Welcome to my weekly theatre newsletter. I’d like to express particular gratitude to those of who’ve written to acknowledge my writing about my current bout of depression; on the one hand, I am more than the sum of my depression, though it is such an all-consuming force that it feels that it dominates my life right now; but on the other, I’m reminded why it is so valuable to share it. Yes, I know it will pass (eventually). But meanwhile, just being here and being honest in this newsletter keeps me present and reminds me of my own value. So thank you,too, for simply being here with me.
MONDAY FEBRUARY 5
This year’s Grammy Awards were presented in Los Angeles last night Usually I pay only fleeting attention to them — and only for one category, Best Musical Theater Album, won this year by the Broadway recording for SOME LIKE IT HOT (that closed December 30), edging out revivas of PARADE and SWEENEY TODD and the new musicals SHUCKED and KIMBERLY AKIMBO.
Cast albums are the single most powerful way musicals live on after the curtain comes down on the show itself, so I’m glad that the Grammy’s continue to acknowledge this beleaguered corner of the recording industry; they cost a fortune to produce, and aren’t sold in enough quantities apart from rare cultural phenomena like HAMILTON to justify the effort and expense.
This year I was also paying rare attention in another category: for Best Traditional Pop Album, where my friend LIz Callaway (pictured above with me in Provincetown in 2019) was in contention for her glorious 2023 album “To Steve with Love: LIz Callaway Celebrates Sondheim”.
I saw her debut the concert that turned into this album at New York’s 54 Below in March2022 (writing about it here); she subsequently brought it to London’s Crazy Coqs in October that year, where I saw the concert twice more. (It was, she apparently told the audience when I was there, the direct result of a tweet I’d sent after seeing the show in New York that led by Crazy Coqs booking her, so I’m proud of my little bit of influence there! But I’d snuck off to the bathroom when she made this announcement, so I missed it…..)
Sadly she didn’t win — but then neither did the also-nominated Bruce Springsteen; they lost to Laufey for her album ‘Bewitched’. She wrote a lovely column on Substack about her Grammy weekend, so we can live it vicariously here (including the photograph above, taken by her husband Dan, of her being photographed!)
I was intensely jealous that LIz was at the Grammy’s to witness Joni MItchell’s triumphant return there and win — though it turned out that just as I’d missed Liz’s tribute to me at Crazy Coqs, she missed Joni’s Grammy performance, and for the same reason! “I left to go to the bathroom at one point but wasn’t allowed back in when Joni Mitchell sang — I was heartbroken to miss her, but I did get to see her acceptance speech when she won the GRAMMY for Best Folk Album at the Premiere Ceremony.”
But both Liz and I are, at least, able to enjoy Joni’s utterly sublime live performance of ‘BOTH SIDES NOW’ in perpetuity here.
It’s amazing how much richer and more textured this song becomes sung now, at 80, when she has really seen both sides. Singing it 54 years ago, in a live BBC appearance in London, is a different experience entirely.
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 6
I published last week’s newsletter here today, if you missed it.
Twitter — or X as it is now disconcertingly known — is a mere shadow of its former self; I’m posting less and less there now, But there’s still valuable conversations and threads to be found, like this one by Justin Sherrin about the current restructuring of the Royal Court, and what’s at stake with the potential cuts to the literary, international and education departments.
Of course theatres today, more than ever, have to cut their coats according to their cloth; survival is paramount. But if the founding principles are lost, what’s left? We end up in the realm of Leicester’s Curve, whose commitment to new musicals is exemplified by the return of a jukebox show they made of AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN later this summer. (Also on the schedule this summer: HERE YOU COME AGAIN, a new Dolly Parton jukebox touring show, is booked).
Meanwhile, the Royal Court is filing programming gaps with stand-up comedy from Britain’s biggest comedy promoters Avalon: as the Guardian’s comedy critic Brian Logan quoted the Park Theatre’s executive director Catherine McKinney, where stand-up is also being programmed, saying, “There’s no point pretending there isn’t a financial undertone, because there is”.
