Distinctions and evaluations

Les Misérables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, April 26; Aida, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Sydney, April 27

A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed Stephen Sondheim ahead of the Melbourne season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I’m afraid I really didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t said many, many times before. This included his definition of the difference between opera and musical theatre. When, for instance, Sweeney Todd was presented on Broadway, it was a musical, he said. When Sweeney Todd was staged by an opera company, it was an opera.

It’s a reasonable point. As Bernard Williams writes frankly in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992 edition), after discussing operetta, Singspiel, the use of Sprechgesang and so on: “The relations between opera and the other forms that are contrasted with it are thus complex, and the distinctions (in particular, that between opera and operetta) are to some degree arbitrary. The present position is that ‘opera’ is to some extent an evaluative term, used to refer to sung drama which is either ‘serious’ enough, or traditional enough in form and technique, to be staged in an opera house.”

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

That last phrase points to the circular nature of this knotty question of classification. A sung drama can be called an opera because it’s considered worthy of being in an opera house – which of course depends on whom is doing the considering, or evaluating. Sweeney Todd in an opera house? It’s an opera. Perhaps, although I don’t care what you want to call it, other than a great, great work. (Grove: Opera, It., from Lat. opera, plural of opus, ‘work’.)

Just to muddy the issue, the work of a contemporary company such as Sydney Chamber Opera is staged at Carriageworks, a multi-arts venue that concentrates on new work. I doubt that Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s hour-long work The Rabbits, of which Opera Australia was a co-producer, will be seen in a traditional opera space, not to mention that the singers are amplified, which for many people would bar it from being called an opera. Perth International Arts Festival, a co-commissioner with the Melbourne Festival, cannily called The Rabbits “a new work of operatic theatre”.

PIAF was right to make that distinction, and I don’t think in this case it is arbitrary. The Rabbits’ music, while it had some qualities one might consider operatic (overlapping vocal lines, for instance), was not of the complexity one associates with opera – not quite “traditional enough in form and technique”. But to get back to my point about Sweeney Todd, who cares what box you put it in, as long as it’s good?

The openings in Sydney of Les Misérables and Aida on consecutive nights brought to the fore these distinctions and evaluations.

It goes without saying that musically speaking, Aida, this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, starts any face-off with the unbridgeable advantage of having been written by Verdi. The composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, is no Verdi, although the same can be said of many – most? – composers of opera, let alone those firmly assigned to the musical theatre realm. Schönberg nevertheless writes memorable, effective melodies that vividly colour and support the stage action.

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Schönberg also allows himself a few “serious” references as most Le Mis aficionados know, and they fit seamlessly into his score, which is interesting. Jean Valjean’s Bring Him Home may well remind lovers of Madama Butterfly of the Humming Chorus, and I am grateful to Robert J. Elisberg’s blog for alerting me to the ways in which Little Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud has resonances of Rameau.

One reason, though, why Schönberg and his music theatre confrères will never sound like operatic composers is the non-negotiable requirement that music-theatre lyrics be clearly understood at every moment. In his fine New Yorker obituary for Andrew Porter, the greatly esteemed music critic who died a few days ago, Alex Ross wrote: “Like Wagner, he believed that operas should generally be performed in the native language of the audience—a conviction that marked him as something other than a purist.” Like opera used to be, musical theatre is the theatre of the people and therefore presented in the language of its audience – although when opera is sung in English one sometimes still needs recourse to the surtitles, partly because there may be multiple vocal lines and partly because sometimes diction isn’t what it could be or the conductor isn’t being helpful with the orchestral balance.

Another difference is that music-theatre lyrics pretty much say what they mean and mean what they say. There are few music-theatre lyricists as sophisticated and multi-layered as Sondheim. One may enter a production of a successful musical with no knowledge and leave with full, uncomplicated apprehension of every turn of plot and emotion. You can call it unsubtle if you will, but it’s powerful magic and it’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber is a very rich man. (He likes his Puccini too – Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera employs a phrase very like one in Quello che tacete in La fanciulla del West. Let’s put it this way: royalties were paid to Puccini heirs.

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

So far Aida is out in front by quite a margin, although it’s fun to think that perhaps Les Mis could be considered the more serious drama, in that its love triangle (Eponine-Marius-Cosette) is subordinate to the theme of oppression and revolution. In Aida the love triangle (Amneris-Radamès-Aida) is to the fore with political upheaval secondary.

