August 11, 2011
…goes to the release on Tuesday of Lea Salonga’s album The Journey So Far, recorded live at Café Carlyle in New York. Geek that I am, I snapped up the 16-track album pretty quickly – and it’s brilliant.
Whatever type of theatre (or music) you’re ‘into’, you cannot deny that Ms Salonga is a goddess. No one does vocal purity and passion quite like her, not to mention the sheer strength and stamina of voice she had when she became a huge star in Miss Saigon at just 18.
This release is, as you can probably gather from the title, a celebration of landmark moments, “a kind of a musical resume, a summary of my musical career.” Opening with the jazzy Salamat Salamat Musika in her native Filipino, Lea takes us through Les Mis, Flower Drum Song and her favourite standards (Someone to Watch Over Me/Let’s Fall in Love.)
OK, it’s not gritty stuff. While the woman can certainly act her socks off, her choices here pretty much reflect the uplifting romance of her voice. But my feeling is, once you’ve been a Disney princess (twice!), you have full license to be as corny as you want. In between songs she chats to the audience in a fun, relaxed way, offering some great anecdotes. It’s essentially downloading an unmissable gig direct to your iPod.
For Saigon geeks there is an extra treat; Too Much for One Heart, a gorgeous ballad written out of the original production (presumably for time and narrative reasons – it’s a bloody good song.) You’ll recognise the tune as it was used in the track Please. As a mini-Geek, listening obsessively to musical theatre soundtracks, I used to play and replay Please – which was weird, because storyline-wise it’s pretty much just a conversation (albeit a revelation) in Act 2. But something about the melody just got me, and when you listen to Too Much For One Heart you realise why the melody is so much bigger than the lyrics it ended up with.
I have massive love for Salonga for so many reasons – for being the original Miss Saigon, for being the only cast member to land a lead in both the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts of Les Misérables, for the fact that she still promotes, respects and celebrates her native country, the fact she has made 26 albums since she was 10 years old and that rather than hiding away, a fading child star, she’s still performing – not to mention being fabulously witty, political and opinionated on Twitter and her blog. Musical theatre goddess, I salute you.
The Journey So Far is available on iTunes for £7.99
February 3, 2011
Original Cossette Rebecca Caine talks to WestEndGeek about floated notes, leading men and the endangered soprano.
Firstly, on Twitter you are a delightful dry wit in a sea of theatrical ego. Does it really bother you to still be thought of in terms of the Les Misérables original cast?
Oh no, I’m very proud of it. I’ve joked about it, as sometimes it’s very hard to deal with what it’s become; it’s so far away from the work we did 25 years ago, you know? How can I put this tactfully… it’s a musical about the poor and the dispossessed, and I think that gets forgotten. If you look at the writing they used for the DVD, it was sort of glittery silver. I think people forget what it was supposed to be about. We had three months rehearsing it, and a lot of that was studying the history, the social deprivation, all this kind of thing, and now it’s become something different. That said, it’s amazing to be part of something that became so loved. Of course, you have to remember at the time it was just another show. We didn’t know it was just going to build and build – I remember it being a huge hit at the box office, but it’s become something in 25 years that no one envisaged it was going to be.
You must accept that it’s a huge part of people’s lives though. I grew up listening to your voice. People feel like they know the original cast. Was the O2 concert good fun? You looked and sounded absolutely incredible.
Thank you. Well, it’s nice in some ways. It was kind of hard for us when we did the O2, because you’re very much made to feel that you are a very small part of it, and I think only the original cast knows what they actually contributed. I mean, all the moves that are being done to this day at the Queen’s were improvised 25 years ago. I put in all those high floated notes for Cossette, Michael [Ball] and Frances [Ruffelle] worked out the harmony that they did. Patti LuPone put that climbing scale into I Dreamed a Dream; I remember her coming in one afternoon and saying, ‘Can I do this?’, and they said yes. Certainly it was an amazing moment to step forward to those microphones and see the faces thinking, ‘I’ve spent years listening to the album, now I’m going to hear them live.’ That was very touching – but we did kind of have to fight for that. They weren’t paying us much to spend an entire day sitting backstage, then walk out and wave, you know? So we really felt that if we were going to be there we wanted to contribute something. It was wonderful, I watched both halves of the show from the front, but I did find it hard to relate it to what it had been 25 years ago.
Did you have any strong feelings on the casting choices?