As Logan goes on to write, “Let’s be clear: theatre is skint. Costs are up, subsidy is down, the old sources of funding are evaporating. This week, a report suggested that the Royal Court’s literary department, responsible for the cultivation of new plays, was under threat, In such a climate, says McKinney, why wouldn’t you turn to standup comedy? “The outlay is lower than for theatre. There isn’t the need for a period of rehearsal, for complicated sets, all the things that go into making a full-scale theatre production. You can make it happen quickly and easily.”’
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 7
I’ve written regularly about the plight and future of theatre critics in an ever-evolving landscape, and this week came across an interesting feature in Vox about a world in which artists have to nurture and build their own online platforms to create a “personal brand”.
As Rebecca Jennings reports, “As ad-supported journalism continues its slow collapse and jobs for cultural critics dwindle — in January, Condé Nast folded the music review site Pitchfork into GQ and laid off staff — we’re losing smart, well-edirted and fact-checked criticism (and, crucially, the ability for those people to make a living off of writing it). Even before mass layoffs, the professional critic lost some relevancy: a positive New York Times review, for instance, used to create overnight hits, while now it barely moves the needle, one agent told me. What has replaced them is, as Israel Darmola writes, ‘a loose collection of YouTubers and influencers who feed slop to their younger audiences, and fan communities that engage with music solely through their obsession with a particular pop act. This has all helped produce a mass of music fans who don’t understand the value of criticism and outright detest being told the things they like might suck’.”
This conversation is continuing even on popular TV shows. I’ve been watching LOUDERMILK, a series about a recovering alcoholic counsellor who was formerly a professional rock music critic. In one episode, he is quizzed by a friend’s young daughter about his former career: what’s the point of critics, she asks. He replies,
“In the pure diarrhoea that is pop culture, you need somebody who is going to be able to find and curate the hidden gems — my job is to figure out and understand what that artist is trying to do and then inform others.”
The kid replies, “I don’t understand how that is a career. The true value of art lies in the artist, not the guy who judges them — your whole job is superfluous and based on your interpretation.”
She’s right, of course. It’s why everyone now thinks they’re a critic. But as professional critics have diminished in stature and status, it’s becoming harder and harder to find voices that are worth following. Thank God we still have a handful in the British press that are still readable, like Susannah Clapp in The Observer, Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times, Clive Davis in The Times and Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph. They’ve earned my respect from their long service, wide knowledge and continuing enthusiasm. But I don’t see a new generation taking their place.
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 8
Last week it was announced that Jamie Lloyd is taking his production company the Jamie Lloyd Company fully independent of theatre behemoths Ambassador Theatre Group, who has funded his work since 2012 and provided homes for it in their West End and Broadway portfolio of theatres.
On Tuesday it was revealed that his first show as his own lead producer will be a new production of ROMEO AND JULIET, set to run at the Duke of York’s Theatre from May 11 to August 3 — and sure to be a very hot ticket indeed, with the announcement that Romeo will be played by screen heartthrob Tom Holland. Holland made his professional stage debut as a kid in BILLY ELLIOT; now 27, he is described by Lloyd as “one of the greatest, most exciting young actors in the world”.
As The Guardian breathlessly reported, “There is dream theatre casting – and then there is persuading Spider-Man to play Romeo. The news this week that Tom Holland, the megastar 27-year-old (Instagram followers: 66 million) at the heart of Marvel’s web-slinging franchise will be appearing in a “pulsating” new West End production of Shakespeare’s tragedy has redefined “hot ticket” ahead of its opening on 11 May. There are no details on his Juliet, and tickets are not yet on sale, but with more than 3m likes of Holland’s post announcing the show, it’s fair to say the director, Jamie Lloyd, can be confident of a hit.”
Lloyd certainly has a commercial knack when it comes to casting, whether its Kit Harington in a 2016 revival of Marlowe’s DR FAUSTUS (Michael Billington’s Guardian review was headlined “off-with-your-kit Harington stars in Marlovian mish-mash” or most recently with the now Broadway-bound Nicole Scherzinger headlining in his revival of SUNSET BOULEVARD.
