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Throwback Thursday - Two Gentlemen of Verona
Following on from the Tony Awards which last weekend crowned Fun Home Best Musical in the 2014/15 season, I decided to re-look at Tony Award winning shows that most surprised audiences, and I remembered the 1971 award ceremony which saw Two Gentlemen of Verona win the top prize over popular favourites Grease and Sondheim's Follies.
Whilst the momentum was certainly strong this year for a Fun Home sweep (which it did in the creative categories - winning Best Book, Best Score and Best Direction), there were still many in the industry who were tipping the more commercially viable option An American in Paris, thanks in part to the voters who have their eyes on the touring market, with the Gershwin jukebox show being a much safer bet on the road, especially in the Red states.
Back in 1971, Two Gentleman of Verona was a surprise winner, especially as it only ended up winning two of the eight categories it was nominated for (Best Musical and Best Book), unlike Follies which won seven awards, including Best Score, Direction, Choreography and all the technical awards. The more popular hit Grease was nominated for seven awards and went home empty handed - but as history has shown, which of those three shows is the average man on the street familiar with? It just goes to prove that winning the Tony isn't a sure-fire recipe for longevity.
Two Gentlemen of Verona has more in common with Fun Home than you'd maybe first think - not necessarily in terms of story or style, but in the origins of both productions. Both shows have The Public Theater to thank for their inception, the arts organization which was founded as 'The Shakespeare Workshop' in 1954 by Joseph Papp. The venue had the intention of showcasing the works of up-and-coming playwrights and performers, and continues to this day to be one of the most important and artistically diverse arts organizations in New York City.
The Public Theater's record is inimitable. It has won 42 Tony Awards, 151 Obies, 41 Drama Desk Awards and four Pulitzer Prizes. Fifty-four Public Theater productions have moved to Broadway, including highly successful musicals such as 'Hair', 'A Chorus Line', 'Caroline, or Change', 'The Wild Party' and most recently, the sell-out hit 'Hamilton'. The Public initially staged 'Fun Home' in 2012 as part of its Public Theater Lab, and opened off-Broadway in September 2013, extending multiple times before announcing a transfer to Broadway.
In contrast, Two Gentleman of Verona began its life outdoors, at the Public's annual Shakespeare in the Park festival which takes place at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. After receiving positive reviews and word of mouth, the show then transferred to Broadway's St James Theatre, opening on 1 December 1971 and running for 614 performances.
The success of the New York run, and the Tony Award, made a London transfer possible and the West End production opened at the Phoenix Theatre on 26 April 1973 where it ran for 237 performances. The original creative team remained with the production, but the original London cast included B. J. Arnau (Silvia), Ray C. Davis (Proteus), Jean Gilbert (Julia), Derrick Griffiths (Thurio), Benny Lee (Launce), Michael Staniforth (Speed), and Samuel E. Wright(Valentine).
Two Gentlemen of Verona is described as a rock musical and features a book by John Guare and Mel Shapiro, with lyrics by Guare and music by Galt MacDermot - the author of a previous hit rock musical Hair (which incidentally didn't win the Tony Award two years previously). Based on the Shakespeare play of the same name the action is updated to contemporary Milan, and follows lifelong friends Proteus and Valentine who abandon rural life to experience a faster pace of life. Problems arise when both fall in love with Sylvia, whose father has betrothed her against her will to the wealthy but undesirable Thurio, and the pair plot to both win her for themselves.
Listening to the cast recording you can't help but be struck by the musical comparisons to MacDermont's 'Hair', and the show feels very similar in style and structure. An essentially sung- through score creates atmosphere, but lyrically struggles to live up to its predecessor, leading many critics to claim that the show suffers from style over substance. The rock feel of the score is matched by impressive vocals and performances, and the overall effect is certainly strikingly different to many other musicals of its time.
Despite the award success, the show has had limited shelf life since the original production. The Public staged a modest revival as part of an anniversary celebration, but no full production has opened on Broadway or the West End. Like 'Hair', the rock vibe can't help but sound dated, and without the strong historical context to root the show, can feel slightly token.
That said, it is an impressive show that remains one of the most successful musical adaptations of a Shakespeare play - a fact that should be commended in itself. Have a listen to the below track from the London cast recording (on vinyl!) and judge for yourself. It just goes to show, that winning the big prize at the Tony Awards doesn't necessarily confirm a show's place in popular history!
Did you see Two Gentlemen of Verona? Let us know your comments below!
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