Time to Remember: Spotlighting Richard Pilbrow’s life in musicals

Prompted by the publication of a new book, ANTHONY FIELD writes about the career of the man who single-handedly invented the language of modern stage lighting, RICHARD PILBROW. Richard and Anthony had been dear friends and producing partners for decades, and Anthony’s exit from the Arts Council after 27 years could only have been to work with someone as multi-talented as Richard, whose own company – Theatre Projects – gained Anthony as their Finance Director. Theatre Projects is a world-renowned company which has created some of the most significant and successful performing arts venues around the world over the last five decades. Now 87, Richard is President Emeritus of the Company. Enjoy reading about his fascinating journey through the theatre of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This article is from 2011.

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

Recently published is a long-awaited book A THEATRE PROJECT, an autobiographical memoir by Richard Pilbrow, the pioneer of contemporary stage lighting who developed his career as a theatre consultant and producer. Over the last five decades he has been involved in the production of many successful musicals.

In 1962 Donald Albery contracted him to work in a spectacular new show called BLITZ! with music by Lionel Bart. This production was to present Cockney London under Hitler’s bombardment during the Second World War – on stage, which had never seen its like before or since. Noel Coward described it as “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”. Sean Kenny who had created brilliant sets for OLIVER! went on to designing extraordinary sets for BLITZ! at the Adelphi and Richard Pilbrow’s account of the Royal Gala preview found the stage smoke engulfing the orchestra which had to stop playing. Fortunately the first night proved perfection.

This led to Tony Walton writing to ask Richard to meet Hal Prince in New York to discuss lighting a new Broadway musical which Tony was to design. Richard stayed with Tony and his wife, Julie Andrews then starring in CAMELOT and the next morning they discussed producing A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM by Burt Shevelove with music by Stephen Sondheim. This led to Hal Prince encouraging Richard to become a producer, establishing Theatre Projects as Hal’s London office

Their first London project was to be A FUNNY THING… and everyone thought that they were crazy to cast Frankie Howerd in it. They saw him play one of the broker’s men in panto at Coventry and Peter Cook persuaded them about his comic talent. However, the tour proved a nightmare with no laughs and the previews were frightening. The opening night finally arrived with Frankie’s “Comedy Tonight” introducing the notable group of British comedians – Kenneth Connor, Eddie Gray, Jon Pertwee and Robertson Hare brought the audience to its feet in recognition and welcome. The triumph ran for two years and Theatre Projects was the first-ever London management to close the show for a week after the first year to give the entire cast a holiday.

Amidst Richard’s full work programme of plays and consultancy for the new National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he continued to co-produce and light such musicals as HALF A SIXPENCE with Tommy Steele at the Cambridge Theatre and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Shaftesbury.

Richard plowed his profits from A FUNNY THING… into SHE LOVES ME which he adored. This had started as an idea of Julie Andrews to turn the film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER into a musical for her although her Disney contract for the MARY POPPINS film prevented her from appearing in SHE LOVES ME. The reviews in London were the kiss of death – “charming, charming, charming”-which did not help to pull in audiences. The show has never proved commercially successful but Richard was then excited with another score played to him by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

In 1964 Richard and Tony Walton designed and lit GOLDEN BOY on Broadway, with the book by Clifford Odets and music by Charles Strouse. Its success was partly due to the overwhelming projections for backgrounds which established a new method of designing musicals.

Returning to London, Richard applied himself to opening FIDDLER at Her Majesty’s Theatre although the whole theatre establishment told him that such a Jewish show would never succeed in the west End.

The long story of engaging Topol and the five-year run of FIDDLER has been retold many times. Suffice to note that all producers have their failures as well as successes. Although not a failure but the next Broadway musical to involve Richard was THE ROTHSCHILDS: I myself enjoyed it enormously when I saw it in 1970 but it was not a big hit, although it ran for over 500 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Back in London in 1968 Richard had opened his fourth musical in the West End which was Kander and Ebb’s CABARET starring Judi Dench at the Palace Theatre. Although Judi protested “I just can’t sing”, Hal Prince was enchanted with her, and declared “This will be the Real Sally Bowles”.

