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West End and Beyond

The great Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky astutely noted, “A sense of nature is one of the foundations of patriotism”.   During the pandemic, while everyone was communing with nature, camping and hiking, I most assuredly was not.  I visited one national park (with mixed success) https://oldladywriting.com/2021/06/11/i-went-up-north-once-once/, did not take down my old lady bicycle from the ceiling of our garage where it has been hanging for about twenty years now, and did not take up “hiking” as a hobby.  I waited and bided my time in a Midwestern suburb until an opportunity to travel to London presented itself.

I saw five plays in seven days, which is my ideal vacation under any circumstances.  Now that the original production of “Les Miserables” has been replaced (not permanently, I fervently pray) by the abomination that is the 25th anniversary version, my London dance card is emptier.  I must clarify that at the West End, I try to see shows that I am unlikely to see anywhere else.  Unless Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen, or the not-yet-knighted David Tennant or John Simm are appearing in “Jersey Boys” or “Book of Mormon”, I am catching those when they come to Detroit.  On this trip, I even wandered out of London, to Bath and Richmond.  The theater scene even outside of the West End was breathtaking.

And here they are, in order of appearance.  Spoiler alert:  all were great.

Number One:  “Only Fools and Horses”—a delightful new[ish] musical to welcome us back to the West End.  I actually researched the current offerings for about five minutes and this one jumped out at me as something that will never make it to the US, being as it is based on what is apparently a cult favorite English sitcom from the 80’s that is not part of the BBC America repertoire.  The fact that I missed many inside show references did not diminish the enjoyment.  The shady dealer older brother, the earnest goofy younger brother, the slightly demented grandad, various other comical yet lovable characters inhabiting their corner of London, catchy tunes, fun choreography, heartwarming story, and the evident delight of the audience made me want to go out and find the original TV show.  This was met with zero success during the trip, but thank God for Brit Box.

Number Two:  “Magic Goes Wrong”—the latest installment in the “Goes Wrong” series by Mischief Theatre company.  We saw “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at the London Apollo a few years ago (“Magic”’s current home), and it was the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life.  The woman who sat next to spouse actually confessed that she wet herself laughing, which is neither surprising nor shameful given the level of creative absurdity that starts even before the curtain goes up.  The element of surprise is gone once you have seen one of their shows—I mean, you know that everything that can go wrong will—but it is still a hilarious great fun.  Penn and Teller created the magic side of it, so there is some actual legitimate magic alongside the bumbling tomfoolery.  I suppose *that* is the surprise.

Number Three:  “Blue/Orange”—a snapshot of the British mental health system (which seems as woefully deficient as the American one), full of dark humor and unnerving exchanges, with racial tension in the mix.  On a Tuesday evening, the little theater in Bath was packed, which did my heart good.  In this version, the character with the most authority of the three was played by a Black actor, which shifted the power dynamic to an intriguing level.  Like “Art”, this is a play I would want to see again and again to continue to analyze its many nuances.

Number Four:  “Abigail’s Party”—a 70’s comedy of manners.  I saw it once before, in Belfast, and wondered then why such a juicy acting opportunity is not presented in the US.  On second viewing, I have to concede that, while there is tremendous joy in period costumes and set, the play is very British.  It is not just a play set in a specific decade, but in a specific place (I, of course, appreciate every Demis Roussos reference).  But I still think that the crafted written characters can stand well enough on their own, and you do not have to be British or have lived through the decade to appreciate this powerful dark[ish] satire of the middle class pretenses.  It is a bit of a precursor to “The God of Carnage”, to my mind.  (And how many Yasmina Reza can one post contain?)

Number Five:  “Private Lives”—which needs no introduction.  I am well familiar with this play both on its own and through “Moon Over Buffalo”.  Like “Art” (there I go again!), I have seen it in three countries—and like with “Art”, I traveled to England to see Nigel Havers in it.  Of course, he was marvelous as Elyot, as he is in everything he does—and Patricia Hodge as Amanda was an extra treat. 

