Posts Tagged ‘Broadway’

Apollo’s Girl

November 22, 2014

apollo and lyre



Word Count: R.I.P.

A few years back I had to write an article no longer than 1,000 words about Mike Nichols. There would be lots to absorb.  At the Lincoln Center library I asked for the Nichols’ clippings files and received three boxes bursting with newsprint and magazine pages. Most harked back to the time when 5,000-10,000-word profiles were assigned routinely, especially for celebrity subjects. And besides-–he was a beguiling interview.

So I set to work, poring over the folders, xeroxing what was relevant. There was so much more than I needed, but it was fascinating stuff. I read on. All of it. When the library closed, I knew everything about Mike Nichols, from his birth in Berlin through his refugee’s voyage with a name tag pinned to his coat and only two nichols and maysentences of the language he would one day master: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” Then, how he first made them laugh in Chicago with Elaine May. How he later had four hits running simultaneously on Broadway. How, after his Hollywood debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he moved on to The Graduate and just kept going until there were over two dozen films with A-list royalty before he was done.

He could act, too: he was offered the part of Iago (to Richard Burton’s Othello), and Hamlet (for Tyrone Guthrie), but turned them down. Later his brief appearance in The Designated Mourner in London moved Newsweek to declare it “…a revelation in its unnerving mix of anger, despair, perverse wit and emotional force.” How he won a lot of awards and also made a lot of money. And how he met Diane Sawyer in an airport and married her (“…she had her own constituency and her own checkbook.”) It was a brilliant life, lived to the hilt by a man of huge and protean talents.nichols 2

But here’s the most amazing thing about it: in all of those hundreds of interviews and their thousands of words, except for the two sentences/eight words he spoke on his way to America (they alone appeared everywhere), Nichols never repeated himself; not a line, not a quote, not an anecdote. It was a stunning achievement and the first and last time I’ve researched anyone of whom it was true.

In the end, struggling with impossible choices to maintain the assigned wordage, I cut the sentences, figuring they’d already appeared everywhere, and too tired to realize that they’d appeared everywhere because they’d remained etched in Nichols’ heart since the day he stepped off the boat.

Promised approval of the final version, he wrote “It’s a lovely bio,” but requested firmly (and beguilingly) a single change: to include “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me” in the first paragraph. Afterwards, I was told, he’d added, “Otherwise it seems to be fine. Very nice in fact.”

May his judgment be my epitaph.

Cooper’s London

February 4, 2014





Crossing Over: Go on, Risk it!

Gone are the days when the Met refused to look at a singer if (s)he  went on and did a Broadway show or concerts of popular songsMarta Eggerth with her husband Jan Kiepurasomething that happened to Jan Kiepura and his wife, Marta Eggerth, for example. (In her case, it was compounded; she made an MGM movie with Judy Garland!) Today, for the record companies it’s all about crossoverand personally I’m delighted. Good music is good music, whatever its idiom. You cannot attack Irving Berlin for not being crossover berlin2Beethoven or Brahms. You simply have to accept or recognize that within his genre and approach he was among the very bestand that his music lives on. Also, singers who perform this music (though they’re not trained for it or associated with it), have simply learned to adapt their technique for the best results.

So I welcome and recommend recent discs by Diana Damrau and Natalie Dessay, and an earlier tribute to Mario Lanza (and hence, in its way, Caruso) by the Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja. Not to mention the songs of Richard Tauber being resurrected by Piotr Beczała in an exceptionally lovely album.

sills and burnettThe skill, charm and sheer joy that Beverly Sills brought to her TV shows with Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews made the point that she understood the craft of the popular idiom and was as artistically committed to it as her partners.

Indeed, Andrews was known to prepare songs for showsor her fine recording of The King and Iwith at least as much zeal as the great lieder singers, repeatedly checking and trying out every variation for colouring each word and musical phrase until she got them the way they ought to be (in her opinion).

