ShenTens: My Top Ten Guilty Theatrical Pleasures

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We’ve all got them: things we enjoy — sometimes mightily — that it’s just a little bit embarrassing to admit to liking. Like admitting, in my case, a massive passion for Selling Sunset, the real estate reality TV show set in the cramped offices of an LA boutique agency that sell houses to millionaires and billionaires. (But somehow seem to work cheek-by-jowl in a tiny office on Sunset Boulevard).

Here are examples of some of the sorts of shows I mean — ones that are guilty pleasures. Plus a tenth, more generic item that’s not a show but invariably about them…..

To hear me talking about my choices, listen here:

1 Chess
This musical, first heard on a concept album in 1984 before premiering in the West End in 1986, has arguably the best of all the 80s pop opera scores, composed by Abba’s Benny Andeersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to lyrics by Tim Rice, with at least six modern classics. Two of them were even big chart hits — I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok — before the show itself opened, thus preparing the way for it, just as Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina long prefigured the stage version of Evita.

VIDEO: Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson perform “I Know Him So Well”

When it was revived last at the London Coliseum in 2019, I wrote in my review for LondonTheatre,

“Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played,” we are informed as the latest round of the World Chess Federation’s world championships are played out, first in Merano, Italy, then in Bangkok, Thailand. But each new production of Chess seems to have brought a fresh variation to be played; and now, 32 years later, it is still being radically tinkered with; there’s a new song, for instance, for Svetlana, the abandoned wife of defecting Russian chess player Anatoly Sergievsky called “He is a Man, He is a Child” that I’ve not heard previously.

And I speak as something of a Chess aficionado, who saw both the original West End production and its entirely re-worked Broadway premiere two years later, whose first preview famously ran for four and a half hours (Tim Rice tells a priceless anecdote of British lyricist Don Black leaving the show early, saying he wanted to see his children grow up).” 

That running time — cut down to a (mere) three hours and 15 minutes by opening night — was partly a function of director Trevor Nunn’s famous taste for excessive length: the original Les Miserables ran as long, and the first preview of the Nunn-directed Gone with the Wind (that I was at myself), ran till gone midnight, after starting at 7.30pm. But Nunn wasn’t originally down to direct it: the great Broadway director Michael Bennett (whose credits as director/choreographer included A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls) was originally hired, who withdrew after falling ill; he would later die of HIV/AIDS in 1987, aged 44.

So Nunn had it to direct it on Bennett’s sets (designed by Robin Wagner), and mostly with the principal cast already set, dictated by that concept album, with Murray Head and Tommy Korberg reprising their performances as rival American and Russian chess players, and Elaine Paige also returning as Florence Vassy, the woman who becomes a lover to both of them at different points.

When Nunn got the chance to take it to Broadway in 1988, he was able to entirely re-conceive it, with new sets (again by Wagner) that ditched the television video screens that dominated the London design and replaced them with a set comprising of a series of tall moveable towers (individually operated not by technology but by a man inside of each of them), and a new book by playwright Richard Nelson, while the original West End production continued in London. So for a brief time, there were two completely different versions of the show playing simultaneously; brief, because although the London edition ran for over 3 years, the Broadway one barely managed two months.

But though the show remains a dramatic muddle, in whatever version it is presented, that glorious score lives magnificently on, with songs like Nobody’s Side and Heaven Help my Heart (for Florence), Pity the Child (for the American player Freddie Trumper) and Anthem (for the Russian player Anatoly) all modern classics.

VIDEO: Murray Head sings ‘Pity the Child’

When I reviewed a fringe version at London’s Union Theatre in 2013 for The Stage, I wrote that the score was

“thrillingly rendered in the unmiked conditions of this chamber theatre by a cast of 16 and superb band of six led by Simon Lambert, which is more than a third of the total audience watching it… This production of Chess, in short, has all the right moves to make this Cold War musical feel red hot.”