This time, I was determined to meet him, waited at the stage door, and was shocked when he actually came out—and there was no one to converge on him but me and the trailing spouse.  You would think that I would have used this opportunity to shine with my witty repartee and winning personality.  You would be wrong—I have no such gifts.  Spouse said that I should have prepared and rehearsed a speech.  Son asked if mentioned how much we appreciated his performance in “Art”.  But of course not—I blurted out that I came all the way from Detroit to see him on my birthday (sort of endearing), and went on for a bit about how much I loved him in “Chariots of Fire”.  While I did not mention that I have literally seen the film over fifty times in the theater and can recite it verbatim (which is apparently more annoying than charming, as my family tells me), I inanely informed him that I have a “Chariots of Fire” luggage tag on my suitcase.  https://oldladywriting.com/2021/09/27/adventures-of-a-suitcase/ What a dork!  Having followed Nigel Havers’ career for forty years, having even read his autobiography twice (“Playing with Fire”; highly recommended), that was the best I could do under pressure.  Well, I suppose I could have done worse.  (Someone, please tell me how I could have done worse!)  I am consoling myself that I excel in a more intimate discussion setting.  Next time, next time…

Honorable mention:  Upon returning home, I had the opportunity to see “Pretty Woman” the musical.  My assessment of the show:  the seats at the Fisher Theater in Detroit are the most comfortable ones.

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Who Tells Your Story?

Although I love theater, I am almost never at the forefront of seeing something before it becomes popular.  A lot of it is because I do not live near where shows start—although I am given to understand that “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre in 1964, that was literally before my time.  The odds of me finding myself, during my travels, near a Broadway or West End show that is not yet big but will be are pretty slim.  While it has happened more than once that I saw a show that I thought was destined for greatness which later went nowhere[1], the opposite never happens.  Probably the biggest missed opportunity, not counting all the shows I regret missing in Stratford over the years, was during a 2015 visit to New York. 

My actor son was living in Brooklyn and about to leave on tour with “Aladdin”[2].  The family was visiting him, and naturally, decided to see a Broadway musical.  Walking past the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I noticed the not-yet-familiar black silhouettes on gold background. 

“What is this all about?” inquired I. 

“It’s a new rap musical about Alexander Hamilton”, replied son, dismissively.

“Hmm, that sounds really stupid”, opined I, disdainfully.

“It does indeed”[3], agreed son, and we moved on, chuckling to ourselves.  This was too much even for this theater-appreciating family.  Spouse, in his low-key way, was noting that “Something Rotten!” “looks good”.  When this man says that something “looks good”, it means that he is super-excited and jumping up and down inside with the mad desire to see whatever this is.  We bought tickets to “Something Rotten!” and enjoyed it immensely, witnessing a standing ovation in the middle of Act I—which, of course, is an incredibly rare occurrence, and a sure indication of potential long-term success[4]

I did not give “Hamilton” another thought until, on a Christmas flight to London, I saw the soundtrack as one of the offerings of Delta in-flight entertainment.  I tried to listen, and it was nice enough, but the flight is an overnight one.  I sleep on overnight flights.  I fell asleep.

And then I woke up with a jolt, because something terrible happened to the Hamilton family (OK, they also turned the lights on and started serving breakfast)!  I am neither proud nor ashamed to say that my knowledge of American history is limited to two years of high school—and the first year, my English was not good enough to fully grasp the goings on.  Alexander Hamilton was covered that year, and I remembered that he was shot in a duel by Aaron Burr, but who knew that his son was also killed?  It was sad!  It was like “Les Miz”!

I landed in London a “Hamilton” fan, and decided to travel to New York in the foreseeable future and see this musical in person.  I mean, how much could it cost, if we fly with miles and grab a hotel room with points?  Couple of hundred bucks for tickets? 

Not so fast, newly-minted-fans!  This brought back memories of “Phantom” in the ‘90s [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/04/25/team-phantom/]—but, times have surely changed, and in the classical dilemma of time versus money, I had a little bit less of the former and a tiny bit more of the latter.  Tickets were procured, and their extortionate cost was somewhat balanced out by the fact that we flew to New York on Spirit Airlines, and with no more than a handbag per person.

Was it worth it?  Yes, yes it was—although spouse did say, after it was all over, “It was great, but not like the first time I saw “Les Miz”.  I will not dispute that, because “Les Misérables” holds an extra-special place in my heart.  I also will not do a review of “Hamilton”, because I doubt that anything is left unwritten about it.  But this is what it means to me.

In theater productions, I live for that one moment when everything shifts and you remember it forever, either because it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard:

            “A handbag?!” in “The Important of Being Earnest”

            “The whole staff was slaughtered” exchange in “Hothouse”

or it breaks your heart:

            “Could you ask as much from any other man?” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” (because you know what happens to him…)

            As soon as the miners appear in “Billy Elliott” and sing “The Stars Look Down” (because you know what happens to them…)

or, in some cases, the entire play is brilliant:  “Art”; “August Osage County”

I will not call it an “aha” moment, because it is not a moment of cerebral discovery, but it is more of an “oh”—or “aww”?—moment, which is purely emotional in nature.  It is the “wait for it” or “catharsis” moment.  It is what live theater does best, that moment of unity of hearts and souls between the characters on stage and the audience.

