Here’s another interesting free (donations requested) online event happening on Thursday 27th January at 6.30pm GMT from Kensington and Chelsea Libraries and presented by Anthony Robins. For any of our friends joining from New York itself, your local start time is 1.30pm.
BEHIND THE BRIGHT LIGHTS: The Fabulous Broadway Theatres is presented by architectural author Anthony Robins and will definitely be worth a watch.
Visitors to New York invariably find their way to the Broadway theatre, drawn by long-running musicals, showy imports, and occasional straight plays.
What many never realize is that Broadway offers another artistic and historical resource that is unique to New York City: the theatres themselves.
With three-quarters of a century of history behind them, the forty surviving theatres are largely intact, and stand as stunning works of art in themselves, as well as monuments to the lively history of American theatre.
This will be a Zoom webinar. All those who book will get the LINK TO JOIN 24hrs and on the day of the event.
The fantastic Little Angel Marionette Theatre in London’s Islington has been operating since 1960, delighting children for over six decades with their lovingly crafted puppets and imaginatively staged shows for younger audiences.
In 1964, British Pathe saw the value in filming a short tribute to the Theatre’s amazing contribution to children’s appreciation of theatre, as well as to the skills of the puppeteers themselves, in this brief visit to the theatre. Enjoy a trip back in time!
Occasionally I like to bring you things that you may not have come across in your reading about the arts and culture.
This is the Jewel Theatre, built in July 1931 for Hathyel L. James and Percy H. James as an African American Theatre, with Art Deco stylings, in the Black business district of Oklahoma City, once the hub of a thriving Main Street.
Today, all the other surrounding buildings have gone. Except the Jewel. With vacant ground all around, the Jewel could easily have gone the way of the others. Closed by the late-1970’s, the Jewel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Thankfully, current owner Arthur Hurst (who grew up in the neighbourhood) is partnering with local initiatives, creating the Jewel Foundation, in an attempt to raise funding of around $2million to completely renovate the structurally-sound but otherwise fading Jewel. All its interior decoration has gone, leaving a bare shell.
As a very rare survivor of a Black cultural heritage building, there is much passion behind the revival project, and the aim is for the Jewel to become a catalyst to reignite local business development, and when open to celebrate black filmmakers and talent by screening movies and staging shows.
As a culturally-significant survivor I am sure we all wish them well. Those wishing to help the project financially may have to hold off – I have investigated the links attached to advertising material and sadly none of them are live or current. I will let you know when I find a way for you to donate should you wish to.
Meanwhile, I’d strongly recommend that you enjoy this short video about the Jewel, its history and aspirations.
Today, December 8th, Broadway theatres will dim their lights as a mark of respect for the passing of Stephen Sondheim, 91. To celebrate his supreme artistry, influence and legacy across seven decades, here is a reflection written by my late colleague Anthony Field CBE, who knew Sondheim well, and indeed co-presented (together with Richard Pilbrow) the first productions of Sondheim works in the UK in the sixties and seventies.For now, let’s turn the clock back to 1990 and learn about Stephen Sondheim’s time at Oxfordand the difference he made.
The establishment of a new Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, created by Cameron Mackintosh, was further distinguished by the inaugural Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre post being accepted by Stephen Sondheim.Focusing on Musicals in that year, Sondheim assembled perhaps the most distinguished ever range of performers, composers and lyricists. Participants included Patti Lupone, Jonathan Pryce, Julia McKenzie, Arthur Laurents, Tim Rice, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Burt Shevelove, John Weidman, Melvyn Bragg and Mark Steyn – almost all of whom have some input into the discussions outlined in this fascinating digest of some of the sessions. Enjoy the read!
The establishment of a Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 1989/90 by Cameron Mackintosh was indeed an historic event. In particular, the appointment of Stephen Sondheim as the inaugural Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre was a first attempt to acknowledge that the musical has finally come of age. It is, after all, half a century since in the United States the Pulitzer prizes recognised Rodgers and Hammerstein alongside Arthur Miller.
