06/01/21 Mike Writes –

That Was The Year That Was

Or wasn’t, for us theatreguys. Or, more correctly, it was but only partially and intermittently. Fredo has talked about the Group theatre visits we fitted in before lockdown last year, but we also found time for an equal number of performances which we saw OnOurOwn before the first lockdown hit us, and then between lockdowns.

Our OOO year began at the Young Vic with its reputation for cutting-edge drama. Fairview came hot from New York, a comedy challenging racial stereotypes, and at the end the whole audience was lured on stage to show solidarity – intimidating!

We were invited to see how Magic Goes Wrong – it did, but was more entertaining when it didn’t.

The Donmar took us Far Away, into Caryl Churchill’s dystopian imagination, and the Trafalgar Studio 2 (always a cosy experience) turned the clock back to pre-My Night With Reg days with Coming Clean, an early gay tease from Kevin Elyot.

Magic Goes Wrong
Dear Evan Hanson
Uncle Vanya

Another invitation arrived, this time to see Dear Evan Hanson, a Broadway musical success which we doubted would be as popular here. We were wrong – the young and the critics were impressed more than us.  We favoured its hi-tech production and the personable lead performance from Sam Tutty (who went on to win an Olivier award for his performance) but for we oldies is was just another attempt (like Wicked) to appeal to junior misfits.

Uncle Vanya was a solid classic revival with a great cast – Toby Jones, the perfect Uncle. We thought you would like it but we took you to see Vanya in 2019 and assumed another visit would be too soon to fill our coach. However, this production had an afterlife streamed and in cinemas. Maybe you saw it.

Rafe Spall impressed us hugely in Death of England which was such a success the National commissioned a follow-up, Death of England: Delroy for their reopening after lockdown. It was fated – the original lead was indisposed, had to be replaced by understudy Michael Balogun who nailed it for the critics. Then came Lockdown Two, performances had to be cancelled, our booking was refunded, and it was streamed, once only, on line. We intend to book again when the National can revive it.

If awards can be given for such a short year in the theatre, I would cast votes for the Old Vic’s production of Beckett’s Endgame. Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe were perfect casting. It was funny, accessible, thoughtful and brave – was Beckett ever so enjoyable?

Our final theatre visit before Lockdown One was to Hampstead for Haystack, a surveillance thriller which brought audible gasps from the enthralled audience. That’s what it’s about, being with an audience, alive in a theatre. That’s what we miss, as you all know, with no theatre to go to.

This is England
Photo: Manuel Harlan

We are now in Lockdown Three, meaning there were two gaps between lockdowns in which a few enterprising theatres reopened. We were there, of course. I’m sure there’s no need for me to emphasise the well publicised precautions every theatre took. We wanted to support their enterprise, make an effort ourselves, lead the way if you like to show it could be done. Bubbles were allowed to book seats in groups of two, three or four, and we renewed memberships at a time when every subscription meant so much to every theatre.

The first theatre to reopen was the Donmar – many congrats to them – with Blindness, an installation in which the live audience listened mostly in total darkness to a dramatic monologue by Juliet Stephenson. Don’t raise your eyebrows and shy away – it worked brilliantly. The Donmar then went quiet, only reawakening for a streamed concert at Christmas – some enjoyed it but I thought it sombre when it should have been cheering. It ticked minority boxes as the Donmar does, but had too many mawkish readings. Rosalie Craig was rudely interrupted mid-song by a caption plea to give generously!

Beat The Devil

Real theatre re-emerged from lockdown for us in September at the Bridge with Ralf Fiennes (Look! An actor, alive!) channelling David Hare’s thoughts on C19 in Beat The Devil. This was agitprop theatre at its best – the reduced-size spaced-out audience could have raised the roof with its cheers if circumstance permitted. We were back in the real theatre – hooray!

It was during the second pause between lockdowns in December that we managed a mini theatre festival of our own – two plays, a cabaret performance, an installation and a Panto, all in one week! It felt like old times, theatre-going refreshed. Our thoughts on each show have been added to this website and you can find them at this LINK.

