Securing the Future of London’s Theatres

On Thursday 3rd February the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) hosted an event at THE STAGE’s Building of the Year, the magnificently restored and reinvigorated Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to launch a new report commissioned by them to assess, analyse and identify ways of “Securing the Future of London’s Theatres”.

The report, written by urban design specialists Publica, explores practical ways in which theatres, the bids (Business Improvement Districts), developers, and the council can all work together.

Subtitled “A Call to Action”, the report raises awareness of the specific needs of London’s historic theatres and their role as a vital asset to the city’s night time economy, central to pandemic recovery. London’s theatres play a crucial role in the city’s ecosystem, supporting over 20,000 jobs and contributing £133 million in annual VAT to the Treasury. 

Setting out the unique operational and access requirements of the London theatre industry, the report calls for better collaboration between theatre operators and those responsible for London’s public realm, highways and land usage, to protect the invaluable cultural heritage that has been a key part of London’s identity for over 350 years.

The document was created in consultation with SOLT members and The Theatres Trust during workshops, surveys and site visits between 2019 and 2021, and is addressed to a wide range of stakeholders including MPs, Local Authorities, the GLA, TFL, London’s Business Improvement Districts, landowners and developers. It is well worth a read for its thoroughness, creativity and insights.

You can download the report here.

Book your Silver Sunday over 65s free tour of notable buildings around Covent Garden this Sunday

Royal Opera House extension

This Sunday, October 3rd at 10am, enjoy a free tour of some of Westminster’s most celebrated buildings, presented by London Open House in association with Westminster Council (and participating building owners),

This fun and engaging walking tour — organised by Open House as part of Westminster City Council’s Inside Out festival — focuses on the capital’s cultural heartland in-and-around Covent Garden.

Dubbed High Notes and the High Life, High Art and the High Street, the entertaining and insightful route — led by former Royal National Theatre head of tours Alison Rae — charts the unique and often overlooked history behind Westminster’s great theatres, galleries and cultural complexes.

Revisiting these iconic locations as London re-opens its theatres and cultural delights — the tour will explore the enigmatic surroundings of Covent Garden where high art mixes with street performance, retail with relaxation and world-renowned icons such as the National Gallery and Royal Opera House rub shoulders with the informality of cultural diversions in Trafalgar Square and the Piazza.

The route charts the development of the area from a ‘convent’ garden of Westminster Abbey into residences for the gentry, and then from supplier of the nation’s fruit and veg to a key London destination. It also follows the evolution of west Strand from Royal Mews into the focal point of national celebration, and the re-purposing of Somerset House from 18th century home of Learned Societies to Arts hub housing over 100 creative and cultural enterprises. 

As well as introducing the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in its refreshed livery, there are newer attractions and hidden gems to be discovered along the way. This walking tour focuses on how the area has responded to change over the years, adapted and developed to create the vibrant mix of activity we see today.

Highlights of the tour include the Theatre Royal Drury Lane — representing four centuries of continuous theatre use from Sir Christopher Wren’s first theatre on the site to Benjamin Wyatt’s 1812 building which now houses the majority of the public foyer spaces.

This landmark building recently reopened following a major overhaul by architect Haworth Tompkins which restored its historic lobby spaces to their former grand configuration and made the 1920s auditorium more welcoming and effective for contemporary audiences.

Other highlights include the Royal Opera House which has recently been transformed by Stanton Williams Architects — opening up what had previously been a fairly constrained set of spaces to the world outside. The architect’s new Bow Street extension now presents a welcoming public face to the building while the expanded and interlinked foyer spaces breathe new energy into front-of-house areas.

Providing a safe and fun way for enthusiastic urbanists aged 65 and over to explore the city, this tour will explore the architecture and history of Westminster’s cultural heartland and is presented by Open House as part of Westminster City Council’s Inside Out festival.

Meet: 10am on the River Terrace (facing the river Waterloo Bridge end) at Somerset House WC2R 0RN. Ends at Dury Lane. Duration: 2.5 hrs approx. BOOKING IS ESSENTIAL. Participants must be over 65 and bring proof.

The tour is scheduled to last approximately two and a half hours and finish at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

You can find out more details here book tickets here (while available- as this will undoubtedly sell out!).

Time to Remember: OKLAHOMA!, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN – their first UK productions

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)

poster for original Broadway production of South Pacific

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

Souvenir programme cover from London run of CAROUSEL, 1951
Broadway poster from original production of CAROUSEL

AFTERWORD Anyone 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

Remembering Jill Hudson

Stage Doorkeeper Jill Hudson was the first person I met walking into the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1986. For the next 31 years she was the first person most people saw.

Jilly was a smart lady with a big heart and an even larger presence; she ruled the Stage Door with a friendly smile, a quick mind, a calm demeanour – and considerable authority.

The news that Jill has died on January 6th after living with cancer for some time, just a few days after her birthday (on New Year’s Day), is a sad moment for myself and all those thousands of show-people who came across her, and recognised her as a happy part of Drury Lane’s glittering history.

She started at Drury Lane like me, in 1986, on the original five-year run of 42nd STREET, an incredibly happy show which had a real family atmosphere thanks to the warm-hearted management of General Manager Bill Cronshaw. Jill left in late 2017 due to illness, interestingly during the revival of 42nd STREET (which ran at the theatre for nearly two years until January 2019). She did say to me in 2017 that she wanted to retire on the last night of the show, but sadly that wasn’t to be.

