Accentuating the positive

Friday Briefing: Accentuating the positive, closing without a closing night, and Sondheim at 90

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

"You've got to accentuate the positive..."

One of Broadway and Hollywood's greatest-ever songwriters Harold Arlen wrote an Oscar-winning song for the 1944 Bing Crosby/Betty Hutton film Here Comes the Waves, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, called "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive".

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between

You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene.

At a time when pandemonium appears to have already walked upon the scene, and there's no sign of it abating anytime soon, it's important to keep a sense of perspective - and hold onto a sense of hope that binds us together as a community.

As New York Post columnist Michael Riedel reminded his readers last week: "Not only has the Great White Way weathered 9/11, but it also survived the Great Depression, the financial crises of the 1970s and 2008 and another virus more deadly than coronavirus: AIDS. That one wiped out untold numbers of theatre people. Broadway will come back, one press agent says, because 'we're good at staging comebacks'."

But when? No one knows right now (Today, SOLT extended West End closures to 26th April, "whilst we wait for further clarity from the government"). And it may be time, as New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, to fully embrace that uncertainty. "I'm beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share: We just can't know. Don't expect life to be predictable or fair. Don't try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal. There's a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you're not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there's a quieter and better you beneath them.  We're seeing the world with plague eyes now. We're all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence."

That was illustrated in a tiny theatrical way by a tweet I saw posted by a person who posted an inspirational quote from Les Miserables in their Chiswick window. It was seen by Rebecca Caine, who originated the role of Cosette in that production and also lives locally, and dropped a card into the household, saying how it had made her cry. 

Me, too - not least because the person who had posted the quote was an actor who had trained at ArtsEd - a school I teach at, and where I had last year invited Rebecca to talk to my class.

This virus is making us see the world in a brand-new way every day. And that's one way to accentuate the positive.

A similar lesson was learnt by Broadway songwriter Laurence O'Keefe, who tweeted on diminishing toilet paper supplies...


Closing without a closing night

Just as school students have just been told that they won't be sitting their end of year exams, thus denying them the finishing point of their academic endeavours, so many actors are finding themselves out of a job, without a last night to celebrate, either. 

Both Thriller Live and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, which had previously announced they were closing in the next few weeks, have now stated that they played their final performances last weekend. 

Actors on Broadway in productions that were due to end their limited runs soon found themselves in the same position when the curtain was suddenly brought down on Broadway a week ago. But in the case of David Alan Grier, who had returned to Broadway in A Soldier's Tale, he and his fellow cast members were at least called back to the theatre the next night for one final performance, without an audience present. They were asked to perform it again for a taping for the New York Public library for the Performing Arts, and as he told David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter: "Walking to the theatre on Friday through a much thinner crowd than ever around Broadway, with hardly anyone there, I realized that for one night we were the only show on Broadway. It was without an audience, but still."

And at least it meant a different kind of closure was possible: as he also said, "I'm glad we did it, because it was a way for us to come together and be able to say goodbye, and it's been such an incredible experience. We were just lucky, man." 

Sondheim at 90

This Sunday Stephen Sondheim will turn 90. He should have celebrated it by going to see the Broadway opening night of the transfer of Marianne Elliott's London revival of his 1970 musical Company, but alas it is not to be. 

Sondheim also missed the formal renaming of the West End's Queen's Theatre as the Sondheim Theatre after him in January, after sustaining a fall at his Connecticut home. 

But even if we can't celebrate him publicly, at least we can enjoy his work in recordings, both audio and in live video recordings of the shows themselves. 

And during this time of enforced absence from live theatre, here are a few of my favourite Sondheim things to enjoy online.

Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, original stars of Sunday in the Park with George, perform "Move On' from an 80th birthday concert for Sondheim

"Our Time" from Merrily We Roll Along, sung at a BBC Prom in 2010 marking Sondheim's 80th birthday
The sublime Barbara Cook, sings the definitive version of "Losing My Mind" in the 1985 Lincoln Centre concert of Follies
Melissa Errico, one of Broadway's very best voices, sings "Children Will Listen" from Into the Woods in cabaret at 54 Below

The original Broadway cast of Pacific Overtures perform "Somewhere in a Tree"
Judi Dench performs "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music that she starred in at the National Theatre

Originally published on

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