Lena Horne, who died ten years ago this month, was one of the most sophisticated song stylists of her generation. In this appreciation ANTHONY FIELD recalls his association with her and her history, living as she did through times which were not as enlightened as our current society’s. But most of all, it celebrates her triumphs as an artist – no one was going to silence this lady and her music!
This tribute dates from May 2010
One of the first decisions I had to make when I took up the post as Finance Director at Theatre Projects was whether to extend the season of Lena Horne’s THE LADY AND HER MUSIC which we presented at the Adelphi Theatre in London in August 1984. Faced with the age-old show business dilemma I had to decide whether the first sell-out month should be extended for a second month. We had pioneered opening the show on Sundays and closing on Mondays which had proved successful but we still had to decide whether to extend the season (and risk losing an extra month of business) or to risk finding that would-be ticket buyers who had initially failed to obtain tickets would not come back. This was the dilemma I recorded in The Stage newspaper of 9 August 1984.
The show was an absolute sell-out and proved that Lena Horne was right to postpone her retirement planned for 1980. This last appearance of Lena in London is recalled by many of us who are sad to hear of her death this month (May 2010) at the age of 92.
I first saw her live at her London Palladium debut in August 1950 when she played to enraptured audiences for two sold-out weeks. Her husband, Lennie Hayton, MGM’s Musical Director, conducted his own exciting arrangements opening with “You Do Something To Me” which raised the roof. The variety bill supporting her included Bernard Miles and Billy Cotton and his band. I never asked her what she thought of them! (She returned for another successful season at the Palladium in June 1952).
Born in Brooklyn on 30 June 1917 she was the daughter of an actress and a hotel operator. Her early life was unsettled as her parents divorced when she was three and she spent her childhood living with various relatives. As a young girl she planned to be a teacher but the Depression came and she left the Brooklyn High School For Girls and went to a dancers’ audition at the Cotton Club. She was hired and spent three years learning all about show business from some of the greats including Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
She married Louis Jones and had two children, Ted and Gail, but the marriage failed and Lena divorced him after four years. She then joined Charlie Barnett’s band as their singer and was spotted by MGM’s music supervisor Roger Edens, after which MGM producer Arthur Freed offered her a contract.
Her first film was “Panama Hattie” and the studio created special make-up for her called “Light Egyptian”. Her next film was “Cabin in the Sky” when she played opposite Ethel Waters but MGM did not offer her another assignment, loaning her out to 20th Century-Fox for “Stormy Weather” where she played opposite Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. She then appeared in “As Thousands Cheer”, “Swing Fever”, “Broadway Rhythm”, “Two Girls and a Sailor”, “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Till the Clouds Roll By” but she was always limited to a guest spot number which could be cut out when the film was shown in southern US states’ theatres without affecting the plot. Her last film at MGM was “Duchess of Idaho” in 1950.
During World War Two Lena became the pin-up for hundreds of thousands of black GIs and was firm in her refusal to appear on any tours unless black soldiers were admitted as part of the audience.
In 1950, Lena announced her three-year secret marriage to Lennie Hayton. Their marriage of 24 years ended with his sudden death in 1971 which ended what was a real love match.
Being black in Hollywood’s white society was not easy and for a long time her only real friend there was Orson Welles. Living in a wealthy neighbourhood, the residents there were convinced that she “lowered the tone of the place”. But Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre constantly came to her defence.
Surprisingly, her only big success in a Broadway musical was “Jamaica” with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg. It opened in October 1957 with a cast including Ricardo Montalban and Adelaide Hall and ran for 555 performances.
After Lennie Hayton’s death she lived a quiet life in Santa Barbara. Her son Ted also died in 1971 of a kidney ailment and her daughter Gail had married Sidney Lumet, giving Lena her beloved two grandsons and three granddaughters.
In 1980 she was persuaded to spend a year of planning, writing, honing and rehearsing “The Lady And Her Music” which opened at the Nederlander Theatre on 12 May 1981. The reviews were unanimously sensational and it became the hottest ticket in New York, receiving a special Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award and the New York Drama Critics’ Award. Its 14-month run made it the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
Lena finally brought the show to London when Michael Billington wrote that “her timing, phrasing and emotional voltage remain as powerful as ever. In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” she takes a line like “I’m a real, ripe, juicy plum again” and delivers every syllable into your lap with onomatopoeic suggestiveness. And she can even take the ride in “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and, through fierce, whispered enunciation of every particle of every word, turn it into something full of moonlit eroticism.”