I really liked Katie Hall very much, and I’m not just saying that because she played my part. I was really pleased with how she sang it and I was very, very glad that she did it. You want your role to be played well, and I think the slight problem with the juveniles is they’ve become lighter and lighter over the years. Originally Michael was a very strong Marius, and they don’t really cast them like that anymore, they cast them very, very ‘lite’. I thought Gareth [Gates] did a nice job, but I have seen others that just… It diminishes the show, because you don’t have all levels of the cast being strong. I think Michael is a one-off really. You had people like Graham Bickley initially, and Simon Bowman, they were much more manly, they were less poppy. It’s kind of a shame. But I teach singing as well, so I do know that the sound is headed that way a little bit, you get a lot of boys that sing like that. But I was very pleased with Katie, and I thought Lea Salonga was stunning as well, I thought she did a beautiful job. I also loved Samantha Barks.
You’re very diplomatic. Last year you worked on Intolerance, by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell, which sounds fascinating. It was an ‘operatic monologue’, wasn’t it?
It was a monologue that Mark had written for Harriet Walter. A couple of summers ago I went up to Edinburgh, and did a piece by Conor Mitchell, who writes opera and musical theatre, and Conor really liked my work, so he said he’d write me an opera. People very often say they’ll do things, but this time, an opera arrived in the post! So we did it last summer down at the Riverside Studios; it was very difficult piece about a woman who thinks she has food intolerances, but actually she’s a racist bitch and that’s what’s giving her a stomach ache. And it looks like it’s being developed into a proper, full-length opera with other characters, which is great. Monologues are fabulous to do, but actually it’s deeply scary standing on stage completely on your own. I’m also doing another project with Mark, coming up in a couple of months – at the Kings Head, we’re going to do a jazz fusion version of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. So a jazz fusion version of a baroque opera, and that should be extremely funky, I’m really looking forward to that.
“It’s hard because you are very much made to feel you are a very small part of it. Only the original Les Mis cast knows what they actually contributed.”
And more recently you’ve been in Salad Days, also at Riverside Studios. What attracted you to that project?
I’m doing Salad Days now, which is a huge hit. I think they’d like to extend it but I don’t think we’re free, which is a real shame. I really enjoy it because I can walk to work, which is great, because since I became an opera singer I’m used to getting on planes to go places. It’s a wonderful young cast, because they had to get triple threats who could sing without mics and dance as well, so it was very difficult to cast, but I’m absolutely blown away by the level of talent. It’s the first time I’ve done eight shows a week since Les Mis, because after I left that I did Phantom for several years, but six times a week. So I haven’t done it for about 24 years, and that’s a bit of a shocker, but I enjoy it hugely. It was the longest-running British musical before Oliver. It’s got slightly a naff reputation because it’s quite a light piece; if it’s a bad production it’s appalling, but this is a good production, and it makes people happy. We dance around between them – Tête-á-Tête [the company] is great for involving the audience – and we pull people on to the stage to dance, and we sing to people. I don’t think I’ve ever found such a joyful experience. Sometimes it reminds you what one sings and dances and acts for; it’s to entertain people. It’s to make people happy.
As well as your most famous role, you’ve also been a leading lady in Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. Did you prefer those kind of gutsy soprano roles, or the dainty ones like Cossette and Christine?
I would say that my Christine was never a damsel. She was a little bit confused. I struggled with Christine because I found it very difficult to play the slightly vacuous character in her. I enjoyed it, but I do remember, very early on in the production in Canada, Gillian Lynne coming up to me and waving her hand in front of my eyes and saying, ‘Darling, you’re looking a bit too intelligent’! So I did struggle with that. Also the early Christines really sang out, and now they like much lighter, more pop voices. We were much more full-on singers and we were also a bit older. This ‘let’s cast 19-year-olds in the role,’ nowadays I think is a bit of a shame, because you’ve got to have people with the stamina, and the experience and also the colour in the voice to really bring it out. I think the girls should be mid-to-late twenties playing that role. I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off. Because I left musical theatre for about 17 years, the stuff that I’m very proud of is what I’ve done in between. I did all the big parts in opera that my voice does – La Traviata, Marguerite, and an amazing modern opera I did, Lulu. But I’m just proud to be working 31 years after having started. I think that’s what people forget; it’s not about being a name or a star, it’s about consistently working and having something to offer.
“I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off.”
