This is a disc that may be of more interest intellectually than aesthetically for American fans of musical theatre. It is a classic illustration of a basic truth of the musical theatre – Broadway and London’s West End are more than 3,470 miles away from each other. They span a gap greater than the crow can fly.
Broadway musical comedy owes a great debt to and draws a great deal from the grand American tradition of Vaudeville with its unique blend of native naiveté and highly polished sophistication. The British musical comedy owes just as great a debt and draws just as much from the classic British tradition of the music hall with its unique blend of the raucous and the bawdy.
What works on a stage on one side of the Atlantic doesn’t necessarily work on a stage on the other.
Yes, there are successful transfers. The three longest running shows in Broadway history (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Les Miséables) all were transfers from the West End. But only one of the top ten long-running shows there came from Broadway.
Many a producer has lost many a pound or dollar simply moving a show from one shore to another. The smart ones make changes when arranging a transfer. Sister Actis very different on Broadway than in London and the London version of Shrek The Musical not only made changes, they tout it with a sign saying “Its different here.”
So, when a Broadway fan buys an original London cast recording of a purely made-in-England musical, one shouldn’t expect to find that only the accents are a bit different. With the musical Betty Blue Eyes, you need to loosen up your Broadway ears and prepare to go along for a fairly unorthodox ride. If you do, you’ll find lots to enjoy.
This is the musical comedy treatment of the story of a pig raised during England’s post-World War II period of privation and rationing, which was the basis for Alan Bennett’s bizarre screenplay “A Private Function.” It opened last year to high praise, but closed due to disappointing ticket sales. As a result, it is unlikely to have any thought of a Broadway mounting.
It has a lively, even effervescent score featuring the catchy melodies of George Stiles and the sometimes sly but most often openly clever lyrics of Anthony Drewe.
Stiles and Drewe are represented on Broadway by their eight songs which augment those of the Sherman brothers from the movie in the stage version of Mary Poppins. In smaller theaters all over the U.S. and England their small, charming musical Honk! just has songs by them.
Some of the lyrics might well draw groans from American audiences … but they would be appreciative groans as everyone goes along with the gag at the same time they appreciate the cleverness.
In the song “Steal the Pig” which, as the title blatantly states, is the revelation of a plan to augment the food ration with a purloined pig, he sets out the plan thusly: “We’ll just steal a pig / and I know a smasher / These are rash times / and we need to think … rasher.” (When sung by Reece Shearsmith, you can’t actually hear the ellipses, but Drewe was good enough to include them in the text.)
That’s not Drewe’s only descent into the lexicon of sus domesticus (or the pig family, if you will.) In “Another Little Victory” he describes the expected success of the plan with: “… the hoity-toity will be deeply shaken / when they see that we are bringing home the bacon” and, of course, anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a pig farm knows just what the song “It’s An Ill Wind” is all about.
While the booklet doesn’t include a detailed synopsis, it is easy to follow the story through the lyrics which are printed in full. This is useful even though the enunciation of the cast is superb.
This recording was made during five live performances at the Novello Theatre in London. Therefore, each number ends with the sound of great applause. Sometimes you understand that the reception is for a fine performance (as in Sarah Lancashire’s selling of the song “Nobody”) while at other times you wonder what all the fuss is about, even though almost all of the songs do build to a satisfying climax.
Perhaps the show had a visual excitement that doesn’t make the transition to audio recording. More likely, it is a reflection of the vaudeville/music hall mismatch between a Broadway musical comedy and a British one that accounts for the confusion over here.
At any rate, you can sit back and enjoy orchestrator’s William David Brohn’s use of a featured instrument rarely heard from the orchestra pit on either side of the Atlantic: an accordion. It gives his 10-instrument charts a distinctive flavor. Brohn finds more effects for the accordion that blend with an otherwise big-band sound than you can imagine. For that, the recording would be worth your attention.
But throw in the quality score, clearly delivered vocal performances and the sense of pleasure that a live recording can deliver when the audience seems to be having a great time and the artists seem to be responding to the “vibe” in the hall, the recording may show up in your disc player more often than you might expect. Its not likely to just take up space on your theater shelf.