“Hamilton” both starts and ends on that moment.  The opening number is so big, so smart, so creative, so instantly recognizable, and when we heard, “What’s your name, man?”, and there was that little pause, and Lin-Manuel Miranda appeared and said “Alexander Hamilton”—well, the entire audience of 1,300+ lost their collective minds!  Not to take away from “Something Rotten!”’s standing ovation in Act I, but that was a rock star-caliber moment.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s presence is electric, and his charisma and enthusiasm on stage cannot be overemphasized.  I would say that I knew, once again, that I was in the presence of greatness [https://oldladywriting.com/2020/07/26/all-my-world-is-a-stage/]—except that by the time I got to see “Hamilton”, live and with the still original cast, that would have been a major understatement. 

And then there is that closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”.  I love a good ending.  I mean, who doesn’t, but I really, *really* love a good ending.  A good ending is worth the price of admission even more than a good beginning, because it stays with you, even after the curtain falls.  “Hamilton” ends like it begins, with the satisfying big number, but with more poignancy.  It’s the combination of “Anatevka”, “Impossible Dream”, and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, these other great finales, because it is both tragic and hopeful, tender and confident, wistful in the loss of a promising life cut short, yet satisfying in the summary of its legacy.  It earns my inarticulate but sincere praise of “I cried and cried”. 

Who tells your story?  Little by little, I am trying to tell mine…


[1] My spouse still laments “Martin Guerre” by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the creators of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” fame.  You haven’t seen that version of “Martin Guerre”?  No one has.

[2] Small print--not THAT “Aladdin”.

[3] This is why my writing career is still fledgling.  I cannot write dialogue.

[4] This was after “The Musical”, which I still think is one of the most fun and clever numbers of the genre, basically an entire “Forbidden Broadway” in several minutes and on a major stage.  And to be fair, Christian Borle did get a Tony for his part in this, not to mention eight other nominations for the show itself!

It was a magical weekend overall. We also saw “Bright Star”, starring the wonderful Paul Nolan, who deserves an award for every role which he graces with his talent, and stayed at the Algonquin, Harpo Marx’ old stomping ground.  Those are stories for another day!]

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London Calling

With my love of travel, my love of Gilbert and Sullivan, and my love of “Chariots of Fire”, there is one important location that has not yet been mentioned.  It Is a Glorious Thing – Old Lady Writing Did you guess London?  If so, you guessed correctly.  If not, I cannot fathom what you are thinking. 

London was slightly elusive in my younger days.  During my college summer in Europe, the Chunnel train was not yet in existence.  While the British rail system was covered by the Eurail Pass, the passage from the continent to Albion was not.  There was no way I was going if there was an extra charge.

The Royal Family in the “good old days” (At Madame Tussaud’s in London. I love wax museums, and never miss one!)

Around the time of my last college spring break, my mother gifted me with enough free, rapidly expiring airline miles for two tickets to Europe.  I could bring a companion.  No catch.  In what can only be described as a fit of temporary insanity, I invited Grandma.  No, really, I was twenty one years old, and I went to London with my Grandma.  I am expecting to be rewarded for this in my next life…

And so, I flew to New York, and Grandma and I set out on a cross-continental flight together.  Our troubles started immediately when she set off a metal detector.  The year was 1990, a kinder, gentler time when everyone could walk on to the departure gates, and TSA was only a vague concept—except in a case of an elderly, five feet tall woman who was  bringing not only an apple for her long flight, but an accompanying knife wrapped in a handkerchief.  Bizarrely, the TSA agent who confiscated Grandma’s best paring knife agreed to mail it back to her home address in Brooklyn.  The potential loss of the knife caused Grandma considerable distress during our vacation, until we were informed by triumphant Grandpa, upon being picked up from our return flight, that the knife arrived safe and sound.  No “How was your trip? How is London?  Welcome home!”, but “Those bastards did not steal our knife after all!”

The flight itself was an unmitigated nightmare.  Grandma, immeasurably energized by full access to me for the upcoming week, decided to start early on what we call “educating” me, but really the better term is “nagging”.  I was treated to a seven-hour lecture about the various deficiencies of my character, my appearance, my behavior, my friends both male and female, and my overall prognosis for a productive life.  As a graduating university senior heading to an Ivy League law school and holding down two jobs, I naively thought I might have had a right to feel sort of OK about myself.  However, I was also overweight and single, two of the most cardinal of mortal sins in The World According to Grandma.

