Last night I took part in The Broadway Sound with The John Wilson Orchestra, Yes it’s that time of year again – the BBC Proms Season.
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I’ve only had two Prom concerts this year. The first one was singing in the offstage chorus for the Monteverdi choir, in the opera performance of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. This was possibly the lowest maintenance Prom I had ever taken part in. We had a quick run through on the day before the main rehearsal in the hall. Then it was up to the Gods to do our bit – The altos literally had thirteen bars to sing. As is customary, there was the obligatory hanging around in London in the afternoon between the rehearsal and the concert. Because I live in Brighton, there’s not quite enough time to go home and back. I managed to fill the time with some retail therapy and caught up on some emails. Just before the concert, we were taken in a lift to the top tier and, as we were out of sight (apart from the promenaders watching in the top level), we only had to wear black – no concert clothes. Our bit was after about twenty minutes and we didn’t have to wait around for a bow. I was on the train and home by 9.30pm. Result!
My second prom was one of my favourite concerts of the year – The John Wilson Orchestra.
(You can read about my experiences in the Rogers and Hammerstein or the Hooray For Hollywood proms -just click on the links)
For 2012, the programme was entitled The Sound Of Broadway and it was yet another sold-out extravaganza. The BBC Prom website said:
after last year’s celebration of the Hollywood screen musical, John Wilson and his high-octane orchestra – whose technicoloured performances, according to one critic, offer ‘the auditory equivalent of a steam-clean’ – present a tribute to the composers and arrangers responsible for creating the Broadway Sound – among them such legendary tunesmiths as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Vincent Youmans, Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser.
You may remember me writing about when I was struck down with Viral Laryngitis and I had to pull out of the recording of the Rogers and Hammerstein programme. I could barely speak as I croaked my apologies to Christopher Dee, the Musical Director of The Maida Vale Singers. I was so disappointed as, not only had I never cancelled a performance due to a lost voice, but also I particularly love working with John Wilson and his fabulous orchestra. I’d also missed the previous MGM Musical recording, as I was away in Luxembourg doing the opera Carmen with the Monteverdi Choir.
So it was a big relief when Chris emailed me to ask me to take part in this year’s Prom. The first rehearsal just fitted in the day after I got back from the Edinburgh Festival too – how often does that happen?
I wondered if Chris remembered my croaky voice, as he sent me an email not only asking me to sing in a tiny solo quartet in The Lusty Month Of May from Camelot, but also to do a two bar solo as Mother B for the Mame finale.
He eloquently explained in his email: “The character is Beauregard’s mother, who is an old battleaxe. You have to portray the whole of her personality in 2 bars. (Bars 73 & 74) Vocally, I want it raspy, and down the octave. (even more raspy, if possible)”
As Mame is set in the southern states of America, I hoped I could call upon my True Blood training yet again.
Friday morning we all met at LSO St Luke’s for our first choir rehearsal. I got to try out my raspy, battleaxe voice for the first time in public. The quartet was first and that went fine as, although the boys were a long way away, the lovely soprano Kathryn Jenkins (no not THAT Katherine Jenkins!) was close by and I could easily hear her in order to blend. Chris hadn’t announced who was doing the Mother B bars – he just told the choir not to sing there, so it was a bit of a surprise for my neighbours.
It’s a strange phenomena when you’re singing in the choir, knowing that you’re getting closer and closer to those exposed solo moments. My heart beats very fast and once it’s over, you have to get right back into singing your harmony parts as if nothing happened. I confess that my hands always shake a bit afterwards.
