At a time when the future of our theatre spaces are looking less secure than ever, the impact upon those who create the productions to fill our theatres is enormous.
My friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD was a passionate advocate of new talent, and, as he writes here, had been since the early days of his career. He recalls some of the many initiatives he founded. It is impossible to tell at this distance how many aspiring creatives his initiatives supported, but we can say with some certainty that without his passion and dedication, a fair number of the plays that have entertained you across the last fifty years may never have seen a stage. This article is from his writings in 2011.
The Arena Stage in Washington, not particularly noted as a hotbed of American theatre in the same category as Chicago or Seattle, has opened its new 200-seater space christened the Cradle. Thus, the Cradle will be a home in which to nurture new plays and playwrights.
In these days when investment in new work and young artists is difficult to attract, artistic directors are more inclined to revive classics than risk world premieres and even more important, second or third productions of new plays. But without talent we risk losing all creativity, not only in our theatres but also in our films, radio and television programming.
Over fifty years ago, when the Arts Council of Great Britain cared about creativity, it had evolved numerous schemes for investing in drama companies.There were annual grants, guarantees against loss, touring guarantees, transport subsidies to help bring audiences into theatres, training schemes, guarantees for new plays, guarantees for second and third productions of new plays, guarantees for neglected plays, grants for young peoples’ theatre, capital grants….the schemes were endless and constantly evolving. [Editorial Note: All these initiatives had stemmed from Anthony Field himself, as Finance Director of the Arts Council for 27 years, but -for the record- he was too modest to say that in this article!]
In 1960 I proposed that the Council might consider establishing a theatre in London which would be available for new work. There were at that time so many fringe theatres going out of business like the New Lindsey, the Boltons and the Irving, and other fringe theatres being run by artistic directors that it was becoming increasingly difficult for new, young producers to find a home for new plays.
In New York there were literally hundreds of off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and even off-off-off-Broadway venues for rent. They were not run by artistic directors with their own programmes but by landlords simply asking for a weekly rent for a 100-seater space for an open-ended run. Thus, I thought it would be productive for the Arts Council to fund one such space in London. After some consideration the Drama Department came back to me with a proposal to purchase the Shaftesbury Theatre (which was then called The Princes Theatre). I pointed out that it was completely the wrong size and configuration, with a 1400-seat capacity across three levels, which had completely the wrong ambiance for new work. Unfortunately, the whole scheme collapsed after that.
Now a small theatre in Washington has launched a new space to foster the craft of playwriting and the careers of playwrights. Further, it has rented a house with four bedrooms for playwrights to live and work close to the Cradle. Already one playwright who has spent time there has a new drama, THE MOUNTAINTOP, scheduled for Broadway, and another whose LEGACY OF LIGHT has been produced at a number of other regional theatres.
Arena Stage, which has fostered the Cradle, has already benefitted financially from the musical NEXT TO NORMAL which has just closed after a two-year success on Broadway.
Like most people, I welcomed the long- overdue unveiling of financial measures to help the arts and culture sector this week. However, this has come after fifteen weeks of deafening silence, which has caused incalculable tension, pain and uncertainty in our industry.
With so many theatres announcing closure, hibernation and large-scale redundancies already, the Chancellor’s financial plan already feels very much like too little too late- and that’s before we even get into the detail.
Let’s be realistic here; The Conservatives have never been advocates for funding the arts. And for this lame and failing government, it is positively the enemy. Why on earth would they actively help prop up an industry that encourages ideas, debate – and makes people think? The pressure of public support for our theatres and theatre companies has finally made them do something after almost four long months.
Needless to say, the previous emergency assistance package of £160 million given to the Arts Council to distribute didn’t go very far. Most importantly, it all but ignored the vast numbers of freelancers who keep our industry alive; it also ignored smaller and fringe venues which are so often the seed bed for tomorrow’s great actors and writers. Let’s not forget that writer James Graham (INK, THIS HOUSE, etc) started his career just ten years ago with a show at London’s Finborough Theatre. This money must reach the smaller organisations proportionately and not be utterly gobbled up by the bigger players alone.
Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that this new package has been unveiled for the entire arts and culture sector, including museums, galleries, concert venues, cinemas and heritage sites, so let’s not fool ourselves that anywhere near the 1.57 billion is coming our way. My mildly-educated guess is that the theatre sector will find itself with around £600million, less than four times the original amount doled out to the Arts Council to disseminate earlier in the crisis, but to put it into context, this amount- for the entire theatre industry- is about the same as the amount the government gave to one airline – EasyJet – several months ago when it started bellyaching as only airlines can do.
Its not as if we have all been sitting around on our backsides since Covid-19 kicked in. Larger theatres quickly started streaming work online to help to keep the country entertained throughout these dark times – and what a great response that has had- and the work continues. New content and fun activities have come out of dozens of theatres up and down the country to help children learn, adults engage and have some fun, and the whole population to feel in some way connected again, after the greatest societal dislocation since World War Two. Creative people did what creative people do best- they adapted to a new way of working and found new, vital and eminently helpful ways to make a difference in society. And while it has attracted little media attention, the scale of the work has been phenomenal.