The next lighting venture was for Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY in 1971 in New York which Richard went on to produce in London at his favourite theatre, Her Majesty’s, with Elaine Stritch. It ran for 344 performances but did not recoup its capital. However, it established a long-term relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Richard demonstrated to London that musical theatre could be a profound theatrical form with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in 1975 with Jean Simmons at the Adelphi. This ran for 406 performances during which Virginia McKenna replaced Jean.

The 450 pages of this story of Richard Pilbrow’s life can hardly be summarised in one short article except by highlighting the musicals in which he was involved, which included THE GOOD COMPANIONS in 1974 at Her Majesty’s. This had a libretto by Ronald Harwood with music by Andre Previn. Then there was the large-scale spectacle of GONE WITH THE WIND at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace, and the failures of CARTE BLANCHE at the Phoenix and the revival of KISMET at the Shaftesbury. His first venture with Cameron Mackintosh was the revival of OKLAHOMA! at the Palace in 1980 and then with Tommy Steele again, he lit SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for Harold Fielding at the London Palladium.

The transfer of WEST SIDE STORY, revived at Leicester, to Her Majesty’s proved a big hit in 1984 and led to the production of LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC at the Adelphi.

There are still dreams and hopes of shows which never achieved their potential such as BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune, based on the 1930 movie ST. MARTIN’S LANE, and Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE. Very sadly the failure of the 1986 revival of A FUNNY THING… at the Piccadilly with a sick Frankie Howerd put an end to the wealth of Theatre Projects’ programme of musicals but Richard’s continued career in the US in the 21st century finds him lighting revivals of WHERE’S CHARLEY?, THE BOY FRIEND and the new A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

All in all, anyone wanting to read the whole background of the creation of musical theatre will find it in Richard Pilbrow’s engrossing book “A Theatre Project” published by Plasa Media.

AFTERWORD: You can find out more about Richard Pilbrow’s fascinating book A THEATRE PROJECT here

Shows To Remember: ONE MO’ TIME

On July 14th 1981 a show opened in London which had travelled from New York but originated in New Orleans. ONE MO’ TIME grew from an idea supported by people donating their time into a hugely successful musical delight which toured the world for several years.

Being taken to the theatre by friends for a birthday treat is always memorable. And so it was for my 21st when, as hard-up art students, my dear friends Julia and Shirley scraped together the money to buy us the last three seats on the back row of the Upper Circle at London’s Phoenix Theatre to see the jazzy 1920s black musical revue ONE MO’ TIME. It is an evening- and a show- which I have never forgotten.

The show had a fascinating history, from its first creation in New Orleans, to audiences clamouring for further performances, developing into longer runs and bigger halls, growing in popularity – opening in New York, London and then touring globally.

ONE MO’ TIME is a musical revue conceived, written by and starring Vernel Bagneris. It recreates an evening of 1920s African-American vaudeville, set at the Lyric Theatre of New Orleans one sultry night in 1926 . Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey played the Lyric, as did Sweet Mama Stringbean, later better known as Ethel Waters. (Sadly the Lyric burned down in 1927).

The Lyric was on the black vaudeville circuit known as the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.). To the circuit artists themselves, the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses”, for the hours were long, the pay was short and the bosses mercilessly exploited the workers- as people of colour found in so many industries.

The show centres around Big Bertha’s touring vaudeville song and dance show, with offstage dialogue scenes interlacing the numbers. The star of the show was undoubtedly the music, but the backstage gossiping, rivalry, hardships, intrigues and flirtations were all interwoven to add texture to the music and give a supporting story for the performers to work with.

Originating in New Orleans as a one nighter, the show’s wildly enthusiastic reception demanded further performances, from where the show’s popularity grew exponentially. The Off-Broadway production opened in New York at the Village Gate in October 1979, running for several years. At the 23rd Annual Grammy Awards in 1980 the recording of the show was nominated for the Best Original Cast Show Album (losing to that year’s big hitter, EVITA). The live recording (produced by legendary Jerry Wexler – who also co-produced the show in New York) captures perfectly the crackle of enthusiasm audiences had for this show, and the album was a substantial seller in the soundtracks category.

