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Guest Blog: The Joy of Repeat Visits, by Tonyloco

June 21, 2017

ON THE TOWN (15 June, 2017, Open Air Theatre): My third visit to On the Town in as many weeks was more enjoyable than my second, which was more enjoyable than my first and this prompts me to set down some thoughts about the pleasures to be had from seeing a favourite musical several times, or sometimes a lot more than that!

My serious theatre-going began in Sydney towards the end of 1948 when I was  aged eleven with several visits to Annie Get Your Gun at the Theatre Royal starring the American actress Evie Hayes. I believe I saw it six times, including once or twice when it returned to Sydney the following year to the Empire Theatre after its tour to Melbourne, Adelaide and the other Aussie capital cities. I was totally won over by the very generous, big-hearted performance of Miss Hayes in the title role and I just loved all the music.  I had a copy of the piano vocal score (I still have it) and I used to play it through literally from cover to cover, sometimes inviting the neighbours in for a sing-song around the piano.  I was actually quite precocious at playing the piano, thanks to my early training at the Shefte College of Music where one learned the basic chords and how to play them under the melody line, and Irving Berlin’s songs in Annie are all quite straightforward and easy to play, even for a clever eleven-year-old!

Annie was followed in Sydney by most of the other big Broadway hits of the time including Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Paint your Wagon, South Pacific etc., all of which I saw once or perhaps twice but my next big fixation was probably Kiss Me, Kate (1952), of which I couldn’t get enough. This was strongly cast with the charismatic American actor Hayes Gordon as Fred Graham, Joy Turpin as Lilli Vanessi and the wonderful Maggie Fitzgibbon as Lois Lane and I responded strongly to Cole Porter’s sophisticated score. Also around this time Evie Hayes starred in Call Me Madam, which was where I first discovered the actors’ trick of corpsing on purpose. There is a scene where Mrs Sally Adams, the newly-appointed American Ambassador to Lichtenburg, is wearing a formal evening dress with a long train and in practising how to walk backwards out of the presence of royalty she manages to get herself tangled up in the train. The first time I saw the show this scene was hilarious and one got the impression that it was funnier at that performance than it had ever been before and the actors themselves couldn’t help laughing. But when I saw the show several more times, exactly the same thing happened and I realised the whole thing was rehearsed and planned, even though it seemed totally spontaneous.  I can now spot this kind of planned corpsing and can thoroughly enjoy it when it is well done, as in ‘You’re timeless to me’ in Hairspray or despise it, as when it happened several times in One Man, Two Guv’nors.

Since coming to London in 1960, I have had periods of intense theatre-going but also long periods of abstinence, particularly when I was playing the piano for old time music hall and variety. Throughout most of the early time I usually saw shows I liked more than once, generally because I just wanted to enjoy them again. I saw Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be six times and it was always great. Another show I saw several times was Irma la Douce mainly because I liked the show a lot but none of the leading ladies I saw seemed to be able to survive the gruelling vocal demands of the role. By the early 1960s the ladies seemed to change fairly frequently and it was not until about the fourth viewing (and fourth Irma), that I felt full justice was being done to the role. I started off with the original (1958) Irma, Elizabeth Seal, but by March 1960 she was almost voiceless. I know I also saw Shani Wallace and Mary Preston and possibly somebody else as well.

Then there is a long gap through my music hall years until what is fairly much the present time. In that long interim period I would usually see musicals just once, even the ones that were sensationally good like the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! and Carousel but I then re-discovered that there was a great deal of pleasure from going to see favourite shows over and over. One example of this was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, of which I didn’t see the original cast of Michael Ball, Brian Blessed and co, but went to it for the first time when I discovered one of my music hall buddies called Graham Hoadly was in it, playing several small roles and covering several of the larger parts like the Toymaker and Lord Scrumptious. I was fascinated by this rather complex, sprawling show and soon found that there were always cast changes happening with new stars joining, or covers going on (all of which Graham kept me informed about) and even the structure of the show would change. Both of the Strallen girls appeared as Truly Scrumptious, sometimes I think they just swapped among themselves unofficially. The two comics (Boris and Goran) used to embroider their scenes beyond recognition and I suspect Jeremy Sammes the writer or Adrian Noble the director from time to time would insist on getting them back to the authorised script because their scenes would suddenly change all over again. And there would also be changes in the basic show, for example a funny little scene involving one of the dogs who would sit still in the middle of the stage while one of the comics was firing a rifle, just suddenly disappeared and was never seen again.  There were also several different teams of dogs of different breeds and one never knew exactly what they were going to do at any performance. Graham told me that one particular team of quite small dogs were extremely obnoxious and the actors hated them! And the final atrocity was the complete deletion of the prologue showing the car race where the car got smashed up. This was near the end of the London run and was apparently dropped to simplify the show in preparation for the Broadway production. They needn’t have bothered as the show ran for only just over 300 performances on Broadway and lost most of its $15 million investment. Come to think of it, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was probably unique in the number of changes I saw made to the basic show during the later part of its run, although I bitterly regretted the serious amount of pruning to the script that was done quite early in the run of Mary Poppins to make it more palatable to very small children who shouldn’t have been in the theatre anyway!

Another great favourite was Spamalot, where there were occasional cast changes to see, but the main reason for repeated viewings was that I kept spotting more details of the jokes and the humour on each new viewing.  Perhaps this just proves that I am a bit dumb, but I kept finding more and more to laugh at each time I saw it.  This pleasure of watching a joke being set up was also very evident in the pantomime Mother Goose at Hackney where knowing what was coming greatly enhanced the pleasure of my second viewing as I watched the characters preparing the gags in advance and teasing out the laughs.

Another element that sometimes repays repeated visits is the quality of the orchestra. The production of Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly had a terrific orchestra playing what I thought was a better orchestration, with the right amount of brass, than the National Theatre version which sounded far too heavy on reeds (saxophones mainly). I returned to the front row of the Piccadilly several times, not only to enjoy some cast changes (all very successful) but also just to revel in the very theatrical sound of the orchestra.  The same thing is true right now with my fixations on 42nd Street and On the Town where it is the sound of the orchestra that affords me as much pleasure as the other elements of the productions.  I should also say that I was very impressed with the sound of the orchestras at Wimbledon recently for both Cats and The Addams Family, although I saw each of them only once.

Of course, sometimes I want to see a production more than once simply because it is a top class realisation of a very good show and into this category I would put Ian Talbot’s recent production of The Boy Friend, as well as his HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, all in Regent’s Park, and La Cage aux Folles when Douglas Hodge was in it. For these shows, as with On the Town and 42nd Street at present, I have been able on repeated visits just to wallow in every element of each of the productions and get a very complete kind of enjoyment of what I have decided at the grand old age of 80 is probably my favourite form of theatrical entertainment, pace Maria Callas, Jussi Björling, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Otto Klemperer, Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein and the rest of the many iconic classical artists I have seen and enjoyed performing serious classical repertoire throughout my life. I guess Irving Berlin was right when he said in Annie Get Your Gun: ‘There no business like show business’!


17 June 2017


Tony is a retired musician and musical director, who has worked extensively in the West End.

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