Do you think with opera it’s less about names than musical theatre, and more about the music?
Everything has become about branding and names now, all of the arts. If you see the way they’re advertising Alfie Boe going into La Bohéme now after Les Mis – it’s about branding. You won’t ever see a musical like Les Mis happen without a name going into it, it won’t happen anymore. I think in opera, it depends where you’re singing; in certain houses they will want the big names, obviously. I’ve never really differentiated between all the different forms of theatre I’ve done. From my point of view it’s just about good acting and good singing, working with people I respect , and being in a creative, happy atmosphere. That’s what I try to focus on now. I feel very strongly how difficult it is for the kids starting out. I teach on the musical theatre course at Trinity College of Music, and now we have a million schools churning out a million fabulous kids. I actually think some of the most interesting stuff is happening on the fringe, and I know it’s really hard for people just starting out to afford to work there. But that’s where the great stuff is happening, and the experimental stuff. It’s good that some shows like Les Mis go on, because it gives people a chance to go through it. It’s kind of like the musical theatre version of The Bill, they go in and find out what it’s like to do eight shows a week and to have to fit in with a product that’s already made.
I interviewed Earl Carpenter a couple of months ago and he was telling me about the ‘Three Phantoms’ concerts, which you’ve also appeared in. Do you enjoy working with the guys and singing the material again?
It’s fabulous fun. When I started out, we didn’t really have men like that, great British men. But now we grow these great big butch British men with powerful voices. What soprano would not be thrilled to be working with those three guys? [Earl Carpenter, John Owen-Jones and Matthew Cammelle.] It’s a great laugh, we have a shriek offstage. I think we’ve got three this month and some more to be announced. I met Earl doing Friday Night is Music Night. It’s lovely because I’ve got big-girl chops, so it’s great to have good people to sing with.
Who do you admire in acting or singing?
As a child I was inspired by Lynn Seymour who was a Canadian ballet dancer and wonderful actress. Nowadays I like to see people like Kristin Scott Thomas; I want to see women my own age doing valid work, which starts to disappear. They either start playing mums or their stories aren’t being told anymore. Obviously Helen Mirren. Musically, I adored Leontyne Price as a child. With musical theatre, it was more shows than individual people. I was hooked on West Side Story and Candide – anything that had a good soprano line to sing.
You teach as well as your theatre work. What do you enjoy most about that?
They say that the next step is to teach, because it makes you a better singer. You have to explain things that come easily to you and you don’t know why, so you have to break down that process, and you also have to put yourself into their bodies and sort their problems out, so it’s a real learning process. I like to teach with a lot of love and encouragement, and a lot of support, because I don’t think I was taught that way. Singing is something that makes you feel very vulnerable and you have to be in a safe place to do it. I’m very interested in maintaining what I think to be a good soprano sound in musicals, because I think that’s being lost. It’s partly due to something called the Estill technique, which has its uses, but it’s making everybody sound a bit the same. Everybody is now taught to belt and to use a legitimate soprano voice, so consequently you don’t get what has always been featured in musical theatre, which is Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide, Maria and Anita, Cossette and Eponine. You don’t get the two different colours. It’s important to keep that soprano sound because it says something, whether it’s a certain refinement, or a different kind of purity, or a virginity. Whatever you read into that sound, it’s important that we don’t lose it and that it all doesn’t become a little bit too chesty, a little bit too belty, a little bit too twangy, and sound like everybody else. So that’s why I’ve been doing a bit of singing with people like Gina Beck and Annalene Beechey, because I think those girls epitomise the next generation of keeping that voice really pure.
It’s great that you think about the future of the industry as well as your own work.
It means a lot to me, and in teaching I hope maybe I can help maintain and safeguard that sound. You need to think about new composers; where is the new Les Mis going to come from? Who is the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, where are they? Are we just going to have adaptations of movies? It’s about looking after people’s voices, maintaining a sound and finding new composers. If we don’t have composers, the whole art form is dead anyway. If you’re able to make a living in this business, you should be incredibly grateful, and never be complacent for a day. Just be thankful you get to go to work and make people happy – that’s an amazing thing to be able to do with one’s life. I know when I was younger I was complacent. Now when I hear people going ‘Oh God, a two-show day,’ I’m thinking, ‘Yay, lucky me.’
