Posted on October 29th, 2010


SONDHEIM – IN GOOD COMPANY

My 3-part podcast tribute to Stephen Sondheim goes LIVE on 22nd March – THE INDEPENDENT ONLINE, WHAT’S ON STAGE, THE ARTS DESK, AND PLAYBILL

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What’s On Stage starts the countdown below:

Countdown: Happy birthday, Stephen Sondheim!
Date: 16 March 2010

On Monday 22 March 2010, American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 80. Around the world and throughout this year, numerous productions, concerts, retrospectives and other events are taking place to celebrate the milestone.

On Whatsonstage.com, on the day itself, we’ll kick off our own “Happy birthday, Stephen!” week by launching a brand new, three-part podcast from regular Whatsonstage.com Radio contributor Edward Seckerson, who is also a writer, broadcaster and Sondheim aficionado. Commissioned by Josef Weinberger Ltd, IN GOOD COMPANY is a unique collage of intimate conversations between Seckerson and some of Sondheim’s closest colleagues and collaborators. Listeners will be able to share their experiences, their recollections, and their often very personal insights into what makes this man such a colossus in the world of musical theatre.

The IN GOOD COMPANY interviewees are: Michael Cerveris, Ted Chapin, Barbara Cook, Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Cameron Mackintosh, Julia McKenzie, Hal Prince, Jonathan Tunick and John Weidman.

Putting it together

In previewing Monday’s birthday airing of the podcasts, Seckerson says: “Since receiving the commission from Josef Weinberger, this project has been two years in the making. Tracking down and tying down such a busy and illustrious group of interviewees was never going to be easy. And the list could have kept growing had not time called a halt.

“The brief was initially to produce an 80th birthday gift for Steve – a few friends and collaborators paying their respects. But with each conversation (and roughly nine hours of material was recorded), it became clearer and clearer that Sondheim fans all over the world would relish being privy to material that was initially intended for his ears only. That’s what makes what you will hear over some two-and-half hours so special.

These are the personal ruminations of a cast of characters who’ve played a big part in Sondheim’s creative process – both in the preparation and realisation. There are others, of course, many others. This could have been a three-week not a three-podcast event. The conversations took place in apartments, in dressing rooms, in offices, both in London and New York.

There was a gale blowing down Riverside Drive when I dropped in on Barbara Cook; Patti LuPone was prostrate backstage after another gruelling performance as Mama Rose berating amateur photographers in the front stalls; Jonathan Tunick was multi-tasking as ever, emailing scoring sheets whilst talking about them; for producer/director Hal Prince, it was another day at the office – all that was missing was the cigar; Cameron Mackintosh called me back into his office having remembered a good one-liner as I was leaving: ‘You know what’s going to happen,’ Steve once said to him, ‘I’ll get the cachet and you’ll get the cash.’

“I need to thank Thomas O’Connor for his tireless work in setting all these interviews up and my brilliant producer Bill Lloyd for his technical and mental wizardry. We have the kind of telepathy which comes of working together on BBC Radio 3’s Stage & Screen for six years. Lastly, John Schofield and Sean Gray at Josef Weinberger for making it all happen.”

AN AUDIENCE WITH ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

The Lord works in mysterious ways. For years now Andrew Lloyd Webber has nursed the idea of a sequel to his most successful show The Phantom of the Opera, for years Phantom fans have pondered what might have become of him after that “final exit”. Nightly he vanishes from his subterranean lair deep in the bowels of the Paris Opera House (a.k.a. Her Majesty’s Theatre) leaving only his iconic half-mask as a symbolic reminder of his continuing omnipotence on stages throughout the world: 149 cities across 86 countries. Follow that. Lloyd Webber has.

It’s 10 years on from the fabled “disappearance” and five minutes walk from Her Majesty’s to the Adelphi Theatre where Phantom 2 Love Never Dies is in the final stages of preparation. The man himself – Lloyd Webber, that is – escorts me into the gutted auditorium where an army of technicians and banks of computer screens are rather more suggestive of space exploration than musical theatre. The orchestra will be in situ for the first time and in a couple of hours the show’s big opener will see Coney Island, New York, rise from the ashes of one of its countless fires and reanimate to the strains of a sumptuous bitter-sweet waltz in the grand tradition of Lloyd Webber’s great idol Richard Rodgers’ Carousel.

