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

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

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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