Or, a tale of two musicals. They’re both based on films, they’re both (more or less) true stories, and – guess what? – I saw them both last week.
In another respect, though, they exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Grey Gardens, while it eventually played on Broadway, originated in the nonprofit sector at Playwrights Horizons and was written as a chamber musical; it’s produced here by the Southwark Playhouse on a shoestring budget for a limited run in a (relatively) tiny theatre. The Girls, on the other hand, while it isn’t that big a show, is very obviously a product of the commercial sector – it’s based on a big hit film that has already spawned a big hit (nonmusical) stage version, it has a big-name songwriter attached, and while this was a tryout production, it is obviously aimed squarely at the West End, where it’ll probably run for years.
And surprise, surprise – they’re both wonderful. Grey Gardens, of course, is based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, and it introduces us to two Edies: Mrs. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, Miss Edith Bouvier Beale – or rather, Big Edie and Little Edie. Distant relatives of the Kennedys, they are shown in the documentary to be living in some squalor in the crumbling wreck of the Grey Gardens estate; the documentary forms the basis for the musical’s second act, and the first act, set in the 1940s, shows Big Edie carefully sabotaging Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy (an event which may or may not have actually happened). The show charts both their decline from a position of wealth and priviledge into cat- and raccoon-infested poverty, and the strange, codependent, fractious relationship between mother and daughter.
The result, as directed by Thom Southerland, is very definitely an art-house musical (no surprise, since it’s based on an art-house film). Doug Wright’s book and Michael Korie’s lyrics show us two difficult, complicated women; despite a rather disingenuous programme note in which they solemnly tell us that the Maysles advised them, in writing the musical, not to “take sides”, it’s clear that their sympathies are more with Little Edie than her mother, although Big Edie is never presented as a villain. It’s simply that the meat of the show is in the second act, and in the second act Little Edie has the showier, more memorable role.
The fictional first act, though, is somewhat problematic. It’s entertaining enough, and Scott Frankel’s music is often lovely, but it doesn’t quite add up – the broken-engagement story, and the scenes with the young Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, are a bit too movie-of-the-week, and if you’ve seen, for example, High Society, then you’ve seen it all before. It’s not until the second act that the pieces fall into place; the first act (or at least, a first act) is necessary, and it does add to your understanding of the strange dynamic in the dysfunctional/codependent relationship between mother and daughter, but there’s still a sense, watching it, that the writers are somehow marking time, and it’s undeniably the weaker of the show’s two halves. It doesn’t help, either, that save for the beautiful “Will You?”, which closes the first act, the score’s most memorable, distinctive material is also all in the second half. The three major Act Two numbers for Little Edie – ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, ‘Around the World’, and (especially) ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ – are superb; with the exception of “Will You”, nothing in the first act is quite at the same level.
The performances, however, are impeccable. Jenna Russell finds the pathos in the charming-but-flinty Big Edie of Act One, but her eccentric, vulnerable Little Edie in Act Two is a brilliant creation. It goes without saying that she sings the score beautifully; she nails Little Edie’s odd, nasal speaking voice without descending into caricature, and she’s fierce, funny and heartbreaking, often at the same time. Her ‘Another Winter in a Summer Town’ is simply mesmerising; it’s a tiny theatre, you can see right into her eyes as she sings the song, and those four minutes are more than worth the cost of the ticket. As Act Two’s Big Edie, Sheila Hancock has less to do, but does it beautifully. She finds the right balance between charmingly-dotty-old-lady and subtle ruthlessness, and when she and Russell’s Little Edie square off, sparks fly. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine, though they have more to do in the first half, which means they don’t get the best of the material, but Hancock and Russell’s double-act in Act Two is what makes the production a must-see. They’re spectacular, and to see work of this calibre up close in a 250-seat theatre is genuinely thrilling.
And for the money, the production values are seriously impressive. Tickets cost £25, which is roughly a third of the top price you’d expect to pay these days for a musical in the West End. Set, costumes and lighting (by, respectively, Tom Rogers, Jonathan Lipman, and Howard Hudson) are all excellent, even given the obvious budgetary constraints, and somewhere backstage there are nine musicians and a conductor giving us the full original orchestrations – which, OK, were conceived for a small theatre, but Playwrights Horizons has considerably more money to play with than the Southwark Playhouse. Not only that, the conductor and the musicians were brought onstage and given a bow at the curtain call. This is a good production of a difficult show, but in an age when bands in musical theatre are routinely getting smaller, it’s genuinely surprising to see a tiny theatre with a shoestring budget find a way to engage and pay for this number of musicians. It’s not as if any of London’s theatre critics would have batted an eyelid – or in most cases, even noticed – if the band had been cut from nine to four or five. In this theatre, clearly, the music is considered to be as important as anything else onstage. In musical theatre, that shouldn’t be unusual, but these days it often is.
Which brings us to The Girls, the new musical adaptation of Calendar Girls by Gary Barlow and the film’s screenwriter Tim Firth. This isn’t, actually, a case of good show/bad show – as I said, I liked it very much. In terms of the way it’s produced, though, it’s the polar opposite of this production of Grey Gardens. It’s a big show, trying out in a big theatre (the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre seats 1750 – that’s seven times as many patrons per performance as will fit in the Southwark Playhouse), and it’s obviously aimed squarely at the West End and the touring circuit, where it’s likely (if the ecstatic audience response at last Wednesday’s matinee is anything to go by) to be a substantial hit.
