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


Time to Remember: The value of nurturing emerging creatives

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.

The Kogod Cradle photo by Nick Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

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

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.


Time to Remember: Dear Mr Gershwin….

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.

George (seated) and Ira Gershwin, 1932

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.

Todd Gershwin, great-nephew of George and Ira.

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.

GIRL CRAZY Programme cover, 1930

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.

GIRL CRAZY poster 1930

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.

L to R Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Ethel Merman, 1930

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.

L to R George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. The photo is inscribed with good wishes to Heyward who collaborated with the brothers on PORGY AND BESS (1935). Photo courtesy US Information Service

Time to Remember: London’s original TKTS

July sees the 40th anniversary of the Official London Discounted Ticket Booth – TKTS. In its time it has become a London landmark for theatregoers looking for a last-minute bargain. But did you know that there was a London TKTS before the one in Leicester Square?

Photo courtesy Society of London Theatre website.

In this look into the archives, my friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD writes about his time as the pioneering Finance Director of the Arts Council (1957-1984) – and his first experiment with reduced price tickets – in a caravan in Covent Garden! This article dates from June 2010

As long ago as 1976 the Arts Council of Great Britain was concerned to bring together the commercial and subsidised theatre [NOTE: Something that Anthony himself had been working on since 1956!]. This concern manifested itself in the launching of the Theatre Investment Fund which was funded by £100,000 from the Arts Council and £150,000 raised from private sources by Lord Goodman, then the Arts Council’s chair.

The 1976/77 Arts Council Annual Report records that I launched a trial run of TKTS in London modelled on the scheme which had been running successfully in New York since 1973. The Times Square model was based on unsold tickets on the day of performance being made available at one-half of the face value plus a nominal sales charge. In 1975/76 the Times Square booth made a profit of $160,000 which was ploughed back into commercial producing managements on Broadway.

TKTS Times Square, New York, 1973

I proposed a similar scheme at a meeting of the Society of West End Theatre (SWET) and it was thrown out. Undeterred, I then borrowed a caravan from the London Tourist Board and placed it on a bomb site in Covent Garden and persuaded the Arts Council to finance a trial run. As the Arts Council’s Finance Director, this was considered to be one of my “capers”.

However, led by Sir Peter Saunders, then the SWET Chairman, the West End theatre managements did not want to encourage the sale of cheap tickets and certainly did not want to admit that any shows were not selling out.

The TKTS scheme was devised so that theatregoers could queue each day for any available tickets without having to visit each of the many theatres throughout London. However, as only the few managements who were not SWET members sent us tickets, we were forced to close down the trial run after three months. The Arts Council’s 32nd Annual Report wrote “the expertise is now there should SWET ever choose to interest itself in the existence of such a scheme”.

Luckily, after several years SWET did come to realise how useful a TKTS scheme could be and launched it successfully in Leicester Square where it is the official channel for unsold tickets – unlike the many unofficial tickets agencies now cluttering the West End.


With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.


AFTERWORD The recent news that the TKTS box office In Leicester Square is to close “for the foreseeable future” is a sad ending of a chapter in the life of a venue which has become a much-loved London landmark; it is horribly sad that this should occur on its 40th anniversary. It had been selling 400,000 theatre tickets a year – a very significant contribution to the West End. I sincerely hope that it will soon rise again to continue to serve London’s theatregoers for many years to come.


Time to Remember: From Music Hall to Variety – a personal tribute

The Metropolitan Edgware Road, demolished 1963.

My love of Music Hall stems from childhood, when my father was given a beautiful three double-album set of vinyl records by a friend. The albums intrigued me – on the front were old photographs of a very ornate theatre façade (later I found it to be the Metropolitan Edgware Road, one of the most beloved of Music Halls and known as “The Met”). Inside the gatefold sleeves of these three albums were black and white photographs of unfamiliar (to me) faces, and for each of them one track was given as an example of their work. And on the back of the albums, beautiful images of the programmes for these halls, with exciting artwork of glamorous showgirls and lovely typography. What was not to like? At that age, knowing nothing of the hundred-year legacy of music hall and variety which had come before, I slipped one of the discs out and put it on the turntable, curious to find out what this all was.

Some of it had aged pretty badly, it seemed. Certainly to my ten-year old ears this was hard to understand, at first. And then I came across a chap called Horace Kenney, who I had never heard of before. His act was “A Music Hall Trial Turn”, based on an audition if you will, of someone not very good, played straight, and all the better for it. Then I could connect with it- this was someone pretending to be bad and doing it so skilfully that it made me squeak with laughter. The pitiful photo of Mr Kenney confirmed what a dead loss he was, and then the connections started forming – Les Dawson and his off-key piano playing, the song-mangling of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (she mangled the vocals, he wrestled with the piano- and lost)- this was where it had all emanated from. As I played more and more of the discs, sometimes better-known names sprung out- Will Hay, for example – and although this was only audio, as most of these performances had been captured for release on 78rpm discs many years before – a flavour of the acts still came through.

The triple album set was obviously a labour of love – each album of the set was nicely titled Matinee, First House and Second House, reflecting the type of acts you might expect to see at each different performance. The British Music Hall Society contributed much to this set, and the sleeve notes were useful too. Released by World Records, a subscription arm of EMI (I believe), this set may not have been for general consumption, but to me it was something that fired up an interest in Music Hall that has lasted ever since.

Programme from the Alhambra, Leicester Square, demolished 1937 and replaced by the Odeon Leicester Square.

Researching more, the performers were fascinating – most burned bright and then disappeared into oblivion, others had long-standing and affectionately remembered catalogues. Even into the 1950s tours with titles such as “Music Hall Golden Memories” gathered together the remaining huge stars of earlier times such as GH Elliott and Hetty King, and more recently Max Miller – all of whom were touring the UK in a kind of “best of Music Hall”, to nostalgic receptions. But this was the time after Music Hall, when even its successor, Variety, was falling out of popular favour as the newer mediums of television and cinema took precedence; increasingly seen as belonging to the past, audiences simply fell out of the habit of “a night on the halls”.

Prompted by the Last Night of the Met, Edgware Road in April 1963 (which turned hundreds away and surviving variety stars vied to be on the bill) Gerald Glover and Ray Mackender set up the British Music Hall Society in 1963 as the last gasps of that era drifted away. The Society, which is now 57 years old, is organising the Music Hall and Variety Day on 16th May, what would have been long-standing Society President Roy Hudd’s birthday. Sadly, Roy died in March this year, so now the tribute includes Roy himself.

So thank you to all the amazing acts, writers, musicians who gave Music Hall its joie de vivre and Variety its spice. Sadly, we shall never see their like again. In the words of the great Max Miller, “there’ll never be another!”.


AFTERWORD The two photos above are of one of my favourite variety acts, Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and here is some film of them doing the sand dance from their most famous routine, “Cleopatra’s Nightmare”. Enjoy!