It’s always difficult picking favourites — but of course we all have them. One of the questions I’m asked most regularly is what my favourite show playing in London is, or to provide a list of the top three, by way of a shorthand recommendation for visitors from abroad. (And right now I’d say: Matilda for a new musical, Sweeney Todd for a brilliant revival, and One Man Two Guvnors for an uproarious comedy, but of course I’m not saying that this will work for everyone!)
Starting the weekend after next, meanwhile, I’m asking a range of leading theatrical personalities to choose A Few Of My Favourite Songs in a reprise of the season I first hosted last year at Jermyn Street Theatre and we are moving to Soho Theatre this year, to benefit the Theatrical Guild. First up is Simon Russell Beale (on May 20), then Jeremy Sams (May 27), Howard Goodall (June 17) and Kerry Ellis (July 8), with some of their song choices sung live by Caroline Sheen (May 20/27), Emma Williams (June 17) and of course Kerry herself, accompanied by the wonderful Ben Stock (except for the final night, when Kerry will be accompanied by Craig Adams).
It’s a kind of Desert Island Discs of the theatre, in which their musical choices are threaded through a conversational narrative of their lives and careers. (And speaking of Desert Island Discs, I can’t wait to hear that irrepressible doyenne of the London theatre scene Blanche Marvin when she appears on that show soon, and to see what she chooses).
Being invited to make lists of things we love, though, is an often illuminating experience, as it gives us time for reflection and balance in the forward propulsion of our lives, where we are constantly being exposed to new experiences that keep those lists under review all the time as well. I never have any trouble choosing my all-time favourite musical, for instance — it’s Guys and Dolls, hands down the most tuneful, constantly fresh and forever invincible Broadway classic that not only defines an area of New York with timeless skill, but an entire era. From the moment that great overture strikes up, you know you’re in for a great time.
But every now and then it’s a pleasure to expand my list of favourites — and in the last few years, I’ve added Next to Normal and Jerry Springer - the Opera to my all-time favourites that include many of the other classics of musical theatre, from Carousel and My Fair Lady to She Loves Me, Pippin and On the Twentieth Century (No, this isn’t a complete list!)
Ask another question about who my favourite theatrical composer is, and of course it has to be Sondheim; time and again, his work — both musically and lyrically — is full of infinite possibilities, not to say infinite intricacies. In the last few days, I’ve been totally floored twice by the same song: “Our Time”, from Merrily We Roll Along, which has just been given a brilliant new production at Theatr Clwyd in Mold in North Wales, and my review of which will appear on The Stage website today.
Seeing the show at Clwyd made me think that, though the show isn’t Sondheim’s best (that’s unquestionably Sweeney Todd in my view), it’s probably my favourite of all his scores. And ‘Our Time’ one of my individual favourites of all his songs. It was also performed last Sunday during the London Gay Men’s Chorus 21st anniversary concert at the Royal Festival Hall — an amazing celebratory event for a choir that began, very humbly, when 9 men gathered for an impromptu fund-raising sing in Angel tube station in 1991, and has grown now in size and stature to accommodate some 230 members, 190 of whom sing.
And on Sunday they were joined by an extended choir of schoolkids that the chorus have gone to work with, that included a disabled section, some of whom were autistic, others deaf, for an absolutely haunting rendition of ‘Our Time’. For some of these kids, of course, it is never their time; but on Sunday, it suddenly was, and watching them was simply overwhelming. As the song has it, “Gives you the shivers/ makes you think/ There’s so much stuff to sing!/ And you and me, / We’ll be singing it like the birds,/ Me with music and you the words,/ Tell ‘em things they don’t know!”
And the London Gay Men’s Chorus have been putting those words in action in their work with schools and other community work, but also within the extended gay community itself, to become an essential part of the fabric of London gay life and how it offers a wonderfully vivid artistic expression of our culture and music.
It’s amazing to think that 21 years ago, when they first formed, the age of consent for gay men was still a shockingly unequal 21 (as against 16 for heterosexuals); and just as amazing to think that we’re still fighting now for equal marital rights, instead of the legal fudge of civil partnerships (Bravo, President Obama, for finally getting off the fence yesterday and saying that it’s time for gay marriage to be allowed in America. ‘Our Time’ once again summonses up the moment perfectly: “It’s our time, breathe it in: / Worlds to change and worlds to win. /Our turn coming through,/ Me and you, man,/ Me and you!” I think I’ll have to have it played at my own gay wedding in July….).
And yes, of course there’s Judy Garland songs in the London Gay Men’s Chorus repertoire — but also Manilow, Madonna and Morrissey. And Sondheim and even Wagner. And a new commission, too, from gay writers Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell. I’ve seen them over the years, of course, but never as thrilling as this. They’re now another of my favourite things in London.