Sweeney’s odd. Pirelli’s odder. Jonathan Tunick’s left outside.

You know how some things just rub you up the wrong way?

I saw a production of Sweeney Todd this afternoon, at the Octagon in Bolton. It’s not the first production I’ve seen, of course – I’ve seen, probably, eight or nine, plus two versions on DVD, in the past twenty years or so – but it’s the first one I’ve seen for a while (the last one I saw in the theatre, I think, was John Doyle‘s staging at the New Ambassadors in London), and the show is a favourite of mine, so I was looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, I got to the theatre a little early and had time to read most of the programme before the show started (having paid £3.00 for it – a sum which constitutes gouging – I felt obliged to read at least some of it). And it irritated me. Oh, how it irritated me.

After a page of bios of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote it, we pitch straight into a three-page transcribed conversation between Elizabeth Newman, the director, and Amanda Collins, her assistant, in which it takes Ms. Newman approximately a third of a page to turn the smug up to eleven. Ms. Newman, apparently, is “striving to make musical instruments part of the visual narrative, so they play the same part as lighting, design and costume, as well as being the ultimate creators and vessels of musical sound.” Gosh. What that means is that the production can’t afford to pay actors and an orchestra, so we need to find some artistic justification for the fact that several of the actors will spend most of the show toting instruments they haven’t touched since university (if we’re lucky) or the sixth form (if we’re not).

It gets better. Ms. Newman goes on to explain to her assistant (and, by extension, to us) that she believes “human beings have created two wondrous things that sit in opposition – musical instruments and weapons.” Ms. Newman makes no mention of what might happen when a musical instrument is used as a weapon. Trust me, we will be getting to that later, and in more than one sense. You may wish to draw a polite veil over the bit where she explains to us that Mrs. Lovett is a dominatrix and Sweeney Todd is a sub. It’s not a bad idea, but some subtext doesn’t need to be explained.

Next, we have two pages of interviews with the production’s (unpaid) “community chorus”, an ensemble of non-professional performers who, in this production, sing most of the chorus material – and there’s quite a lot of chorus material. They all talk about what a rewarding experience the production has been, and they mean it. It’s important for regional theatres to build links to their communities; it’s easy to be cynical about something that looks suspiciously like getting chorus singers for free, but I think this is a genuinely worthwhile project, and it’s worth noting that the community chorus performers were absolutely terrific.

Then it gets good, but not in a good way. We have a page of discussion from two forensic scientists, who try and make some kind of tenuous leap between the world of the play and the world of CSI.  Yes, sadly, I do mean the television series. This is odd partly because nobody, during the course of the play, actually investigates any of Sweeney’s murders (Beadle Bamford tries, though he thinks he’s simply investigating a bad smell, and only gets close to the crime scene when he becomes part of the crime), and partly because this production opts for symbolism over fake blood anyway.

And, of course, the programme saves the best for last – a three-page transcribed conversation between Ms. Newman and the production’s musical director, Tom Atwood, in which they start off by discussing the genius of Sondheim and the healing power of art, and quickly move on to a more extensive discussion of  the genius of themselves, in the process turning the smug up from eleven to roughly infinity. Ms. Newman even sees fit to spend roughly half a page telling us all about how, when directing a musical, the lyrics should be approached and interrogated as part of the scene, and that they have to be “psychologically and mentally understood in the same way as if you were speaking it.” Bless her, she actually seems to believe that this is a new idea. Mr. Attwood, for his part, chooses to inform us that he believes that “a spectator or audience member should be required to bring their imagination along to the theatre.” Condescending much?

There’s no list of musical numbers in the programme. OK, not that important, but would have been nice. What we do have is the standard-issue list of billing credits from the original production on the left panel of the centre pages of the programme (cast and production team are on the right), ending with “Orchestrations by JONATHAN TUNICK” (the capitals are the programme’s, not mine). The original Broadway production did indeed have orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; you can hear them on the cast recording, and they are magnificent. I assume the billing is contractual, because they’re not being used here; what we have instead is essentially the piano/vocal score with other instruments joining in. That’s what happens in actor-musician productions, and I’m not, in fact, militantly against either reduced orchestrations (at least in smaller theatres like the Octagon, which seats 300-400 depending on how it’s configured) or actor-musicians – but please, don’t pretend we’re getting something we aren’t, and don’t assume the audience doesn’t know the difference.

