It was the thought of Stephen Sondheim’s death that made us watch Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. It’s the second musical Sondheim wrote the lyrics for – the first was West Side Story – and the late Elijah Moshinsky, as tough a judge of theatre, musical or otherwise, as ever lived had said Staunton’s performance was one of the most remarkable things he had ever seen. Well, you can rent Jonathan Kent’s production from London’s Savoy theatre, the hearthplace of Gilbert and Sullivan, for six dollars and for quite a while it seems like a hectic facsimile of something designed for the magical artifice of another medium.
Then everything starts to go wrong for Mama Rose and an extraordinary stillness overtakes Staunton and creates that weird feeling of awe that theatre, once in a blue moon, can create. Then with the lashing, vengeful passion of manifest madness she sings the Act I curtain, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’, and you realise you are witnessing one of the great ones. Never mind Bette Middler and Angela Lansbury, or even the original legendary Ethel Merman. This ordinary little English woman is giving you a Gypsy to die for.
It was surprising — well, half surprising — when someone said Sondheim had only written the lyrics of West Side Story and Gypsy. Well, Oscar Hammerstein wasn’t his great mentor for nothing. Does anyone imagine the modern musical would be the same without the lyrics of ‘I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair’ or the monologue from Carousel? The story goes that when Alan Jay Lerner saw one of the Sondheim musicals – Company, perhaps – he wept for the musical as we had known it.
But does anyone imagine that the man who wrote the lyrics to those sprechgesang songs Rex Harrison sang as Higgins in My Fair Lady played a minor role in the Lerner and Loewe pairing? A team that also yielded Gigi – which Vincente Minnelli directed with such extraordinary histrionic yet cinematic grace – with Leslie Caron in the title role and Louis Jourdan singing the title song and Maurice Chevalier (in a way which is now archaic) thanking heavens for little girls. All in extraordinarily elegant Cecil Beaton clobber like the story of the professor and the flower girl.
A Little Night Music is the Sondheim musical where he comes not close – but closer – to Lerner and Loewe. Helen Morse played Desiree in a Melbourne Theatre Company production of it with Ruth Cracknell as her mother – the woman originally played on Broadway by Hermione Gingold who sang ‘I Remember It Well’ with Chevalier in Gigi.
It was also Lisa McCune’s debut in a musical and she sang that staggering song ‘I Will Marry The Miller’s Son’. Morse had a particular intensity as if a bigger action was always likely to overcome her. Then years later Sigrid Thornton played the role for Opera Australia in elegant Edwardian white and she brought to it the lustre and irony of a woman who had been a star for almost as long as she could remember.
The performance had all of Thornton’s natural grace but also that crisp coolness she is capable of which is sometimes underestimated. Her old lover, the other clown, was first Robert Grubb and then Anthony Warlow. You could see him at the Opera House in Sydney a lifetime ago sing Papageno in The Magic Flute and then the grand operatics first of his performance as the chap leading the troops in Les Mis. then as a very operatic Phantom: he somehow seduced Hal Prince into giving him the role even though his voice then was five times the size of what was required. Later, when he had lost that voice, through non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he played Henry Higgins, not according to the melodically minimalist score but in an exact duplication of Rex Harrison’s high comic inexactitude on the original Broadway cast recording.
A man Melbourne saw as Higgins, Charles Edwards, is about to appear in a very weird documentary bit of London theatre. He is to play Gore Vidal – a figure he in no way resembles (Edwards was Charteris, the Queen’s man in The Crown) in a new re-enactment of the famous 1968 debates with William F. Buckley, that just as elegantly and languorously lordly sounding lion of the right. The only difficulty – if it’s a difficulty – is that Buckley is to be played by the black English actor David Harewood. Harewood played Othello to Simon Russell Beale’s Iago twenty odd years ago in Adelaide. At one stage he was the Antony to Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra and the Hotspur to Michael Gambon’s Falstaff. But as William Buckley? I saw Vidal – and this was only possible for a bare week – do Dalton Trumbo’s letters on the New York stage in 2003 and he had a breathtaking stage presence and flawless timing.
It’s sad to see that Anthony Sher died recently. Is it true that he was the only actor since Olivier to put his thumbprint on the role of Richard III? Well, there was Ian Holm in the Peter Hall The Wars of the Roses and Ian McKellen’s born to rule Richard had a terrifying hauteur at least on stage. But Sher’s whirling spider of iniquity – seen in Melbourne – was a wonder to behold. A pity that his Lear and Falstaff were only seen as filmed transcriptions. Somehow his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale escaped that limitation. He was also famous for his portrait of a drag queen in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. Then there’s his portrait of the most hateful variety of academic creep in the TV version of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Men, an extraordinary incarnation of the kind of lowlife universities sometimes attract.
That was certainly not something that could be said of Stuart Macintyre who started out as as an historian of the Left but became a supreme academician with the respect of everybody and who died last week. A particular highlight in a very distinguished career was his Meanjin review of Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore where he referred to the barefoot friars singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter. The supreme accolade, the invocation of Gibbon, showed Macintyre’s magnanimity of spirit.
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