The Coney Island setting came out of years of think-tanking involving personalities as diverse as Frederick “The Jackal” Forsyth, Ben Elton, the show’s lyricist Glenn Slater and director Jack O’Brien of whom Lloyd Webber says “Anyone directing Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, Puccini’s Trittico, and Hairspray in one year is someone you have to meet.” Actually it was Ben Elton’s idea to carry all of the original characters forward to the sequel. Their identity was already well established globally, he said, and introducing major new characters into the mix would only muddy the waters. He was right.

So who exactly wrote the book? “Well, with a largely through-sung show it’s harder to say because everybody, the whole creative team, are chipping in with ideas. But obviously once Glenn Slater, our lyricist, came on board and the words themselves started flowing then everything began falling into place and the Coney Island setting became more and more dramatically appealing.”

Coney Island in 1907 was pretty much the eighth wonder of the world. It was the mother of amusement parks, the only good reason, said Freud, for making the long trip across the Atlantic. It was somewhere the Phantom, still pining for his one true love Christine Daaé, could fit right in – a decadent playground of freak shows, escapologists, illusionists, and great showmen. It also happened to be the age of Vaudeville. As settings for musicals go this one was a no-brainer. But establishing Coney Island in the minds and imaginations of audiences for whom it was probably nothing more than the name of some faded fairground was the challenge that eventually gave rise to the show’s dramatic opening.

And there’s a rather nice link here between Phantom’s original designer, the late, lamented, Maria Bjornson – whose famous gold proscenium sculptures brought the Paris Opera to Her Majesty’s Theatre – and Bob Crowley who spirits Coney Island’s world-beating rollercoaster from the mists of time and brings the seedy boardwalk to life before our very eyes. Lloyd Webber recalls that when Coney Island was first mentioned it was Bjornson who excitedly hit upon the idea that the Phantom could now reside in one of Coney’s skyscraping towers. From subterranean to high-rise living – a nice twist. From there he could truly be master of all he surveyed. And so at the start of Love Never Dies he has sent for his songbird Christine who travels to New York with her rather dull husband Raoul (remember him?) and son Gustave not really knowing but surely suspecting who might be behind an invitation for her to perform at Coney Island’s newest attraction Phantasma.

Lloyd Webber’s long-held obsession with this project is matched only by the Phantom’s for Christine (remember it was the second Mrs. Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman, who created the role) and as we retire to a quiet room over Rules Restaurant he makes no apologies for being the controlling force behind it. It’s the principal reason why his shows are “through-sung”. He’s not happy if the music isn’t driving the evening.

“If you just want ten songs to fit somebody else’s script then I’m not really the composer for that.” To that end his melodies are the dramatic and emotional fabric of his work and in Love Never Dies – undoubtedly one of his best scores – they are intricately woven.

“Once I had the plot it was fairly obvious to me that the first major melodic strand would have to be the Phantom’s song of yearning for Christine. Another decision I made quite early on was that the title song – which was something I originally wrote with this piece in mind and which was first sung by Kiri Te Kanawa – was going to be Christine’s big performance number and should be kept pretty much exclusively for that moment. Then there was the question of how I should handle the moment when Christine and the Phantom first meet again – and there I took the risky strategy of giving the stage to just them for the best part of 15 minutes. The themes that appear there – including the song “Once Upon Another Time” – would be carried forward towards the eventual dénouement.”

That song, that melody, typifies Lloyd Webber’s musical personality. If it was sung in German (as no doubt it will be one day) it could easily be mistaken for Franz Lehar. In fact I’d go so far as to characterise Lloyd Webber’s work a throwback to a bygone melodic style – more gracious, more opulent. His lyric ballads are surely unsurpassed since the heyday of Ivor Novello, Frederick Loewe and Richard Rodgers. The middle-eight or “release” of “Look with your heart”, another song from the show, is pure Rodgers; it sings and plays like an affectionate homage.