Holiday Inn London – Kensington Forum Hotel |Best Price Guaranteed |Kensington London Hotel (hikensingtonforumhotel.co.uk)

We were staying at the Forum Hotel, now Holiday Inn Kensington Forum.  This is important, because this hotel is huge—900+ rooms and 27 stories. Upon arrival, after a sleepless night of “education”, I determined that I lost interest in my travel companion.  We had a brief discussion and decided that, in order for each of us to preserve our own mental, emotional, and physical well-being, we will tour the city separately and only share sleeping quarters.  I lived in a dorm—I could do it!  Grandma was married for 45 years at that point—she could definitely do it!  We each had our own money, room key, basics of the English language (some better than others), and I generously gave her one of my maps of London (this was when giant folding paper maps were all the rage).  She stormed off.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Here is what I did next: (1) Called my mom as I still do during all important times, or really any time at all. She was supportive, as she generally tends to be.  (2) Unpacked my suitcase and staked out my bed.  (3) Took a shower, washed and blow-dried my hair, and changed clothes, because I needed a pick me up.  (4) Opened the minibar and daringly consumed an adult beverage, because I needed a pick me up.  (5) Ate a bar of chocolate, also from the minibar, because, well, isn’t it obvious? (6) Unfolded my giant paper map and determined that the first stop on my tour that day will be Harrod’s, which was the closest landmark to this hotel, and also made the most sense, given how the trip started.

The reason for these boring details is because I want to convey that I was only ready to depart the hotel quite a fair bit of time after Grandma.  I mean, all of these activities took a while.  I am not sure exactly how much, but long enough that when I heard a tentative knock at the door, I logically assumed that the day’s cleaning crew was arriving.  Since this was my first time staying at a place fancy enough to be cleaned (and with a mini-bar—did I mention the minibar?), I grabbed my coat and rushed to the door, on my way toward my adventure in London, yelling encouragingly to whoever was behind the door that I am leaving and they can get down to business.

Behind the door was Grandma.  All this time, she was trying to find her way out of the huge hotel, rode the elevator, stumbled on the underground garage, gift shop, and every other floor, but regrettably, never the lobby.  She was exhausted, defeated, and ready to make peace.

Thus began my love affair with the West End… [The photo is not mine]

The rest of the week actually went reasonably well, all things considered.  We walked a lot (some of it was because Grandma was always a tireless walker her entire life, never having learned how to drive), saw all the main sites, including a day trip to Windsor Castle (where Grandma concluded that the tiny medieval royal beds are far inferior to her Italianate suite back in Brooklyn), and experienced our first (but far from my last) West End musical (“Me and My Girl” at the Adelphi theater).  In those days, London was still boasting its terrible cuisine, though to be fair, the two of us, a college student and a Soviet retiree, were decidedly not “foodies”.  We ate at McDonald’s and were excited.  Once we had pastries at a cafe and felt rather sophisticated.  I bought six decks of cards for my collection. I took only twice as many photos.  Every night, after Grandma fell asleep, I watched British TV and treated myself to a beverage and chocolate from the mini bar. 

It was not my best trip to London, but it was a decent first encounter with an exciting city which I came to know well in subsequent decades.  Later, there came many laughs, many discoveries, and many unforgettable theater experiences.  This was the slightly inauspicious start.

One of the twelve photos I took. Seriously? What is it even?
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All My World Is a Stage

In my pre-plague life, I never had a spare weekend.  I [used to] see a lot of live theater.  Over the past couple of decades, most other hobbies fell by the wayside as this one escalated.

A few people asked me about the origins of this love.  One was Geraint Wyn Davies[1].  He was just being polite and making small talk, but I launched into some inane monologue of sharing a birthplace with the first professional theater in Russia, the Volkov, named after its founder, Fedor Volkov.  This is factually true, but really, in my day the Volkov was a disaster.  It is a gorgeous classical building of pale yellow, with white columns and ornate façade, second in appearance only to the Bolshoi.  Many famous theaters are so nondescript from the outside.  The House that Moliere Built is simply stunning in its unimpressiveness, despite being home to the largest and deepest stage I have ever seen.  But the Volkov is beautiful, and sits in a strategic location, facing the large round Volkov square containing the statue of Fedor Volkov himself (no surprise),

and one of the oldest historic monuments in town, the 17th century Banner (Znamenskaya) Tower.  It is a spectacle—but a spectacle that used to be entirely external. 

Oh, to be sure, it is also magnificent inside—with its marble red-carpeted stairs, frescoed walls, sculpted ceiling, velvet curtains, and a buffet serving delectable pastries.  Unfortunately, what used to happen on stage in the ‘70s was either stale plays by Ostrovsky (in all fairness, I have never seen or read any of them), stock Communist plays (I have certainly never seen those either), Nutcracker (with substandard local or traveling cast), and an occasional Moliere or other permissible Western classic (performed in a standard static declamatory style).  Before the Young Viewer’s Theater was built (after my time), my class would occasionally troop over to the Volkov on a field trip to see a morality play about the Young Pioneers. 