2 Jekyll and Hyde
Frank Wildhorn’s musical marked the composer’s Broadway debut in 1997, seven years after his musical stage version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book about a man with a fractured identity first opened at Houston’s Alley Theatre in Texas. But once Wildhorn got to Broadway, he was unstoppable for a while, going on, in the same year, to premiere his musical version of The Scarlet Pimpernel; then in 1999, they were joined by The Civil War, an ambitious song cycle that sought to tell the story of that historic event.

It meant that for a short time he had three shows running on Broadway at the same time; but The Civil War was a short-lived flop, as were his next three Broadway entries, Dracula (2004), and Wonderland and Bonnie and Clyde (both 2011).

Jekyll turned out to be the longest-running of any of them, playing for over three and a half years, from April 1997 to January 2001, with a cast that was originally led by Robert Cuccioli in the title role(s), and the composer’s then-wife Linda Eder as Lucy.

VIDEO: Linda Eder sings “A New Life”

Towards the end of the run, David Hasselhoff took over as Jekyll and Hyde; for the last six months of the run, too, Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara (number 3 on my ShenTens list of my favourite Top Ten Broadway leading ladies) made her Broadway debut as Kate, a cockle seller, before quickly graduating to leading roles in her next shows.

A 2013 Broadway revival — the only Wildhorn show to have so far been revived there — was a fast flop at the Marquis Theatre, featuring one-time American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis in the title roles.

In the UK, it has never had a West End run, though it has had two extended two national tours (in 2004 and 2011); and a stunning fringe version at the original Union Theatre in 2012 that starred a magnificent Madelena Alberto as Lucy, and Tim Rogers as Jekyll and Hyde.

3 Notre Dame de Paris
Like the original stage musical version of Les Miserables (first seen in Paris in 1980 in an arena stage production) — and similarly based on a Victor Hugo novel — Notre Dame de Paris was born as an arena stage musical that premiered in Paris in 1998. But unlike Les Mis, Notre Dame wasn’t remade for its West End debut, but came to the Dominion in 2000 in its original staging, with only the lyrics translated into English.

That production has played across the world since in 23 countries and 8 languages, including a sit-down engagement in Las Vegas, and in 2019 played its 5,000th worldwide performance, when it returned to London to be performed in its original French language version at the London Coliseum, having played in no fewer than 23 countries in eight languages in-between.

VIDEO: “Belle” from the score, sung by Daniel Lavoie and Patrick Fiori

As I wrote in my review of that Coliseum run in 2019 for LondonTheatre,

“It provides an instructive pre-Brexit example of how they do things very differently on the continent, it puts the spectacle into spectacular, a pop rock concert of soaring anthemic ballads and gyrating gymnastics that are frequently eye-popping.

If Cirque du Soleil were to put on a musical, this may very well be what it would look like…. It bombards its audience with thrilling acrobats, staged against a climbing wall of a set that actors and gymnasts frequently scurry up and down, when not somersaulting across the stage and dodging swinging crowd control barriers or hanging upside down from giant bells.

Quite what this has to do with Victor Hugo’s story is an open question, but it thrilled and riveted me. And the sweeping melodies of composer Riccardo Cocciante, set to lyrics by Luc Plamondon, create their own waves of haunting, Gallic-fuelled pleasure.”
4 Romeo and Juliet (Romeo et Juliette)
Another Paris-originated musical, this version of Shakespeare’s play came to the Piccadilly in an English translation (by Don Black) that was a fast flop. In Lyn Gardner’s review for The Guardian said:

“It is truly tragic – but not in the way that Shakespeare intended, and surely not in the way that the producers had in mind. The latter haven’t got their stars crossed, just their wires: did nobody point out that Bernstein got there first with West Side Story?…

The music pays homage to two great but much-maligned institutions, Les Misérables and the Eurovision song contest. I would happily sit through both of those before enduring more of composer Gerard Presgurvic’s interminable Gallic wails. This is a man whose ballads are not only sad but genuinely bad. The cast have clearly cottoned on to this. Their singing encompasses two styles, loud and louder, as if they were desperately trying to drown out the score. There is one really decent singer: Jane McDonald, who plays the nurse. Alas, she can sing but she sure can’t act…

(It) feels like the theatrical equivalent of being force-fed a processed-cheese sandwich on Mother’s Pride, followed by a pound of violet creams.”

