January 20th marks the 3rd anniversary of Unrestricted Theatre.

Who would have thought that two-thirds of its lifespan would be during a global pandemic that shut theatres down for the longest period in their history.

I would just like to thank all of you “wonderful people out there in the web” (to paraphrase Norma Desmond) for continuing to visit, for your emails when you enjoy reading an article, and for your continued support of the theatre (and theatres) that we all love and enjoy. There’s never been a time when they’ve needed your support more.

Stephen Sondheim : A remembrance

“I dim the lights and think about you”

from Losing my Mind

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 Oxford and 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.

A dozen 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 SAIGON.

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.

Performers 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!”.

The 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.

Jonathan 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 DOG).

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.

The 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.

All the 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 Beethoven.

Within a 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.

What we 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?

John Maucieri 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 AROUND US.

Only rarely 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)”!

Finally, if 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.

VIEWS: Christmas 2021 – uncertain season piles on stress for theatres and producers

As mask mandates return to attempt to head off a Winter wave of new Covid variant Omicron, the theatre industry once again braces itself for cancellations and no-shows.

Brave producers getting shows out to the public are experiencing considerable resistance as the new variant causes a change in people’s behaviour, especially as regards being in a large hall with many hundreds of others at close range and feeling as though they have little control of their situation.

We really must all salute the courage and optimism of producers, working against a headwind of ever-morphing risk, to bring employment to creatives and entertainment to audiences.

Theatres who produce their own pantomime make a huge investment in order to financially front-load their year ahead, and the news that pantomime bookings are significantly down across the board will cause difficulty for all those brave venues trying to service their local communities and their creative community too.

But things can change very rapidly these days, and it is still hard to see how this new variant will act – and in what ways it will be different from the last prevalent variant. The incompetent UK government’s about-face in asking us to all wear masks again is too littl, too late yet again – it’s doomed to failure, thanks in most part to their abject lack of responsibility or leadership by example over the last 18 months. They really are an utter waste of space.

The sudden requirement for theatre audiences to wear masks again has reportedly caused a wave of requests to theatres for refunds. How theatres deal with this will be yet another thorny issue for producers, theatre owners and their hard-working and under-praised box office staff who have to square the circle with the public.

The plain fact is that that the mask requirement is patently unenforceable, even by the nicest and most eagle-eyed front of house staff. It is simply not doable for a handful of staff to enforce mask-wearing of hundreds of people – and of those who actually bother to comply, a fair proportion will be using the masks as a chin guard after 10 minutes – that, I can guarantee you.

Current audiences will mostly be those who calculate their own risk and of those around them and feel it “worth the gamble”.

However, I sincerely feel for all those parents and grandparents who feel genuinely unsure about taking their little ones to experience the joy and fun of pantomime, feeling desperately uneasy within themselves but feeling an obligation to act in a certain way for others, causing them untold stress and perhaps even illness.

Personally, I won’t be back inside a theatre until the case numbers have dropped significantly. But I am looking forward to getting back to the theatre we all love.

Have a very happy Christmas, and please enjoy theatre if you feel able, but please wear your masks (properly) and by respecting others, I sincerely hope that others will respect you, so that we can all have the Best Available Christmas once more.

RSA report provides interesting reading about the value of arts education

Here’s a really interesting report from the esteemed Royal Society of Arts on the findings of a number of research initiatives to assess the value of the arts in education.

The last in a series of reports entitled Learning About Culture finds encouraging evidence that the arts can have a positive impact on pupils’ social skills, self-efficacy and ideation.

Find out more and read the full report here

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Dudley Council celebrates LoveTheatreDay by voting to demolish its only professional theatre

Dudley Hippodrome interior

17th November was “Love Theatre Day” around the world, and huge numbers of theatres, theatre owners, creatives and local authorities took to social media to celebrate their creative community hubs and the pleasure, stimulation and community cohesion they bring.

Everywhere in the world was out celebrating these jewels in their communities.

All, that is, except Dudley.