The pastries were always excellent!

Right before we left the Soviet Union forever, my grandmother and I spent a few days in Moscow.  The family friend with whom we stayed knew someone who worked at the Satire Theatre, and managed to get us in to see “Pippi Longstocking”.  If one was to have such luck as to get into the Satire, or really any Moscow theater in those days, one would be hard pressed to find anything less exciting than “Pippi Longstocking”.  Nonetheless, as proverbial beggars cannot be choosers, it was still thrilling.  There were a couple of actors whom I knew from TV, and that was enough.  I still recall one tune from the musical, for that is indeed what it was, and that is no small measure of an impression it made on me almost 40 years ago.  I never heard this tune again except in my head.  Those were the days when memories were made.

In the US, we were astonished to learn, theater tickets were distributed on a sort of first come, first served basis to those who had the means to pay, rather than on a complicated favoritism scale as a part of a behind the scenes black market economy.  That was an incredible concept, although I did not know the actors and did not want to see them.  Whenever my mother and I found ourselves in New York at the same time, she dragged me to Times Square to stand in line for half price tickets.  The first Broadway play I saw was “Foxfire”, with Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn[2], and Keith Carradine.  We must have already been living in the US for a bit, because I knew who Keith Carradine was[3].  I understood almost nothing, as my English was so poor and certainly not theater-ready at the time, but I did understand that I was in the presence of greatness.  I held on to the memory and still cherish.  I wish I had kept the program…

We saw a few great shows over the years when I was in high school: several G&S productions https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/, and an amazing production of “As You Like It” in Jackson before Michigan Shakespeare Festival settled there. https://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com/   It is still the gold standard for that play for me.  Each act was done in a different setting.  The city was all shades of gray and furs and muffs, the forest was all pastels, and the rest I do not remember.  Nonetheless, for what was my first encounter with Shakespeare in the language I was still learning, it certainly left a lasting impression.  But the real theater life started in Fort Worth.

When I was in college and my parents (I use the term loosely when it includes my late stepfather) lived in Fort Worth, they discovered a small regional theater called Stage West. https://stagewest.org/  In a tiny space of about 100 seats, they used to put on a fantastic variety of plays—and still do.  My first exposure was to a dysfunctional comedy at Christmas called “Seasons Greetings”—we still laugh about “Pig number one, pig number two”, although I have never seen it performed since.  From then on, every time I visited my parents, we would go to Stage West.  It was always a delight, with an underlying feeling of uncomfortable incredulity about how a troop of local actors in some shed on a rough dockyard-like street would do a better artistic job than the permanent staff of the oldest professional theater in all of Russia, working in a gorgeous building with delicious pastries.

As an aside, I had the great fortune of revisiting Stage West a few years ago during a work conference in Dallas.  My mother joined me, and we saw Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”.  As a purportedly more sophisticated theater goer after the passage of almost three decades, I was still astonished.  It was a world-class production.  And one of those moments when I said to myself, I am the luckiest girl in the world.  Gosh, I just live for those moments!

And then there came Stratford.  https://www.stratfordfestival.ca/  This is a story that has been told often, and at almost every Stratford social event.  It is just a conversation starter—how long have you been coming, what was your first experience?  In my young married life, theater was not a factor, as we had neither time nor money, and never both at the same time.  One fine day in 1996, my college friend suggested a girlfriends’ day to see a play.  So the three of us drove three hours, arrived on a rain-soaked Saturday in August, ate some weird concoction prepared by one of us (not me!) for lunch in the car, and entered the Festival Theatre to behold the great William Hutt as King Lear.  It was unquestionably one of the defining moments of my life. I wish I had kept the program…

Initially it was an annual trip.  Initially it was just Shakespeare.  Then we added other shows that sounded interesting, and once a season became not enough.  Then some years later my friend lost interest and was replaced by my spouse.  Then my kids started coming, and several other friends came along, and I even went by myself once when I could not sell anyone on “Fuenteovejuna”[4].

Along the way, I started to go to the theater everywhere I have traveled for work or leisure, and then planning trips with seeing plays as the goal.  It became my identity— “I go to the theater”.  It is what I do and who I am.  For the time being, I do not and I am not.  It feels like an intermission of my life.  With theaters closed for the foreseeable future, I no longer know who I am and what to do with my after-work life.  As I see it, I have two options:  (1) reinvent and find some new interests, or (2) hunker down with my memories and wait it out.  Or maybe both?  Stay tuned…

The new Tom Patterson theater–as of this writing, it has not yet opened…

[1] I am just name dropping here. J

[2] Is it a coincidence that Hume Cronyn is Canadian?  I think not.