For 31 years a favourite with the large casts which filled the Lane, the stage door was really Jilly’s home, with assorted cards and gifts from previous celebrity (and non-celebrity) friends, soft toys and of course Chelsea FC memorabilia. Visitors buzzed in and out constantly, always welcomed and the kettle was always on for a brew and a chat whenever time permitted.

Jilly knew how to be firm whilst being pleasant, qualities which many a visitor appreciated, and in terms of working relationships you knew just where you were with Jill- and it worked both ways. She was the best.

She will not be forgotten by those many people who met her, laughed with her and enjoyed her warm and happy Tannoy messages- especially keeping people up to date on sports event back in the days before mobile phones. Indeed, Twitter and Instagram have lit up with tributes since the news of her passing emerged – proof, if any were needed, that Jill was more loved than even she may have even known!

My thoughts and heartfelt wishes go out to her family and loved ones.

Thanks for all the happy memories, Jilly. Drury Lane will never be quite the same again.

Goodbye, Jerry

“There are only a couple of us who care about writing songs that people can leave the theater singing.”

Jerry Herman, composer of tune-filled big Broadway crowd-pleasers such as HELLO, DOLLY!, MAME, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and MACK AND MABEL, has died aged 88.

Herman’s biggest successes were based on other people’s stories, which makes sound sense. If they like and know the story, why would they not want to see it again as a musical? Thus, Thornton Wilder’s delightful THE MATCHMAKER became HELLO, DOLLY!, Patrick Dennis’ novel AUNTIE MAME became MAME , and Jean Poiret’s stage farce turned France’s most profitable-ever movie LA CAGE AUX FOLLES came to the musical stage and worked a new kind of magic with its story.

Many tributes have already been penned, so I shall not duplicate for the sake of duplication. I shall just content myself with remembering my connections with the man and his work.

I was lucky enough to be a House Manager at the Palladium during the original London run of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in 1987. A truly lavish spectacle, this Allan Carr-produced extravaganza wowed audiences nightly with its glamour, humour, heart -and of course those priceless songs which sent audiences home happy and singing. The mischievous Cagelles were legend around the building- for all the wrong (right?) reasons. The magnificent George Hearn and Denis Quilley starred and it was a very happy show. There was some resistance to the show’s chosen theatre of residence, in that the Palladium was a family house and the fact that such a risque, adult show had come in was seen as something of a misplace. Certainly the venue’s vast capacity of 2200 was a factor in the show’s only running for one year. But what a year it was!

What was also very touching about LA CAGE was the audiences. All ages, types, everyone had a whale of a time, although I recall seeing no children as the show was aimed at adults. It was a time of social upheaval regarding attitudes towards homosexuality. As you may recall the world was in the grip of the HIV and AIDS crisis, with no effective treatment then in sight. Songs such as The Best Of Times took on a deeper resonance. Somehow, the show became a focus of energy around this upheaval.

I particularly remember older audience members wanting to talk with us on the outgoing- they had gay friends and they wanted us to know they valued and loved them. I can clearly recall conversations with people in their sixties and seventies who spoke lovingly about their gay friends and how difficult life had been for them. It was very moving and I felt honoured to be entrusted with their words. As I mentioned, the show closed after a year, and everyone was rather disappointed it had not gone on for much longer. Thankfully the show has had a large number of revivals since. But nothing will rival that no-expenses spared glamour-filled year at The London Palladium.

The one time that I met Jerry Herman was at a lavish benefit performance staged at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in February 1988, MACK AND MABEL IN CONCERT. Tickets were like gold dust. Rumours had been flying about the guest list and they mostly proved true. Barry Mishon produced one of his star-studded extravaganzas (he specialised in American star-laden tribute shows on Sundays in London in the 80s). Presenting a concert version with an (as I recall it) fifty-piece orchestra.

The performance was recorded for sound but not filmed, sadly. Some great performers graced this gala, the likes of George Hearn, Georgia Brown, Stubby Kaye, Debbie Shapiro, and in a spectacular roof-raiser, Tommy Tune and a company of dozens and dozens of glittering chorines all in white, singing and dancing to Tap Your Troubles Away, the ovation for which I have never heard louder in a theatre. You can actually hear the sound distort on the recording at the physical force of the applause and the house went truly crazy with a standing ovation and people crying and hugging themselves. I was on duty but even I couldn’t resist seeing this. A truly memorable show. We even got to hear Jerry sing, when he took a section of I Promise You A Happy Ending towards the end of the show.

After the bulk of the audience had departed, the post-show party was held upstairs in the Grand Circle Saloon, an expansive and elegant hall, and the company mingled with VIPs and others. Jerry Herman was there with his small entourage, and on his arm was the dazzling Lauren Bacall, a special friend, who appeared in the show as one of the featured narrators of the story, in between the songs.

Halfway up the stairs to the Saloon (I was following behind) I noticed that Ms Bacall stopped and seemed to panic. Jerry was concerned about his friend. I raced up to ask if I could help. Ms Bacall said that she had left a very special pair of gloves in her dressing room and was upset to be without them. I reassured her that we would locate it and asked the party to continue on. The items duly retrieved, I brought them to her in the Saloon. She was very relieved and kissed me on the cheek, and Jerry thanked me genuinely. She later told me that “a very special person”, now deceased, had given them to her and she considered them a kind of talisman.

Chatting later to his friends who had accompanied him, they were all delighted at the success of the event and the fact that it had raised a huge amount for the Royal Marsden Cancer hospital in Chelsea. The recording, released later in 1988 and still available today, also generated funds for the hospital’s cancer fund.