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The West End's Musical Recovery

After a bleak summer, London's legit scene has bounced back, propelled by a major crop of musicals. logo
Lee Evans and Nathan Lane in The Producers
(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
During the summer, the West End was being written off as much as written about -- everywhere, including here. What is typically an annual seasonal malaise on both sides of the Atlantic this time led to fears for the West End's long-term shape and survival, as new shows seemed to arrive and depart as quickly as rush-hour subway trains. But if the play's the thing wherein to catch the conscience of the king -- and it did so late in summer with David Hare's Stuff Happens, a coruscating examination of the political background of the American and British war on Iraq, staged by Nicholas Hytner at the National -- then there's nothing like a run of successful new musicals to catch the attention of audiences and reinvigorate the town.

Mind you, if there's one thing more compelling than an onstage triumph, it's an offstage crisis -- and London has had its fair share of those, too. One musical about Oscar Wilde walked itself into the record books, opening and closing on the same October night, while another, titled Murderous Instincts -- produced by sometime Broadway producer Manny Fox (1981's Sophisticated Ladies) and written by his wife Cinda -- lasted for nine performances at the Savoy Theatre. The show went through many directors along the way, though it finally opened without one being credited at all! Its putative star was Nichola McAuliffe, an actress who did a brief stint as a theater critic for the Daily Mail in the summer. McAuliffe regularly rushed into print to hilariously document the tortuous production process. Her return to acting proved to be a wise move in one sense: by being in the show, she was at least spared having to see it. Though Murderous Instincts has mercifully departed, some of the stories that went along with it will probably be remembered forever. Best of all: When Michael Rooney -- son of actor Mickey -- took over the show's direction, it was discovered that he had entered the country on a visitor's visa and did not have the appropriate work permit. Since these have to be applied for from outside the country, he decamped to Paris, but was reported to have stayed in touch with the rest of the creative team by phone. Actors are sometimes accused of "phoning in" their performances; is this the first time that a director has literally tried to do so with his staging?

Then there was pre-opening debacle surrounding The Producers. It is not without irony that a show about the spectacular (albeit intentional) mismanagement of a musical had its very own headline-making crisis when Richard Dreyfuss, originally cast as Max Bialystock, dramatically departed from the London production just a week before performances were due to begin. The Jaws actor had managed to make jaws drop here by telling TV chat show audiences not to bother to see him in the part before Christmas, as he just wasn't ready -- and he proved the point by leaving soon afterwards! But, at least for now, this story has had a happy ending for London audiences: Original star Nathan Lane rushed to director Susan Stroman's rescue, making his West End stage debut at the Lane (as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane is routinely known). He's taken the town not so much by storm as by hurricane, ideally partnered with the rubber-faced and -limbed British stage comic Lee Evans as Leo Bloom. (Both appeared in the 1997 film Mouse Hunt.) Lane and Evans are joined by an ace local cast that includes Leigh Zimmerman -- a leggy Broadway dancer now in long-term residence here, where her previous credits have included Contact -- as Ulla and Conleth Hill (Stones In His Pockets) as Roger DeBris. The show may have taken over three and a half years to get here since its Broadway opening, but it has been well worth the wait. The only uncertainty now is whether or not any British actor will ever dare to take on the role of Bialystock, given that Henry Goodman -- the only previous Brit incumbent in the role -- was ignominiously fired as Lane's Broadway replacement. (In the immediate instance, New York's Brad Oscar has been confirmed to replace Lane once again, from January 10.)

Meanwhile, Britain's homegrown musical behemoths (and former longtime collaborators) have gone head to head this winter. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh both have big new shows in town. The latter's new stage version of Mary Poppins, co-produced by Disney (responsible for the 1964 film), opens here on December 15 at the Prince Edward Theatre. New songs have been added to the original Sherman brothers' score, and the show's book, by Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes, returns to the original P.L Travers novels that first introduced the character of the flying nanny.

Jill Paice, Maria Friedman, and Angela Christian
in The Woman in White
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
Meanwhile, Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White has bumped Mackintosh's production of Les Misérables from the Palace Theatre to the smaller Queen's Theatre down the street. (The show's orchestra has been considerably downsized and supplemented by Sinfonia, thus leading it to be freshly dubbed "Less Misérables" in some quarters). Trevor Nunn is again the director, but that's not the only thing that the two shows have in common: The Victor Hugo and Wilkie Collins novels upon which they are respectively based were published just a year apart, in 1860 and 1861; both productions feature a revolve that puts the stage into constant circular motion (The Woman in White also features fast-changing, computer-generated projections); and there are some similarly sinister, darkly drawn characters that propel a fight between good and evil, albeit in a much more domestic, Anglicized setting in TWIW.

