A good book on an extraordinary woman. Mary Rodgers had great success as the composer of Once Upon a Mattress, the Broadway musical that made Carol Burnett a star, as the writer of the best-selling Freaky Friday novels, and as screenwriter of the film adaptation, then re-made almost generationally: my favourite is the Lindsey Lohan/ Jamie Lee Curtis version. Those two properties alone were so successful that they ended up requiring a management company and – as she bemoans – too much of her time. The success however was not enough to overcome her sense that she isn’t good enough, not compared to her father (Richard Rodgers), her son (Adam Guetell) or the love of her life (Stephen Sondheim). And if that’s how you want to measure your worth, one can see her point. But it’s an impossible measure. Aside from her work, she also had seven children, six of whom lived to contented and successful adulthoods, and who – to her surprise – seem to love a mother who never thought she was good enough in that area either. Not being good enough is one of the themes of this book. But it’s all relative. Mary Rodgers comes across as one of those fast, wise-cracking, chain-smoking mid-century East-coast women who seem to type a novel with one hand, sock a mugger with the other, all while hosting a cocktail party glittering with the wittiest repartee to be had amongst Manhattan’s best and brightest, all of whom were close intimate friends and appear here: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Burnett, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince, John Kander, Mary Martin, Judy Holliday, etc etc
Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story is here at last. The obvious question it raises is just why such a well-regarded film needs a remake – and the answer quickly becomes clear. Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of the 1957 stage musical is indeed a classic, but this new version comes from and enters a different America, one in which its message, José argues, is more urgently needed but faces a more difficult challenge to be heard. And on top of that, it’s just a really good film.
We discuss the film’s use of colour and lighting, the brutality of the violence and believability of the gang, the purpose and effects of having a lot of dialogue spoken in entirely unsubtitled Spanish, and much more. The songs are timeless, the romance heartfelt, the imagery beautiful. West Side Story is a great success.
The Welsh National Opera’s Production of Sweeney Todd was a pretty typical opera rendition of a musical: the voices were superb; the singing more concerned with hitting the right notes than with conveying mood and feeling; the acting was weak and generally lacking in characterisation; and the whole show was slow and had a rather portentous tone: it lacked verve and pizzazz. The audience, however, lapped it up. What I was most interested in, aside from listening to one of the very greatest of Broadway musical scores played by an excellent orchestra, was the staging.
The WNO has been doing very daring things with video mapping, lighting and other aspects of mise-en-scène. Seeing Mariusz Trelinski’s gorgeously inventive joint productions of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude (see image below) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (see image above), with its neon frames, video imagings of Occupied Paris and film noir effects in the 2013-14 season was a revelation and remains thrilling to think about. It seemed to bring together the visual and narrative possibilities of cinema with immediacy of theatre and the emotional power of great voices and expert musicians singing and playing in the now. Each production was ver powerful, seeing them together made them made them even richer, and both have left a vivid imprint.
Sweeney Todd is not as visually exciting though there is a wonderful moment at the beginning when I thought what we were seeing was a video image mapped onto a bed-sheet of Sweeney Todd with his wife and child before he was sent to prison for 15 years, the catalyst to the narrative, which turned out to be ingenious work of lighting from Chris Davey, and becomes a thrilling theatrical moment when the characters appear from behind the sheet — which stands in for their flat and, later still, for the barbershop — and start descending onto the stage.
Though one can quibble about the performative and interpretative dimensions of the singing, it was still a joy to hear those powerful, trained voices singing that brilliant score. The one performer I would like to single out, however, is Jamie Muscato’s Anthony Hope. Everytime he came onstage and opened his mouth, something beautiful happened that seemed to offer hope not only to the character of Johanna but to us. The one performer who not only had a great voice but who used it expressively to convey feeling, and did so in a way that was powerful, immediate and touching.
In spite of all my reservations, and though in some ways it was not the equal of a school production from Eltham I saw earlier in the year in Edinburgh, I would have relished a chance to see it again