[Edit: My friend John Baxindine, who is an encyclopaedia of such things, reminds me that Tunick also created a nine-player orchestration for the 1994 production at the National Theatre in London, which was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 2 – something I should have remembered, given that I saw it twice and listened to the broadcast. I’m fairly certain – and this video , on which you can hear some of that production’s orchestrations, seems to back me up – that those reduced orchestrations, also, are not what is being offered here.]

So, yes, the programme irritated me, which isn’t a good way to start off watching a show. The production that followed also often irritated me, but it was also intermittently thrilling. It was, in fact, a quite startling mix of genuinely good and genuinely misbegotten.

On the good side, we have –

Gerald Beer as Sweeney. Gets better as the evening progresses, but he sings his difficult role very, very well indeed, plays the violin creditably well, and by the second half of Act Two he’s wonderful. He’s also about ten years too young for his role.

Using a violin bow (not the one he uses to play the violin) in place of a razor works beautifully, and is probably the best example I’ve seen of an actor-musician production finding a way to make the instrument into an extension of an actor’s character, which (ack!) somewhat justifies the obnoxiously smug programme notes on the subject. But only somewhat.

Ruth Alexander Rubin’s Mrs. Lovett. She’s also at least ten years too young, but she is absolutely superb – earthy, ruthless, funny, hard, surprisingly emotional (she finds colours in “Not While I’m Around” that I’ve never seen before), simultaneously warm and scary, and a wonderful singer. Plus she plays clarinet, keyboard, trombone and (like, gag me with a spoon) keytar, and manages the latter without dying of embarrassment, a fate that should be reserved for whichever individual decided to insert a keytar into Act Two of Sweeney Todd. Fortunately it’s only in one scene.

Adam Barlow and Barbara Hockaday as (respectively) Tobias and the Beggar Woman. They’re both excellent, and she’s also a mean bass player.

Lucy Sierra’s set (industrial minimalist) and Mary Horan’s period-indeterminate, slightly Steampunk costumes. The show looks good all the way through.

Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and Clara Darcy’s Pirelli is very, very, very bad. She clearly has a formidably powerful voice; here, she mostly uses it to screech, which doesn’t do much for either the humour or the music. No, I can’t tell you why Pirelli is being played by a woman either, except that Ms. Newman tells us in one of the smug programme conversations that John Doyle did it (I know, I saw his production, thanks) and it was kind of cool (my phrase, and no it wasn’t). The presence of the community chorus means that Doyle’s excuse of needing another soprano voice to balance out the vocal ensemble doesn’t apply. If it was a good performance, I’d buy it, but it isn’t a good performance.

At any given time when they are onstage, two or three members of the community chorus are carrying hand mikes, and they look stupid, particularly since they’re very lightly miked and could probably manage without them.

Lloyd Gorman as the Beadle was presumably not present during the bits of rehearsal in which Ms. Newman sought to bring the psychological truth of spoken dialogue to his lyrics. Ms. Newman, for her part, perhaps does not realise that you’re supposed to do this for all the characters, not just the leads.

Ms. Newman’s blocking fudges a couple of significant moments. Mrs. Lovett’s “So it is you! Benjamin Barker!” in the first act is drowned out by members of the chorus clattering down a metal staircase. It’s an important line, we need to hear it, and we don’t.

Putting a keytar onstage at all, even in a period-unspecific, slightly modern-dress production like this one, looks stupid. Having Mrs. Lovett and the Beadle sing the Parlour Songs to the accompaniment of one of the keytar’s cheesy 80s-sounding autoprogrammed rhythm/chord patterns isn’t innovative, clever or funny. It’s pissing all over the score, and Ms. Newman and Mr. Attwood deserve to be spanked for allowing it.

But, I’m afraid, the biggest problem with this production is something that has afflicted, to a greater or lesser extent, every single actor-musician production I’ve ever seen, and it’s very simple: MOST ACTORS DO NOT PLAY INSTRUMENTS AT THE SAME LEVEL AS PROFESSIONAL MUSICIANS. This is a relatively difficult score, and it does not emerge unscathed from this production. Some of the playing, as noted elsewhere, is surprisingly good; some of it, however, is awful, and the worst offenders are the loudest: the actors cast as Anthony and Pirelli both play trumpet very badly indeed (the brass-heavy opening chords in “God, That’s Good” are particularly excruciating – mistimed, wobbly, and when they finally arrived they were the wrong notes). Most of the singing is genuinely good, but the orchestrations get very short shrift. In the hands of some actors, musical instruments are essentially assault weapons.

