The Greatest Show on Earth?
I have loved musicals since I was a child and went with my mum to see local amateur theatre groups putting on shows. These days I am often at my happiest sitting in the pit for a show, rather than in the audience. I love nothing more than listening to the performance, often taking place above me and out of sight, hearing the subtle differences from the night before, prepared for whatever might occur – the laughs, the differing inflections, missed cues, forgotten lines, forgotten lyrics, even omitted verses. The show is different every night, and that’s what gives it its magic!
If someone asked me what my favourite musical was, until a few years ago I would have struggled to answer. I love shows that have catchy and memorable numbers. All the usual suspects spring to mind. Phantom of the Opera was a big favourite of mine and was the first West End musical I ever saw. Dave Willets was the phantom and was amazing in the role. I hadn’t expected to be so impressed by his performance as I had bought the album with Michael Crawford as the phantom and I didn’t think anyone could better him. I was wrong.
I am a huge Queen fan, and have all their albums, along with t-shirts, picture discs, etc. We Will Rock You blew me away when I saw it in London, about a year after it opened. I loved everything about it, from the set to the storyline and how the songs had been so cleverly used. It was even more poignant when the school in Staffordshire where I was Head of Expressive Arts was awarded the rights to perform the student version. I had already pretty much decided to hand my notice in at the school, and I knew that the show would be my last with the students. Hagley Park was a fantastic school, with a very supportive headteacher, John Hall. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, with an amazing team of staff and great students, but I knew in my heart it was time to move on. We Will Rock You will always remind me of my time at Hagley.
I love the old classics. You can’t beat sitting down at Christmas to watch The Sound of Music, or Jesus Christ Superstar at Easter. Unbelievably I am yet to see the latter live, and for the life of me I don’t know why. It has been performed locally by various amateur groups more times than a little, and yet I still haven’t been in a position to go to the theatre to see it. My favourite ‘oldie’ though would have to be My Fair Lady. The film is sublime. I love Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins. When I have seen it on stage, or been in the pit for the show, I haven’t been able to help but compare the ‘profs’. The fact that Rex Harrison was quite open about the fact that he couldn’t sing makes it all the more wonderful. I think he was fantastic in the role. The speak-singing worked brilliantly and has been copied in every stage production I have seen, whether amateur or professional. The best stage production of the show I have ever seen featured the late Christopher Cazenove as Henry Higgins at the Hippodrome in Birmingham. He brought an aristocratic air to the part, which worked perfectly.
I imagine most people who love musical theatre have seen, at some time or other, Les Miserable. I have seen it three times in the theatre – twice in London and once in Birmingham. My first experience of the show was wonderful. I loved everything about it. I am married to a production designer and artist, so I can’t help but look at how a set works (he has spoiled me in this respect). The revolve, and the cleverness of the trucks etc was just brilliant, and it is a bit of a shame that this aspect is being lost when the show returns later this year. An amazing set obviously doesn’t make for an amazing show though. It has to have everything else too, and Les Miserable had that in abundance, with catchy songs and an incredible plot. It would not have endured as long as it has if this wasn’t the case.
Which is why I was disappointed by Wicked. There are obviously a lot of people who love this musical, and it can’t be that everyone loves everything. It just didn’t grab me. The set looks fantastic, but so much of it does nothing – there is a wonderful dragon above the set, but it just appears that it is there for decoration. A good set should be used, everything there for a reason, not just to look pretty. Some of the songs are quite catchy (I have heard 2 or 3 of them many times when students have chosen to perform them) but most of the songs left me a little cold. The acting, singing and dancing were all great and I am prepared to give it another go. I would like to take my little girl to see it, who is a huge Wizard of Oz fan, and you never know, my opinion may change.
But I have to be honest, there are very few of the more recent musicals that have impressed me. I was disappointed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as again the newer songs were not memorable. You were waiting for the old songs from the Gene Wilder film, and apart from Pure Imagination they didn’t come. Shrek The Musical was very funny, but again the songs were unmemorable. When I compare the music from the old classics like Wizard of Oz or some of the Rogers and Hammerstein musicals and even Disney (Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin) to the more current songs from the genre, I do wonder whether the new shows will have the longevity that the old ones have enjoyed. Mary Poppins keeps returning to the West End for a reason.
But then part of me knows that I have been spoilt forever, because in April 2016 I went to the Dominion Theatre and saw the best musical and overall stage performance of my life!
The War of The Worlds had everything! A sublime set that was balletic in its movement. Fantastic singers and actors – we saw the understudy as the artilleryman, Chris Jenkins, and he was amazing, but everyone was. The Mars war machines DID breathe fire. The Liam Neeson projection interacted wonderfully with the characters on stage. The dancing and movement was sublime throughout. The set and trucks were not just there to look good, they helped set and tell the story. There was not one thing about the whole experience that I can say could have been bettered (and I am hard to please). I only got to see it twice. I would have been in the Dominion Theatre every night during that short run if I could have afforded it. I know that there are aspects of this stage production that have been transferred across to the Arena tour of the show, but it was the intimacy of that production that made it special. You were so close you could feel the heat from the rays of the war machines, and the casting was perfect. There were critics who felt that it didn’t really know what it was because it didn’t tick the ‘musical’ boxes in the way it should. To me, it will always be the perfect ‘Musical’ experience and may never be bettered. For me it was the ‘greatest show on earth’, but you never know what is around the corner. It took many years for me to experience this amazing theatrical event. I am prepared to keep looking in the hope that I may get to encounter a show of its magnificence again.