Sunday, 27 December 2009

Two left feet and a voice to die for.

My blogging friend French Fancy recently asked me if, as well as act, could I sing and dance. My immediate answer was “no” shortly followed with a little chuckle to myself. The private chuckle was a shortcut version of “you wouldn’t ask that question if you’d seen/heard me try.” Perhaps I am too unfair on myself, that way. I’ve grown up with a taste and liking for musical theatre and at one point in my life you couldn’t keep me out of London’s West End enjoying Lloyd Webber’s latest opus.

How can you ever say how something started? A germ of an idea, a song heard, an experience encountered somewhere along the way. A visit to a pantomime in childhood or parents playing music at home. Music was taught at my junior and senior schools and although I wasn’t a particularly appreciative or attentive pupil I do remember being struck by the poetic power of a recording of Peter Grimes and the music for Peter and the Wolf. And I was only a small boy- nine or ten at most.

I feel this personal admiration for musical theatre is worth investigating and want to see where this enthusiasm came from. I guess ‘home life’ would be good place to start. Now my parents weren’t theatre goers but they did like the circus and we possibly attended a panto or two along the way. They also liked Variety shows live and televised and so I would have heard songs sung through that medium and possibly some were show songs. We did go and see films regularly and some of them would have been MGM and Disney musicals – Show Boat – South Pacific – Annie get your gun – Paint your Wagon, Mary Poppins etc. I remember rather fancying Doris Day in Calamity Jane, too. I was probably in my early teens. One Christmas I got given a book called Gotta Sing Gotta Dance so I must have shown some keenness. On a Sunday my step sisters and I got sent off to Sunday School and we sung the hymns there too. Reluctantly.

Speaking to my mum she reminded me today that we had Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Paint your Wagon, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and the Oliver film soundtracks on LPs along with other popular shows often playing on the record player at home in the background. My parents were also big fans of Harry Secombe and Shirley Bassey as well. Both of these artists vocally dramatic in their own right. This must have some influence, surely. Or is that Shirley? They liked Tom Jones too but that is not unusual. :0)

When I was around sixteen or seventeen I was a member of the Scout Association and got involved in the Scout Gang Shows in Derby. There was a lot of singing involved and these fun times would have been some of my early stage experiences. Then there was the group singing of songs that we used to sing around the camp fires and at scout meetings. Nobody minded if you weren’t note perfect. We just did it for camaraderie, all wrapped up in one’s badge filled and grubby campfire blanket, a cup of scolding hot tomato soup in a tin mug in hand and the sparks from the fire threatening to turn you into a singing fireball. The Gang Show singing had to be better as we had paying audiences and camp fires weren’t allowed on stage. Joking apart, I don’t remember the rehearsals being reliant on whether the young men were pitch perfect or not. I think enthusiasm and good spirit were the key to the entertainment.

Then I went to Belgium with the Scouts on a camping holiday. It was the first time I had ever been abroad and it was all very exciting. One day we went on a trip into the city of Brussels and I distinctly recall buying a cassette tape of the highlights of Jesus Christ Superstar, the original London production. I’m not sure now why I was drawn to this musical – did I know some of the songs already? Perhaps just the title song and ‘I don’t know how to love him’. Who knows? What I do know is that I played that tape to death and loved the idea of a story unfolding through drama and music. A lack of religious interest had nothing to do with it. It was the power of the drama set to music. Saying that, Opera has never done it for me. As time went on I was very much into collecting soundtracks from films and began to choose soundtracks from musicals too.

As I got into my late teens I had left the Scouts and discovered beer. Slippery slope. Going down the pub suddenly seemed a lot more attractive than the cold Scout hut on Friday night. I had also joined The Littleover Players and got to know people who liked to go the theatre for entertainment. Almost instantly I became very keen on going to the brand new Derby Playhouse in the Eagle Centre in Derby. I would go and see ‘every’ play they did, often two or three times – much to my dear old Dad’s dismay who saw going to see anything more than once and paying for the privilege a scurrilous waste of money. I got seriously in Godspell (saw it many a time) and The Rocky Horror Show and Trafford Tanzi and of course, Jesus Christ Superstar. I also thrilled to go and see the film versions of JCS and Victor Garber and bouncy cast in Godspell.

Naturally, I collected the albums and played them in my bedroom at home, interspersed with Leo Sayer, David Essex, T.Rex , 10CC, Queen, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, that is. They came under my fuddy duddy Dad’s heading of Modern Muck, so I loved them even more. What would he have thought of Ruiyichi Sakamoto?

As I was living at home until my mid twenties, I had plenty of spare money from my job as a butcher and started to go down to London to see the big shows. My very first outing in this way was to see the dance based show, A Chorus Line, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. From then on I was hooked and went to see Evita, Chess, Les Misérables, Man of La Mancha, Joseph, West Side Story, Barnum, Cabaret, Song and Dance, The Phantom of the Opera, Billy, Starlight Express, Cats, Aspects of Love,The Hired Man, Martin Guerre, Miss Saigon and so on. Some of the shows got me particularly interested and for periods of time I became extremely (almost fanatically) keen on certain shows. The main ones in this respect would have been Cats, Phantom, Les Mis, Barnum, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Miss Saigon and The Hired Man. If there is such a thing as singalonga musicals then I have sunglaonga to those ones at home, very badly, but very enjoyably. Back then I collected all the programmes too as a paper remider of glorious theatre visits.

My step Mum has become a big fan of Phantom over the years and has been taken to a few shows in London and touring shows at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. She’s great – she either falls asleep or hums along quite forgetting she’s in a public space with all with the various attendant siblings hushing her. Bless her.

At some point in my twenties and having joined Derby Theatre in the Round and been in the chorus in Cabaret myself (I look great in fishnets and frilly hot pants – joke) the name of a fella called Stephen Sondheim, composer and lyricist, entered my consciousness. Apparently, he was quite good. I went down to London to the English National Opera House near Covent Garden to see Pacific Overtures on recommendation and instantly became a fan. I can’t say that I’ve been lucky enough to see or hear everything by the man, but my favourites are Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd – demon barber of Fleet Street, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Pacific Overtures and A Little Night Music.

Lastly, I confess I know nothing about notation or the understanding of musical writing. I don’t play any instruments (I failed the triangle auditions at junior school and was seriously out of tune with the comb and paper). Nor, in honesty do I sing well. I have, however a great admiration for those that can master these talents/disciplines and have worked with such folk along the way so far and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As for dancing… I would say that my modern ballet style has to be seen to be believed, and then quickly forgotten. lol


French Fancy said...

You left out Sondheim's masterpiece 'Assassins'. It's not often performed in the USA because of the nature of its story - deaths of presidents due to assassination. To my mind it has some of his best songs in it.


French Fancy said...

bugger - first link didnt work and I can't find a good one on You tube - they are all bad singers on the clips allowed.

Anyway - to me Sondheim is head and shoulders above everyone else. As for Lloyd Webber - I think he pinched a lot of his melodies from Puccini. sorry - I know he is revered but not by me,

Phil said...

FF: I didn't put Assassins because I personally haven't seen it. Yes I agree that a lot of LWs melodies do have a Puccini ring to them but I still like his work.

Gail's Man said...

Blood Brothers is the one for me. Such a sad ending. I can't sing either. I wish I could, but was at the end of the queue when they dished out voices.

Phil said...

Thanks for reminding me Christopher. Yes Blood Brothers. Good one. I saw that at the Derby Playhouse some years ago. Did you ever hear the story of the Johnson twins? Both alike as two new pins. And did you ever hear the story how the Johnson's died... (sob sob).