Lloyd Webber versus Sondheim

Follies at the National Theatre
Follies at the National Theatre by Stephen Sondheim starring Imelda Staunton. Photo Johan Persson

1971. Two musicals premiered on Broadway.  They were both early successes from composers who have since made a huge impact on theatre. Coincidentally both have been revived this year for London audiences.

Jesus Christ Superstar, although written after Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was the first stage hit for Andrew Lloyd Webber. You don’t need telling what that led to. He played a major part in the revival of the stage musical. Evita, Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera notably struck a chord with audiences worldwide.

Follies was Stephen Sondheim‘s second musical with Harold Prince as director. Prince collaborated with Sondheim on the earlier Company and the big hits A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. I hesitate to call it sugar coating but let’s say Prince seems to have been instrumental in giving a visual attraction to what could be quite challenging musicals for audiences. Interestingly Prince also directed Lloyd Webber’s massive hits The Phantom of The Opera and Evita.

Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Although opinion is divided, to say the least, about the quality of Lloyd Webber’s music, there is no denying his ability to appeal to a popular audience. Sondheim, on the other hand, is unquestionably a great composer but his musicals don’t tend to attract large numbers. In this respect, the contrast between these two particular musicals is instructive. This year we have had the opportunity to compare them as both were revived.

Jesus Christ Superstar was revived by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre last year and again this summer. Follies is currently performing at the National Theatre. Where the former is plot driven with very little in the way of character development, the latter is all about the characters with minimal storytelling.

Both revivals were worthy of the material and both musicals have held up well after 46 years. In my opinion, only one will still be being revived in another 45 years because Lloyd Webber already seems of his time while Sondheim both musically and in subject matter seems timeless.

Whatever your opinion of them, live theatre would be poorer without these two titans.

Read my reviews of these two musicals in their recent productions on oneminutetheatrereviews.co.uk or look at my YouTube reviews on my One Minute Theatre Reviews channel.

Lots of laughs as Travesties and Mr Darcy both mash up literary greats

LipService in Mr Darcy Loses The Plot
LipService in Mr Darcy Loses The Plot

Two plays in the same week featured a mash-up of authors’ works.

LipService’s Mr Darcy Loses The Plot at Theatre Royal Winchester found Austen’s hero leaving Pride And Prejudice to blunder into Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton and even Beatrix Potter. It was very funny, not least because Austen’s creation has become a staple in subsequent literature, the dark silent hero with a hidden vulnerability.

In London, Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties may have hit some higher intellectual targets, such as Leninism, Dadaism and the tricks of memory, but it didn’t quite match the hit rate of laughs achieved by the pair of slick, professional comics that is LipService.

Hardly anything they did was new but, boy, did they do it to perfection. We’ve seen live actors disappear into film projection before but rarely with such perfect timing as when Darcy and Elizabeth move behind the screen to appear seamlessly in the ball and then dance out of it just as smoothly. We’ve seen actors have to change their appearance or actions to match a changing narrative but the gameness and confusion Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding conveyed to the audience was worthy of Morecambe and Wise.

Tom Hollander in Travesties
Tom Hollander in Travesties

In Travesties too, a faulty memory meant that scenes and characters changed in a dizzying trip into the past. It was 1917 in Geneva when James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, the founder of Dadaism and a British embassy official, played brilliantly by Tom Hollander, might have met (but actually didn’t). Hollander’s character is the unreliable narrator who misremembers events and mixes them up with The Importance of Being Earnest in which he was cast at the time.

We each have a history and so does art and so does the world. Both plays said much about how we rewrite the plots of our lives and change the meaning of the past and how the strands of our culture are inextricably entwined. And both productions did it with energy, panache and tremendous fun.


What’s more important- Length or Quality? Houdini & Heaven Eyes

Mr Swallow in Houdini
Mr Swallow in Houdini

Should you tell them the length or let them find out? The theory of not saying anything is that by the time they find out how short it is, they’re committed and they’re going to enjoy the experience so much, they won’t mind.

I would like to think that all that matters is the quality but I can’t deny that, when we’re talking about theatre, the actual performance is only part of an evening out. There’s also the travel, the drinks, maybe a meal before or after. An hour long show isn’t exactly a full evening out. Does that matter if it’s good or are you left you feeling shortchanged?

I went to see Mr Swallow in Houdini at Soho Theatre a couple of weeks ago. I loved it and laughed more than I have in a long time, so I certainly didn’t mind that it was only an hour long. Even so, it started at 7 o’clock so my wife and I were back on the street just after 8.

We could have been wondering what to do next but fortunately we’d been forewarned that it was an hour long so we were prepared to go on to a restaurant afterwards. Otherwise we might have found ourselves a few hours short of an evening out.

As someone who markets Theatre Royal Winchester, I always try to let people know if the performance is short but this raises a number of questions.

Does taking the trouble to point out that a performance is only a hour long suggest that I think you may think it’s not good value? At what point does a performance become standard length- 90 minutes, two hours?

There are other questions when it comes to describing the mechanics of a performance. Should I say if there’s no interval? Should I tell people if it’s extra long?- Hamlet usually runs to three and a half hours.

On the website, we do give the running time of every show, when we know it. But, to me, these are the kind of details that take up valuable space in a season brochure that I would like to use to tell people about the content of the show.