January 11, 2011
[Written for The Public Reviews]
Helena Blackman, runner-up in 2006’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? and former star of South Pacific, is releasing an album, The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The CD features songs from Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and The King and I, as well as duets with classical singer Jonathan Ansell and West Ender Daniel Boys. I caught up with her to chat about her musical life, drama school and having confidence in you…
Congratulations on the album. Have you always been a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or have you just found your career has led to that style of musical theatre?
Yes, I’ve always been a fan – I remember watching the musicals on television when I was little. I can’t remember a musical theatre life without Rodgers and Hammerstein being a part of it, actually! I think we’re sort of part of that era; before Wicked, and before Avenue Q and before any of that, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Do you have a favourite track?
I have lots of favourite ones in very different ways. I think Love, Look Away [from Flower Drum Song] is becoming one. It’s a song that I wasn’t familiar with, and we completely rearranged it, so I don’t really know the original and decided not to listen to it. We aimed to do a sort of Michael Bublé thing with it, so that’s quite exciting, to do something very different. There’s only so far you can change Rodgers and Hammerstein, but we’ve tried to make it fresh where we can.
You’re best known for reaching the final of the BBC’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? What did you learn from doing the show?
It completely changed me as a person, actually. I think it made me much more self-aware, it made me stronger in some respects, it made me weaker in some respects – and just a lot more knowing, probably, than I was ready for. It certainly made me realise I can go through most things and come out the other end OK.
You must have made some great contacts though?
You know, I don’t think I was as good at that then. I was young and a bit naïve, and it was the first show. It’s not like doing it now; we had no idea what to expect, so it was very much like being at school – if someone said ‘You, dance now,’ you’d dance. I thought, if anything, we might come out failing miserably. So it was actually very surprising eventually that we all did so well, and that’s nothing to do with any of our talents, we were all very talented girls, but you never know how a show like that will come out. You think, ‘I might never work again!’
Did you keep in touch with any of the other girls or judges?
Yes I do, I’m in touch with most of the girls – one of them, Laura, is one of my best friends now, she lives round the corner from me. I’m still in touch with Zoe [Tyler] and Craig Revel-Horwood, who was actually the choreographer. I keep in touch with him a little bit too. So it’s wonderful.
You trained at GSA before auditioning for Maria. How important do you think drama school is as a foundation?
I can’t imagine doing it any other way; I absolutely adored drama school. I was finally in a situation where I was with so many people like me, and I was thrilled by that. I can’t speak for other drama schools, and I can’t speak for how training has changed, but I found it really liberating. It was basically about ourselves and less about how talented we were – it was about how to breathe through the process, and to cope with things and know ourselves better, ultimately. It’s now that I think back to training and think I’m a better actress and singer because of that. Also, you get a sense of stability and a sense of passion, and you realise how much you love it, I think.
You recently tweeted that one of your New Year’s resolutions is ‘to remember that my life isn’t actually that bad.’ Do you have any others?
Eat better. Because I go through things where I binge and want to eat lots of rubbish, and actually it’s not good for me physically or vocally. I’m a much better person when I’ve slept, too. It’s more about looking after my temple, that’s what I feel this year, looking after the inside. And really just to go for it – I spend a lot of time worrying about certain situations, career wise, and I’m constantly aware that life is short, and this career is complete ups and downs. I just think, keep going for it, and to have the resolution, ‘life is too short.’ I’m constantly aware of that to push me forward.
The album’s out on Valentine’s Day. As a single girl, I was worried it might be full of schmaltz, but in actual fact there’s a streak of girl power with I Enjoy Being a Girl and I Have Confidence on the list.
I didn’t think about it that way but yes, I think it’s a mantra for me, being a single lady at present, about having confidence and feeling good about yourself. It’s coming through whatever journey you’re on and still having faith in love and life and happiness. I think subconsciously I did pick songs that meant something to me, and they’re great songs; they can mean anything to anybody. That’s why I love Rodgers and Hammerstein.
What’s been your favourite role to perform so far?
Show wise, still Saturday Night. I absolutely adored singing it; So Many People is my ultimate favourite Sondheim song, so to sing that was a little bit of a dream come true. We did a concert with Michael Bruce, and singing that sort of material was amazing, because I don’t often get to sing modern stuff. So for me that’s really exciting, and I’m less inhibited by it. I don’t have to step into anybody else’s shoes.
Do you have an ultimate dream role?