We had loads of music to get through that morning, so I never got a chance to check with Chris if he wanted me to change anything. I asked him at the next day’s rehearsal and he said it really can’t be raspy enough – “think Jimmy Durante!” For those of you who don’t know Jimmy – here’s a great youtube clip I found where he explains to the young Sinatra The Song’s Gotta Come From The Heart
The next day we were back at St Luke’s and the whole of The John Wilson Orchestra were there. The problem for the choir during that rehearsal was getting used to the conductor being a long way away and also the breakneck speed at which John Wilson works. There was so much music to get through that we only had time for one chance at each song. There was often a whole page of numbered blank bars to count and then suddenly we were in. It occurred to me that this is what it must be like to be a triangle player – but they don’t have to pitch the notes.
The quartet didn’t go very well as with the band, it was impossible to hear the other singers. It quickly became clear that the only solution was to memorise the eight bars and stick to John’s beat like glue and hope that the others would be in the same place. Scary stuff! Oh well – we’d get another try in the rehearsal the next day. My two bars of Mother B went better – well I just had to make the worst sound I could and hope it would get a laugh – it did from John, so I was happy.
Sunday’s rehearsal was in the Royal Albert Hall and after last minute notes from Christopher, we got a chance to hear the fantastic soloists. This year’s line up was the excellent and familiar Sierra Bogess, Anna Jane Casey, Julian Ovenden and ‘Family Guy’ creator Seth Macfarlane. He had the incredibly difficult patter song We got Trouble but also impressed the choir with his beautiful rendition of Joey, Joey Joey (from Pal Joey).
The moment in the rehearsal when everybody got the shivers, was when Elizabeth Llewellyn sang the duet from Porgy and Bess with Rodney Clarke – such classy singing from them both – so poised and heartfelt. Elizabeth’s high notes sounded as if she had another octave above from which she could have effortlessly chosen any note. Look out for her tender solo Come Home, which is a song that was new to most of us. I found out later that it comes from a musical called Allegro by Rodgers and Hammerstein which received very mixed reviews.
It did run for a few months as following on the success of Carousel and Oklahoma Allegro took $750,000 in advance sales, at a time when the top price ticket for a Broadway musical was only $6! The orchestra accompanied her with a haunting arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett.
During the rehearsals. John Wilson made many of his usual amusing and pithy observations. Here are just a few gems (imagine them delivered in his brilliantly broad Geordie accent):
Press some of your sparkle buttons – if you can find them.
More nimble please.
Strings – this is a full-blooded mezzo forte.
Now don’t rush this – cling to the beat as if your life depended upon it.
Give it some substance. At the moment you can’t really get any purchase on it.
Just do something divine.
Make it sparklier and more switched on.
Keep a grip on it and remove any rushyness.
Strings – Dive into this bit.
Eyes on stalks here because I’m going to do “this”.
Give me your full opulence and gorgeousness.
What you want to do – I want you to glide over the top.
Super fast vibraphone vibrato.
If you’re not careful the chain will come off and we’re knackeramad.
Be glued to the beat – don’t look down at the music – it’s easy!
(To the trumpets after asking them to broaden the final chords of the On The Town Ballet Suite)
It’s a bit ITV – I’m expecting to enter the prize draw – but it’s great!
And so we came to the day of the show. I got a text from Chris in the morning saying “Good Morning Mother B, I know you’ve learned your solo line off the book. The telly have asked if you could please lose the book for your solo section and act to the camera (front) for the telly viewers, as the camera will be a tight shot on you – can you sing the following chord in character too?”
No pressure then!
Kath and I had to get there a bit early for make up. I also had to have my microphone pack fitted to my bra (there would be no escape from there!) Emma Kershaw had brought in her enormous selection of Crown Jewels to share with the girls and I shouted out from my chair, begging her to save me something special. I was still being made-up when the other girls descended like magpies. (Yes it WAS a long job, before you say anything!) There’s a picture of all the jewels in last year’s prom blog.
We had to break off from make-up and hair to go to a one hour seating rehearsal at 6.30pm. Here’s a picture of our Kathryn in the rehearsal, before her hair was combed out – sorry Kath! (Although, annoyingly, she does still look lovely).