Musically, though, Aida is the goods. Late-stage Verdi in his pomp.

But we’re not just listening. Sung drama is a combination of score, libretto, vocal quality, acting and staging.

In its current production Aida’s musical splendours are forced into the service of an astonishingly vulgar presentation. What was director Gale Edwards thinking? The dominating scenic element in Mark Thompson’s design, a giant head of Nefertiti, is inspired but presides over a sad mish-mash of images and ideas. It is one of those concepts that throws in costuming from across the ages to indicate that the themes are timeless. So there are modern business-suited guards, Fascist soldiers, priests of Ancient Egypt, women overpowered by gargantuan gowns, female dancers in a kick-line (don’t ask) wearing abbreviated versions of traditional African attire and male dancers got up as jackals with a 1970s rock-star vibe by way of a D-grade sci-fi film. Well, it’s work for the dancers, although not choreographer Lucas Jervies’s finest hour.

The mute reference to current Middle East oil politics is very odd. Why all those barrels stacked up the back? It’s not as if Egypt is one of the great oil-producing countries and at war with Ethiopia over the resource. Obviously we were meant to think about current geo-politics but the idea looked and felt tacked on.

Les Mis, ensconced at the rather operatic Capitol Theatre, pulls together its various themes brilliantly. I saw it first in Melbourne in July last year and wrote then: “The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.”

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

There seem to be more directors than you can poke a stick at for Les Mis but despite the crowd (two directors, two in charge of musical staging) the production is exceptionally coherent. From a staging perspective, Les Mis is the goods. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has done it again, and this summation indicates the most fundamental difference between opera and musical theatre. The first is the art of the composer, the second the art of the producer. And yes, I know there are many who think producers aren’t artists, but then I think of Diaghilev and dismiss that argument. And yes, there are exceptions, such as Sondheim, who is always the exception.

Fortunately for Aida, on opening night there were two stellar performances. Soprano Latonia Moore was a glorious Aida with dark power at the bottom of the range and warm glow at the top. She acted every moment with conviction and made Ritorna Vincitor and O Patria mia the shining dramatic highlights. As Amneris, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, tall and glamorous, deftly wrangled her series of eye-popping frocks – brava! – and persuasively made the transition from haughty, conniving princess to woman of feeling.

The principal artists over at Les Mis were equally thrilling. Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) are tremendous singing actors who have different challenges – Gleeson has to make saintliness compelling and touching; Tee to make blind obsession worthy of understanding. And may the gods of opera forgive me, but both were much more vocally interesting than Walter Fraccaro as Aida’s Radamès. The night I heard him Fraccaro gave a performance that was unsubtle and unvarying. He can sing loudly, that’s for sure. (There were some issues with the amplification at Aida, but all the principals were singing under the same conditions …)

Further down the cast list Aida was graced by the splendid Amonasro of Michael Honeyman and David Parkin’s Ramfis. In Les Mis, Kerrie Anne Greenland (Eponine), for whom this is her first professional engagement, was spectacularly good. In Melbourne I thought her voice wonderful but that she sang the notes all in the right places and rather too dutifully in her big song, On My Own. In Sydney she was able to move within the music to make it individual. She’s a tremendous talent. After what sounded a nervous start – there was a very pronounced beat in the voice – Patrice Tipoki sang feelingly and movingly as the unfortunate Fantine.

Others in Les Mis fared less well. I thought the directors allowed Lara Mulcahy as Madame Thénardier to overdo the grotesque comic business (when you overshadow the Thénardier of Trevor Ashley it’s quite a feat), that Euan Doidge was a too small-voiced Marius, that Emily Langridge was a very unsettled-sounding Cosette and that Chris Durling lacked that last necessary drop of personal and vocal charisma as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.

Wouldn’t you think those quite serious reservations would knock Les Mis out of the running for Best Sung Drama in the final week of March 2015? But no, they didn’t. Les Mis was, despite the glories of Latonia Moore and despite Verdi, the much more satisfying theatrical experience. And don’t blame Opera on Sydney Harbour, an innovation I adore: Last year’s Best Sung Drama? That would be Madama Butterfly, on the harbour.

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck – and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964

Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2

“ISN’T it bliss? Don’t you approve?” These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, could not be more apposite when it comes to the Bernadette Peters effect: her concert is indeed bliss and yes, the audience approves to the point of adoration.

