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Saturday, 7 May 2016

New musical express - Bernstein, Sondheim and Florence Foster Jenkins uncovered.

There’s a lot of I had no idea to follow.

I had no idea that Bernstein, Comden and Green’s musical Wonderful Town, written and first produced in 1953 was based on the same material as Richard Quine’s My Sister Eileen (USA, 1955). At least not until the opening of the show last night at a performance of the Bernstein piece in the Concert Hall of the Opera House by two groups - Squabbalogic (make of that name what you will) and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. The latter assembled several hundred singers to provide choral backing and a significant re-working of the songs in support of the energetic principals from Squabbalogic. This was a concert version with musical direction by Brett Weymark, direction by Jason Langley and choreography by Dean Vince who also took the comic part of The Wreck. The production was hugely entertaining and much appreciated by an audience whose average age was only slightly lower than my own advanced years. The singing, especially by Virginia Gray as Ruth, Georgina Walker as Eileen and Scott Irwin in multiple roles but most especially as Bob Baker who gets to sing  a grand solo rendition of  the final section of the highlight “It’s Love”, was excellent.

This is the second production by this group that I’ve seen. Last year it did the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing. For all I know they may have been doing these shows for decades and if so I’m sorry I missed them. I have heard the music for Wonderful Town. I have  CD of it which at one stage I played endlessly. If I did make the connection with My Sister Eileen  it was somewhat slipshod as things are with a movie seen only once on TV long ago. Both the program book and Wikipedia  together advise that the success of Wonderful Town prompted Harry Cohn of Columbia, which had released the 1942 screen adaptation of the play, to seek the film rights to the musical. When they proved to be too costly, he decided to hire Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a different score. Because the film couldn't bear any resemblance to Wonderful Town, a studio attorney was assigned to make sure there were no similarities between the two.

I'm not sure whether anybody on stage for these productions gets paid for their effort - maybe the principals, but probably not the choir and full symphony orchestra who played behind the actors and singers spreading across a narrow strip separated only by some perfunctory bits of set designed to represent the New York City skyline. It’s that old psyche income come in to play, especially when no matter how how small your part, you get to say you’ve played the Sydney Opera House. Lots of thespians and musicians never have. But notwithstanding that, and that the show plays for two performances only and by the time you read this it will have come and gone, the sheer enthusiasm for that great art, American musical theatre is on display. Bernstein and Comden & Green have been revived and we’ve had a reminder of just how great their work was. Actors singers and musos prepared to put in the hard work and then do it just twice boggle the mind.

Bernstein only wrote a handful of these works – On the Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story plus the more operatic Trouble in Tahiti and Candide. However, I think it might be that his name lives on because of them rather than any of his ‘serious’ classical compositions or his conducting. His memory was well-served last night....

....and I had no idea that a performance of Sondheim’s Evening Primrose existed. I dont know how many times I‘ve listened to the four songs the master wrote for this show way back in 1966 but it wasn’t until I actually read the liner notes in a very substantial booklet published along with the “World Premiere Recording” of The Frogs which also included a new recording of the songs from Evening Primrose that I got to know just how the latter came about. It was a TV one-off, commissioned by the ABC network in the US way back in 1966. The program was called ABC Stage 67 and consisted of several dozen such works plus a few buy ins from elsewhere. (One of the buy ins was a fine Brit production titled Dare I weep, dare I mourn (UK, 1966, 46 minutes) directed by Ted Kotcheff, starring James Mason and derived from a story set in the two Berlin’s written by John Le Carre).

In the case of Evening Primrose, the production was by John Houseman, direction by Paul Bogart and the script was written by James Goldman. The stars were Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr. Perkins was a pal of Sondheim and Carr came to the show direct from the Broadway cast of The Sound of Music. She could sing. Somehow or other, a copy of Evening Primrose survived, in black and white and not the original colour.  You can still get it DVD through Amazon or Barnes and Noble. ... Its tale of a parallel world of people who have retreated to live secretly in the comfort of a NY department store is fanciful but the sheer beauty of the songs and the affecting romance carries it off to its very sad end.

Let me see the world
With clouds, 
Take Me to the world
Out where I can push through crowds
Take me to the world
A world that smiles
With streets instead of aisles
Where I can walk for miles
With You...

...and I had no idea who Florence Foster Jenkins was until I saw Stephen Frears film of the same name (UK, 2016). I found the experience enjoyable if a little disconcerting – what might otherwise have been a minor BBC play or two part mini-series blown up into a big feature film made with magnificent and all-consuming attention to detail on sets built at Twickenham. The budget for this re-creation was no doubt expanded once Meryl Streep became attached to the project and the producers would, as always, smell Oscar, or at least Oscar nomination, for Meryl playing a rather large lady who couldn’t sing but believed she could. This belief was assisted by a second husband who doted on her and shared her wealth but went to great lengths on occasion to protect her from reality. However, he couldn’t stop her booking Carnegie Hall for one final concert shortly before her relatively early death. Frears handles all this with his late-career perfunctory efficiency. He really is very good at telling a story with no frills but, like many in the trade, his best work was earlier and more modest in its ambitions – Sunset Across the Bay, A Visit from Miss Prothero, Gumshoe, A Day Out, Bloody Kids, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters  and of course, one of the five funniest films ever made, the incomparable Mr Jolly Lives Next Door.

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