In recent years the London Palladium has renewed its reputation  for Panto but we didn’t go. For Christmas 2020, we did. This was lavish, colourful, glittering silliness – a chance to laugh like never before in 2020. We left our well exercised cynicism and critical impulse behind in lockdown and joined a house, packed to its permitted capacity, to succumb to the Panto spirit. (I believe large theatres were allowed 50% capacity up to 1000) Even with two empty seats in front, behind and on either side, we still felt like a real audience of like-minds ready to relax and enjoy. This was the best festive therapy to cheer the grouchiest Scrooge. It worked. And the very next day all theatres were forced to close again.

We await the great re-opening in 2021. With you or OnOurOwn we look forward to being back in a theatre asap. We wish happy vaccinated theatregoing for you all again soon.


Selecting Sondheim….piece by piece

Fredo has some thoughts about Marry Me A Little, a song originally dropped from Sondheim’s musical Company, and then used as the title for the compilation show Marry Me A Little. The show is reviewed today by Mike on the OnOurOwn page of this website.

There’s a book to be written (and probably one exists already) about songs that have been cut from shows. Famously, most of the score of Gigi is rumoured to be cobbled together from leftovers from My Fair Lady, and in recent years, Lonely Room, Jud’s song deleted from Oklahoma!, has cropped up frequently in concerts. That’s why Marry Me a Little, the show recently streamed from The Barn Theatre, is so intriguing. While it’s out-takes from other shows yield many pleasures, there’s an academic – OK, nerdy – fascination in considering the merits of the songs individually, as well as thinking about what they might have added to each original show.

Take Two Fairy Tales, cut from A Little Night Music. This is challenging to sing, and frankly, challenging to listen to as well. Was this ever included in the original show, or was it a first draft that was sensibly set to one side? Another song for the same show, Silly People, was dropped late in try-outs as the show was too long, and it would have darkened the tone too much; it’s still fairly ponderous.

The genesis of Being Alive, the final and devastating number from Company, is a lesson for everyone who has tried to set pen to paper. The question you always have to ask is “It may sound good, but does it say what I want to say?” The first version of this song, Happily Ever After, drips with discontent and disillusion, and lacks any of the acceptance and necessary resolution that Being Alive brings to the drama. Marry Me a Little was a second attempt, and still didn’t quite do the job. Both songs were dropped. Astute directors have since restored Marry Me A Little to the score, placing it at the interval to show the singer’s uncertainties that are resolved in the end in Being Alive.

Marry me a little
Love me just enough
Cry, but not too often
Play, but not too rough
Keep a tender distance
So we'll both be free
That's the way it ought to be

Many songs that were cut from Follies are used in Marry Me a Little; we can still hear snatches of some of them in the Follies overture. By and large, they were all replaced by better songs with cleverer words and more tuneful melodies. However, Can That Boy Foxtrot? was taken out because even the vivacious Yvonne de Carlo couldn’t make it work, and the world was gifted instead with I’m Still Here.

The brittle Uptown, Downtown was cut from Follies and The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie was inserted. This show-piece was in turn dropped for the first London production of Follies, where Diana Rigg disported herself in Ah! But Underneath, arguably a better song. There’s a further twist here: in the Barn Theatre’s outing of Marry Me A Little. Uptown, Downtown has been dropped again from this compilation show, and Ah! But Underneath replaces it – brilliantly performed by Rob Houchen.

She was smart, tart
Dry as a Martini
Ah! But underneath
She was all heart
Something by Puccini
Ah! But underneath
In the depths of her interior
Were fears she was inferior
And what is even eerier,
Nobody would query her superior exterior.

The stories behind some of the songs that are inserted rather than cut would make an entertaining diversion. Sondheim tells of having to write an additional song for Angela Lansbury in Anyone Can Whistle, because she complained that Lee Remick had 4 songs while she only had 3. And it was because Dame Angela felt she needed another song in Act 2 of Sweeney Todd that the score contains the essential By the Sea.

How did Sondheim’s greatest hit come about? Fairly late in rehearsals for A Little Night Music, Glynis Johns, playing Desiree, took him to one side and pointed out that her character – the leading role – didn’t have a song in the second act. Sondheim went back to his hotel that night and wrote Send in the Clowns, presenting it to her the next morning. The rest is history.

Other notices

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