So many small theatre groups have been doing outreach work into their communities, reinforcing the connections between isolated and vulnerable members of our society; running online workshops and activities for local communities; making scrubs and masks for heath workers; delivering groceries to those who have been shielding; and overall, contributing in hundreds of small but significant ways to their communities. If you’re looking for the true value of theatre within a community – there it is!
There have been a number of earnest and heartfelt petitions and online campaigns by arts professionals and theatre lovers to draw attention to the plight of theatres and those who work in them. Some may be perplexed as to why this should need to be so, when the theatre industry punches massively above its weight in terms of its contribution to global exports as well as the domestic economy, returning over three times the amount invested in it back to the Treasury every single year. No other industry does this!
Many of us have been banging on for decades about the fact that more people visit theatres than go to sports events each week ; now with a few higher-profile voices echoing ours, folk who have larger Twitter followings than us, perhaps we are all starting to be heard. Theatre is a multi-billion pound industry which earns more than any manufacturing sector in the UK economy. Remember that next time someone tells you that theatres don’t matter!
The reason for this lack of fighting power is, I suggest, because to the general population, we are genuinely under-visible. This is mainly attributable to a huge deficit of media time and exposure when compared to, say, sport.
Can you imagine if the arts had equality with sports on our TVs, magazines and newspapers? How much more the world could see about what we do, how we help to contribute to the fabric of society in so many significant and positive ways.
Sports/arts equality of coverage would mean that there would be several arts channels to choose from, daily highlights on at least one of the four major terrestrial TV providers and a segment in each major news bulletin.
Only then will we be seen by the whole of society for what we are – one of the UK’s strongest, most diverse, creative and vital sectors. Theatre has helped many developed economies climb out of recession faster. Money INVESTED (not given to) in theatre will return more than threefold- and it will do so faster than any other sector.
The details, we are assured, of this package will follow. Let’s hope it’s soon. Until we see that detail, we are still in the dark – literally and metaphorically.
And this time the freelancers and fringe venues must be properly supported. Ignoring them-again- risks the whole foundation of our industry.
The current Secretary of State for Culture is called Oliver Dowden. A man who in his entire Parliamentary career has never asked one arts or culture related question (according to my research into his record). A faceless career politician with just two years of “real world” work experience and certainly no genuinely evident zest for his current position; he is simply a place-filler. And yet – he may go down in history as the man who closed more theatres than Hitler.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Created by Simeilia Hodge-Dallway and run by her together with Sarudzayi Marufu., Beyond The Canon seeks to highlight, promote and champion hidden plays by Black, Asian, LatinX and Middle Eastern Playwrights.
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While the live theatre scene is paused, here is the next in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of certain significant or memorable events.The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Irving Berlin are rightly respected as high-water mark achievements of their times. Proof of their timeless appeal is that they are still performed around the world to this day.
In looking through the writings of my late colleague ANTHONY FIELD, I have come across several interesting stories relating to these shows’ First Nights in the UK, at all of which Anthony was present. Here’s a fascinating look back to the birth of some legendary shows and performances, compiled from his writings in 2010.
My programme from the first night of OKLAHOMA! At the Opera House, Manchester on Friday 18 April 1947 reminds me that it starred Harold Keel – who swiftly had to change his name to Howard Keel as British Equity already had a Harold Keel on their books.
Few theatregoers in Manchester then seemed to know what “The Theatre Guild presents OKLAHOMA!” was all about. It was due to commence at 6.30 – and by 6.50 the packed house was getting restive – “how like the Americans to be late!” I overheard.
The curtains parted a little and a cowboy stepped forward to apologise for the delay because “our sets and costumes were on the Queen Elizabeth liner stranded on a sandbank off Southampton, but we are almost ready to begin.” He disappeared back through the curtains and a buzz went around the house, slowly subsiding. All of a sudden the orchestra struck up, Aunt Eller was churning the milk and the potent voice of Harold Keel enchanted us with “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…..”. The gleaming sunshine of the show lit up the auditorium- and the audience with it. OKLAHOMA! utterly thrilled the grey and gloomy British, still reeling from the War. From that moment on, there was no holding this powerhouse of a show, sweeping us off our feet and, two weeks later, Theatre Royal Drury Lane audiences for 1,543 performances. Further Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals followed it into Drury Lane – CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I and SOUTH PACIFIC. (see afterword)
Talking about SOUTH PACIFIC, in those days producers banned the songs in a new musical being played too early in the UK, in the fear that the public might tire of the scores before they ever reached the West End. I vividly remember coming back from New York in 1949 and “smuggling” 10-inch vinyl discs of SOUTH PACIFIC into the UK which made me very popular amongst musical aficionados in those days! The London production of SOUTH PACIFIC ran from November 1, 1951 for 802 performances at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Joshua Logan directed; Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans starred, and in a tiny chorus part was a very young Sean Connery!