But it’s what I call the emotional memory of these melodies that give them such dramatic potency. The Phantom’s big number in Love Never Dies, “Till I hear you Sing”, is one of the best ballads Lloyd Webber has ever written – an absolute corker – but it stays with you because something about the ache within it won’t let go. When Christine agrees to sing for her mentor one last time she does so to the same tune and the frisson of recognition it engenders makes for a real goosebumps moment. That’s what great melodists do – hard to define but easy to recognise. It’s where the next note seems somehow inevitable the second after you’ve heard it. Rodgers once said “a great melody implies its own harmony” and Lloyd Webber certainly holds true to that maxim.

So where on earth here do these melodies come from? Interestingly he gives me a very similar answer to that which Leonard Bernstein gave me many years ago – that he really has no idea, that the tunes and their attendant harmonies have a habit of creeping up on him while he’s “musing” at the piano. He knows instinctively when he’s hit upon something – it might be the beginnings of a melody, a phrase or two or something more – and even if there is no immediate use for it he’ll write it down and keep it until the right moment calls it to mind. Sometimes the ideas come quickly and easily: “No Matter What” (from Whistle Down the Wind) was one of those – the cash registers were heard ringing before even the last note was down. At other times songs are very much “composed” in response to a specific motivation or brief. With Lloyd Webber’s Eurovision entry “It’s My Time” a catchy hook was not just desirable but required – and anybody that thinks that’s just a bog-standard tune should think again.

I am now doubly curious about the evolution of “ ‘Till I Hear You Sing”: “This took several drafts and it was the tiniest adjustments that made the difference”, says Lloyd Webber. “There are ways it could have gone which would have made it acceptable but ordinary but the use of the flattened 7th made it more intriguing. Other little things like dropping from the key of D to C major affect the listener in ways they can feel but might not be able to identify or explain. I instinctively know when something is right and when it isn’t.”

Actually Lloyd Webber’s melodies readily lend themselves to development but the man himself insists that he is not a symphonic composer but a dramatic one:

“The one thing I have always felt about musical theatre is that it is to an extraordinary degree about construction. Where I have come unstuck sometimes has mostly been to do with the stories not being quite right or not connecting with a contemporary audience. The Woman in White was a perfect example because the central premise, so shocking in Victorian times, didn’t turn a hair with audiences today. I firmly believe that even the greatest theatre songs ever written – like “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific – wouldn’t be known today if they had been in the wrong place of the wrong theatrical vehicle. I once did an album years ago with Sarah Brightman called “The Songs That Got Away” and heard as a collection you’re thinking ‘this is one of the best musicals I’ve ever heard’ but for various reasons each of these songs was buried on account of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So structure and context are everything – and if you look at a work like Britten’s Peter Grimes there isn’t a wasted or misplaced moment anywhere. As music theatre it’s perfect. Like act two of La Boheme. Anyone considering a career in musical theatre should study that.”

One of the key dramatic moments in Love Never Dies comes when the Phantom starts to recognise an innate kinship with the boy Gustave (echoes of Miles in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw). The tune the boy plays and sings at this point in the show is called “Beautiful” and its eerie Svengali-like chant – truly, subversively, “music of the night” – evolves into one of the principal leitmotifs of the score – quietly sensuous but potentially grand and visionary, too. I am reminded of a very accomplished orchestral piece Aurora by Andrew’s father William Lloyd Webber whose music brother Julian has tirelessly championed over the years.

“It’s interesting you mention that piece because I think it represented a sensuous side to my father’s personality that he was rarely able to show and that I am beginning to realise now was a big influence on me – particularly with this show. It’s made me think about why he was unable to show that side of himself and why I am….”

There are still those among Lloyd Webber’s detractors who resolutely refuse to acknowledge his talent and doggedly insist that his huge international success is the product of clever global marketing and handfuls of formulaic hit songs liberally reprised. How does he feel about that?

“I always think of something Richard Rodgers said to me when I got to know him slightly towards the end of his life. He told me how depressed he’d got by the reviews for The King and I whose score was compared unfavourably with his previous shows. But even he – perhaps the most gifted popular melodist of them all – realised that it’s not always possible for audiences or for that matter critics to take in what they are hearing on a first or even second hearing. Musical theatre history is littered with bad reviews for now classic pieces. But there’s something else and that’s this: my job is to communicate with my audience and frankly should they be expected to recognise that the ordering of the poems in Cats, for instance, is very precisely structured to create a seamless narrative or that the opening of the show is a mock-fugue? It’s like what you say about the melodies: the effect of those repetitions, whether sung or in underscoring, has an emotional not an intellectual purpose.” The subliminal references to Phantom 1 in Love Never Dies will hopefully make aficionados smile.

