Saturday, 11 February 2017

After long pause I'm back and thinking about musicals...

After watching Neil Brand’s excellent Sound of Musicals on BBC4 (episodes 2 and 3 are still on BBC iPlayer, if you’re quick), I got to thinking about when my interest in musicals started. My parents weren’t theatregoers, although we did go to the cinema. I remember going to see Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), first-run roadshows in cinema palaces with intermissions and glossy souvenir booklets, those were the days. But that came later after my first exposure to musicals.

My dad bought a stereo/radio when I was quite young, maybe about 7 or 8, one of those mahogany-boxed pieces of actual furniture with a lift-up top. It came with an LP that explained the magic of stereo, with sound effects of a tennis ball being volleyed from one side to the other. You could sit with your back to the middle section of the unit, between the speaker fronts, and be amazed that tennis was being played right in your living room, in your ears.

We must have had some sort of record player before that, as we had a wire rack for 45rpm discs, but I don’t remember it. Pride of place in the rack was a cardboard booklet with slots for the discs within the pages, the soundtrack to the film South Pacific (1958). This must have been purchased by my 14 years’ older sister, who probably went to see the film. I loved it, as an object, for the colour photos, and for the songs on the 3 discs. Some were less interesting than others, but the ones I loved the most were sung by Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie Forbush. I can still do a pretty good impression of her curious pronunciation of “yell-o-oh” in Cockeyed Optimist. And the “I’m in love” repeats at the end of I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy thrilled me no end, I would twirl and hug myself when I sang them. At this point I had no idea that the songs represented different characters telling a coherent story, but I would sing along with the record and act out a character based on what I thought the song was about.

There was a neighbourhood cinema near where my mother’s sister lived in South Philadelphia. At some sort of family gathering the younger members decided to see a film. The only option was The Music Man (1962), not much enthusiasm from the others but no choice so in we went. This was before we heard the Beatles perform Till There Was You. “How was the movie?”, the adults asked. “The story was OK”, said one cousin, “But they sang all the time”. What? I loved the singing, the dancing, the costumes, everything. How could people so miss the point?

Then the Beatles made A Hard Day’s Night (1964). As a young (11 years old) but huge fan, I would never have been able to go to a live performance, but seeing the film, at my own neighbourhood cinema, was a necessity. There were some obligatory screams from bits of the audience and an older girl, quite beautiful, with a Jane Asher-like long-straight-fringe-bump-on-the-crown hairdo (not envious, really…) watched the whole film through binoculars. Did I recognise the film as a musical? I don’t remember, so entranced at seeing actual Beatles walking and talking.

Seeing Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music came along about this time, event films that you waited in line for and had a ticket with a numbered seat. We had to stand in the cold for so long to get into The Sound of Music that I developed the mother of all colds the week after and stayed home from school. My actual mother, thinking I was faking it, kept asking me didn’t I want to tell my school friends about the film, but I just moaned weakly, rolled over, and tried to sleep my way back to health.

And then…The Monkees (1966-1968). I know, the Pre-Fab Four and all, but, in retrospect, the guys were a talented bunch. I was particularly taken with Davy Jones having played the Artful Dodger on Broadway in Oliver!, and after seeing the film version (1968), I bought the original stage cast recording (though Davy wasn’t on it). It became a prized possession. I longed to play Nancy. I can still give As Long As He Needs Me a right good go at any karaoke evening. (About 4 years later a friend borrowed it. He was carrying it around at his college when a cute girl squealed “Oh, Oliver!”, and he gave it to her. Friends…)

One of the forgotten gems of southern New Jersey was the Camden County Music Fair, part of a tent theatre circuit that included venues in Valley Forge, PA, Lambertville, NJ, and in New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington DC. They presented music concerts and, more importantly, musicals performed in the round and featuring some quite big-name stars. I saw West Side Story with Richard Chamberlin, having recently finished his run as Dr. Kildare and looking for new opportunities, starring as Tony (he was considered too old for the part in the film at age 26). John Raitt, Broadway legend and father of singer Bonnie, played Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man. At the end of the performance Raitt came onstage, leaned on the prop bridge and told stories of tent shows past, including hurricanes and power outages, and then started singing Try to Remember, from The Fantasticks. The 3000 members of the audience sat hushed and entranced. Halfway through, my mother’s friend (the designated driver) decided that to beat the traffic in the carpark it would be a good idea to be the first to leave the theatre. 2997 theatregoers and John Raitt watched us get up, push our way to the end of the aisle and leave. I was mortified but I was only 13 and wasn’t in charge of transportation. Since then I watch every film to the end of the credits and never leave my seat in a theatre until the orchestra stops.

19 year old me in Man of la Mancha, 1973
My first real date, age 15, was to yet another roadshow musical at a cinema palace in Philadelphia. The film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and it continued a love affair with Tommy Steele, who I didn’t even know had been the UK’s sort-of answer to Elvis Presley. I’d really been waiting to see Half a Sixpence (1967), but that hadn’t come out in the US yet, so Finian had to do. It did. And a few months later Sixpence put the lock on that little love fest. I can still sing the full scores to both.

After high school I performed in musicals with a theatre group at a Unitarian Church in Cherry Hill, NJ. And went to see any musical show I could: tent theatres, amateur groups, high schools, touring companies in Philly, whatever I could get to with my limited resources. (I never saw a show on Broadway until after I’d moved to Germany, on a visit back to the US when I was nearing 40 years old.)

Last week my husband and I went to the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in London for the delightful revival of She Loves Me. All because my dad bought a stereo in the early 1960s and my sister had seen South Pacific at the cinema.