But if that production was indeed a catastrophe, the original French cast recording suggests a thrilling parade of great numbers. Something was lost in translation, I fear, back into the story’s native English….

VIDEO: From a production of the show in Budapest:

5 The Baker’s Wife
After a run of hits that meant composer Stephen Schwartz had three musicals playing on Broadway by the time he was 25 years old (Pippin, Godspell and The Magic Show), he finally hit a roadblock in 1976 with producer David Merrick to his new show The Baker’s Wife on a pre-Broadway tour that, much to the cast’s evident relief, didn’t actually end up getting to Broadway

In a feature for the New York Times last year, Laura Collins-Hughes outlined its trials and travails in detail. This included the producer trying to remove a song that he was not fond of from the score:

“To Merrick, the song Meadowlark — sung by the title character, played by a not yet famous, 27-year-old Patti LuPone — was part of the problem. It was more than seven minutes long, and he wanted it out. So after a Wednesday matinee, he ordered the conductor, Robert Billig, to pull all of the sheet music for the song and bring it to the stage.

“I did as I was asked,” Billig recalled by email this week, and Mr. Merrick put the music in his attaché case and departed for New York”.

In the same feature, LuPone is quoted recalling:

“This could all just be myth, but let’s hope it’s true: He was heard in a bar the night before saying, ‘I’ll get that song out of the show if I have to poison the birdseed’.”

VIDEO: Patti LuPone performs “Meadowlark” in her Broadway concert show in 1995:

That song, of course, has become an enduring standard on the cabaret and concert circuit. But, as Stephen Schwartz himself told the New York Times,

“By that point in the proceedings, this is why we couldn’t fix it. Because everything had sort of descended into chaos. Nobody was making really rational decisions.”

In 1989, Schwarz joined forces with director Trevor Nunn to try to fix it in the UK, in a production that began at Ipswich’s Wolsey Theatre before transferring to the Phoenix for a very brief run, opening on November 27 and closing on January 6, 1990. The production starred Nunn’s then-wife Sharon Lee-Hill — an original cast member of Nunn’s production of Cats — in the title role, opposite Alun Armstrong (the original Thénardier in Nunn’s co-production of Les Miserables as the Baker).

In 2011, a production at the fringe Union Theatre in London — starring Michael Matus and Lisa Stokke (the original Sophie in Mamma Mia!) as the Baker and his wife — had me reaching for superlatives (and my handkerchief): as I wrote at the time, “Michael Strassen reclaims The Baker’s Wife forever as the affecting miniature masterpiece that has always been lurking inside it.”

6 Thriller Live
This jukebox celebration of the musical legacy of Michael Jackson began as a regional touring show and played a few one-nighters in the West End, before beginning an extended run at the Lyric Theatre in early 2009. Jackson was still alive then, and planning a UK concert return at the time he died in June that year; this show became an instant shrine to his memory, with fans leaving flowers at the theatre. It would go on to run for over 11 years.

It was finally announced to close on April 20, 2020 — but then was denied a formal last night when the theatres were summarily shut down by Covid the month before, on March 15.

VIDEO: Trailer to West End show:

With Broadway now readying MJ — a new official jukebox musical of the Jackson catalogue — I think the time has passed for this scrappy revue, but during its time in the West End it became a guilty pleasure for me, as I returned again and again if only to hear these great songs again and watch an energetic young cast performing them.

7 Flowers for Algernon
This musical, with a score by Charles Strouse (who famously wrote Annie and Bye Bye Birdie), premiered in a short-lived run at the West End’s Queen’s Theatre in 1979, with Michael Crawford playing a mentally challenged man who participates in an experimental intelligence-enhancing treatment; he matches the progress made by a laboratory mouse Algernon who is treated first. But when the mouse’s intelligence starts to fade, Charlie realises that he, too, is going to revert to his original state.

