Sunday 23 September 2018

Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince: review

Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince: review

Going to the theatre should always be an occasion, something special, different, say, from going to the cinema, the movies or going shopping.

That the combined efforts of a handful or dozens of individual persons to present a live show, something in the moment and fleeting make a special occasion is something that I completely agree with and the title of Harold Prince´s 2017 book is entirely appropriate. It harks back to Henry Purcell and his colleagues in 17th century London who referred to their work in the theatre as Spectacle and Entertainment, something very much out of the ordinary.

The first part of Sense of Occasion is a reprint of his earlier book: Contradictions, Notes on 26 years in the theatre from 1974 with commentary and self evaluation on that earlier book. That the time in question includes ground breaking works such as West Side Story should give a clear enough hint that this is no small time endeavour.

The remainder of the book is a collection of  Mr Prince´s experiences over seven decades of success in the theatre and especially in musical theatre. I was drawn to this book by reading Andrew Lloyd Webbers´s Memoir and the quintessentially English Sir Andrew ´s experiences of collaborating with the totally American Mr Prince.

I came to the book as an admirer: I have enjoyed Evita and Phantom of the Opera and have seen both several times both in London and New York. So, imagine my surprise at learning that not everything Mr Prince touched turned to gold.

“Not every show is going to work, and in a long career you have to expect disappointments” he says in the opening sentence to Chapter 32. How can it be that the producer/director of magnificent pieces such as West Side Story, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and so many more successes, can also turn in some shows that were commercial and/or critical disasters?  

Isn´t that precisely why going to the theatre is an Occasion? As a spectator, we put our trust in the producer, director, writer and performers without any guarantee that the show will be to our liking. We spend our hard earned cash in the hope of, but without any guarantee of, a good time being had by all.

Among Harold Prince´s frustrations we read of his battles with the musicians´union who insisted on a certain number of players to be employed, not according to the needs of the score but according to the size of the performance venue. This leads to the ridiculous situation of musicians being paid to not play, literally to sit reading during an entire performance just to satisfy a quota system. This section of the book drew me back tom Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle, where she describes this and many other craziness examples of the NY music scene.

Back to Mr Prince, my favourite part is where he describes his work as providing the minimum of staging so that he audience can supply the rest through their imagination. Once and again he repeats the mantra that if too much is spelt out and up front, there is nothing left for the spectator to bring in terms of her/his own imagination.

After reading page after page of the book, and after seeing numerous performances of Mr Prince´s producing/directing work on stage, I am left with the impression of a strong and likeable personality. It was striking to read an article in this morning´s London Sunday Times  where he is described as “A dictator and not a nice man” by actress Patti LuPone.  Mind you, according to the same interview she also “fell out with Andrew Lloyd Webber”.  

Each to his/her own: I am left with a sense of admiration for Harold Prince who has been an essential part of some of the great successes on Broadway and London´s West End, and who has been an inspiration for so many of us who have worked to pass on his legacy to our students, albeit in much more limited circumstances.  

