The stars seemed to be in magical alignment when the opening of this new musical on the West End, London’s equivalent of Broadway, was announced. A big, bold, colorful musical based on Lend Me A Tenor, Ken Ludwig’s farce, was to open this June in the same theatre where the play, which was his first and so far his most successful comedy, had its premiere way back in 1986. The theatre was then called The Globe. Since then it has been renovated and retitled The Gielgud. When the farce had its premiere there, it ran for over ten months. A subsequent Broadway production ran for over a year.
Since then, the play has become a staple for professional, community, college and even high school theaters. It is a well constructed farce with a plot that moves smoothly from set up to complication to resolution which is filled with both funny situations and funny dialogue.
Set on the night of a crucial fund raising performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, the complications arise when the guest soloist, a world famous tenor, accidentally takes an overdose of a sedative. Thinking he is dead, an assistant dons his costume and goes on in his stead – after all, “The Show Must Go On!” However, the tenor revives, dons a backup costume and heads off to the theatre. Add the wife of the real opera star discovering the girlfriend of the substitute in the arms of a man in an Otello costume, and you have full-out farce.
Magic, however, can’t always be summoned at will – or is it that lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice in the same spot? Whatever! The musical closed in just over two months, the victim of disappointing sales. What went wrong? Perhaps a clue can be found in the original London Cast album, an import from England’s First Night Records.
Ken Ludwig writes funny plays but this recording of the musical based on his farce simply does not have many laughs. I don’t mean the recording doesn’t have the sound of laughter. This isn’t a live performance recording. I mean why doesn’t the score have much to laugh at? Where are the funny lines? Where are the comic twists? I listened to all 66 minutes of the recording, and didn’t laugh out loud once. I did, however, break out in a grin a few times – starting at 2:43 into track #5.
It starts out with a sparkling but all too short overture in the mold of traditional musical comedy form that segues into a musical scene of faux-opera. This is followed by a full company patter song that is musically interesting, but it is here where I started to wonder when I was going to get a chance to start laughing. It seemed, instead, that the lyricist, Peter Sham, was so busy laying out the convoluted plot points that there just wasn’t any room for punch lines. Perhaps, I began to think, Officer Lockstock was right when he told Little Sally in Urinetown that “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
Despite the disappointing quotient of laughs, there are pleasures to be had in the score. Sham does come up with clever ways to relate those plot points and composer Brad Carroll provides melodies and meters firmly in the time-honored formulas for a satisfying evening of musical comedy. When Cassidy Janson sells her “Fling,” all seems to be going swimmingly. “How ‘Bout Me?,” a debate-in-song over the assistant’s idea of going on for the “dead” tenor is witty (but not laugh-out-loud funny) and Joanna Riding certainly sells her first act big number “The Last Time.” There’s a rousing number in the tradition of all those songs of advice to a younger character from an older and presumably wiser one, “Be You’self.” But, things bog down again with an Act I finale that seems all too concerned with wrapping up plot points.
There are a few times when tap dancing breaks out. It isn’t quite clear why but the exciting sound is all we get of Randy Skinner’s choreography. He’s the dance assistant on the original production of 42nd Street who went on to be the choreographer for its 2001 revival which ran for over 1,500 performances before heading off on a successful tour. In between he choreographed the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair which reversed that habit, touring before landing on Broadway for a brief run in 1996.
With many numbers reflecting well-established traditions of the genre, things do start to sound a bit familiar even on first hearing. The title tune and the big company song “Il Stupendo” certainly seem that way. But Sophie-Louise Dann’s big number, “May I Have A Moment?,” breaks the mold with an audition scene as she works her way through snatches of famous operas.
There is an eighteen-member orchestra (four more than in the pit in the theatre) playing chipper charts by Chris Walker who orchestrated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a few years ago.
First Night Records is a label with an outstanding catalogue of cast recordings that should interest those with sizable theatre shelves. Among other interesting items, they have the original Les Misérables, a beautiful Brigadoon, three different recordings of Blood Brothers, a chipper Charlie Girl from 1986, Martin Guerre, The Witches of Eastwick, and the bizarre The Fields of Ambrosia. Check them out at their webpage: www.firstnightrecords.com.