This was the day when the hopelessly out of touch Dudley Council’s planning committee met to nod through the application for demolition of their only remaining professional theatre in the area. The destruction of a community-owned building sitting in a Conservation Area on land gifted to the people of Dudley. In one vote the Council members took the assets of the community away and voted to destroy them.

In a meeting described by one attendee as “an unmitigated shambles”, committee members wandered back and forth, engaging in side discussions, rarely giving any speakers or objector their full attention. Tom Clarke of the Theatres Trust had kindly agreed to step up and speak for the Dudley Hippodrome Development Trust, the passionate and committed Hippodrome supporters group which is trying to retain, refurbish and reopen this vital community resource, only to be ignored by substantial numbers of those of the committee present.

Worse still, the owner of the adjacent business, Mr Gurminder Singh, which has been running successfully as a function hall, was given no opportunity to speak to save his business into which he has poured his family’s investment and his own life savings into,. This is Council dealings at their shabbiest.

The outcome of the decision is far from unexpected. Only one councillor voted against the demolition, and for that we thank her (I cannot find her name at present but will update when I find it).

The decision now goes to Michael Gove (!?!) for oversight, so we won’t hold our breath on that one…

But the fight is far from over, and the supporters now regroup to consider their next moves. As Sue Bolton, one of the leading lights of the campaign to save the theatre, said, “It’s not over until the lady sings”

Theatres Trust later said: “We are extremely disappointed in the decision by Dudley Council to give planning permission for the demolition of Dudley Hippodrome. A wasted opportunity to reimagine a heritage asset as a catalyst for growth.”

You can read the Theatres Trust’s full statement here

Here is the Dudley Hippodrome Development Trust’s full report about how the meeting was conducted:

“Because of poor acoustics and poor microphones, we are unsure who presented the council’s application to demolish the theatre. After reading out from the documents for quite a while he then referred to an animated “fly through” video on screen, which did not work. After several failed attempts to get it to work, our one and only permitted objector was called up to speak while further attempts were made.

While the objector, Tom Clarke, the National Planning Adviser from Theatres Trust, who had travelled up from London was speaking to the committee, someone got up and walked directly across the room, distracting Mr Clarke, to speak to the tech guy. There was chatting on the top table and then another councillor got up to join the conversation with the tech guy! It was clear committee members had not read the documentation beforehand as they were reading it rather than listening. We were appalled at that moment.

Following this, DMBC not only got its planning agent to speak, but then got another further chance (at length) to recommend demolition! Our objector had just 3 minutes. A second objector, Mr G. Singh, whose livelihood has been ruined by Metro works and a probable CPO was not permitted to speak despite several requests to allow him to, as an exception. Other councils allow up to 15 speakers.

It was obvious to the observers from the start that the decision had been made before the meeting as not one objection was even mentioned, discussed or argued, particularly regarding the National Planning Policy Framework.

Dudley Council was seeking its own planning permission to demolish a heritage asset, which it owns, to be replaced by something that Dudley council proposes, without proper consultation with the electorate.

There were numerous quality robust objections from Theatres Trust, The C20 Society, Historic Buildings and Places, Save Britain’s Heritage and even the Art Deco Society UK. There were even strong objections from David Ward, The Earl of Dudley, Leander Ward, heir to the title and Tracy Ward, the Duchess of Beaufort.

Our opinion is that DMBC presented false information and photoshopped images to persuade councillors, who were clearly unable to get to Castle Hill and A461 Birmingham Road to see how visible the Castle is from that direction. The image of the new building appeared shrunk and the views presented as if a vistor would arrive on the top of a double decker bus.

The whole case was treated like it was an application for an extension. There should be no need to present false images if the project is worth doing.

Historic England have admitted that their analysis of the scheme had been concluded from information provided, yet the council ‘padded’ this out to about 20 pages from an initial A4 size appraisal, without Historic England visiting the site or looking inside either building.

Are you shocked ??

You decide……….”

I know what I think. How about You?