And here’s where we (finally!) get back to those smug programme notes. If I hadn’t read all of that stuff before the show started, I wouldn’t have reacted as strongly to the lapses in musicianship or the occasional duff performance (I would, however, still have wanted to waterboard whoever came up with the keytar). I’m open to the idea of actor-musician productions, I get that economic realities mean that they’re not going to go away, and I’ve even enjoyed some of them – including John Doyle’s London Sweeney Todd, which was nothing like as well sung as this is, and whose staging, in some ways, was considerably odder. And I booked my ticket in advance, paid full price, and went out wanting to enjoy the show. I did enjoy some of it – but I’m afraid reading half a dozen pages of patronising bullshit about the production before the lights went down left me more inclined to pick holes than I might have been, and it’s not as if the holes weren’t visible anyway. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

And if you tell me in the programme that I’ll be getting Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, and then give me, essentially, the piano score with brass, wind, woodwind, violin and percussion embellishments, in which not every instrumental part is even played competently, I’ll be more than just irritated, particularly if I’m already irritated by your programme notes. That’s bait-and-switch, and it’s fundamentally dishonest.

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Spank me, Melchior! Spank me hard on my bottom!

Gather round into a fairy circle, children, it’s time for our drama lesson. Today we’re going to learn how to turn a classic play into an ultra-hip, multi-award-winning alt-rock musical! Isn’t that lovely?

Yes it is, Duncan. It’s lovely.

No, Duncan, stop staring at Lea’s tonsils.

Yes, Steven? Why? Why what? Oh. Why are we going to learn how to turn a classic play into an uber-hip, multi-award-winning alt-rock musical? Because I have a mortgage to pay, Steven, and teachers had a pay freeze last year. And because it’s easier than having an idea of our own. Ideas are precious things, children, and we must never, ever waste them. Particularly not on alt-rock music.

Take notes, children. There’ll be a test later.

So, where was I? Yes, uber-hip alt-rock musical. Now, children. First of all, we must pick our classic. Yes, Steven? Why a classic? Because otherwise we’d have to pay royalties, Steven, and that would never do, would it? No it wouldn’t. Any suggestions, children?

Yes, Michael John? Medea? No, I don’t think that’s a very nice idea, do you? No it isn’t. Because she kills her children, Michael John, and people will think that’s icky. What’s that, Harry? Thérèse Raquin? No, Harry. That won’t do at all. It’s French and it’s got old people in it.

And what are you and Michael John doing in alt-rock class anyway? Flaming theatrical catastrophes are down the hall. Come here, I’ll sign your hall passes. Yes, ask for Ms. Stroman and Ms. Daniele.

No, if you’re going to be a crosspatch you’ll have to go and explain yourself to Mr. Brantley. Yes, both of you. And you know how strict he can be.

What’s that, Steven? Spring Awakening? Wedekind? Well done, Steven, that has possibilities. What do you think, Duncan? Yes, Duncan? Well, it’s got suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons. And it’s quite long, which is important.

Yes, Duncan? Why is it important that it’s quite long? All in good time. Stop pummeling Michael Friedman. Because I said so, Duncan.

Now, children, this is going to be your homework, so pay very careful attention.  We’ve chosen a play that has suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons in it. Those are all good learning topics, aren’t they, children?

Yes they are, Jonathan, so pay close attention. You’re going to have to sing Duncan’s music later, and it’ll be a few years before you get a regular TV gig and can afford to goof off.

Yes, children, those are all good learning topics. But Spring Awakening also has an awful lot of plot, doesn’t it, children?

Yes, Steven, that means a lot of different things happen during the play. Very clever. What have you got in your mouth? I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Yes? You’d like to write the lyrics as well as the story? We’ll see.

Now, children. As I said, Spring Awakening is full to the brim with good topics for class discussion, particularly when we’re learning about religion, personal health, and the dangers of wearing clothes after you’ve grown out of them. But, children, you must not forget – we are trying to write an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical, and there isn’t very much plot on MTV Rocks or KISS or 4Music, now, is there?