absorbing sessions during this year at St Catherine’s College dealt with such
varied subjects as the History of Musical Theatre, Lighting and Stage Design,
Orchestration, Musical Direction and Sound Design, Producing in the Musical
Theatre, the influence of performers on the writing and construction of
musicals, the development of “sung-through” musicals as distinct from book
musicals and finally two days of Master Classes presenting excerpts from musicals
composed and written by Professor Sondheim’s leading students, sung and acted
by members of the casts of LES MISERABLES, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and MISS
One of these musicals was an adaptation by Michael Bland of MEASURE FOR MEASURE which was significant to Jonathan Pryce who, as the lead in MISS SAIGON, had maintained that it was easier to keep a performance fresh and sustain the characterisation in a musical than in straight theatre. “Even after a year, when that orchestra starts it innervates you into a wonderful release of emotions. Whereas in Shakespeare and Chekhov I find myself counting the performances – even half a performance in the interval – in MISS SAIGON I find continually new and exciting things in the song and dance and characterisation. After a month in UNCLE VANYA I need a psychiatrist to stop me going mad and after six months in MISS SAIGON I asked a psychiatrist why I am not going mad”. Apparently, research is being undertaken into the discovery of confined areas of the brain used only for singing. During Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s research into conditions in Vietnam it was indicated that during their worst plight the population there often communicated only in song. Similarly, Nicholas Hytner’s production of GHETTO had illustrated how much past music had emanated from tragedy.
such as Julia McKenzie (FOLLIES), Philip Quast (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE)
and Patti Lupone (LES MISERABLES) explained the problems of appearing in
musicals that had not been written for them in the way that Broadway shows had
been written for such performers as Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Al Jolson, Eddie
Cantor, Gertrude Lawrence and Chita Rivera whose vocal ranges and acting
capabilities were understood by the composers and conductors so that
microphones were not required. Naturally the size and ambiance of theatre
auditoria were significant factors in the success or failure of musicals and
performers can be greatly affected by the transfer of a successful production
from a suitable smaller space to an unsuitable larger one. “Hits are more
fragile than flops!”.
analysis of the writing and construction of musicals, like operas, varied from
a composer like Sondheim who delivered a finished product, to Andrew Lloyd
Webber who allowed changes by performers just as Ethel Merman had demanded of
Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.
Pryce admitted he had written a few of the lyrics for MISS SAIGON including
four extra lines required during an artist’s change (unfortunately these very
lines were quoted by some critics to demonstrate that Alain Boublil’s lyrics
were banal!). The most quoted lyrics from CATS were by Richard Stilgoe and not
T S Eliot. Three important songs in LES MISERABLES were written at the request
of the actors in rehearsal who felt that the through-action was too shallow
without musical strengthening at those moments (STARS, BRING HIM HOME, and DOG EATS
The sessions with Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Tim Rice, John Weidman, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Melvyn Bragg were particularly illuminating. Kurt Weill had maintained that audiences don’t want to hear “Would you like a glass of white wine?” sung, and yet Mark Steyn pointed out that more drinks were poured in the libretto of ASPECTS OF LOVE than in the bars in the interval. It was generally agreed that there was a problem of having to sing basic information although there appears to be a current vogue whereby the public are flocking to musicals without dialogue (LES MISERABLES, MISS SAIGON). Schönberg and Boublil agreed about the benefit of not having been nurtured with an upbringing in musicals which were not a tradition in France. Thus, they had to create their own style whereby there is a perfect synthesis of all the elements – music, word, direction and design. They had evolved a personal method of working as an integral whole, so much so that if they agreed to change one bar they needed almost to change the whole libretto.
In contrast, Tim Rice, whilst expressing admiration for the unified writing of Schönberg and Boublil, found it difficult to sit down with a composer and write with a blank page in front of them. He required the restriction of eight musical notes- the strict boundary within which he had to find the few words to convey what had to be said. He suggested that while composers needed to be able to “wander off”, lyricists needed discipline. Sondheim insisted that content dictates form and considered that to sing the banalities of exposition was like an endless chocolate sauce smothering a scene. Tim Rice agreed that it was easier to sing “give me another country” (EVITA) than “pass me the salt” (ASPECTS OF LOVE). Arthur Laurents confirmed that alternating scenes without music and scenes with music helped to pace the action. Sondheim suggested that a composer wrote musical fragments on and on until sometimes a song developed as in WOZZECK, in contrast to CARMEN where songs alternated with other songs. He did not consider this was the same with SWEENEY TODD where he kept the under-scoring going continuously to prevent the plot from appearing silly. His next musical is ASSASSINS with a book by John Weidman (PACIFIC OVERTURES) and would require a drop in tension achieved by contrasting speech and song. He cited WEST SIDE STORY as being much more effective than if the street gangs had sung all the time. Burt Shevelove had pointed out the wisdom of Plautus in writing one-hour long farces because longer ones become wearisome. Hence the songs in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM give you time to catch your breath since the action accumulates and becomes so fast that songs are demanded by the text.
