Everyone wants to spend their lives doing what they enjoy, preferably with people they love; and having a career means being paid to do what you’d do anyway for free. Without wishing to be smug, that’s something that we lucky few manage to achieve by devoting our lives to the performing arts, whether writing about it (as I do) or being part of it as part of the creative team or cast. It’s the very definition of something being a labour of love.
And yes, sometimes it means giving it away - or working for very little. I thought of this on the weekend when I saw a wonderful cast of stellar West End talent bringing their hearts, souls and glorious voices to a one-night charity benefit concert performance of a musical Children of Eden that ran for less than 3 months during its original West End run back in 1991, but they restored to vibrant glory.
The show was, of course, composer Stephen Schwartz’s attempt to do for the Book of Genesis (and specifically the Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark stories) what he had done for Jesus in Godspell. But though the show has a set of soaring songs that often feel like they are a dry run for his runaway smash hit Wicked, the book barely holds them together. So a concert performance turns out to be an ideal showcase for its principle pleasures which are its songs, and a stunning volunteer company, devoting their services for free for the benefit of a charity receiving the proceeds from the event, did them proud.
A few passing thoughts: it’s interesting just how much the West End is increasingly owing to talents discovered by reality TV contests, whether Pop Idol (Gareth Gates), X Factor (Brenda Edwards) or theatre casting shows like Over the Rainbow (Lauren Samuels), all of whom appeared in Children of Eden; but never mind the means of discovery, we’re all the beneficiaries of their arrival now.
But longevity is earned by doing proper apprenticeships first; and it’s a striking fact that the glorious Louise Dearman and Kerry Ellis (making a post-performance solo guest appearance with a new original song, not written by Schwartz), who are now the twin goddesses of West End musical voices, both progressed through the ensemble and understudy ranks to their current prominence. (And its interesting to see Samuels, in particular, following in Ellis’s footsteps to currently play a featured role in We Will Rock You; but also rather marvellous, too, that she followed her stint in Grease with a job at the tiny Tabard in Chiswick in Jason Robert Brown’s demanding two-hander song cycle The Last 5 Years, which I saw and in which she was tremendous).
Theirs has not been ‘overnight’ success (whatever that means), but an earned one, and it’s precisely what will give them longevity. Though we’ll pass a discreet veil over the slightly dismal stunt casting of Russell Grant here, which doesn’t instill much hope for his imminent appearance in The Wizard of Oz, in all other respects this was an evening where even amazing performers like Chloe Hart (a take-over Tracy Turnblad in the West End’s Hairspray) and Robbie Scotcher (a brilliant Sky Masterston in a touring Guys and Dolls I saw in Ipswich last year, and subsequently in the Menier’s Road Show) were part of the back-up chorus of storytellers.
So there’s another lesson: its worth working whatever the role — I spotted both Hart and Scotcher even in a chorus. And earlier the same day, I saw another of my favourite working actresses Gay Soper making a splendid, brief but utterly show-stealing appearance in another Stephen Schwartz musical, the Menier’s current Pippin, stepping into the role of Berthe (Pippin’s grandmother, who has the number ‘Time to Start Living’) for the week.
Gay’s own West End career goes back more than 40 years to the original 1971 production of yet another Schwartz musical Godspell, appearing alongside such luminaries as Jeremy Irons, David Essex and Marti Webb. And she still works constantly: she goes straight from Pippin to resuming a tour of Noel Coward’s Star Quality (something she has in abundance), before starring in another tour of a new stage production of Doctor in the House opposite Robert Powell and Joe Pasquale.
But I’ve also been thinking of career longevity when I saw the brilliant Bonnie Langford stepping into the new tour of Spamalot to play the Lady in the Lake, when I caught up with it in Oxford on Saturday night at the end of her first week in the show. Bonnie is only 47 years old now, but seems to have been with us forever, which is no surprise: she has. She first won TV’s Opportunity Knocks at the age of six, made her West End debut in a musical version of Gone with the Wind at the age of seven, before starring as Baby June in a Broadway and West End revival of Gypsy opposite Angela Lansbury. And yes, she has used the tools of reality TV to re-establish her prominence, appearing as a contestant on the first series of Dancing on Ice.
But across her 40+ year career, she also originated a major role in the original production of Cats all of thirty years ago; appeared in the film version of Bugsy Malone and toured frequently in musicals like Oklahoma!, 42nd Street and Guys and Dolls. And here she is, ever the trouper, touring again in Spamalot, and gloriously sending herself and musical theatre up as the Lady of the Lake.
Any performer craving the quick fix of stardom should look at the likes of Bonnie Langford and see the satisfactions of a career based on paying your dues instead and loving what you do.