Saturday 22 September 2018

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Unmasked review

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Unmasked review
I have still have a worn and well used copy of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar from the 70´s, back in the day when we used to actually pay money for sheet music: a quaint custom when viewed from today´s internet free for all grab what you want world. I don´t know how to love him was easy and I was so happy to be able to play that and impress anyone who could bear to hear me play it. On the other hand, there were those tunes in 5/4 and others with such a curious rock rhythm that I honestly could not make them out.
We all came to Jesus Christ Superstar as a kind of graduation from Joseph. Joseph was enough, everyone knew you meant Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat, sorry, that is Technicolor. When I say everyone, I mean parents, teachers and my fellow school students and myself. Joseph was brilliant: clever, funny, tuneful and, at last, a piece to sing at school that was not embarrassingly old fashioned.
One of my audition pieces for music at university was a piece by Lloyd Webber senior: I couldn´t really play it and I know the professor noticed but I suspect they were short of trumpet players so I got in anyway.
I spent a summer in ´77 ish going to West end matinees and saw Elaine Paige, David Essex and Joss  Ackland in the first cast of Evita and even I, a young music student, could tell that this was the future and A Chorus Line, which I saw the day before, was the past of musical theatre.
So in 1980-ish when I started working in London and spent more than I should have to see the ground breaking crazy show without a story on a revolving stage at the New London Theatre called CATS I was knocked out by basically everything but especially by the song, THE song, which you were kept waiting for until after the interval, wondering what the fuss was all about and then realizing this was what you really came for: Memory of course.
Last year I directed a performance of CATS with my students at school and was overwhelmed at how students from many nations knew and loved these great songs and laughed at all the clever lyrics.
I saw Song and Dance and was entranced by songs like Take that look off your face and by Wayne Sleep´s athletic dancing.
I love music theatre and thought very carefully about finding a show that would introduce my son to the genre and inspire him. The show was Starlight Express in London and the combination of great singable melodies and roller skating virtuosity was everything you could ask for to inspire a young child and a young at heart adult.
Phantom of the opera in New York a few years later confirmed for us all that musical theatre can appeal to all the family and engages us on so many levels, from the sheer spectacular stage effects to the emotional power of the music and lyrics.
With all this background I came to read A L W Unmasked and I was totally unprepared. I thought that Sir Andrew had an easy time of it, what with his famous father, establishment connections and early success. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we can see from page after page in the memoirs.  
What stands out in the book, time after time, is Lloyd Webber´s unfailing passion for musical theatre and his perfectionist´s striving to achieve the best result in every show he writes. What is a total surprise for me is the large number of shows which either failed commercially or took so many attempts to get off the ground.
I especially enjoyed Lloyd Webber´s accounts of his collaboration with other major players in musical theatre, such as Harold Prince, and this lead me to search Prince´s memoir, Sense of Occasion, which I will review shortly.
The memoir only gets up to the opening of Phantom of the opera:  I look forward to the next installment, full of expectation and admiration.    

Washing up is good for mindfulness: book review

The real title of this book is Washing up is good for you and it is published by Aster, a division of the Octopus Publishing Group. I was happy to find a copy in Waterstones in Cambridge, UK, on a weekend visit there, and to know that my sister had been attracted by the title in the listings of her monthly book club offering. See

Why was I happy? Because one of the contributors to the book is my friend and colleague Annabelle van Nieuwkoop-Read and anything that she is part of has to be good.

Annabelle writes a chapter called Meaningful Messabout where she explores the importance of letting our children play freely, including taking risks, and letting the inner child in ourselves as adults be free. There are two separate issues here: playing as children and play in adulthood.

She is right to insist that our children grow healthy by taking risks and that a few scratches and bruises are worth the price if it makes our children strong and resilient. Numerous writers are expressing concern about the current generation of youth who are reluctant to face challenges, be they emotional, philosophical or physical. You only have to google Why is everyone so sensitive these days to find a plethora of articles. One of the most recurrent themes is that children who were kept indoors and prohibited by anxious parents from playing in the street or local outdoor spaces, typical of the early 2000´s, are now at universities and colleges where they find themselves unwilling to accept criticism or correction because they see it as a personal attack. The rough and tumble of early childhood knockabout is a vital preparation for young adult life. If we don´t learn that we cannot have everything our own way as children, how are we to deal with setbacks in adulthood?

One of the many great things about the Netherlands is that adults are actively engaged in play: adults typically arrange their working week to be able to take part in a huge network of activities, they play sports and they play in orchestras or sing in choirs. The positive impact of this active participation in playful activities, be they in sports or the arts, certainly contributes to the high position of the Netherlands in rankings of happiness indicators and quality of life. Here is a symphony orchestra in The Hague that I am happy to be a member  of, a great example of citizens playing and improving the quality of life for themselves and for their community.

Of course Annabelle is not the only contributor to Washing up is good for you. I really enjoyed Meredith Whitely´s  chapter What´s on your plate, my life washing up which charts her early life in Perth, Australia and the lessons she learnt while working in a bakery there.

Mindfulness has become a trend in life and in education. I am not convinced that all the implications have been fully dealt with regarding the introduction of Mindfulness, capital M, into schools. Even so, we can all take some tips from the various writers here and find that life´s mundane tasks can be a source of peace and inner harmony. Maybe it´s true, after all, that Washing up is good for you.