enormous craftsmanship required in the creation of a musical was constantly
evoked. GYPSY had made enormous demands on the creative team. Originally Ethel
Merman had insisted on stopping the show with ROSE’S TURN to take a bow since
it was clear that audiences wanted to applaud her. However, in giving them the
opportunity to release themselves they did not give proper attention to the
important last scene. Accordingly, when Angela Lansbury played it in London it
was arranged by Arthur Laurents for Rose to continue taking bows in a spotlight
until the applause finished and the spot died and then she would go on taking
bows in silence again and again so that it dawned on the audience that she was
having a nervous breakdown and the daughter then became the mother, and the
mother the daughter.
composers and lyricists insisted that they simply wrote what they themselves
liked. Only time would tell if any of the works would out-live them. The great
operas of previous centuries were largely forgotten and the present repertoire
of opera houses was composed of the few survivors. In Beethoven’s time, Ludwig
Spohr was the most popular composer – the public flocked to his FAUST (1818)
and JESSONDA (1823) both of which have completely disappeared, but not
week of Professor Sondheim’s Master Classes, John Maucieri, the Musical Director
of Scottish Opera, delivered a superb speech in Glasgow to the International
Society of Professional Arts Administrators in which he referred to Britain’s
“hardening of the categories”. He maintained that LES MISERABLES was the
popular opera of the 1990s just as Puccini’s works were a century ago.
Similarly, Professor Sondheim saw no difference between PORGY AND BESS,
PARSIFAL and WEST SIDE STORY. Ricordi had marketed Puccini’s operas with
ice-cream boys on bicycles whistling the popular arias, just as disc jockeys
now play the songs of MISS SAIGON. The great composers we revere today were, in
their time, writing to audience demand like craftsmen.
What is of
great concern is that the University academics have not yet indicated that they
are prepared to enter into serious debate about musicals with composers and
conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, John Maucieri and Stephen Sondheim. They
owe it to this new Chair to be ready to assess musicals using the same criteria
as for other art forms.
need to do is to analyse why a certain formation of notes (B, G, B, G, A, F, G,
D, G, D, F) which make up “Un bel di, vedremo levarsi un fil de fumo” is
regarded as great art whereas a similar group of notes which form “The Last
Night of the World” is “just a musical”. Why is the libretto of MADAME
BUTTERFLY (“One fine day we’ll notice a thread of smoke arising”) part of
operatic history to be studied at Oxford but the libretto of MISS SAIGON (“A
cry that tells us love goes on and on”) simply part of a West End “show”? If
academics maintain one cannot dissect an opera in this way and it is the
composite whole that matters, what about the composite whole of SUNDAY IN THE
PARK WITH GEORGE at the National Theatre?
laid a great deal of the blame for the present situation in music education and
the gulf between art and society at the door of critics, particularly those who
ignore popular concerts and those who side with the composer against the listener.
Perhaps, he wondered, they are popular because no critics were there to tell
you whether to like it or not. They followed Arnold Schoenberg’s definition “If
it’s popular it isn’t art”. Yet the visual arts have never split into “popular”
and “classical”. The British music categorisations never cease to make one
wonder: “Mainly for pleasure”, Music in our Time”, “Classics for Pleasure” (as
distinct, no doubt, from “Classics for Pain”?). Further, music critics do not
cover the enormous range of music constantly composed for films and television.
Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s PSYCHO went to the very essence of the
film, and similarly Elizabeth Parker’s score for David Attenborough’s THE WORLD
do critics acknowledge film scores such as the Sir Arthur Bliss music for
THINGS TO COME or the WEST SIDE STORY dances by Leonard Bernstein. Certainly
the music of Michel Legrand and Henry Mancini is ignored and, furthermore,
prejudicial terminology splits even more the popular field: Ragtime, Jazz,
Swing, Bebop, Hillbilly, Blues, Rock, Country, Folk and so on. Try looking for
various works in major shops. Apart from Rock and Classics nearly everything
else is under “Easy Listening” or “Orchestral (Miscellaneous)”!
time is a factor in that TOSCA has been around long enough to have become “great
art”, does this mean that OKLAHOMA! only has to wait 100 years for similar
recognition? One is bound to recall that the first performance of MADAME
BUTTERFLY at La Scala Milan on February 17th 1904 was “a complete
failure – one of the great fiascos of operatic history” according to Kobbe.
Next year (1990/91) the Cameron Mackintosh Chair of Contemporary Theatre turns its attention to Drama when the Visiting Professor will be Ian McKellen.
Article reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field.
Applications are now open for the Society of Theatre Research’s Research Grants! The grants, raging in value from £200 to a maximum of £1000 are awarded annually to those researching British or British-related theatre and performance . You’ve plenty of time, as the deadline for applications is 25 March 2022
You can find out more information and download the application form via the STR website here