Lloyd Webber's last show, The Beautiful Game, saw him stretching his composing muscles to animate a more contemporary world of football-playing teenagers in the Belfast troubles; The Woman in White has a 19th-century Gothic setting similar to that of his greatest hit to date, The Phantom of the Opera. Book writer Charlotte Jones (Humble Boy) has structured an intricately layered period romance out of Collins' compelling page-turner to make it a stage thriller, and the show is adroitly propelled by the lyrics of Broadway's David Zippel -- both of them new collaborators for the composer. Critics were asked not to reveal the key mystery at the heart of the piece, but the main mystery that preoccupied me was why the producers went to the expense of hiring Michael Crawford -- here in his first London stage musical appearance since he originated the title role of Phantom -- to play the villainous Count Fosco, then buried him in a fat suit and even gave him a fat face. There's more nuance and vivacity to the trio of women at the heart of the piece, superbly embodied by London star Maria Friedman and American actresses Jill Paice and Angela Christian.

Paice and Christian are not the only Americans in town. At the Donmar Warehouse, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio -- who is, in fact, a longtime London resident with her Irish film director husband Patrick O' Connor -- is making a dazzling London stage debut in a small-scale production of the 1989 Broadway musical Grand Hotel. She plays the fading French ballerina, just one of the rich tapestry of characters we meet in this haunting, evocative musical snapshot of 24 hours in the life of a Berlin hotel circa 1928. With ravishingly melodic songs by Robert Wright, George Forrest, and Maury Yeston, the show is fluidly directed here by Michael Grandage. It's kept in almost perpetual motion by Adam Cooper's choreography and is expertly lit by Hugh Vanstone.

Like Mastrantonio, Kevin Spacey has also set up home in London, where he has taken over the running of the Old Vic Theatre. He launched his opening four-show season there by directing a mysteriously named Dutch play, Cloaca (Latin for "sewer"), that most critics wanted to flush down the toilet; but there are higher hopes for Sir Ian McKellen's appearance as a "pantomime dame" Widow Twanky in Aladdin, a British Christmas staple. Spacey himself will take to the stage in two American plays, Dennis McIntyre's National Anthems and a revival of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. Having first appeared on the London stage in 1986, long before his subsequent movie fame, Spacey has said of that experience: "There was just something incredible about being an American actor and working on the London stage."

Hugh Bonneville in Cloaca
(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
His feelings seem to be shared by the many American film and TV stars who have lined up to appear on London stages this autumn. Christian Slater led the charge by taking the Jack Nicholson role in a new stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- another show that had its share of backstage crises, including the departure of the original director and Slater's coming down with chickenpox, which led to a delayed opening of the show in its Edinburgh Festival tryout run in August. But by the time it reached the West End a month later, all was well. Slater has famously gone off the rails in his private life, but here he's back on track as a prisoner who gets himself committed to a mental asylum for an easier ride. There, he finds himself in a battle of wills with Head Nurse Ratched, who exerts a vice-like grip of discipline over her patients. Slater exudes danger, charm, and sexual charisma, but local actress Frances Barber as Ratched -- with an icy menace in her every glance and a voice that growls and purrs like a cross between Bette Davis and Eartha Kitt -- threatens to steal the show.

Six Feet Under star Lauren Ambrose and the veteran American stage and film actors Elizabeth Franz and M. Emmet Walsh did sterling work in a highly charged National Theatre revival of Sam Shepard's weird family drama Buried Child. And Holly Hunter returned to By the Bog of Cats, an Irish play that she first did at San Jose Repertory Theatre in California in 2001. Hunter brings a gutsy determination to this disturbing tale of a gypsy woman who, deserted by her mother when she was a child, now finds herself dumped by the father of her seven-year-old daughter as he sets off to marry the local farmer's daughter. Marina Carr's play may strive a bit too strenuously to be a modern version of Medea, but Dominic Cooke's moodily atmospheric production at Wyndham's Theatre is acted with remorseless conviction by a strong ensemble cast. Next up: Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall arrives at the Comedy Theatre in a January revival of Brian Clark's right-to-die play Whose Life is it Anyway?, directed by Peter Hall.

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