Opening the evening with Rodgers and Hart’s “A Lady Must Live”, she ended the evening of 22 songs with “Stormy Weather”.
She told me at dinner after that first night that “After this Adelphi engagement I’m going to call it a day. It’s time to concentrate on my five grandchildren. Enough is enough!”
With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.
AFTERWORD An audio recording of the 1981 Broadway run was made and is available through a wide range of streaming outlets including Spotify and Amazon Music
ADDITION You will be pleased to hear that a recording of the entire Broadway show has turned up on my favourite archive, YouTube. You can find it here
You may be inclined to catch up on your theatre reading (and writing) during the UK’s current enforced hiatus, and to help you the Guardian has very helpfully posted on its website a selection of Michael Billington’s writings across the five decades of his tenure at the Guardian. Well worth a read! And of course The Guardian does not have a paywall. Something to be grateful for! But do please consider supporting the free press by subscribing (it’s very inexpensive to do so), and if not (or as well) please consider making a donation to a theatrical charity at this very difficult time for freelance theatre creatives. Thank You!
You can find the Guardian’s Billington Archive here
While the live theatre scene is paused, here is the first a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of certain interesting or memorable events.And what better way to start than with Stephen Sondheim. You’ll probably have seen that Stephen Sondheim turned 90 today, so a very Happy Birthday to you, Mr S!
Here’s an article from July 1990, in which ANTHONY FIELD looks back at the inaugural Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre – Stephen Sondheim, at the end of the first year of the establishment of a new Chair of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University, created by Cameron Mackintosh.
Focusing on Musicals in that year, Sondheim assembled an incredible 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!
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 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.
Gary Donaldson, Publisher of Unrestricted Theatre, writes:
If your email inbox, like mine, is overflowing with messages from UK theatres to advise us of their closure, perhaps like me you might be feeling pretty gutted right now. It feels like we’ve lost our dream.
UK audiences go to theatre and arts-related events in larger number than attend all sporting events combined. So there are more people missing theatre right now than any other form of leisure activity.
Not since the outbreak of World War Two have the UK’s theatres closed their doors en masse. Until this Monday.
In the fast-moving Coronavirus threat, several venues took the decision to cancel productions before the government’s briefing on Monday afternoon, after which the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre announced that all its member venues would close their doors “following official government advice, which stipulates that people should avoid public buildings including theatres”. Together, the two organisations represent about 50 London theatres and almost 250 others throughout the UK.
Whilst naturally a hugely distressing time for everyone involved in theatres, from the actors and musicians to electricians, stagehands and front of house teams, we should also remember the industries who rely on theatre for so much of their business – hotels, tourism, restaurants, bars, pubs – also have been hit in an unprecedented manner.
Financial measures are appearing on a daily basis so I shan’t attempt to cover what others have already done or are doing; the announcement of the suspension of business rates for 12 months is something, but so much more will need to be put in place- and quickly- for all those whose employment is now in jeopardy. There has been widespread criticism about lightweight PM Johnson’s failure to order closure of venues, thereby denying them the ability to claim for business interruption on their insurance policies, which caused much unnecessary distress in itself on Monday. It emerges on Tuesday from various voices in the insurance sector that most businesses would not be covered, even if closure had been ordered. Yet on Wednesday new Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the government’s advice would be enough to allow claims for those covered for pandemics. Confusion like this is not what we need from Government right now.
let us not forget that fringe venues wouldn’t have even been able to afford
insurance policies such as these in the first place, so all this does them no
creative industries are thronging with inspirational people who thankfully don’t
just stop and down tools because a virus threatens. Although there will be much
more which emerges in the next few days, what was heartening was that almost
immediately creatives were searching for way to support others. Online appeals
have sprung up to support artists struggling with cancellation of work and
money worries flowing on from this. One early group set up by write Luke Barnes
with an initial aim of creating ten £200 “grants” (which I was happy to
contribute to on Sunday) has reached twice its target by Tuesday evening. Following
Luke’s lead there are now similar schemes in operation for Hull, Newcastle,
Manchester, Ireland, London, Wales and others springing up as we speak, such as
Funds For Freelancers and One Month’s Rent. More power to all of them.
the web, people are reaching out and setting up groups to read scripts, offer
advice, work on music, many offering their services to others for free in an
outpouring of support for those who are feeling most vulnerable right now. So
many people are taking their creativity to the web that we can see their
inextinguishable need to create and express is one of the great drivers of this
country. The UK creative industries employ over 2 million people, and are worth
£110 billion. But their worth in terms of light, heat, heart and soul of
the UK is priceless.