John Wilson rushed through a few last minute cuts and tricky links. Unfortunately we never did my two little solo bits and I never did know where that camera would be. Oh well – fingers crossed!
We did get to enjoy the fantastic troupe of tap-dancers run through their routine for the surprise encore. The choreographer himself was dancing and as they exited up the stairs, he feigned collapse and called for a Stannah stair lift.
Kathryn Jenkins (our Kath) also had a speaking line in the West Side Story monologue, where she played the mother and had to shout out “Maria” in a Spanish accent at the correct time. It turned out that the script she had been given had a line missing, and when she shouted out “Marrrrria” in the wrong place, it made Julian Ovenden lose his thread. They stopped and Chris quickly discovered the problem and Kath, like the trouper she is, corrected her part and they re-ran the dialogue again and everything went fine – completely not her fault, but it only served to add to the pressure of the one line step-out. I have come to the conclusion that it is far harder than doing a big solo.
All too soon, it was 7.30 and John thanked everybody for their patience and skill in putting together such a complex concert in such a short time. He then made us all laugh when he declared:
“I was walking down the street yesterday and the sun was shining and I thought to myself, this is so much nicer than being dead – what we do is great – you could be digging up the road. Enjoy it!”
The concert WAS great – The orchestra gave their all, and much more. The soloists, of course were fantastic. The five Maida Vale boys (featuring the hilarious Nigel Richards) who stepped out to do Little Tin Box got a richly deserved, huge round of applause. Former Swingle Singer (yes they’re EVERYWHERE!) Lindsay Benson was radiant in his Mame solo and I managed to survive my Jimmy Durante moment – and I really did sound like Jimmy when I listened back on the iPlayer – hopefully I didn’t look too much like him on the TV. There was rather a lot of make up on me by the end – we’ll see!
The sublime Elizabeth Llewellyn (who sang even more radiantly on the night) tweeted after the concert:
@LiztheLyric: On the bus going home. So proud to have shared a stage with some of the best musicians in town
and later on, she wrote in a hilariously undiva-like fashion:
@LiztheLyric: I love my life! In how many other jobs can you be a principal @bbcproms, looking all glam then be eating Burger King anonymous at train stn?
I’m sure that when people see and hear her on Saturday night TV, she is going to become a household name – she certainly deserves it.
For the choir, one of the best comedy moments of the night came when the orchestra struck up the encore – Anna-Jane Casey started singing Tap Your Troubles Away and an elderly couple decided to beat the crowds and make a premature exit, slowly climbing up the middle of the steps where – yes, you’ve guessed it – the staircase where a troupe of fourteen top-hatted tap dancers with canes were about to burst forth – John Wilson’s face was an absolute picture and so was theirs, as they were nearly knocked over by the dancers. I pray that they caught that moment on the cameras for the TV and leave it in.
The BBC News website noticed it and in it’s article the next day wrote: “The event climaxed with Casey performing Tap Your Troubles Away from Mack and Mabel, accompanied by 14 dancers in top hats and spats. Their appearance startled two elderly patrons, whose hopes of making an early exit up an aisle were hindered by hoofers heading in the opposite direction.”
Christopher Dee sent us an email thanking all the Maida Vale singers the morning after the show and shared a hilarious Youtube clip of Seth Macfarlane performing a re-written version of Ya Got Trouble which at the American Writers Guild Awards.
I must warn you that it contains VERY strong but VERY clever and funny alternative lyrics. (Thanks for that gem Chris!)
ps Swingle Singer fans may also spot American born Jenny Fowler (Graham) in the line up of backing singers. She was one of the distinguished guild of top sopranos. Jenny eventually left the group to have twins and is now a very successful singer in LA.
pps Jimmy Durante is not known for his beautiful tone, so either this will be the end of my singing career or the beginning of an entirely new one!
And here’s a clip from the BBC from Seven And A Half Cents sung by Seth and Anna-Jane featuring The John Wilson Orchestra and the Maida Vale Singers.
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