But there’s another avatar of crossover who remains in my heart: the brilliant singing actress Teresa Stratas. When I was a child in Toronto, my piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music ran from 4 PM-5 PM. Every week, while my mother waited for me in a Conservatory hallway, a teen-aged girl named Teresa would turn up for a singing stratas bohemelesson that started at 4.30. My mother said Teresa was miserable because her family were forcing her to study opera, claiming they could see she had a real gift for it. But what she really wanted to do was make a career of singing pop stuff, as she did with her sister several times a week to entertain the diners in the family’s restaurant.

A few years later my mother took me to hear to hear Teresa sing her first Madama Butterfly for the then-fledgling Canadian Opera Company. We went backstage to say hello, where my mother relished saying: “See, I told you your parents were right and that you should stick to the opera lessons!” “But,” said Teresa, “I still love singing pop, Broadway and crossover showboat 2jazz, and now they won’t even let me do that.” Later in her career, when she could demand her own way and get it, she returned to her teenage passions, to prove that opera and pop were not mutually exclusive.

When I started the magazine Opera Now, I met Teresa briefly again at the launch party for the recording of Show Boat on which she brilliantly plays Julie, bringing all her acting and vocal skills to the part and proving that, if she had not stuck with her opera lessons (as our mothers recommended), she might have had a hell of a career on Broadway. Mind you, being a definitive Salome or Lulu is not bad going, either.

Natalie Dessay, like Beverly Sills, has a naturally light voice used with such intelligence that she can sing everythingZerbinetta or Marie in La Fille du Régimentwith as much conviction as Violetta in La Traviata and other, heavier roles (not excluding Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck or, just this last season at the Met, Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare). crossover dessay and legrandWorking with Michel Legrand, who studied with Nadia Boulanger before he was “sidetracked” into film scores and songs, Dessay has created what promises to be the first of a new series of recitals. In this first oneEntre Elle et Lui (see below)she sings exquisitely a range of Legrand songs, many of which are now standards. Her programming is smart and varied. Legrand said of her that she “sings my music with so much joy, yet so much anguish, such lightness of touch, such despair, such laughter and tears.” All I can do is quote Harold Arlen:  “Ain’t it the Truth!”

As with all the best crossover performers, like Stratas or Risë Stevens when they switched gears, Dessay understands the art of developing a simpler, non-operatic style, and matches Legrand’s superb pianism note for note.  Also, it has to be said, the microphone is in love with Dessay’s voice. Working mainly in their native French, the two create a wonderful smoky atmosphere (think cabaret club), but you will also love “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from the movie Yentl; “Les moulins de mon Coeur” (“Windmills of my Mind”) from The Thomas Crown Affair; and the duetsfirst with Patricia Petibon (“Chanson des Jumelles”) and then with Laurent Naori (“Duet de Guy et Geneviève”), both from the film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. It’s an impact equal to Barbara Streisand’s first Broadway albums. Dessay also brings to mind both Stratas in her prime and Maria Ewing’s jazz evenings at Ronnie Scott’s in London, where that singer discovered and deployed a whole new vocal technique and range to interpret the music.

Diana Damrau is more Sills than Streisand in her new album Forever, in which she sings songs from operettas, musicals and movies. The twenty-one songs are such interesting choices that I kept wondering just who dominated the crossover damrau foreverselection processDamrau or her producer? And I found it riveting to hear some of the Broadway songs (popular in Germany) sung in translation. Certainly there is not one track that doesn’t fit her voice, and she totally inhabits each one: Kalman, Lehár, Lerner and Loewe, Sondheim, Gershwin (“Summertime” is stunning) and even the Sherman Brothers (“Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins). Ably abetted by David Charles Abell and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Forever is a treat that also reminds you how good the music actually is and makes you want to go back to the complete show or operetta. It also makes me want to hear Damrau in Bernstein’s Candide and many other things.