No, Duncan, there isn’t.

So, children, this is your homework. With a grown-up, or a qualified dramaturge if you can find one, you must take a sharp knife, and carefully fillet anything transgressive out of the play, leaving only the barest hint of danger. Suicide, child abuse, rape, abortion, homosexuality and Latin lessons are all wonderful topics in a classroom, but in a theatre they might make people think. That’s why it’s important to choose a long play, children. When you’re going to take out all the good stuff, you’ve got to make sure there’ll still be something left when you’re done. And we’ve got to leave room for all of Duncan’s lovely music, haven’t we?

Why, Steven? Because we can’t have an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical without alt-rock music, now, can we? No we can’t. And Duncan’s writing the music because Damon Albarn only does opera, Pop Will Eat Itself keep splitting up, Green Day are punk not alt and are planning on biding their time and riding your coattails once you’ve got a hit and won a lot of awards, and everybody else sells too many records to ever consider going near an off-Broadway theatre.

What, Steven? You’ve got to spend tonight developing a project for HBO? Instead of doing your homework? Oh, Steven. Well, never mind. Just get the Cliff Notes out of the library and photocopy each paragraph of the synopsis onto a flashcard. We’ll have to manage. What? There’s a Ladybird Book version? Let me have a look! That’s very nice, Steven! Why, the spanking scene here will work without any rewrites at all, as long as both of our actors can pout and yell at the same time! Yes, Lea, that’s right. Try the line now, so we can see what it sounds like.

Spank me, Melchior! Spank me hard on my bottom!

That’s very good, Lea. I’m sure Mr. Mayer will give you a contract.

Yes, Lea and Jonathan and John. It’s set in the Olden Days. It was written in the Olden Days too, that’s why we don’t have to pay for it. Yes, children, that means you’ll get nice costumes. But only one each, and not very nice, because we can’t afford to spend a lot of money. Why can’t we spend a lot of money? Because we’re going to have to have lots and lots of Workshops, aren’t we, where we read it all the way through then have lots of meetings where we talk about what we just read. It might be as long as seven years before the money comes in, children, so we must be frugal now.

Now. The play is set in Olden Days, but Duncan’s music sounds a bit like the stuff they play on K-Rock. How are we going to make these two things fit together?

Yes, Duncan? You can write a few songs where it slows down a bit, and sling in a violin, a viola and a cello so it sounds a bit arty? That’s lovely, Duncan. And we can replace them with a synthesiser for the tour, it’s cheaper. Just make sure the audience can always see the Apple logo on the back of the MD’s Macbook Pro. It’s the only opportunity we’ve got for product placement.

Now, children. We have to talk about the nitty-gritty, difficult parts of writing a play. Yes, Steven, you as well. Yes I know it’s boring. The audience are paying money for us to tell them a story, and so we must at least pretend to give them one. No, give them a story, Steven, not a titillating glimpse of an actress’s boobies. Although perhaps we can do that as well. What, Steven? You have to go to the littlest room? Now? Oh, go on then. We’ll just fall back on the flashcards, get the actors to shout their dialogue, make sure the lights turn purple when the music starts, and call it verfremdungseffekt.

Yes, Lea and John and Jonathan? What does verfremdungseffekt mean? It’s a very long German word, children. Nobody really knows or cares what it means, but it sounds good and it lets clever people give us extra credibility by writing long, baffling articles about us in peer-reviewed journals. If we’re lucky, perhaps someone will give us even more credibility by using the term ‘priem ostranenie’ instead. Nobody knows what that means either, but Russian formalism makes academic papers look really, really sexy. And we must hope that people write sexy articles about us, children, because we’re removing nearly everything sexy from the show we’re writing.

What do we do when we come back from the littlest room, Steven? Yes, that’s right. We pull our collaborators up. Possibly by the bootstraps. What do you mean, you don’t feel like it? Oh. Well, just make a list of phrases you associate with generic teen angst, Steven, and sprinkle them across every other line in the lyrics, then surround them with filler phrases. We’re writing an uber-hip multi-award-winning alt-rock musical. Nobody cares if the lyrics make sense, and the sound system will probably obliterate half of them anyway.

