I know there shouldn’t be time for repeats, given how much new stuff there’s around that I’ve also not seen yet, but sometimes I want my pleasures guaranteed a bit (as the advertising tagline for Mamma Mia! has it, ‘You already know you’re gonna love it’). Theatre, after all, isn’t just work for me, but something I love (thank God, given the amount of time I spend watching it!).
I know, for instance, that I’m always going to have a good time at a Jason Robert Brown concert — I’ve seen him in concert before now everywhere from the New Players and Garrick in London to New York’s Birdland and Sydney in Australia.
So I naturally couldn’t miss his benefit for the National Youth Music Theatre on Sunday, who recently also brought his show Songs for a New World back to its original London home of the Bridewell (in a production I didn’t catch) and last week also staged 13 (which I did see).
For a younger generation of musical theatre fans and performers, Jason Robert Brown is the new Sondheim. Yet only two of his shows have had short Broadway runs, and he is otherwise best known for two smaller off-Broadway ones. Over here, Parade - dramatically his best realised musical - has had limited runs at the Donmar Warehouse and more recently Southwark Playhouse, and The Last 5 Years has been produced at the Menier Chocolate Factory and in a series of one-nighters in the West End and a week-long run at the Duchess.
In my review of 13 for The Stage last week I wrote, “it’s a remarkable fact that the London premiere of 13, his 2008 Broadway musical that features a cast of 13 13-year-olds, marks his longest West End run yet, though in fact it’s only running for four nights and six performances.” (Someone subsequently tweeted to me, “What about The Last Five Years at the Duchess 5 nights/7 shows in 2009?” But we’re only splitting hairs of one night and one performance more!).
The impact of Brown’s work, however, is always disproportionate to the length of the run: even Songs for a New World, the famous song cycle that first introduced him, ran for just a month Off-Broadway in its original run. That’s because his songs — tuneful, complex and dramatic - have long had a life far beyond the shows they’ve come from, particularly as audition standards from actors who love performing them.
On Sunday night, he topped the four day National Youth Music Theatre production of his show 13, that he also directed, with a concert celebration of his work, joined by guests that included Lara Pulver (from the original Donmar production of Parade and the Menier’s Last 5 Years), Stuart Matthew Price (from the original Donmar Parade) and Ramin Karimloo.
It was a treat to welcome Pulver back to the musical theatre after her more recent brush with TV fame, and Price demonstrated, as always, that he has one of the best voices in British musicals (but hasn’t had to join a reality TV show to prove it). It’s wonderful, too, to see Ramin spreading his artistic wings since his long stints in Phantom, the entire London of Love Never Dies and taking over as Valjean in Les Miserables; he’s also in the midst of a world solo tour that next week takes him back to his adopted Canada and the USA, including dates in New York on September 13 and 16 at BB King’s .
But then he returns to the UK to join the line-up of The West End Men for its tour to Glasgow, Newcastle and Leicester, standing in for Matt Rawle who is otherwise engaged in the West End return of Cabaret, and as Ramin tweeted the other day after I posted this news, “Going solo has been and is great, but can’t wait to join this ensemble and sing some great theatre songs again.”
He has recently been voted the West End’s leading leading man in a Whatsonstage.com survey, held in response to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s remark about the absence of leading men that I blogged about here at the time.
As Ramin posted on his Facebook page after hearing the news of his poll victory, “Thank you folks for those who supported me to be chosen as West End’s favourite leading man. Was an honour to hear about that. I’ll just reiterate that the point of that was to remind us all that the West End is full of established actors and actress’ who can lead a company. Making a flippant comment on a TV show for a sound bite won’t take away the work people have put in and continue to put in for their roles and shows, it was a foolish thing to say. I am part of a great community and proud and grateful to be so. Thank you.”
Meanwhile last Friday I also saw the person who, for my money, is surely destined to be the West End’s next big leading lady: Rosalie Craig in Ragtime at the Open Air Theatre. Though I have my problems with this production — not to mention the problems we had with the weather on Friday night that saw an early interval called before the end of the first act so that the rain might abate — both the cast struggled valiantly through both the frequently jarring stylistic excesses of this staging and the disruptions of the weather to deliver something truly memorable.
Seeing it a second time meant I was able to put aside the intentional inconsistencies and anachronisms of this production and simply enjoy the performances. And there’s plenty of terrific work here, including David Birrell, Rolan Bell, Tasmsin Carroll, Claudia Kariuki, John Marquez and Harry Hepple in principal roles. But it is Craig who has knocked me out; I’ve been watching her rise through the ranks, including being part of the brilliant ensemble of the original cast of London Road that she was obviously unavailable to return to this year, but now I feel she’s broken through. (And, like Stuart Matthew Price, she’s also not put herself through a reality TV casting call, either).
Next up she’s starring in the world premiere of Finding Neverland at Leicester Curve, based on the film of the same name and featuring a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (who wrote Grey Gardens). The show was originally being mooted for a US try-out at La Jolla Playhouse ahead of Broadway; then producer Harvey Weinstein moved it over here instead. While Gwyneth Paltrow was originally being talked up to star here, it’s thrilling that they’ve chosen the relatively unknown Craig instead; but she’s not going to be unknown for long, I’m sure.
She joins Julian Ovenden, who has been steadily making his way up the ranks of British leading men in musicals ever since he burst upon the scene as a total unknown in Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar Warehouse; he has since starred in Marguerite at the Haymarket and Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic. But last Sunday he got his biggest musical showcase yet when he appeared with the John Wilson Orchestra in the Broadway Prom at the Royal Albert Hall.
I was there, too, and it was great to see him holding such a vast arena spellbound, and more than holding his own opposite the operatic Sierra Boggess. But for me the real treat is the fact that the show was stolen by Anna-Jane Casey, who has done stints everywhere from the West End run of Chicago to the Union Theatre (where she starred in Bells Are Ringing). It may seem a long way from the Union to the Albert Hall, but for AJ they’re all part of the same job — delivering 100% to audiences large and small. She has an utter lack of grandiosity, just pure infectious talent.