The Stage


Shenton's View

An early London goodbye to Shirley Jones but hello to the Sondheim Theatre, at last….

Last Tuesday I called it here “the theatrical embarrassment of the year so far”. I was referring to the appearance of Patrick Cassidy, half-brother of David, who had come to London to support his mother Shirley Jones, the Hollywood legend (and occasional Broadway star) in her London stage debut of what was supposed to be the first of twelve concerts. In fact, I’m told that by Tuesday evening the worst bit - the song he sang about his passion for his wife, which I said involved him “virtually dry-humping a portrait of her”, had been cut - and so was the interval. (Presumably both were strategies to stop the mass walk-outs).

But by Friday, the theatre’s website was announcing that the run was going to be summarily curtailed and end the next night, a week early, citing Jones’s “serious vocal chords problems.” There’s something, of course, that doesn’t add up about such a claim, not least the fact that she was willing to go ahead and risk even worse injury by performing twice more before going home.

But there’s also something indescribably sad about what should have been a career highlight coming to an end in this way. The critics, myself included, may have tried to spare her blushes (if not Patrick’s); but one witty blog called My Territorial Bubble I came across after the event pulled no such punches. “It’s instructive every so often to see a show that is an epic fail. I’m not talking about one which is just boring or ill-conceived. I’m talking about one which fails so monumentally that it achieves a sort of perfection which can leave you awestruck. I had the privilege last night of witnessing a true musical theatre holocaust in Shirley Jones’ show at the Arts Theatre.”

As he goes on to put it, “Jones is a bona fide pop cultural artifact. Broadway star, Oscar winner and the onscreen and real life mother of David Cassidy in the Partridge family. Patrick is her son who has parlayed a helmet of hair, name recognition and a passable voice into some kind of musicals career. Now 76, I presume Jones can plausibly claim to have passed into ‘living legend’ status but it’s really more of a horror show than a legend.” One note to the blogger: she is actually only stepmother to David Cassidy; but is mother to David’s three half-brothers, who include Patrick.

Of the latter, he writes, “Patrick wishes you to take two very important lessons from his part of the show: 1) That he is in no way jealous of the success of his more famous family members. Not in the slightest. He repeats this so often and with such a strained smile that I can only explain it as some kind of mantra that was beaten into him as a child. 2) He is a full-blooded heterosexual. He is as straight as they come. He is straight squared. No, make that straight cubed. He loves women so much that he is practically a lesbian. And all his brothers are too! They are just a gaggle of women-fuckers. Why do I get the impression there is a whole history of National Enquirer innuendo here that I am not getting.”

The great Barbara Cook frequently lost out early in her career to Jones, who took the role of Marian the Librarian that Cook had originated on Broadway from her when it was transferred to the big screen; lyricist David Zippel wittily encapsulated this in a song he wrote for Cook called The Ingenue, which has a line, “Movie roles you live to play/They give to Shirley Jones to play”. But Cook - still going strong now at 82 - is on Broadway even as I write, currently previewing in Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54, whereas Jones hasn’t managed her second week in London.

Meanwhile, talking of Sondheim, in the current rush of Sondheim-related events to mark his 80th birthday last Monday - which The Guardian belatedly mark with a feature and tributes today — it was announced last week that he is, at last, to have a Broadway theatre named for him: the recently rebuilt Henry Miller Theatre (an entirely new auditorium carved out behind the façade of an old theatre of that name) will soon have his name on the façade. (But better that its current tenant, All About Me starring the improbable pairing of Dame Edna and Michael Feinstein, vacate it first (Edna apparently promises early on that the show is a “Sondheim-free zone”, but according to Ben Branley’s New York Times review, her singing of ‘The Ladies who Lunch’ from Company, as a tribute to what she calls his 100th birthday, is one of the show’s highlights: “She uses the fear and anger that are part of any comedian’s makeup to turn an overperformed song into a funny, aggressive and bizarrely affecting acknowledgment of mortality.”).

But it makes me wonder, again, whatever happened to the Sondheim Theatre, that producer and theatreowner Cameron Mackintosh was going to install above the Queen’s Theatre. It was formally announced in 2003; he told The Guardian at the time, “I love what the Almeida and the Donmar are doing. This is one reason why I want to build my new Sondheim theatre on top of the Queen’s theatre in the West End.”

And whatever happened, too, to the Hellinger Theatre, one of Broadway’s most beautiful houses and the original home of My Fair Lady? Its former owners, the Nederlanders, first leased it out to a church in the mid-80s — “There’s no shows being produced. In show business, you have to take the first booking,” they said at the time — before then selling it to them. And according to the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, even though a now-thriving Broadway now wants it back, they aren’t selling. “The church won’t sell because the Hellinger is a moneymaker. In the early 1990s, a potential buyer nosed around and discovered that the church took in $25,000 from the collection plates at every service (and there are several services a week). Adjusted for inflation — and considering that the church today boasts 8,000 members — The Good Lord is outgrossing Wicked.”

In that great fable of Broadway, Guys and Dolls, an exasperated Nathan Detroit, looking for a home to house his floating crap game, tells his associates, “Yes, I found a place! We’re holding the crap game tomorrow night in the Radio City Music Hall!” And Benny replies, “How you gonna fix the ushers?” They end up holding it at the Salvation Army mission instead. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if they could stage it at the Times Square Church one day instead, which is what the Hellinger now goes as?

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