[3] I saw Keith Carradine on a BroadwayCon panel a few years ago, and he actually mentioned “Foxfire” with fondness.  What a full circle!

[4] Anyone who has not seen this Stratford production should be living with regrets.  I am just saying.

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Team Phantom

***Warning this post contains plot spoilers.  I do not want to discourage anyone from reading anything I write, but here it is: I will be divulging the plot of “Love Never Dies” below.  To my three loyal readers—I think you already know this, so please read on!

Last Saturday I woke up to the words “The Phantom of the Opera is here!” thundering through my house.  Being the musical lover that I am, I rolled out of bed, quite literally, and stumbled downstairs toward the source.  Spouse was watching the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On.

When I moved to New York City, “Phantom” was the hottest ticket in town.  It was not even new by then, but the wait for tickets was two years.  Two years, “Hamilton” fans!  In those pre-internet days, I literally had to call the box office and be told that I can get on the wait list.  I planned to be in NYC for three years, but I was also 21.  Needless to say, I never got on a wait list, and never saw “Phantom” on Broadway.  Instead, I continued to listen to the tape.  I loved the soundtrack, and still do.  

However, something always bothered me about “Phantom”.  Plot is important to me (unless we are talking about “G&S” (https://oldladywriting.com/2020/03/29/it-is-a-glorious-thing/).  The fact that Christine ends up with Raoul always seemed like a copout. Raoul is not that special, but he is handsome, and beautiful girls end up with handsome men and not with disfigured cavern dwellers.  I realize that that’s the original story, but I also think that Sir Andrew can do whatever he wants to do.  And guess what?  A quarter of a century later, he did.  “Love Never Dies” is a vindication of Team Phantom.

Seeing “Love Never Dies” was one of those unexpected transformative experiences that only live theater can give.  We found ourselves in London for a night’s layover, and my only goal was to sleep in a pod.  That was, by the way, absolutely terrible.  You might think it would be cute to sleep in a box where you cannot even comfortably turn, as I did before I experienced this nonsense, but trust me—it is the worst. But I digress.

We had a few evening hours in London, so of course ran to Leicester Square to buy show tickets.  “Love Never Dies”, the sequel to “Phantom”, seemed interesting.  Little did we know, it was selling terribly and was already set to close.  I am still sad about it.  This is not only one of the most beautiful stories and musical works I have seen (“Beneath the Moonless Sky” and “Devil Takes the Hindmost” quartet are alone worth the price of admission), but it has also finally reconciled me to “Phantom” by redeeming (and ultimately martyring—and what can be more redeeming than that?)  the seemingly superficial Christine.

Once I saw “Love Never Dies”, I have not been able to view “Phantom” the same way.  Once you know that Raoul will end up a drunk and a gambler and a total anchor for Christine, their whole courtship in “Phantom” looks doomed.  I kept wanting to tell Christine to just ditch him and stay with Phantom.   

When I saw “Beneath a Moonless Sky” live on stage, it was so unexpected and so heartbreaking.  Christine sang, “I loved you, I’d have followed anywhere you led”, and I just saw her in a completely different light, a woman beaten but unconquered by a bad marriage, full of regrets over a lost love, a woman who was prepared to follow her heart but who was given no choice in the matter and tried to do her best.  And Angel of Music returns too late, because life is complicated…

I understand that a lot of the fans of the original story hated the fact that Christine dies in “Love”.  But I think that no other solution would have worked.  No one would have believed if she and Phantom stayed together and lived happily ever after, and no one would have believed if she stayed with that wastrel Raoul.  Sorry, but she basically had to die—which makes the entire two-parter a great and tragic love story and ultimately elevates the original “Phantom”[*].

Now a word about the failed London production versus the revised Australian one, which was more successful.  If you see “Love Never Dies” on official video, you will see the latter one—and I am sorry.  Aside from the fact that I saw Ramin Karimloo as Phantom and Sierra Boggess in it, the West End version is superior in several subtle but key ways.  First, the set is better—one of those rare instances where computer generated set works (and anyone who knows me knows that I do not love CGI on stage).  The lights of Coney Island in Adelphi Theater were unforgettable!  The entire show is just darker and more mysterious, which is absolutely what it needs to be.