The boys are getting in on the crossover act, too. crossover keelLong ago, Howard Keel (once George London’s classmate) told me that he studied with Lotte Lehmann; she was instrumental in pushing him in the direction of Oscar Hammerstein II and an audition for replacing the legendary Alfred Drake as Curly in Oklahoma! Keel feared that, if he got the job, the Met would never look at him again. Before he would meet with Hammerstein, Lehmann had to promise she would intercede when he wanted to return to the classical worldwhich, of course,  he didn’t, having found himself totally at home in musicals from the first rehearsal. But Lanza (who, according to Toscanini, had as great a natural talent and sound as the great Caruso himself), was unable to make the shift back to classical opera when he wanted to for many reasons. Surely one of them was the perception of managements of that era of his Hollywood career: he was a turncoat, a sell-out and a lightweight.

crossover callejaThe point is that the two worlds were kept separate in those days and that the opera house despised performers who popularized opera or who sang it (and popular music) outside the opera house itself. Fortunately and sensibly this is no longer the case. Nowadays we can enjoy Joseph Calleja on a recital disc like Amore or, better yet, Be My Love (his tribute to Lanza), and see him at the Met at the same time. Piotr Beczała has also just crossed over with Heart’s Delight, reviving the songs of Richard Tauber from the worlds of operetta, film and popular song. Both men are superb singers with serious careers and both are unashamed advocates of this music which, while it may be perceived as lighter than operatic repertoire, is certainly no less technically, dramatically or vocally demanding. It requires its own sensitivities beczalaand interpretative powers and a wide-ranging intelligence from people who more often sing Verdi, Donizetti or even Wagner. The sheer loveliness of Beczała’s voice in particular shines in his crossover album.

These recordings illustrate two things: firstly, that creating popular music is no less important than creating the recognized “classics” (and we do well to remember that most classics started out as popular music in their day); and that if artists at the level of Dessay, Damrau, Calleja and Beczała are interested in the job we should respect their commitment to a wider range of expression than previous artists were permitted. And also, frankly, just wallow with pleasure in some of the lush tunes!

Every one of these discs is worth having in your collection; be thankful they are performed with such skill and enjoyment. If you don’t like musicals or operettas, forget it; just don’t sneer at the artists or audiences who do, or underrate the artistry needed to excel at these idioms. Opera, musicals and jazz are not mutually exclusive. They are all simply at different locations, or represent different shades, on a spectrum, as these four artists demonstrate.

And don’t forget that recording of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat. Conducted by John McGlinn, it featured not only Teresa Stratas but Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley and Bruce Hubbardall opera singers inviting you to cross over with them. Just say yes!

Erato 5099993414821 Natalie Dessay, Michel Legrand: Entre elle et lui

Erato 5099960266620 Diana Damrau, Forever: Unforgettable Songs from Vienna, Broadway and Hollywood. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Charles Abell

Decca 478 3531 Joseph Calleja, Be My Love: A Tribute to Mario Lanza. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio

Decca 478 5340 Joseph Calleja, Amore. BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Steven Mercurio

DG 479 0838 Piotr Beczała, Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lukasz Borowicz

Cooper’s London

July 10, 2013





A Mad World, My Masters,
by Thomas Middleton
(a.k.a. Guys and Dolls in Soho)

If there is a chance to get to only one show this middletonsummer at Stratford, make it this one. Middleton is not as well known as he should be, and this is his ultimate masterpiecea wickedly satirical and utterly hilarious farce. It is also a production that makes it clear that you could consider Middleton to have been the Damon Runyon of 1605 in his approach to satire. The director, Sean Foley, has come sean foleyup with the idea of updating the action from Soho (the London lowlife areas of 1605) to Soho in 1955, and the parallels not only work, but give the show the feeling of a Jacobean Guys and Dolls. As in that show, the louche underworld characters are treated with a kind of indulgence and we see everything from their viewpoint.

mad worldWith some wonderfully evocative and edgy jazz music from the era being played and sung throughout, the evening feels like an intelligent and provocative musical; and there really are an awful lot of laughs.