Yes, Duncan, that is a good point – singers with no diction skills will deal with the problem of the rest of the lyrics. Don’t sulk, Lea and John and Jonathan. I’m sure he didn’t mean you. Much.

What? I beg your pardon? Wash your mouth out with soap, Steven! No… wait. I don’t approve of that word at all, Steven, and you’re very very naughty for using it. But we haven’t got any ideas, teenage alt-rock fans think it’s, like, way, way cool and edgy, we’ve softened the rape, the abuse and the homosexuality to the point where they look like something out of Dawson’s Creek, and the abortion happens offstage. We need to get some credibility back, so put the word ‘fucked’ in a song title. It makes it look like we’re pushing the boundaries.

And let’s end with something affirmative. We don’t want to send the audience home on a downer, now, do we? What, Steven? You can’t think what to put? Let me think… OK, Steven. Pick a pretty flower, and then write something opaque and slightly mystical, with the name of the flower somewhere in every verse. You and I both know it’s completely meaningless, but people will think it’s profound. Particularly if we make the lights change colour again, and make the actors alternate between scowling and grinning as they sing it.

Finally, children – it’s possible, even after all your hard work, that you won’t find an audience in other cities even though Mr. Brantley gives you his blessing, the Village Voice anoints you as the new hip attraction, and all the older theatre people give you lots and lots of little statues.

Yes, children, little statues are nice. They mean people think you’re talented. No, you can’t sell them on eBay.

You might get given more little statues by people in other countries as well, even though your work doesn’t sell there. (Don’t worry, Lea. You’ll have got a series by then.) If you’re lucky, somebody might even stage a low-budget tour in a country where you aren’t very popular other than with people who give out little statues, and write you a nice programme note telling the world that it’s a tragedy and an injustice that people didn’t recognise your genius when they had the chance. Won’t that be lovely?

Yes, Duncan, I agree with you, royalty cheques are better. But this is showbiz, children. You take what you can get.

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Metrolink: we don’t need no steenkin’ spellcheck!

The place: Altrincham Interchange. The time: this past weekend. The camera: my BlackBerry, which is why it’s a lousy photo.

It’s a lousy sign. Repalcement. Depart. Random capitals. It’s careless, it’s unprofessional, and it’s embarrassing. At least, you’d think it would be embarrassing. I took the picture on Sunday afternoon; the Altrincham line was closed all weekend for engineering work, so presumably that sign had been there since Saturday morning.

It’s easy to mock – and fun, too – but it’s also the way things seem to be done at  Transport for Greater Manchester.  When there are service alterations, the spelling and grammar on the signage usually makes me wince. This one, though, is particularly unfortunate. How hard can it be to proof-read eight words?

 

Mamma Mia: Shoot the audience – update

A while back, I wrote about my delightful experience watching Mamma Mia at the Palace Theatre in Manchester (briefly – the performance was ruined by two women sitting behind me who talked and sang loudly all the way through, and responded to any attempt to shush them with a volley of profanities, and the front-of-house staff, faced with complaints about them, for some reason let them back in for the second half, thus permitting them to ruin the entire show rather than just the first act).

I wrote a letter of complaint to the theatre’s general manager, explaining why I felt that the front of house staff’s response had been less than adequate, and asking for a refund, on the grounds that the theatre’s staff failed to take effective steps to deal with the problem. Four weeks went by with no reply, so I followed up with an email.

The theatre’s general manager has offered me a refund (he claimed not to have received my first letter, which is implausible but not impossible), and a cheque is apparently in the post. It pays to be persistent.

The moral of the story? When you encounter disruptive people in a theatre, complain to front of house. If you aren’t satisfied with the way your complaint was handled, follow up after the performance, in writing. Part of the job, working front of house, involves ensuring that nobody’s behaviour disrupts the show (usually, this is even enshrined in the booking conditions, which will contain a clause in which the theatre reserves the right to remove patrons whose behaviour disrupts the show for other members of the audience). It’s not a part of the job that anybody enjoys (trust me – been there, done that), but it is part of the job.

Now, granted, you may well get faster, more satisfying results via the use of a taser and a roll of duct tape, but that sort of thing carries criminal consequences including potential jail time. Which, come to think of it, might be slightly preferable to, say, sitting through Act Two of Ghost: The Musical, but that’s another story.