After opening Love Never Dies Lloyd Webber has one more pressing date with reality TV when the nation-wide search for the little girl in the gingham frock –Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – gathers momentum. Lloyd Webber believes that the classic movie has never successfully transferred to the stage because Arlen and Harburg’s songs were too thinly spread. The respective estates have given him special dispensation to create some additional numbers and if that means batting off a succession of Graham Norton “friends of Dorothy” jokes, then it’ll be well worth it. He’s hugely encouraged that these shows appear to have ignited a renewed enthusiasm for musical theatre among the teenage generation. The Wicked audience could now be ready for the prequel.

But back to the year’s biggest opening night. “I’m genuinely excited”, he says, “to see what people make of Love Never Dies because in so many ways it goes much further than the old Phantom did. Without giving anything away about the ending, it’s like I closed a door when I put the last notes down. I don’t think I’ll be able to go any further down this particular musical path – well, not for a while anyway.”

And long, long after that, will people still be humming “ ‘ Till I Hear You Sing”? Of course, they will.

FRIDAY 18TH SEPTEMBER 2009 MICHAEL BALL IN CONCERT (“PAST & PRESENT TOUR”)
Royal Albert Hall

“If you feel like singing along…. don’t.” Michael Ball knows his audience – I mean really knows his audience – and only he could turn a rebuke into a well-timed gag. About that audience: the age-range is a good half-century but at its heart are the hard-core Ballites, the mums and grand-mums who adopted the fresh, smiley, dimple-faced, leading juvenile 25 years ago and have been on his tail ever since. The defining moment for them was probably a number called “Love Changes Everything” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Charles Hart show Aspects of Love. Not one of Lloyd Webber’s best numbers (understatement) but it ended with a full-throated top B, hit the charts, and sold the show out for two years. Ball sang it again here, down a third, I think – that’s called getting older, singing in lower keys, but still sounding like you’ve nailed the big one and scaled Everest. The Ballites were on their feet. One lady in turquoise was having the first of several religious conversions.

So what’s the appeal? Well, Michael Ball is incredibly likeable. He’s fun, funny, warm, and giving. And he’s the possessor of what is known in the trade as a great ‘show’ voice – probably the best of his generation. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables brought it all back: the smooth, breathy, richly upholstered high baritone/ tenor. Of course, it’s changed somewhat in maturity – the vibrato is breathier, the big money notes are more defiant, and the whole package comes with more of a cabaret loucheness about it. But it’s still Michael Ball and you still feel incredibly secure in his presence.

Ok, so not all of the wide-ranging material was going to please purists like myself who like their rock songs edgier – there was a good smattering of them here ranging from The Killers to Queen and Supertramp – and maybe Bette Midler’s “The Rose” was perhaps a little risky coming so soon after his turn as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. But diversity is important and we still got the stonking ballads like “This is the Moment” (from Jekyll and Hyde) and “Gethsemane” from the show which Ball insists inspired him to pursue a career in showbiz: Jesus Christ Superstar. No irony there, of course.

And Ball brought along some young friends – the classiest backing group imaginable – co-stars from his various shows, like Adrian Hansel and Ben Ellis from Hairspray and the delicious Emma Williams from Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang. Williams really shone in the duet “The Prayer”, which is now pretty much obligatory middle-road fare, and the whole gang delivered one of the evening’s big surprises – a terrific close-harmony sextet arrangement of “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” as a tribute to chart-topping Vera Lynn. Ball plainly has his sights set on that kind of longevity.

The final number was the one we heard first in Calum McLeod’s crack big-band intro – “The Impossible Dream” (from a small show that grew big Man of La Mancha). Ball says it was his first audition song and that the audition went rather well. From the way he sings the lyric now you know why. Ball’s a good actor, that’s why, and the dream was never impossible.

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