The performance I attended was rollicking fun and the audience was captivated from the moment the excellent Linda John-Pierre sang her bewitching opening number. With a little modernization of some of the more difficult Jacobean language and of some of the characters’ names, the points are made that much  sharper. I especially like the protagonist being named Mr Littledick (not to mention the hypocrite, Mr Penitent Brothel), excellently played by Steffan Rhodri and John Hopkins, respectively.  The text is remarkably clear and accessible in this production. I came out wondering why the play is performed so rarely.

I think they should transfer A Mad World, My Masters to the West End and then Broadway and that it could have the same success as the National Theatre’s update of A Servant of Two Masters (now known as One Man, Two Guvnors). I resist picking anyone out for special praise because everyone in the cast was giving a peak performance; the staging amounts to a brilliant piece of ensemble work.

This is Sean Foley’s debut at the RSC, and I expect to be returning to see his work as often as I can. Mad World: in repertory, Stratford’s Swan Theatre til 25 October 2013

A Kick-Ass Chorus Line

chorus line 2When it opened in February of this year, a facsimile edition of A Chorus Line hit the Palladium road running, as it were, and got sensationally positive notices everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s not doing sensational business, even though it’s very good.

So if you’re in London and fancy seeing as-near-as-damn-it to the original production, then you should be able to get in at half price or less! They are keeping the show running through the tourist season and then sending it on tour all over Europe in September.

I saw A Chorus Line all those years ago when it opened off-Broadway in a small house at the Public Theatre, but I don’t remember its specifics well enough to be able to say point by point how this production differs or is fitted to the new cast. All I can say is that it doesn’t have the dazzle or, indeed, the surprise value that it did in 1975; and much of the stuff that was original with this showlike dealing with homosexuality openly in a musicalis now common enough not to shock or distress as it could when the show ran originally.  The things that made people gasp with surprise and recognition and with the excitement of breaking taboos just can’t do that any more.  Nor can sitting in the Palladium give you the sense of proximity to the stage or intimacy that the original production did before it transferred to Broadway for its .

That said, it is still a very appealing show, best seen live because of the energy and impact of the dancing. The cast is uniformly excellent zimmerman 2and Leigh Zimmerman deservedly won an Olivier award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in March. That means she beat out the boys too, because in the Oliviers there is only one supporting role award, not one for each sex.

Zimmerman’s movingly acted, nuanced and dazzlingly sung-and-danced performance as Sheila is memorable. She conveys the tough carapace that Sheila has grown through years of disappointment as well as the vulnerability that still exists underneath. Scarlett scarlett strallenStrallen is a poignant Cassie. In both cases you wish the parts were longer, the back stories more fleshed out. And Cassie’s solo routine, a long and demanding piece of choreography, is a true show stopper.

The entire cast keeps on giving: I liked Victoria Hamilton-Barrit, Rebecca Giacopazzi, and the Zach of John Partridge, for example. A Chorus Line has been faithfully restaged for this London run by two members of the original cast, Baayork Lavian and leeee and Bob Avian, who were also members of the whole, fascinating lengthy workshop process that developed A Chorus Line in the first place. And though the Palladium is somewhat too large for what was originally done as an intimate show off Broadway in a small theatre, this theatre is a legendary venue in itself and some of the fun is simply being enveloped in a place which has hosted so many wonderful vaudeville stars and Royal Variety performances.

A Chorus Line stands up to repeated scrutiny despite my quibbles. The score by Marvin Hamlisch is a fine one, with superb lyrics by Edward Kleban, the whole show building inexorably to that famous climax when everyone you have gotten to know as individuals over two hours suddenly returns glitteringly attired and melts into the anonymity of the chorus line with the unforgettable number One.

chorus line 3A Chorus Line runs at the Palladium Theatre in London until 31 August 2013 and then starts its European tour.  Catch it while you can! One of the tempting offers for the show is at: Best price tickets

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