Do you know what, I spoke to George Stiles about doing Mary Poppins actually, and he said he thinks I’d make a great Mary Poppins. So I’d love to do that at some point. I love Stiles and Drewe – they’re my sort of music, epic, not trying to be too different but just writing what they love – it’s a bit magical, and I like that. Also, I’d love to be Eliza Doolittle, I really would. And Gypsy, I’d like to do that again! Any of the classics.
You can follow Helena on Twitter @helenablackman.
Helena will sing tracks from it live at a launch at the Delfont Rooms on the 13th (Box Office 0844 482 5110)
January 9, 2011
One of the reasons I started West End Geek was that I became increasingly aware of a new breed of theatregoer that was young, enthusiastic and genuinely wanted to spend their money on seeing as many shows as possible. This is a generation that has nothing to do with the fusty, middle-aged white men writing reviews for the broadsheets, but who get excited about new talent, talk in terms of original casts, revivals and favourite leads, and who quite possibly perform themselves, be it Am-dram or training professionally. Joining Twitter last year, I found a buzzing community of people putting out 140-character reviews, reporting from opening nights and sharing news and gossip. This online wave of theatre-geekery has enabled us to come out of the closet, share our love of all things sparkly, perky and camp and discover fabulous voices and performances every day.
Added to this is the wonder of YouTube. There are billions of videos out there by musical theatre fans; some are clever homages to certain shows, some behind-the-scenes nosy, some dodgily-recorded clips of shows. I’m not praising or promoting these bootleg vids, but it is darn useful to confirm whether you want to see a certain new lead, for instance. If you search around for something normal (a Wicked clip, for example) you’ll often find something crazy (someone has genuinely put together an ‘Elphaba-off’ – matching clips of the same ambitious parts of Defying Gravity sung by different actresses). Here are ten vids you might enjoy – don’t worry, no Rachel Berry-style home performances…
Kez and Brian chat about the production process, cut in with lots of clips of her doing her thing. Always good to appreciate someone who is every bit as good live in the studio as the final cut.
Not strictly video, but this audio clip of the hilarious Wicked parody by the creators of witty cabaret Forbidden Broadway is an absolute geekfest. Not only are the vocalists spot on in their roasting of Idina and Kristin, but the lyrics are phenomenal and the tale of their competition for Broadway darling and Tony Award winner is brilliantly summarized.
Hilarious because my sisters and I also sang along to this epic musical in the car as little-uns, 5-year-old Angeline gives a strong performance as Convict 1, Javert AND Jean Valjean while listening to the opening of the show. A WEG in the making.
What do you get when you cross a crazed Harry Potter fan with a crazed Hairspray fan? This bizarre version of Tracy Turnblad’s belter of a song is oddly brilliant. Even if the miming is slightly hysterical.
Being on tour can do funny things to you. Luckily this cast’s dose of crazy was also ha-ha funny, as they recreated Lady Gaga’s Telephone video almost frame-by-frame. Some exceptional dancing, miming and direction here, a world away from Surrey with the Fringe on Top.
This is fascinating as a piece of musical theatre history; Lea Salonga was only 17 when she auditioned for the lead role in Miss Saigon (during the producers’ international search for a young Asian star) and her voice is already so beautiful and pure in this clip. A few months of rehearsal later, you can also see her promotional performance on Wogan as the show opened in 1989.
Legally Blonde was one of the first musicals to use TV to increase its profile. MTV broadcast the whole production, available in parts on YouTube, and then created a casting show to find the next Elle Woods. This was the first time I’d seen a televised, well-filmed stage show, and I think it really works (without decreasing the appeal of the live version) – when it came to London I knew I wanted to see it.
When California’s ‘Proposition 8′ was passed in 2008, revoking the right of same-sex couples to marry legally in the state, there was outrage throughout the entertainment industry as well as the gay community. Marc Shaiman decided to write a witty musical about the issue, and this genius clip stars Jack Black and Neil Patrick Harris among others.
This hotly-anticipated musical has truly milked its online coverage, but luckily the songs sound fab. Watch my girl-crush Caissie Levy, Sharon D. Clarke and the creative team showcase the material on this film about their Abbey Road studio sessions.
For anyone else who thought Kristin Chenoweth was the absolute highlight of Glee’s season 1 guest stars, this is a cute little insight into the filming of her first episode. For my all-time favourite, Chenoweth moment, see Taylor the Latte Boy.