The Guardian feature above also lists the proliferation of screen stars appearing elsewhere in the theatre this spring and summer, including “Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick currently starring in PLAZA SUITE, Matt Smith opening this week in AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, Felicity Huffman appearing inHIR and Succession’s Sarah Snook helming THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (Logan Roy himself, Brian Cox, will star in A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT from May); That’s not counting Cara Delevingne (CABARET), Billy Crudup (HARRY CLARKE), Dominic West (A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE), Adrian Dunbar (KISS ME, KATE), Ben Whishaw (WAITING FOR GODOT) and Steve Coogan (DR STRANGELOVE), all of whom can be seen in the capital later this year. Sophocles superfans are particularly spoiled, with Mark Strong starring in OEDIPUS at the Wyndham theatre in October, and Rami Malek taking on the same role at the Old VIc next January.”
Producer Emily Vaughan-Barratt of WESSEX GROVE, who was behind the casting of James Norton in A LITTLE LIFE in the West End and is currently opening Matt Smith in AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE and touring Ralph Fiennes as MACBETH, tells the Guardian,
“Celebrity casting inherently carries a negative connotation, and it absolutely shouldn’t. What we are seeing here are brilliantly skilled actors at the very top of their game.These are some of the world’s best actors and theatre survives because of them.”
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 9
Sometimes, of course, the show can be the star, as has already proved to be the case with OPERATION MINCEMEAT at the Fortune. The producers of another fringe-born musical KATHY AND STELLA SOLVE A MURDER, which was seen at the last two Edinburgh fringes and this week announced a transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre in May, will be hoping for the same trajectory.
But as SCOTSMAN arts journalist Brian Ferguson tweeted on Wednesday,
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 10
Last night I caught Jez Butterworth’s wrenching, layered and utterly absorbing THE HILLS OF CALIFORNIA at the Pinter Theatre, two nights after its official opening.
After the disaster of LYONESSE at the same address (which I didn’t bother to see after its overwhelmingly negative reviews), it’s thrilling to see such a bold return to form for Sonia Friedman Productions (co-producing here with Neal Street Productions), proving that the commercial theatre can still develop and nurture its own product away from the subsidised theatre. This is an instant modern classic.
It’s a play about long-buried family secrets and trauma that are finally exposed as the mother of four now adult daughters lies dying, and the siblings are reunited at last many years after the eldest had become estranged from the rest of her family and emigrated to America.
I’ve done a lot of work in the last few years on my own estrangement from my father, which I am finally at peace with, even if the trauma at the source of it still expresses itself in bouts of depression like the one I’m currently in
We all strive to find our own solutions; I found some of the answers in a 12-step recovery fellowship, as I’ve explained before; ironically, my current depression was directly triggered by dysfunctional behaviour that occured in my home group itself. But this play addresses, with an intensity of feeling and an eloquent sense of loss, an ugly betrayal by a mother of her oldest daughter that seems unforgivable. It spoke to me very powerfully.
Sam Mendes’s achingly beautiful production is graced with fierce and moving performances that make it unmissable.
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 11
Yesterday I caught a concert showcase performance at the Other Palace Theatre in Victoria of PLASTERED,an enjoyably dark musical about a sculptor who turns into a serial murderer: it’s Sweeney Todd meets Sunday in the Park with George. Presented as part of MTFestUK, an annual festival of new musicals in development that is held at the Other Palace and Battersea’s Turbine Theatre, Randy Rogel (book, music and lyrics) and co-creator BT McNicholls show becomes strangely repetitive,as the same scenario is played out repeatedly across two acts to diminishing surprise.
But a stunning cast — that includes Broadway actor Rory O’Malley (second from left below), London’s Olivier winning actor Miriam Teake-Lee (extreme left) and Gina Murray (extreme right) — excel under the astute direction of Broadway’s veteran comedy director Jerry Zaks to make this an oasis of sheer talent.
See you here next Monday
I will be here again next Monday. If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/, as well as Instagram with the same handle (@ShentonStage)