A brilliant play called Heaven Eyes, full of suspense, mystery and magical realism, is coming to Theatre Royal Winchester on 6 March. It’s about an hour and a half long and there’s no interval, so as not to break the spell. I think people will be so gripped that they won’t notice the length. However, their bladders might tell them it’s time for a break unless we forewarn them.

I’m happiest when I can use a quote like ‘a fun-packed hour’ or ‘the four hours go by at the speed of a train’.

It also depends on the genre. People expect a show for young children to be no more than an hour so I would advise if one was longer. Anyone who goes to a contemporary dance show would be surprised if it went on for more than an hour and a half, not because you can only take so much of people leaping around and catching each other in the air but because it’s so intense.

It’s quite natural to want a full evening’s entertainment but, when you think about it, it’s ridiculous to judge a performance by its length. One of the best shows I saw last year was Wot? No Fish! at Theatre Royal Winchester which was barely an hour long. I’m sure we’ve all seen shows (at other venues, of course) which we’d wished were only an hour in length.

Paul Lewis markets Theatre Royal Winchester and Hampshire Workspace and is the owner of the marketing consultancy Seven Experience. A version of this article has appeared on the Daily Echo website.

La La? Nah Nah!

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
La La Land. © 2016 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I love musicals so why didn’t I love La La Land?

Let me explain why I think musicals are one of the finest art forms. I love the way the story is enhanced and advanced through song and dance. Music and movement bypass the brain and go straight to the heart. They can give you a visceral insight into the feelings of the characters.

You experience the sadness as Desiree sings Send In The Clowns in A Little Night Music. When the Raoul and Christine sing That’s All I Ask of You in The Phantom Of The Opera, you understand their romantic feelings at an emotional level. As the whole company sings One Day More at the end of act one of Les Miserables, you get all the varied feelings of the different characters in a way that would be a babble if it were spoken word and the marchers are so rousing, you could be marching with them.

As for dancing, the joy of being in love has never been communicated better than when Gene Kelly dances Singin’ In The Rain. No sex scene in a film ever conveys how making love feels like Fred and Ginger do when they dance Cheek To Cheek in Top Hat.

Back to La La Land. I was so looking forward to it. The opening sequence when everyone gets out their cars in a Los Angeles traffic jam and dances with joy gave me high hopes. Then… dancing so ordinary from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone that it lacked any emotion. Any couple that survives the first month on Strictly Come Dancing is likely to be better. I could just imagine Craig castigating them for ‘gapping’ and aimless ‘armography’.

In the old days, they chose singers who could act. Now, in the quest for reality, we favour actors who can sing. That’s okay. It dosen’t matter if musical stars don’t sing like Doris Day or Howard Keel. Elton John, Bob Dylan and more have taught us to appreciate ‘real’ voices. But a weaker singing voice needs character in order to convey feeling. The singing in La La Land is not bad but it never reaches the heights that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up or tears prick your eyes.

Just because a musical is dominated by song and dance, it doesn’t mean the acting is unimportant. Emma Stone is superb but Ryan Gosling, who is an excellent actor, seemed only to have one expression in this film, namely mild bemusement.

Director Damien Chazelle has made a beautiful tribute to the golden age of the Hollywood musical but it is not a great film musical. The love story about people trying to make it in the entertainment industry and the sacrifices they have to make is involving but not, in my view, enough to merit 14 Oscar nominations.  I can only think the Academy members are showing their usual incestuous love of films about the film industry.

This article was written by Paul Lewis, owner of Seven Experience and marketing consultant to Hampshire Workspace and Theatre Royal Winchester. A version of this article has appeared on the Daily Echo website.

The Link Between Ed Balls in Strictly & Chichester’s This House

Ed Balls in Strictly Come Dancing
Ed Balls

How is it that Ed Balls survives week after week on Strictly Come Dancing when he is clearly the worst dancer?

I don’t mean he’s the worst dancer ever on the show- step forward Scott Mills, John  Sergeant, Ann Widdecombe and quite a few others. In fact, he can keep time and some of his moves are pretty smooth. I just mean better dancers have been thrown out. Five out of seven of the weeks so far, he has received the lowest judges’ score but he’s yet to end up in the dance off.

I realise I am revealing that I know far more than I should about a bit of Saturday night entertainment, so let me return to my question: why is he so popular with the public? Politicians are among the least liked members of society, along with journalists and estate agents. As a politician, Ed couldn’t even retain his seat at the last general election.

I think the reason is that, in contrast to the god-like actors, TV presenters and athletes on Strictly, a politician seems like an ordinary person. It may be ironic but the people we normally revile are the most like us, particularly if they show they are trying. He certainly gets my vote.

This House at Chichester

This House, a play seen at the National Theatre and most recently at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva, shows politicians as human beings. It’s set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.

These were dramatic times as Labour struggled to maintain its majority and govern. I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be quite so tense, especially when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener, especially as our politics seems to be becoming more emotional and populist.

Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. This House shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.

Politicians Are People

But more than that, in This House, we meet the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays and other forms of storytelling need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate, and most movingly they show compassion. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately but still respect their opponents and act honourably.

Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but a play like This House or an ex-politician like Ed Balls on the journey that is Strictly shows them as flawed human beings, just like you and me.

This article is written by Paul Seven Lewis, owner of the Winchester-based business Seven Experience. Paul provides marketing consultancy for Theatre Royal Winchester, Hampshire Workspace, The Walcote Practice and other businesses. A version has appeared on the Daily Echo website.

This House is transfers to the Garrick Theatre in London from 19 November.