Second, starting the show with Madame Giry and the Phantasma freaks reminiscing is much more intriguing and evocative of the start of “Phantom” (“The Coney Island Waltz/That’s the Place That You Ruined, You Fool!”), while starting the show with Phantom singing “Till I Hear You Sing” [Once More] is just too much foreshadowing.  I am a firm believer that you just do not need to see Phantom in his mask until a few numbers in.  You know he is coming, unless you have never seen or heard of him.  In which case, you are in for an even bigger treat!


[*] Honorary mention goes to the amazing music box monkey that steals the show, according to my youngest son.

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It Is a Glorious Thing

If you do not know that “Chariots of Fire” is my favorite movie, you do not know me.   https://oldladywriting.com/2019/06/04/run-your-own-race/ Once I saw it, I became obsessed with everything mentioned in the film, such as

  • Watching PBS, in the hopes of running into any of the actors who appeared in “Chariots”.  This was before BBC America, friends!
  • Watching the Olympics.  OK, I loved the Olympics since Moscow ’80.  “Chariots” didn’t do it singlehandedly, but still.
  • Wanting to go to England.  We had no resources to do that for a very long time.  Eventually I went to London for spring break of my senior year in college.  With my grandmother.  I repeat—with my grandmother.  If you do not know how fraught our relationship is, you do not know me.  But there is a happy end to this particular story—I have visited London many times since then, sans Grandma, and each trip has been an improvement.
  • Wanting to take “Sybil” for my middle name.  Sybil is NOT my middle name, because by the time I could acquire one, I had fallen in love with The Monkees.
  • Wanting to see all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
  • Wanting to have “Jerusalem” sung at my funeral.  I am saving this one for last.  Literally and obviously.

So, one of the many unexpectedly wonderful benefits of this great film is that it introduced me to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan.  And unlike my belated foray into running, this was instant.  In the movie, Harold Abrahams joins Cambridge’s Gilbert and Sullivan society.  Apparently, this is factual.  So snippets of the operettas are part of the soundrack—it is not all Vangelis.  I must confess, although of course—of course!—I bought the record, I am not a huge Vangelis fan.  I am generally not a fan of instrumental music.  Not going to classical music concerts is one of my small rebellions against my upbringing.  But I love musical theater.  I need words and a plot.

Over the past 40 years, I have only seen four of their operettas—the three BIG ones, and “Ruddigore”.[1]  It started with “HMS Pinafore”.  My high school, during a woefully depressed year when our millage did not pass, the school day was cut to five hours, and buses were cancelled (a disaster in rural Midwest), put “Pinafore” on in the choir room.  The set was minimal, if any, but the costumes were great, because all guys were dressed like sailors.  I recognized “He is an Englishman” from “Chariots of Fire” and was pretty excited.  I was also amazed at the vocal and acting talents of my peers.  The fact that I was generally unfazed by the immense inanity of the plot is a commentary on how limited my command of the English language was at the time. 


Literally no idea what’s going on

In short succession, my mother and I managed to see professional touring productions of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Mikado”.  I had high hopes for the latter because of its special part in “Chariots”—but either my English regressed or the plot is even more bizarre than that of “Pinafore”, because I did not understand it.  I have never seen it again. 

Not necessary

“Pirates”, however, was great!  “Pirates” is (or should it be “are”?) great!  The production we saw in Detroit in the early ‘80s was perfect.  I remember nothing about it except the lead.[2]   I think “Pirates” stands wonderfully well on its own merits.  It is a fun, light, colorful bit of cheery entertainment.  I am generally very open and even eager to see variations on the classical traditions—with certain exceptions.  Directors, please, do not mess with “Pirates”!

“The Pirates of Penzance” also happens to be my husband’s favorite musical.  Strangely, he does not care about the rest of the G&S body of work.  He just loves “Pirates”.  Specifically, he is obsessed with the Major General character. Even more narrowly, the “Modern Major General” song, and how quickly the actor can do it.  Fast-talking Major General equals great “Pirates”.  The Major General who is not fast enough just ruins everything for spouse. 

He also claims that he saw that touring production in Detroit and remembers the young blond lead.  To think that we could have met a decade before we did, at a Gilbert and Sullivan show!  It would have led nowhere, for a whole host of reasons, but it is kind of romantic to think that we might have been at the same theater event.  Happy World Theatre Day! 


[1] This is kind of shameful.  I know I had many other opportunities.  Once the plague is over, I should focus more on G&S…

[2] The actor who played Frederick in the touring production of “The Pirates of Penzance” subsequently returned as the lead in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.  I like to pretend that I saw Andy Gibb in “Joseph”, but I did not. I saw this guy.  I wish I knew who he was, because he was great.  If anyone knows—please tell me.  This was before I started keeping show programs, unfortunately.