It’s easy to be cynical about stage musicals based on popular movies (as opposed to musicals like Grey Gardens, whose source film is rather more esoteric) – particularly if you happen to have sat through shows like Legally Blonde or Ghost, in which it’s almost impossible to discern any artistic impulse behind the decision to put the thing up on a stage. Indeed, it’s not as if Gary Barlow himself doesn’t have form when it comes to pointless stage musical adaptations of recent-ish films; on the evidence of the cast recording, his score for Finding Neverland is polished, professional, and more or less completely devoid of human feeling – a solid-but-uninspired by-the-numbers songwriting job by a hired hand, but no more than that (interestingly, the earlier – and in terms of the score, much better – version of the show that played in England in October 2012 had a score by Frankel and Korie, who were replaced because the show’s producer apparently prefers vapid-but-bouncy pop hits to writing with actual depth).
This time, though, Barlow seems to have found a connection with the material that eluded him on his first stage assignment. Of course this is a plot that is always going to push your emotional buttons – we all know people who have been through cancer, we all know people who have died too young, and we’ve all experienced bereavement – but Firth and Barlow, here, have managed to turn the material into a genuine emotional rollercoaster. Firth’s screenplay was full of quiet humour, but it treated the film’s emotional core with almost too much restraint, as if he was (understandably) afraid of treading on the toes of the (very) real people whose story he was writing. The musical, on the other hand, goes for big laughs and big emotions, and succeeds on both levels. It might be manipulative, it might be obvious, but it works. You’ll laugh (a lot), you’ll cry, you’ll walk out of the theatre with Yorkshire (the opening number, reprised at the curtain call) rolling around in your head… and it’ll be lodged between your ears for days. As a songwriter, Barlow is not without faults, and I still think he sings like a potato, but he certainly knows how to write a catchy tune.
And actually, in this case, that’s selling him short. There’s no shortage of catchy tunes in this show – you’ll also probably be humming ‘Dare’ and ‘Who Wants a Silent Night?’ on your way home – but the heart of the show lies in the songs for Annie, the widow whose bereavement sets the plot in motion, and her best friend Chris. Joanna Riding’s Annie is given two lovely, moving ballads, one in each act: ‘Scarborough’, in which Annie contemplates all the little things in her life that will change after her husband dies, and ‘Kilimanjaro’, about the sheer physical effort of coping with grief. Equally good is the radiant ‘Sunflower’, sung by Claire Moore’s Chris – a bright, upbeat song about finding joy in unexpected places, and while it’s upbeat, it packs a surprising emotional punch. Perhaps it’s Firth’s influence – he and Barlow are jointly responsible for the show’s book, music and lyrics – but there’s more feeling in this score than in pretty much everything Barlow has released in at least the past decade, put together.
It helps, too, that Firth (and presumably Barlow) have made (mostly) smart choices in adapting Firth’s original screenplay. The film’s (weak) final act, which mostly took place in Los Angeles, is gone, though a couple of conversations from it show up earlier in act two, and so is most of the section dealing with the British media furore that followed the release of the calendar (we’ve all seen the film fifty thousand times, it’s not like I need to fill in the plot here). Instead, this is simply the story of a woman losing her husband, and how her loss prompts her friends to try to raise money for charity in his memory. The teenage subplot has been significantly rewritten, and is all the better for it, and the photo session for the calendar, in this version, is a brilliant extended set-piece rather than the series of (more or less) sketches we saw in the film. Throw in a superb cast – Riding and Moore, in the leads, are as good as they’ve ever been, and there’s wonderful support from the ensemble, including standout turns from Sara Kestelman, Claire Machin, Vivien Parry and James Gaddas – plus confident direction from Firth and Roger Haines and clever sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and you have all the makings of a bomb-proof, copper-bottomed, big fat smash hit. It’s that comparatively rare thing: a stage musical adapted from a film that is actually better than the film it’s based on.
The realities of commercial theatre in 2016 are a little depressing, though. This show has 20-odd actors onstage. It has a terrific, incredibly inventive set in which higgledy-piggledy stacks of green wooden cabinets are arranged to form the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales. There’s a van onstage, there are about fifty thousand sunflowers in the finale, there’s gorgeous, evocative lighting by Tim Lutkin and funny, perfectly-in-keeping musical staging by Stephen Mear… and the Southwark Playhouse’s Grey Gardens had more musicians on the payroll than this does. Barlow’s score, true, is at the pop end of the musical theatre canon – but with only eight musicians in the pit, in Richard Beadle’s orchestrations, the band sounds thin. I’m not suggesting it needs an orchestra of thirty, but it does need woodwinds as well as a synthesiser, a brass section with more than one person in it (particularly since it’s set in Yorkshire), and a couple more strings. As it stands, the show doesn’t look cheap, but it sounds it, and this material deserves better. When everything else is so good, it’s a pity to see the show get short-changed by the lack of resources in the pit – but unfortunately these days the band is the first thing that gets cut back, because producers assume audiences don’t know the difference. Sorry, guys – some of us do. And I’m afraid when a fringe production staged on a budget of about £3.99 employs and pays more musicians than a big would-be blockbuster that is more or less certain to be a huge hit once it rolls into London, it’s a sign that commercial producers, in terms of music at least, are no longer interested in quality.
On the bright side, maybe there’ll be additional musicians on the cast recording. The producers will only have to pay them once.