Journey to England,
Take a break from all the "merry" of today's Christmas to take a trip to merry old England for some old London productions reissued this year. The shows themselves take us to various locations, the first by sea.
Stirring, strong and brisk, with moods of high stakes and high adventure and dark, haunting foreboding colors in the music, a musical version of "Mutiny on the Bounty" sweeps a listener away. A sung "Prologue" serves as exposition, introducing the characters and putting the late eighteenth-century events in time time and place. This oft-told tale, based on actual incidents aboard ship and on Tahiti, again captures attention and finds its hale and hearty, epic but personal tones in tunes for a musical adaptation.
First a pop concept album in 1983, it sailed to the stage two years later. Book (some sections of dialogue are heard) is by Richard Crane who is co-credited on lyrics with composer/star David Essex, the pop singer-songwriter and theater performer who sturdily and passionately plays the role of seaman Fletcher Christian. Dominating the cast album, released now in CD form for the first time, he plays a major role on 10 of the 15 sung tracks, with varying material and vocal shadings. He's heard strongly standing his ground and can be tender, although things become simplistic in shortcut/shorthand ways as he ragingly laments the lot he compares to "Hell," then leads the wild-eyed, relentless rallying cry demanding "Freedom." Things sometimes sound oddly mechanical and dispassionate when he bows more to the so-steady structure of melodies as Christian discovers a new way of life and love (and language) in Tahiti. "Will You Come Back?," a parting song shared with his lover (he and Sinitta Renet are rather stiff in her dialogue pleading with him to stay or return). The drama load is lightened with a rousing, roaring sea chanty about "Saucy Sal." And Essex brings the telescoped adventures to a more textured emotional conclusion with the sorrowful but wistful "I'll Go No More A-Roving," accompanied by the actors playing the beleaguered, beaten-down crew.
Second-billed Frank Finlay as the domineering Captain Bligh doesn't have much singing, but he gets the dramatic, self-berating "Failed Cape Horn," acquitting himself quite well. He is believable in his dialogue appearances giving commands, warnings, etc. ("I'll see you hung!"). Another track is a speech by him, with effective underscoring; much here instrumentally sounds like it could've been dramatic movie music for this story which itself has been filmed numerous times. The 15-member orchestra conducted by Paul Maguire, with the textured and dramatic orchestrations of John Cameron, becomes in many ways the real star here. It swells majestically, suggests darkening clouds, evokes bold heroics and triumphant excitement, pounding surf and pounding emotions, and ultimately tragic regrets. And there's also great contrast: the punishing and ominous force of Nature in "The Storm" and the human equivalents in the pain administered by "The Lash" (with a dark, deep declamatory vocal solo by Patrick Clancy) and the drudgery of repetitive, taxing manual labors.
An ambitious project it is to adapt such a huge story with huge emotions, as well as the awakenings from the values/culture contrasts and testing of human endurance. One drowns a bit in the churning musical seas while lyrics and how they are delivered bring us sometimes into shallow territory, but it's often thrilling and definitely evocative. So, even if the temptation to go "overboard" was not always resisted, and it might be closer to a Cliffs Notes digest of the story than a full treatment, this is far more than a glimpse or glimmer. As a cast album listening experience, it's an often rewarding one.
OUT OF THE BLUE
The survivors of tragedy have their own crosses to bear, their own ghosts and memories to haunt them, and sometimes the past suddenly and unexpectedly confronts them as they struggle to make their futures. Such is the subject matter of Out of the Blue, a musical drama which examines the aftermath of those who escaped with their lives in the major bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, but did not escape its traumatic personal after shocks. Composer Shunn-Ichi Tokura was working in his usual medium, film, scoring a documentary on the last chapter of World War II and a prisoners-of-war camp when he was inspired to also tackling the topic as a musical, to explore what might have happened to the minds and lives of those who moved on and/or moved away. He conceived the story and collaborated on the arrangements with Chris Walker, who did the orchestrations. The libretto is by a poet, Paul Sand. The cast of this short-lived London musical was recorded at the time but has only been picked up as a commercial release this year. It's heavy going, with much sung dialogue, many of the songs becoming arguments or laments or protestations, with a choir of 15 acting as sort of a Greek Chorus with brief but bold appearances admonishing or delivering watch cry-style commentary to "Look into the light" or how stating how characters are "blinded by the light," etc. The undeniably tragic and painful story is palpably painful and personal, but character-specific and detailed. If the agenda were also to be extrapolating the emotions and experiences into a more universal experience for listeners to relate to, that is not especially apparent. Despite sympathy for the heavy burdens, it is difficult to feel one knows these characters beyond their pain, anger or self-protective armor.