As one theatre history puts it, “In the West End staging, Michael Crawford performed one number in a spotlight while the trained white mouse ran from one of his hands to the other, by way of Crawford’s shoulders and neck. The audience reaction to this was so positive that Crawford repeated it with another live mouse (while playing an entirely different character) in 2003 while starring in the West End musical The Woman In White”.

AUDIO: Michael Crawford performs “Whatever Time There Is” on the original London cast recording:

In 1980, the show was premiered on Broadway, where it was equally short-lived, running for just 17 performances at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

But like so many fast Strouse flops — others include Rags and Dance a Little Closer — the score is a real charmer.

8 Viva Forever!
This 2012 jukebox musical, compiled from the hits of the Spice Girls, sought to do for them what Mamma Mia! did for Abba; it was produced by Judy Craymer, who also brought Mamma Mia! to the stage. But lightning didn’t strike twice, even though she also sought to repeat the formula of a female-led principal creative team that featured Jennifer Saunders writing the book and was to have been led by Marianne Elliott as director.

But Elliott departed early, and was replaced by Paul Harrington, the resident director of Mamma Mia! On the opening night at the Piccadilly Theatre, I was seated a few rows behind ‘Posh Spice’ Victoria Beckham and her husband David, so at least I had something pretty to look at.

VIDEO: trailer

In his review for the Daily Telegraph Charles Spencer memorably wrote: “I’ll tell you what I wanted, what I really, really wanted – I wanted this terrible show to stop.”

On the night, I tweeted:

A few months after that premiere, I ran into Judy Craymer at another first night, who came over to me and said, “I want to cut off your balls, Shenton!” When I asked why she replied that my review had made her cry; I said it is my professional duty to report on how I see it. She replied, “But I thought we were friends!” To which I only thought of the reply the next day, and wrote a column in which I told the story — and was able to give my delayed response: “And friends tell each other the truth.”

9 Imagine This
This musical, set in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in the Second World War, premiered at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne) in 2008, a venue you reach by a steep escalator from the box office.

At the climax of the show, as a theatre company of residents of the ghetto perform a musical within the show about the siege of Masada — a story they recommend to their Nazi guards by saying, “It’s got singing, dancing and all the Jews die in the end” — a giant sign unfurls to their audience (and us) that warns them: “Don’t get on the train!”

I turned to my companion, and told him that audiences should be warned: “Don’t get on the escalator”.

Featuring music by Shuki Levy and lyrics by David Goldsmith, its director Timothy Sheader told me that the American producers who hired him had thought he was himself Jewish. So he got the job under a misapprehension, as he isn’t.

AUDIO: The opening song “The Last Days of Summer”, from the original London cast album

10 Theatrical gossip
Theatre, like all walks of life, is fuelled by gossip, and although theatre critics really should only concern themselves with writing about their opinions of what is actually presented to them on a stage, we inevitably hear a lot of gossip in our travels that are part of the currency of the industry we report on.

This comes with various degrees of accountability and reliability: on the one hand, there’s Baz Bamigboye, the best connected showbiz journalist in the country, as I reported here earlier recently; on the other hand, there are theatre bloggers and twitterati who report unsubstantiated stories all the time (some of which I’m convinced are just wishful thinking, as I wrote here earlier this week).

Then there are the bulletin boards, which are open season: though the biggest one in the UK (which was spun-off a few years ago from WhatsOnStage’s website and now entirely independent of it), is moderated and is therefore kept free of the wildest excesses of trolling, misinformation can still take hold, just as it does on its Broadway counterparts, Talkin’ Broadway and Broadwayworld.

I’ll be choosing my favourite most promising musical theatre performers, in a list I’ll be expanding to “ShenTwens”, naming ten younger men and ten younger women I’m keeping an eye on! To tune in, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite listening platform. And come back here next Friday for this weekly feature!

Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design