and the energy and the vitality of their youth and the innocence of their life, suddenly everything turns upside down. It's going to be a curio – it's a special piece, a sort of collectors item for people who really know a lot about musicals and love them. I can't think it's like any other show I have ever seen I don't believe. It's very brave but extremely necessary.”
Death Takes a Holiday runs at the Charing Cross Theatre from 16 January 2017.