The piece feels like it is longing to beor needs to bemore of an opera, but the music is not "big" and soaring in that style. Declaimed lines along the lines of these get to be more pounding than poetic, more raging than rhapsodic: "Please forgive me! Forgive!"; "My brother, accept us!"; "There can be no forgiving! Let the sun never set!"; "I'm not deserting my family!"; "You had no right!" etc., etc. Still, the tensions and feelings of anguish cut to the quick, stinging and ringing true even if not engendering sympathy via identification and vulnerability or artfully articulated expressions. Even deep pain and ire can turn into the extremes of terribly turgid tragedy or like bubbling-over soap opera weeping. Characters enveloping themselves in brittle resentment and wearing emotional blinders to survive don't make for the most fascinating theatrical company. The singing is actorly or musically professional without particular distinction or richness. Yet, somehow, it can be hard to turn away from the angst and the hope for what seems to be a promise of catharsis due to the (no spoilers here!) surprise twist that comes "out of the blue" to two leading characters.
The 30 tracks vary greatly in length and include a few reprises of key musical themes. As the man who turns to a new post-War life in the clergy, James Graeme is a sturdy vocal presence holding onto his character's strong-willed ways, while struggling valiantly despite all he has endured, and Paulette Ivory has some effectively plaintive singing that shows some character depth and thoughtfulness.
The sound quality leaves something to be desired; I struggled to catch some words, and intent and the nine-member orchestra at times feels muddy. There is little respite from the confrontations ("Get up! I say, get up! Obey!") and darkness ("All these years flashing by/Feeling only despair/ All those fears ..."), but occasionally the sun breaks through in the form of a tender melodic moment, a pensively phrased line or three, some human connection and understanding. At those times, rather than the high drama of shouts and attacks, the musical gets under one's skin. Those who have more of a taste for high drama with high stakes and unblinking looks at tragedy and its long-term toll will find this more engaging. The included plot synopsis eases one into the goings-on which would otherwise be confusing. Some historical background is provided by the composer who also explains his inspiration for telling the story in this way.
Despite disappointments with the material and performance, it is nigh impossible not to be moved and troubled by the ugly shadows of history it brings and worries as we look to yet another new year still with a world much in strife and where reports of bombs and terror are virtually daily news items.
MAKE ME AN OFFER
Fifty-one years ago today a musical came to London's West End called Make Me an Offer. It was a transfer from a smaller theatre where it had played for a couple of months with largely the same cast. Between openings, the score's co-writer, David Heneker, took to the keyboard with spunk to plunk out, with noted simplicity and cheer, some of its melodies, inserted here to serve as a kind of toy piano ad hoc overture of over five minutes, accompanied by Geoff Love's orchestra.
This new release from Sepia Records is a banquet-style souvenir of the score, featuring that as an appealing appetizer, the "main dish" recordings made by the company in that long-ago December, plus going-back-for-seconds abbreviated versions of half a dozen of its songs during a promotional TV appearance six months later. The actors, in character, provide some spoken set-ups. The disc then ends with a pop single of its closest-thing-to-a-straight-love song, "Love Him," as a kind of sweet "dessert." As she does for the other two "stage" versions, Diana Coupland does the honors (again, recorded between openings and with the same orchestra as Heneker's instrumental). In the show, she plays the "long-suffering" wife of the somewhat irascible lead character, a struggling shopkeeper played by Daniel Massey. In real life, she was then the wife of Heneker's co-writer, book writer Monty Norman. Norman also supplied liner notes filled with recollections about the production of this story of antique dealers which began as a novel by Wolf Mankowitz and had been adapted first as a film. (Mentioning pride in a song that's a Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired set-piece, "The Auction," he recalls it as being eight minutes long, but clocks in at just over six minutes on the cast recording, shortened to about half that for the TV outing. Maybe it was longer on stage.) Some black-and-white photos are also included along with a color shot which served as the original cover of the vinyl record back in the day.
This is a light bit of fluff with some catchy melodies and lyrics allowing antique dealers to bicker and bid and the aforementioned man and wife to squabble. Some of that betrays the gender role stereotypes of the brusque, gruff males being accepted as par for the connubial course by housewives who cook and clean and grin and bear it, even when they can barely bear it. There's a carefree simple-mindedness in the mindset of how these characters are presented and played, making them cartoonish and inconsequential, mildly diverting but not realistically involving or moving. Fortunately, the melodies carry it along, not atypical of many British musicals of the era and before.
The score has several rollicking numbers, such as the affectionate "Whatever You Believe," a catchy bit of cuteness that ends with a counterpoint duet for Massey and cheery-voiced co-star Dilys Laye. The subject is how people's behavior can be viewed in different ways if the viewer is suspicious. Singing in an amusingly screechy, "low-class" character voice, Sheila Hancock does a cheeky tongue-in-cheek "It's Sort of Romantic" that scores. Simple folks with simple dreams and petty day-to-day disputes and doings seems to be the order of the day. The songs may either grow on you or seem like too much, with the second round of six (the TV versions). Those looking for drama and depth should look elsewhere, but those wanting to pick up a cast album with some pick-me-up cheeriness to counteract wintertime's dreariness will keep humming along with this offering from half a century ago.