Monday, 20 March 2017

THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, DAME VERA LYNN





I write this almost seven years to the day that I almost killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup. Not a lot of people can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, make-up artist and I trekked to Vera’s home in Sussex, to film a documentary. When it was time for tea, I volunteered to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy Liquid from under the sink, in through the back door, right beside the draining board, came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door), with soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flinging-open door, I jumped, knocked the saucepan flying, and its steaming contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the remains of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera laughed like a trouper. She turned not a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her reminisce about expeditions to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a shred of home to far-flung, homesick soldiers.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she said. ‘There wasn't always water to drink, let alone to wash with. Dinner was most often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was ninety-three at the time. Her face was beautiful in the flesh. Like a child’s. There was a poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me if I'd mind doing it. Thus did I kneel at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All those backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger - you're having a laugh. Dame Vera, a legend and an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered unthinkable hardship to sing for servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. There ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 100th Birthday and God bless you, Ma’am. Everyone buy the record: 'Vera Lynn 100', featuring the likes of Alfie Boe and Aled Jones. She becomes, today, the oldest artist in history to release a new album.

Footnote on the doc: thanks to the greed and deceit of its backers, the film has never yet been aired. Out of respect for Dame Vera, it absolutely should be. I saw Paul Gambaccini at Mike Batt’s new musical Men Who March Away on Friday night (the lead character, Katherine Grayling, is Vera personified). Paul, like Clare and me, is enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. But we’ll get there.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

HOW TO WRITE A HIT MUSICAL



What are the magic ingredients of Musical Theatre? Some cite the first five minutes of the Lion King, the innovation of Chess, the staging of Miss Saigon. Others maintain it's the familiarity of the numbers in the so-called Jukeboxers - Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, Beautiful - that draws audiences in droves. Les Miserables and Wicked tick some boxes. Phantom's a favourite. Book of Mormon has done it for millions, but not for me. West Side Story, Singin' in the Rain, Cabaret, The Sound of Music and Oliver! are more my speed, pop pickers. Any minute now, let's hear it for La La Land on Broadway, homeward-bound for a theatre somewhere near you.
If there were a formula, they'd all be cackling on down to Coutts.
There is perhaps no more crucial component than the ten thousand hours. And perhaps no finer example of self-belief and indomitable endurance than the musical I saw last night.
Men Who March Away, which received its world premiere at St. Anne's church, Limehouse, was not only a masterclass in the art of never giving up on a dream, but also the magic in a nutshell. My friend Wendy Baker, Mrs Danny, holed it in one:
'The songs were amazing because they were all brand-new, but somehow sounded familiar,' she said. I couldn't have put it better.
It's the art of creating something that everyone thinks they've heard before. Something comfortable and resonant, that makes us consider a subject, an era, an aspect of the human condition, that we may not have paused to think about, hitherto - or not in any focused way.
Mike Batt wrote this musical twenty five years ago, when his The Hunting of the Snark left the West End after a brief run in 1991. He toyed with staging it, down all the years, but was always sidetracked by demands on his time and talent. He met Katie Melua in 2002, and gifted her 'the one' of the many best songs from Men Who March Away: 'The Closest Thing to Crazy'. That hit debut single catapulted her to a multi-million selling career. Mike joked last night that now everyone will think he just bunged the song into this 'new' musical to give it a hit. The irony.
It is, of course, a love story. Musicals essentially are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil in between. War's devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, its power to throw human relationships into disarray, is handled both brutally and tenderly. We are conflicted throughout, by vulgarity and gentility, cruelty and compassion, love and loss. Every song resonates. Every note haunts. Every lyric is both blunt and poetic. No less could be expected of the composer who gave us 'The Phantom of the Opera' (written with Andrew Lloyd Webber), 'A Winter's Tale' (with Tim Rice), and 'Bright Eyes'.
In this one-night-only staging, Mike conducted the magnificent Docklands Sinfonia - the only symphony orchestra in the East End, which was founded by conductor Spencer Down. He is the grandson of a docker and trumpeter in the working men's clubs. It showcased not only the marvellous musicianship of these extraordinary youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a delicious taster for a planned touring production, it was an unforgettable start. On your marks, now, guys. They'd better be looking for a West End venue and backers this morning. Men Who March Away is the most musical of all musicals. Get it on, Mike Batt. I am so proud of you. Go, give Hamilton a run for it. I'll be cheering from my front-row seat.