The Pick of Broadway

By Morley, Sheridan | The Spectator, June 7, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Pick of Broadway


Morley, Sheridan, The Spectator


Lieber and Stoller's anthem to the Great White Way, currently to be heard at the Prince of Wales in Smokey Joe's Cafe, has seldom in 30 years been more justifiable. Though the patriotic news this week is of the four Tony Awards given on Sunday to the Thelma Holt-Bill Kenwright production of A Doll's House, scoring for Janet McTeer and others a scoop equalled only four other times since the war by Brits on Broadway, the real story is of an amazing local theatrical revival around Times Square.

Next week, Cats replaces A Chorus Line as the longest-running show in the entire history of Broadway, and after 15 years there is something very satisfying historically in the realisation that the invasion which it started from this side of the Atlantic has come to an end just as it enters the history books. For Cats arrived on Broadway just as the world's greatest theatrical musicalmachine was in total collapse; a lethal combination of inner-city blight, the plague of Aids among chorus dancers and choreographers, and union troubles which made Wapping look like a carnival had come together to signal the end of the old Broadway just as a British task force led by Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber and Gillian Lynne struck at the heartland of the American musical as surely as if a gang of American actors had suddenly taken control of Stratford-on-Avon.

And now it is all over; within the last month alone, five major Broadway musicals opened in rapid succession to crown what has been the most exciting native season I can recall there since the very early 1970s. Let's take those first; the show that most richly and urgently deserves a London transfer, preferably to somewhere as operatic as the Coliseum or Sadlers' Wells (which it would stunningly reopen), is Maury Yeston's Titanic. Much mocked in rehearsal and preview, largely because of irresistible headlines about icebergs and `after Show Boat - no boat', this Richard Jones production is also the absolute, if as yet unsung, triumph of a Brit on Broadway. The greatness of Titanic lies as much in Jones's production as in Yeston's score; it is a masterpiece of invention, especially scenically, in which the ship that hit the iceberg is understood to have also been the closing of the Victorian era and an end to the nobility as well as the arrogance which it represented. A largely unknown cast of 40 play out the tragedy for all it is historically and emotionally worth, in a score which soars with great anthem-tributes to Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Not for nothing was its American composer a music scholar at Cambridge in the early 1960s; Yeston's score is a masterpiece of Old World echoes as it crashes into the iceberg of the new, and after an initially rough crossing it is already clear, at least to me, that Titanic is the greatest American musical to have been written since Cats put the frighteners on the local form.

The other superb new musical also has a London-based (although Australian) director in Michael Blakemore, who for the second time in five years, the first being City of Angels, has taken a jazz-based Cy Coleman score and turned it into a considerable dramatic triumph. This time the show is The Life, far and away the greatest lament for the old Times Square since Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls, though its aspirations are considerably greater. In telling tales of the pimps and prostitutes who have just been cleared out of 42nd Street to make the area safe for Mickey Mouse and his Walt Disney invasion (itself far more threatening than anything we brought from the West End), The Life reaches unashamedly towards Porgy and Bess as well as West Side Story for its frames of reference. There is, as in Titanic, a truly tragic dimension of grand opera here which has only lately been achieved elsewhere by Boublil and Schonberg; The Life deserved far more awards than it won, not least for Blakemore and a stunningly streetwise cast and choreography. It, too, aches to be seen over here just as soon as we can afford to transport it. …

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