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As for those question marks, there are none of any consequence. Let’s just say they are a lovely indication that despite her standing as Broadway royalty – and she looks it, with that form-fitting sparkly gown and riot of bronze curls – Peters exudes no sense of entitlement. She is warm, low-key and friendly, keeping the chat light and easy and letting the songs speak for themselves.

Most importantly, she knows exactly how to use that distinctive, sexily husky voice to best advantage. While still having a youthful cast it now sounds quite a delicate instrument, even fragile at times, but the payoff is a deeply intimate connection with the music. Peters makes choices that give fresh impetus to songs heard hundreds of times – and sung by her hundreds of times, when we’re talking about music from her Broadway shows.

Songs others might bring to a full-throated conclusion are crowned with a finely wrought thread of sound, tempos are sometimes contemplatively slow and she brings to the concert stage her skills as an actress, shaping phrases with scrupulous, insightful attention to meaning as well as form. And she never, ever over-sings. Peters’s taste is exemplary.

Sondheim’s work dominates the 90-minute concert, as it does so many concerts. But Peters sings this material by right, having had a long and close association with the composer and lyricist. In her most recent Broadway appearance (2011) Peters played Sally in Follies, from which she sings In Buddy’s Eyes and the sublime Losing My Mind. Into the Woods (Children Will Listen, No One is Alone), and songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Company are also on the set list.

Less expected are lovely interpretations of songs usually sung by men: Johanna from Sweeney Todd, Some Enchanted Evening from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and Peter Allen’s If You Were Wondering, the last with adapted lyrics. Even more enchanting is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Mister Snow from Carousel, a lilting, sweetly optimistic song from one of the greatest of all musicals.

Peters is accompanied by a mostly local 11-member band directed by a frequent colleague, the vastly experienced conductor and composer Marvin Laird. The Australian Stage Orchestra, as it is dubbed, got off to a very ordinary start on Wednesday, which may be why Peters’s opening number, Let Me Entertain You from Gypsy, was her weakest. There was also some unacceptable flubbing. The ensemble is an excellent one in theory and once things settled down it provided skilful backing. It appeared, however, to need more practice than it got before Peter’s first performance.

Gold Coast, tonight (April 5); Melbourne, Monday and Tuesday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 4.

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

Carrie the Musical

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15.

YOU want to talk about a Broadway flop? Carrie the Musical will have to work harder. We read in yesterday’s The New York Times of investors reeling at the news of the closing announcement for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Yes, the show has been running since November 2010, but that span includes an unprecedented number of previews and the weekly running costs are so high that in recent months Spider-Man has struggled to cover costs. The loss is projected to be $US60 million.

The 1988 version of Carrie the Musical – the current Sydney production is of the 2012 revision, which had a short Off-Broadway run – lost about $US7 million or $US8 million, depending on who you believe. It’s large amount to be sure, and Carrie had only five performances after the preview period. Not a success by any means, but the standard-bearer for Broadway flops? It does seem unfair. It’s as if the subject-matter of Carrie spilled over into life. There are many nerds, geeks and perceived failures around, but when the brutal in-crowd decides to home in on one target, that individual gets to be the universal punching bag. Why, there’s even a book called Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, by Ken Mandelbaum. (It’s a most entertaining read; I recommend it.)

Before getting to Squabbalogic’s production, it’s worth revisiting some of the Great White Way’s disasters just to put things into perspective. As you’ll see I think even in revised form Carrie the Musical has only intermittent merits, but it wasn’t a bad decision by Squabbalogic  to stage it. There is much love among avid music-theatre fans for something with Carrie’s history and Squabbalogic is a gutsy little company with an eye to provocative and unusual projects (such as its most recent show, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson).

In January this year The New Yorker‘s Michael Shulman did an entertaining round-up of opinion about which musical deserves the title of worst flop. There were many candidates, including Into the Light, a 1986 musical about the Shroud of Turin (nominated by Paul Rudnik). Frank Rich, The New York Times’s chief theatre critic from 1980 to 1993, says Carrie was far from the worst, and so bad it was almost good. In fact, he described it in his review as “a typical music-theatre botch”. (Rich’s Carrie review was, however, considered a key reason for the show’s very brief tenure on Broadway.) Rich likes Legs Diamond as a strong candidate for best worst. Michael Riedel of The New York Post cites Senator Joe, about Joe McCarthy. He says: “It ran exactly a performance and a half – they closed it at intermission, if I’m not mistaken.” He says his favourite fiasco is the first preview of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark and its three and a half hour first act.