In 1981 the original New York cast were invited to bring the show to London, and the production opened at the 1200-seat Cambridge Theatre on July 14 to excellent reviews (as evidenced in the poster below); outlasting its predicted run, in November the show transferred to the 1000-seat Phoenix Theatre, where it ran until July 17th, 1982, achieving a total of 486 performances, along the way earning an Olivier Award nomination for Best New Musical.

The performances were – by the time of arrival in London – highly polished, and the cast’s professionalism perhaps threw a harsher light on the scripted segments between the numbers. The dialogue was always designed to feel somewhat improvised, which gave the show a feeling of rough-and-ready authenticity, although some disagreed that it made the show feel a little “scrappy”. Whatever your reactions to the script, when the songs appeared they stole the show, in soulful, humorous and engaging performances.

The show encompassed twenty songs, all well-chosen; from the heartfelt “He’s Funny That Way” to the defiant “After You’ve Gone”; from the upbeat dance numbers including “Wait Till You See My Baby Do The Charleston” to the hilariously suggestive “Kitchen Man” and “You’ve Got The Right Key But The Wrong Keyhole”, the songs were balanced perfectly to provide highs, lows and laughs in satisfying measure.

Audiences hugged it. British audiences loved the jazzy orchestrations, the sometimes sweet, sometimes raunchy songs and the vitality of dances including the Charleston, the black bottom and the cakewalk performed by a hugely talented cast who seemed to be enjoying it as much as we were – it all added up to happy audiences at curtain down. Even when I saw it, halfway through its run, audiences really took this show to its heart – they stood, stamped, clapped and cheered. As did we.

In Summer 2001 a staging of ONE MO’ TIME at Williamstown Theatre Festival in USA got a very enthusiastic response and so the show was planned to open at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre in February 2002. Despite good notices, audiences didn’t materialise and sadly the show closed after a few months.

No one can say for certain why a revival succeeds or fails. All that I can tell you is that in my opinion the show is ready for another revival, perhaps in the UK. After the success of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ I think that this could be a hit as a co-production between several smaller-scale theatres who could share its extended run to make it financially viable.

I would love to see it return. But thanks to the album, I can go back to the original any time I want to. And with the resources below, you can experience some of the atmosphere from this very special show. Enjoy!

Hear Vernel Bagneris talk about the genesis of the show in a New Orleans Public Radio interview from 2016 here

You can listen to the original cast recording of ONE MO’ TIME here

You can see the original cast perform the musical numbers from the show (very sadly the connecting dialogue scenes have been edited out of this recording adapted for German TV) here

For anyone interested, here is a track listing of the Musical Numbers:

  1. Down in Honky Tonk Town
  2. Kiss Me Sweet
  3. Miss Jenny’s Ball
  4. Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home
  5. I’ve Got What It Takes
  6. C.C. Rider
  7. The Graveyard
  8. He’s Funny That Way
  9. Kitchen Man
  10. Wait Till You See My Baby Do the Charleston
  11. Love
  12. Louise
  13. New Orleans Hop Scop Blues
  14. Everybody Loves My Baby
  15. You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole
  16. After You’ve Gone
  17. My Man Blues
  18. Papa De Da Da
  19. Muddy Waters
  20. There’s Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight

Time to Remember: Dear Mr Gershwin….

On July 11th, 1937, legendary composer George Gershwin died at the tragically young age of 38 of a brain tumour. The quality, ambition and sheer craftsmanship of his music has enchanted generations – and continues to do so.

George (seated) and Ira Gershwin, 1932

This seems like a fitting moment to revisit an article written by my friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD from Spring 2011 where he describes meeting one of the Gershwin family, and delves into the complex world of writing a musical comedy show. At the time of writing his article, the 1930 Gershwin show GIRL CRAZY’s 1990s reworking as CRAZY FOR YOU was just about to be revived at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park.

In January, when in New York, I had great pleasure in meeting Todd Gershwin, George Gershwin’s great-nephew. On my return to the UK, starting a piece of correspondence to him with “Dear Mr Gershwin…” reminded me of Judy Garland’ singing “Dear Mr Gable…”, and made me smile. It was like being a tiny part of a legend. For the Gershwin music is still considered the cream of Broadway.

Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira.

At our initial meeting I challenged Todd about what had appeared to be years of reluctance of the Gershwin Estate to encourage more use of the fabulous Gershwin music and he admitted that it may have seemed so in the past but that he was now wanting to get the Gershwin brothers’ timeless and elegant music back to a public hungry for quality over quantity.

The first stirring of this major renaissance will be seen this summer when CRAZY FOR YOU is the musical selected for this year’s summer season at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park. This reworking of the show GIRL CRAZY opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in March 1993 starring Ruthie Henshall and Kirby Ward and went on to run for a year before touring. The Gershwins’ sublime music had not been best showcased by the original book and this major revision (by the very talented Mike Ockrent) still did not do it justice, despite excellent choreography from Susan Stroman.

Although George Gershwin was undoubtedly the greatest theatre composer Broadway ever produced he was more a man of the theatre than a man of music. His early work was writing songs, even though he was disgusted with the banality of most “popular” songs. He became convinced that pop music appealed on too low a level and that good songs could only be written in a theatre context.

Thus, his first hits were mainly in revues – the song SWANEE appeared in the show SINBAD in 1918, DO IT AGAIN was in THE FRENCH DOLL in 1922 and I’LL BUILD A STAIRWAY TO PARADISE was in the same year’s GEORGE WHITE’S SCANDALS.

His best theatre songs began to emerge when he moved from revues to musical comedies. He found that revues consisted of isolated turns which encouraged a composer to write popular songs whereas musical comedies, however silly the book, demanded a context in which to write such songs as FASCINATING RHYTHM for the show LADY BE GOOD, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME for the show OH, KAY!, HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON for ROSALIE and the exquisite HE LOVES AND SHE LOVES for the show FUNNY FACE.

GIRL CRAZY Programme cover, 1930

The marvellous score that George had created for GIRL CRAZY (including EMBRACEABLE YOU, I GOT RHYTHM, BUT NOT FOR ME and BIDIN’ MY TIME left him depressed because of the foolish and insubstantial nature of the book. He tired of musical comedy and needed greater stage challenges. He then tried a new kind of musical, three political satires (STRIKE UP THE BAND, OF THEE I SING and LET THEM EAT CAKE). But audiences were not ready for shows which were half musical comedy and half comic opera with a message. He proclaimed these were “the composer’s claim to legitimacy” and his final work for the theatre was PORGY AND BESS which combined his masterly musicianship with theatricality at full strength.

His final years were spent in Hollywood writing songs for film musicals, many of his finest such as A FOGGY DAY IN LONDON TOWN, THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY. Although he never got around to it, George discussed writing a musical about the making of a musical. Forty years later such a musical was composed by Marvin Hamlisch – A CHORUS LINE.

Today George and Ira Gershwin’s music still inspires excitement and is identified with everything we consider as Broadway. However, the frivolous books of the shows of their time are totally unacceptable to current audiences and the art now is to provide a story which works today and is not just an excuse to string a large number of hits together.

GIRL CRAZY poster 1930

Interestingly, the stories of how the shows came about are infinitely more gripping than their wafer-thin plots. For example, the real story behind GIRL CRAZY. New York in the 1930s was the powerhouse of creativity which helped America come through the Great Depression. It was usual for Broadway musicals at that time to be created around the personality and talent of a star comedian. Thus, GIRL CRAZY was written for the great new clown Bert Lahr, and all the advance publicity was based on his being the star. However, Bert Lahr was enjoying a great success in a show called FLYING HIGH and refused to join the cast of GIRL CRAZY.

The producers went ahead with casting and early on selected Ginger Rogers, later auditioning Ethel Merman for her Broadway debut. But the problem was still the book. Despite a torrent of quick jokes the book remained trivial, implausible – and long. On 29 September 1930 the pre-Broadway tour of GIRL CRAZY opened in Philadelphia. When the first act ended Guy Bolton, who was co-librettist with Ira Gershwin, put on his coat, Ira asked if he was going for a drink. “No”, replied Guy, “I’m going home”. Ira was thunderstruck. “Home? There’s another act!” Guy replied calmly “Ira, it’s eleven o’clock. I’m going home. We’ll talk tomorrow”. After that, he honed down GIRL CRAZY and then moved to London where he lived for the next fifty years writing more than fifty plays.