The Merry Wives of Stratford

Some years ago, I decided that I needed to complete the Shakespeare canon.  For a spectator like me, that means only seeing the shows, not acting in them or directing them (I laugh because this is true).  As I see several Shakespeare stagings every year, I am ever surprised by the universality as well as timelessness of his works.  I mean, after a few centuries, they are not dated (unless the director allows them to be, which is decidedly NOT the goal).  I am also occasionally surprised by how my relation to the various plays has changed over the years—the ones I thought I loved I occasionally outgrew, the ones I either did not know or did not much like I grew to appreciate more, and so forth.  As of this writing, I have five plays left to see, which seems like a shockingly large number considering how long I have been at it—so, if anyone hears of Henry VI being done anywhere, please let me know.  I do mean anywhere, I will travel for this!

I have deliberately been avoiding The Merry Wives of Windsor for years.  I glimpsed it once on TV, must have been on Masterpiece Theater, and I hated it.  It seemed like a lot of commotion of people running around in bonnets and pumpkin pants, laughing at jokes that made no sense, and the language itself was unintelligible to me.  It also had Falstaff, a character many like, but I kind of hate.  I just do not find him funny or endearing or charismatic in any way.  I just find him annoying. 

But, with so few plays left to complete the canon, and with Stratford Festival—the greatest theater in North America, if not the world—staging Merry Wives this season, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet.  Spoiler alert:  I am glad I did, but I am still not crazy about this play. 

Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director of the Festival who directed the play, set it in 1953.  It was the year the festival was founded by Tom Patterson.  Is it weird that I immediately thought that it was the year that Stalin died?  Seems like it was a much more carefree year in Canada than in the USSR, but maybe not so much when it came to women’s rights.  Frankly, though, I did not find the story to be too offensive in the #MeToo era.  Falstaff is lecherous and pushy, but easily confounded and disarmed.  Mr. Ford is jealous not like Othello, but like Moliere’s clueless and pompous husband characters.  The women outsmart and outplay the men with ease, plus great humor and spirit.  So, I am inclined to just view this story as a harmless farce rather than a statement on gender relations.

And what a farce it is—but I am not against farces.  I am an easy laugh, but what of it?  A peculiar mix of Monty Python and I Love Lucy is not the worst to which a comedy can aspire—and achieve.  In this particular production, the stars of Stratford are out in full force.  Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page is just the most luminous wide-eyed Lucille Ball impersonation ever, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The incomparable Geraint Wyn Davies is possibly the only Falstaff I can stomach, and he actually made me feel sorry for the fat buffoon at the end.  Aww, Geraint with that sparkle in his eyes, his Falstaff exuding the benign mirth that reduces the creep factor almost to zero!  And Lucy Peacock as Miss Quickly is channeling the comic relief housekeepers straight out of the Soviet comedies of the death-of-Stalin era, whose kerchief, ankle boots like my grandmother would wear, and intermittent snacking made me feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic.  Ben Carlson, as the Welsh parson, is the funniest I have ever seen him be–and Ben is usually witty funny, not ha-ha funny, so this was a joy to behold.  When he agrees with Mr. Ford that Falstaff in drag as the old woman of Brentford must be a witch because she has whiskers and a beard, I died laughing!  (I use this phrase to excess; I guarantee you will see it again.)  Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford, while very funny as well, is basically Tartuffe’s Orgon, whom he played on the same stage two years ago. It is not his fault that this part is so similar—after all, I have seen Geraint Wyn Davies play Falstaff before, which is literally the same character.  I am just saying it was not a surprise, that’s all.

The Monty Python theme plows through the play in the character of Dr. Caius.  Gordon Miller plays him essentially as the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with pronouncing every letter in “knight”.  When you hear it, you just can’t unhear it.  He even throws in John Cleese’s silly walk.  It’s all very funny, but a bit much, including the exaggerated French accent that is at times utterly unintelligible, although every second word is “bugger”. 

So, I walked out of the theater not feeling that I saw a Shakespearean play.  Is that necessarily a bad thing?  I do not think so.  I laughed a lot, I had a good time, and that is a value in itself.  The fact that a comedy written 400 years ago still retains the humor of a much more modern piece is astonishing.  When Antoni Cimolino mentioned that Merry Wives has funnier jokes than Neil Simon he was not kidding (see what I did there?).  If there was a deeper message, I might not have gotten it.  But, in the words of John Cleese’s Pope in the Penultimate Supper sketch, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!”  

P.S.  E.B. Smith needs to have a bigger part in this play, and really in every play.