We can only
hope that the government fulfils its responsibility to ensure the vast array of
talent cut adrift by this crisis is given a substantial lifeline.
So what can you do to support our beloved theatres and creatives?
write to your MP to ensure the arts get a fair deal from the crisis financial
send the theatres themselves a note- an email, a phone call, any message of
support via social media or otherwise is all hugely welcome I am certain.
To help the
creatives involved, you can also donate to some of the Crowdfunding initiatives
I mentioned earlier, usually through the sites Crowdfunder or GoFundMe
You can also donate to one of the charities supporting the entertainment industries.
If you have
tickets already booked at a fringe venue, you will usually be offered a refund,
but before you take it, remember you have alternatives. You can ask for a
credit note, which keeps the money in the theatre but allows you to book for a later
date. Or if you feel that can afford to, you can decide to turn that ticket
cost into a donation to help the theatre survive.
You can also buy memberships to many venues, the money from which also helps them keep afloat and gives you a number of benefits. Memberships make great gifts for others too. And if you like reading, why not buy a few plays to keeps you going until the lights go on again? Maybe an old favourite and a couple of new ones to try- there’s a lot of great young writers out there!
theatres have the financial stability to survive and carry on. The shows within
them may struggle, but hopefully with the right help these will live out their
expected stage life.
But for the fringe theatres, where there are no contingency funds to see them through a rough patch, this crisis may see many of them at risk of permanent closure or collapse. Please remember this- theatres need your help to get through this, just as we all need a bit of help sometimes.
If we all
did something, Imagine the difference it would make to the UK’s creative
The many who braved the foul weather to get to Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre on the afternoon of Sunday February 9th were amply rewarded with 90 minutes of amusing and enlightening discussion with the leading theatre critic Michael Billington.
Proving as eloquent in person as he is in print, Billington was skilfully and affectionately questioned across the theatrical gamut by the theatre’s Artistic Director Paul Miller, the event being a fundraiser for the brave and highly successful in-the-round venue which Michael himself has championed on many occasions. He was rightly complimentary about Miller’s part in keeping Bernard Shaw’s work in the public eye.
With subjects ranging from his start in journalism to how the business of being a critic has changed across the decades, there was also time for his view on how the emphasis has grown more on new work to the detriment of the older repertoire of plays. He enjoyed talking about two of his favourites, Harold Pinter and Ken Dodd, and about the evolution of his signature puns which sometimes punctuate his work. Sharing that he was wisely advised to “let the joke come to you”, when they do pop up in his writings, they are a pleasure.
It was interesting to hear about his preparation for seeing a show, and what certainly distinguishes his writing from others is that he always brings his love of theatre to the fore, never in a snide or patronising way, but one which tries to see the positive; even when he illuminates a lack of success or achievement, it comes from a position of experience, knowledge and diligence which gives his work the credibility that has earned such respect by colleagues, theatre-makers and readers alike.
He talked about cultural shifts and their impact upon the theatre we see, designers who have moved away from the pictorial style of his earlier theatrical experience, and of directors who have become known for their own work, stepping out of the shadows of the writers. Opining that today, acting is de-romanticised, he also highlighted the difference across his fifty plus years of experience that acting today is rarely heroic and predominantly ironic. Citing a handful of actors and directors who came to mind, he was able to illustrate his points from a position of authority which hit home with the appreciative audience.
Questions from the audience included the star rating system for reviews (he doesn’t like it but has had to live with it), translations and their faithfulness to their original text, and actors being mic’d. He also discussed musicals, his love of Sondheim, and his lack of patience with the “jukebox musical”. The future of criticism was also raised, and with the good news that he is only semi-retiring, the enthusiastic applause from the audience demonstrated that we are all looking forward to much more Billington writing in the years ahead.