L to R Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Ethel Merman, 1930

The opening night of GIRL CRAZY on 14 October 1930 found an enthusiastic reception for the young Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman tore the house down with I GOT RHYTHM, holding the high C note for a full sixteen bars. It is also staggering to note that the pit band included Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Benny Goodman on sax and Gene Krupa on drums, as well as on-stage pianist for Ethel Merman, Roger Edens. The production closed in June 1931 after 272 performances, having made a profit of $200,000.

In 1932 RKO filmed GIRL CRAZY with Mitzi Green, later selling the rights to MGM for the 1943 remake starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

It is high time for another rediscovery of the extraordinary songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, and in this the Regents Park production of CRAZY FOR YOU will undoubtedly lead the way. The fact that their music is being planned to be presented worldwide by Todd Gershwin gives one a real feeling that this time modern audiences’ love of Gershwin is here to stay.

L to R George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The photo is inscribed with good wishes to Heyward who collaborated with the brothers on PORGY AND BESS (1935). Photo courtesy US Information Service

Listen to HOW SUCCESS RUINED ME: Music Hall Singing Star Fred Barnes Recalled

Christopher Green and Roy Hudd in 2018
Christopher Green as Fred Barnes in his show in development MUSIC HALL MONSTER
One of the songs made famous by Fred Barnes – with a rather ironic title to today’s eyes.

Roy Hudd and Christopher Green discover the perils of applause in a comic conversation at Wilton’s Music Hall, where together they tell the lost story of music hall idol Fred Barnes.

Meet the ‘wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis’, singer Fred Barnes, whose hit song, The Black Sheep of The Family, and outrageous appearance both made him a star and were the architects of his downfall. Barnes topped the national circuits in 1911 through into the twenties, and at the height of his fame, he would be seen about town in his trademark white suit and hat, with a pet marmoset on his shoulder.

But Fred’s tragic family history, sudden success and enormous wealth were too hard to handle. His addictions and flamboyant offstage adventures proved his ruin, and after being branded ‘a menace to His Majesty’s fighting forces’, Fred was banned from the stage by his employers.

He fell spectacularly from grace, brought down by a shockingly modern range of addictions: sex, shopping, alcohol, and a need for celebrity. At the pinnacle of his fame in the 1920s he was fabulously wealthy and sported the height of extravagant fashion with a marmoset on his shoulder. He sold his memoir ‘How Success Ruined Me’ to the papers, but by the mid 1930s he was singing for pennies in Southend pubs – now with a chicken perched on his shoulder.

Chris and Roy play out (and argue about, and rewrite) the vital moments from Fred’s private and public life, while reflecting frankly on the perils of applause, addiction and identity in their own performing lives – with jokes, chat and songs.

Roy Hudd, OBE, died in March 2020.

Words and music by Christopher Green
with John Orchard on the piano

Listen to HOW SUCCESS RUINED ME here on BBC iPlayer – Or here on audiomack.com – Or here on Internet Archive

Colchester Mercury supporting fresh music and drama talent

Just a week after naming the winners of their Mercury Songwriting Contest (details here), Colchester Mercury Theatre have done even more – by announcing the 15 participants selected to benefit from the Mercury Playwrights Development Programme.

The writers who will be working with them are:
Waleed Akhtar, Sarah Baxter, Gail Egbeson, Jazz Ely, Matt Gurr, Kelly Jones, James McDermott, Ethan Moorhouse, Chileya Mwampulo, Michelle Payne, Ava Pickett, Charlie Platt, Jacko Pook, LLoyd Shankley and Jess Woo.

Over the next nine months, Mercury Playwrights in association with Josef Weinberger Plays will support these promising writers, to guide and mentor them through the process of creating their own full-length play or piece of theatre.

Let’s wish all the selected writers well with their development. Here’s to seeing the output of these promising voices of the future stage.

You can find out more about the programme and the chosen writers on their website here