When ANNIE GET YOUR GUN opened at the London Coliseum on 7 June 1947 the young lead, Dolores Gray, became a star overnight. Together with Bill Johnson she reigned for 1304 performances, with Wendy Toye and Irving Davies dancing delightfully. As well as being there at the first night, I also well remember the last night when, after countless curtain calls, the audience simply refused to leave. The set was struck and the bare stage did not deter the applause until finally Dolores Gray and Bill Johnson returned in their street clothes, sat on a costume trunk and sang THEY SAY THAT FALLING IN LOVE IS WONDERFUL with just a piano accompaniment and finally, THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS to persuade the audience to go home.
Recalling these marvellous musicals reminded me of another London first night- that of CAROUSEL which opened at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on June 7, 1950. The production was restaged by Jerome Whyte, with a cast that included Stephen Douglass (Billy), Iva Withers (Julie) and Margot Moser (Carrie), achieving 566 performances.
Being fortunate enough to have had a partner (Ted) as devoted to the stage as I am, we have a complete record of the events of the times through all the first night reviews. Some of you may be surprised to see how short some of the references are to the actual music in the show. But it underlines one of my bug-bears- that music in musicals should be taken more seriously by critics. And now, 60 years later, when CAROUSEL and its fellow works are considered theatrical milestones, the problem for newer musicals still exists to a significant extent.
Please bear in mind that the UK was still enduring great shortages- this included paper, and so newspapers had to be ever more concise in their reporting. Here, for your interest, is the press’s entire critical assessment of the music in CAROUSEL- some of them two words, others many more. It is still quite startling to read them all this time later. Also it should be borne in mind that the majority of the public read just one newspaper.
“Three tunes are charming – “If I Loved You, “You’re A Queer One” and “June is Bustin'” – for the rest I wouldn’t give tuppence” -Sunday Dispatch
“Fine numbers” – Sunday Pictorial
“Full of good numbers like ‘June is Bustin'” – Sunday Express
“I remember the rush of the June song, the most exhilarating thing in a generous score” – Observer
“The music is a genuine delight to the ear. The choruses and ballets are inventive” – Sunday Graphic
“The songs are not as catchy as those in OKLAHOMA!” – Reynolds News
“The music, if less hummable, has more of an operatic quality. The lyrics are cleverer” – Daily Mail
“Many pretty tunes by Richard Rogers though even these are not the best he can do” – News Chronicle
“There is a ‘Sonny Boy’ sort of song sequence that brings tears” – Daily Mirror
“There are fresh and eloquent songs and one of those lively and audacious choruses” – The Times
“There is a song “June is Bustin'” that seems at exploding-point with joy and enthusiasm and youth: and there is a masterly sailors’ hornpipe” – The Sunday Times
“Hammerstein’s taradiddle is offset to some extent by the boom-de-ay of Rodgers, who has written two certain hit tunes and a number of probables” – Sunday Chronicle
“The songs are a summer tonic and here are the three you will remember: ‘You’re a Queer One’, ‘If I Loved You’ and ‘June is Bustin”- the last most of all” – News of the World
“The music is delightful and really advances the drama and underlines it in a way a far grander opera from a British pen so much fails to do; it also reminds me of Stephen Foster type balladry of the States” – Time and Tide
“The music does not disdain the operatic method of underlining the drama, but it manages to preserve something of the homespun appeal of a ballad by Stephen Foster, and there are never long stretches which do not soon flower into some bouncing dance or jingling chorus song” – Manchester Guardian
“There is a great deal of music and although there are such magnificent tunes as “June is Bustin'” and “When I Marry Mr Snow” much of it is a finely orchestrated background to the action” – The Daily Telegraph
“Numbers, except for a brisk song about the arrival of June, are as unremarkable as they are pretentious” – The Daily Herald
“The music is not a s good as Richard Wagner’s but it may take the ear more easily” – The Evening News
“CAROUSEL is Dick Rodgers’ triumph. He looks like a businessman and writes like a modern Richard Strauss. No wonder modern American symphony orchestras play his works. There is never a moment that the music does not express the mood and point of the tale. The opening waltz is a superb, sardonic commentary on the sad gaiety of circus life. Rodgers is incapable of a cliche or a descent to the commonplace” – The Evening Standard
“The musical side contains three songs destined to make early appearances in the best-selling list – “June is Bustin'”, “What’s The Use of Wond’rin'”, and “If I Loved You”. Besides these there are half a dozen subsidiary songs and melodies which are unlikely to be heard much outside the show but which are fetching examples of the distinguished work turned out by this lyricist and composer. I particularly took to a thing called “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” but I dare say you’ll find your own pet pieces in a score which delightfully and cunningly follows every mood an turn of the plot” – What’s On
AFTERWORDAnyone interested in hearing more about the first productions of OKLAHOMA! will be interested to listen to this short (12 minute) programme from the BBC. You can access it here.
With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish his writings