Friday Briefing: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cinderella, a rousing Carousel and happy birthday Ian McKellen
A new Lloyd Webber Cinderella
Yes, I already love a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work - he's unquestionably Britain's commercially most successful musical theatre composer ever; but for anyone who thinks his best work came half a century ago now with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (being revived this summer at the London Palladium) and then Jesus Christ Superstar (the Open Air production receives an indoor transfer at the Barbican this summer), Evita (this year's Open Air offering), and then The Phantom of the Opera (running at Her Majesty's since 1986), the really astonishing fact is that at 71 he is not only still creating new work, but is also still capable of still surprising us.
Last week I was privileged to be one of less than 300 people invited to workshop sing-throughs of his latest score to a new long-aborning project, a new musicalisation of the Cinderella story, with a book by actor/writer Emerald Fennell and lyrics by David Zippel (Lloyd Webber's collaborator on his 2004 musical The Woman in White).
Time was that Lloyd Webber would preview his newest musicals at his private Sydmonton Festival, in a chapel on his own home estate in Berkshire, but now that he owns London's Other Palace theatre - which he bought specifically as a home to promote the development of new musicals, by others as well as himself - he did this one there. I previously attended a workshop for a revamp of his 2013 fast West End flop Stephen Ward here, but my only take-away to his chief executive when she asked me to candidly say what I thought afterwards was to suggest as tactfully as I could that they step away from trying to take it any further. Some musicals just stubbornly fail to ignite; however famous this true 60s political scandal once was, no one cares anymore about these peripheral characters in English politics, and nothing in the musical or dramatic treatment made us care, either.
Obviously I’m not reviewing CINDERELLA at this early stage of its life; but how seriously exciting to see (& hear) such a confident, funny, fresh & sassy contemporary tale of such a classic tale, a million miles from a panto but with some thrilling new @OfficialALW showstoppers. pic.twitter.com/aa4cadjxvN
— Mark Shenton (@ShentonStage) May 17, 2019
But Cinderella is another story. As Lloyd Webber pointed out in his opening remarks, Rodgers and Hammerstein's television musical version of the story - broadcast live in 1957 - was one of the most viewed single programmes in TV history, seen that night by more than 107 million people.
So, the 300 or so of us that saw Lloyd Webber's new version last week are a tiny fraction of that, but this won't be the last we'll see or hear of it. And although I wasn't on reviewing duty - certainly not at this early stage of its public airing - it was exciting to see such a confident, funny, fresh and sassy contemporary take on such a classic tale. A million miles from a panto, but with some thrilling new Lloyd Webber showstoppers delivered by quite one of the starriest ensemble casts I've ever seen assembled for a three-night run that included Carrie Hope Fletcher, in the tailor-made title role, Tyrone Huntley as her suitor Sebastian, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as her hilarious stepmother, Sophie Isaacs and Rebecca Trehearn as her stepsisters, and Ruthie Henshall as the Queen.
A rousing Carousel
Back in 1992, the National revived Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1947 musical Carousel in a production, directed by Nicholas Hytner, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan and designed by Bob Crowley, that remains indelible in my memory: one of the greatest revivals of a musical I've ever seen, giving it an emotionally wrenching charge and thrilling visuals that I'm yet to see equalled in any of the many productions I've seen since, up to and including an all-star Broadway revival this time last year.
But for all that Hytner's production magnificently brought a dark, stark and tangled intensity to the story, it was slightly compromised in the vocal department by a Billy Bigelow from American actor Michael Hayden, whose performance was mischievously labelled 'The Rise and Fall of Little Voice' in some quarters. So it was thrilling last Sunday to attend a one night concert version of the show, held at London's Cadogan Hall with a 31-piece orchestra conducted by Alex Parker playing the original Broadway orchestrations, that repaired this deficit, with Hadley Fraser playing the role, about which I was moved in the interval to post this on Twitter:
Ok, I know it’s only the interval of CAROUSEL at @cadoganhall, but having just heard @hadleyfraser’s stupendous rendition of Billy Bigelow’s “Soliloquy”, it’s safe to say he’s entered a new league of excellence: the best Billy I’ve ever heard (and mine include @RealHughJackman). pic.twitter.com/YkbMNXPklu
— Mark Shenton (@ShentonStage) May 19, 2019
And the wonders didn't stop there. The show also featured the best Jigger I've ever seen in Stewart Clarke (on a night off from Fiddler on the Roof), a vivacious Nettie Fowler from Lucy Schaufer and a scene-stealing Gavin Spokes as Enoch Snow. It was, also, of course, lovely to see Joanna Riding and Janie Dee reunited as Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge, 27 years on from when they first played the same roles at the National (and where they recently shared the stage again in Follies); neither seem a day older!
The joint is jumpin' (but almost all-white) at Southwark Playhouse
As the lyrics to one of Fats Wallers' most famous song have it,
"The joint is jumpin'
It's really jumpin'
Come in, cats, and check your hats
I mean this joint is jumpin'
The piano's thumpin',
The dancers are bumpin',
This here spot is more than hot
In fact, the joint is jumpin'
I remember seeing the original transfer of this show to Her Majesty's all of forty years ago, seven years before The Phantom of the Opera took up permanent residence there; and I've loved this show ever since. Its original cast album has become a lifelong companion, and I know the songs inside out.
So it was wonderful to be able to hear them performed live again after all these years, and especially watch them danced with such serious, life-affirming joy.
But I did have one quibble: it was disappointing to see it alongside an almost all-white audience. On the streets outside, Elephant & Castle is a rainbow nation; inside, the performers, who are all people of colour (five actors, four band) easily outnumber the people of colour in the audience.
Ian McKellen Turns 80
Finally, Happy Birthday to Sir Ian McKellen, who turns 80 tomorrow (25th May). He's marking his own anniversary by touring a new solo show up and down the land - Ian McKellen On Stage with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You. In a collection of celebratory interviews with colleagues in The Guardian this week, his Cambridge contemporary Derek Jacobi commented about this tour: "Rather him than me. Well, he is younger – he’s got more energy." And Russell Tovey told how, "On location, nothing makes him happier than finding the local amateur dramatic company. He looks out all the little theatres. His one-man show is a theatre nerd fest: he is at the top of his game but still so excited by it. Afterwards, he’ll hang out for selfies with people and be as excited as they are."
I have my own unique story of an Ian McKellen interview I did with him back in 2016, when he was in the West End with No Man's Land at Wyndham's Theatre. He insisted on us sitting outside, in the little alley that runs behind the theatre, so he could smoke. But of course, this meant that we were regularly interrupted by fans who wanted to say hello, or request a selfie. He was polite with them all (though railed against a pap photographer who tried to take pictures unbidden, whom he told, "Just because I’m in a public place doesn’t mean I can be photographed.").
But then a woman walked past and stopped in front of me. "Are you Mark Shenton?", she enquired. And then added, "I'm such a fan!" She then noticed Sir Ian beside me - and asked if he'd pose for a photograph. Happily, he agreed - and so I managed, without seeming less cool, to get one of him and me together, too.
After she left, I could see that he was amused. But I felt compelled to assure him: No, I'd not set it up!