Fulfilling a Dream – a note from Andrew Lloyd Webber
It would be disingenuous to suggest that there was not a mocking tone directed at me by the occupants of my school common room. ‘Look at this Lloydy. Have you read this one? It says if you are a diabetic craving extra sweetness take a load of insulin to the Palace Theatre and you will not fail to thrill to The Sound of Music.‘
The reason for this celebration of stinkeroo reviews was that I had been the night before to the opening of the London production of The Sound of Music. I had written a fan letter to Richard Rodgers and amazingly he had replied. So not only did I see a dress rehearsal of The Sound of Music but I got a ticket in the upper circle for the opening.
All of this was a cause of much mirth among my school companions. For in those days probably the most unfashionable cause you could champion in Britain was the musical.
My first encounter with Rodgers and Hammerstein was via my father. He was then director of composition at the Royal College of Music. On my tenth birthday he interrupted my endless replays of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and insisted that he play me something. Onto the battered 78 record player was plonked Ezio Pinza singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. Then Dad played it on the piano. Before he let me back to my room, he told me a story I shall always remember. Dad used to compose what was then called ‘light’ music under a pen name. In 1948, he had been to see his publisher at Chappells, Teddy Holmes. Holmes was also Rodgers and Hammerstein’s publisher in Britain. ‘Bill,’ he had said to my Dad, ‘this will send the birth rate up.’ I can’t remember whether I then completely understood what Holmes was driving at, but on my tenth birthday Rodgers and Hammerstein joined Elvis Presley and The Everly Brothers as heroes. I know why. Great melody has always deeply affected me and Rodgers is possibly the 20th century’s greatest tune writer. This is not to deny Hammerstein’s enormous contribution. The simplicity of his lyrics is truly deceptive. Take ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’. Thousands of songs, even well-known songs, make the few rhymes for ‘love’ sound contrived. ‘Don’t start collecting things/Give me my rose and my glove/ Sweetheart, they’re suspecting things/People will say we’re in love’ does no such thing.
It seems hard today to believe that a musical such as Carousel was considered among the 1961 kitchen sink drama embued chattering classes to be sentimental rubbish. On the morning of 19 May 1961 The Sound of Music was considered by 1961 theatricals to be completely beyond the pale. I remember the director of The Boy Friend, Vida Hope, lecturing me on the New York version, saying it was cringe-makingly ludicrous with a 50-year-old woman (Mary Martin) capering around the stage pretending she was 20 with a gang of nauseating children. In short The Sound of Music was not the flavour of the month with the opinion makers of 19 May 1961.
However I remember among what even Richard Rodgers described in his autobiography as devastating reviews one which was spot on. The cut of its jib was that somewhere in the 21st century a lonely astronaut will be singing the unbelievably catchy tunes of what may be the greatest popular score ever written. This scribe had hit the red button.
I have for years wanted to produce The Sound of Music myself. The theatre show is wonderfully crafted and I have always wanted to see the show cast with a young Maria who you really do believe climbs a tree and scrapes her knees. But to find someone aged 20 who was a big enough name to fill the London Palladium seemed a tall order to both myself and my co-producer David Ian.
A promising discussion or two with Scarlett Johansson, who obviously ticked every box and by the way can really sing, sadly led nowhere. After this, both David and I thought the project was undoable. That is why I wondered if the show could be cast on TV. A year after David and I initially approached the BBC I found myself spending the summer in a way I never thought I would ever do, to whit having a great time with Graham Norton on live primetime TV.
It is a serious and great pleasure to me that not only do I believe we discovered the perfect Maria in Connie Fisher but that several of our girls are already on the path of successful careers. I am proud that over 8 million people saw the final of a show devoted to musical theatre and even more proud that I know that Maria has rejuvenated the public appetite not just for The Sound of Music but for musicals across the board.
Jeremy Sams and I did not want to stage a version of the movie so this production follows the original theatre script with a few exceptions. We have added ‘I Have Confidence in Me’ from the film and substituted the song ‘An Ordinary Couple’ in Act II with the wonderful ‘Something Good’ that Richard Rodgers wrote for the movie, not just the music but also the words. I believe it is one of his greatest tunes and a fitting swansong from one of the finest melodists of all time. We also reprise ‘My Favorite Things’ in Maria’s bedroom as the song is so loved in the film. Originally that was where ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ played which we have set on the terrace of the Captain’s mansion.
I hope in fulfilling a dream that I have had since the morning of 19 May 1961 that we are doing justice to a musical that arguably contains the best-loved songs of all time.