As I mention it below in my Squabbalogic review, I need to point out that Rich describes the 1983 Moose Murders as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage”. Mind you, he was writing this in 1994 just after departing the theatre critics’ chair. He may well have seen worse as a civilian in the succeeding 20 years. Nevertheless, he did use it as a point of comparison when reviewing the original Carrie the Musical.

Another musical to get the Rich treatment was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, unloved by him and many others on its premiere in 1981 (it lasted 16 performances). How wonderful to report that the Menier Chocolate Factory revival in London this year was a big hit, and it’s been possible to see the results in cinema screenings this month around the country.

But back to Carrie the Musical and the Squabbalogic production. What follows is the review that appeared in The Australian on November 18, with a couple of expansions.

Hilary Cole at the climax of Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole at the climax of Squabbalogic’s Carrie the Musical. Photo: Michael Francis

SMALL, smart, ambitious company Squabbalogic makes a gallant but doomed case for Carrie, a musical that, as any aficionado of the genre knows, has a fraught history. As such it is catnip to the cognoscenti. That’s just the way it works.

In 1988 the original musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel was a flop, despite the participation of the Royal Shakespeare Company – or perhaps that was part of the problem. Anyway, it got hammered by critics, chiefly the one who mattered most, Frank Rich of The New York Times. The Butcher of Broadway mentioned Carrie in the same breath as the notorious Moose Murders. (For the record, the 1983 Moose Murders closed the night it opened, and was described by New York magazine’s John Simon as looking as if it were staged by “a blind director repeatedly kicked in the groin”.)

Job done. Blood is a central motif in Carrie and the sharks smelled it. The show didn’t last a week.

But unlike its heroine, a girl with telekinetic powers oppressed beyond endurance by bullying schoolmates and her manically religious mother, Carrie the Musical wouldn’t die. It was revived as an Off-Broadway chamber piece last year and it’s this version we see from Squabbalogic.

Despite the tinkering Carrie unfortunately remains a misfit, saddled with a wonky flashback structure, odd tonal shifts and a score (by Michael Gore) that only intermittently gets the blood pumping, if you’ll forgive me. The bigger problems are a book (Lawrence D. Cohen) that flattens all the secondary characters and lyrics (Dean Pitchford) that too often resemble the motto for today: “What does it cost to be kind?” The song Unsuspecting Hearts is mind-altering drivel in itself and in its relation to the drama.

Most fatally Carrie the Musical has the weightless, sketchy feel of a piece that just knows the audience members will be familiar with the influential 1976 Brian de Palma film so they can fill in the texture and detail themselves.

Director Jay James-Moody, to his credit, plays with a straight bat where it may have been tempting to camp things up as a diversionary tactic. Cohen told The New York Times last year the creative team emphatically did not want a Rocky Horror version, and James-Moody has played fair. As it is, though, his limited means unsparingly illuminate the show’s weak spots. (Mind you, on Broadway in 1988 a big budget did exactly the same thing. Discuss.)

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole in Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

The production is best – in fact, very strong indeed – in the series of mother-daughter scenes where the themes of sexual awakening, religious fervour and a heart-breakingly misplaced sense of exceptionalism collide with a thunderclap. Margi de Ferranti (Margaret) and newcomer Hilary Cole (Carrie) are mesmerising and have the richest music and lyrics by far. And then it’s back to the depressingly one-note (and over-amplified) shenanigans of Carrie’s classmates, made tolerable, just, by the fine singing of Adele Parkinson (good girl Sue), Rob Johnson (good boy Tommy) and Prudence Holloway (bitch Chris).

There is excellent work from Mark Chamberlain’s small band and Sean Minahan’s evocative, impressionistic design is another plus. A veil needs to be drawn over Shondelle Pratt’s clumsy, uninspired choreography.

Squabbalogic does an honourable job of dealing with the incendiary ending, albeit needing a bit of audience indulgence. It’s not the production’s fault, however, that Carrie the Musical then sputters to a close. Remember the film’s heart-stopping ending? It’s nothing like that.

Until November 30.