- September 12th, 2011
- Write comment
I grew up with musicals. Soon after my parents migrated to the sun of Southern Rhodesia in 1958, they were brought into the Gilbert and Sullivan culture of first term productions at Plumtree School. First it was assisting the main producers (Barrett and Turner) and then the baton (literally) was handed to Harold and Felix, and they continued to have a major hand in musical productions until their retirement in the mid-1990s. School boys would come to our house to practise their parts. Trebles learning to be Mabel (beautiful Mabel, I would if I could but I am not able), seniors becoming the dastardly Dead-Eye Dick (silent be, it was the cat!), Curly, Henry Higgins – characters and their music night after night. Watching rehearsals was part of the entertainment for young Westwoods. My mother at full stretch controlling a chorus of boys being girls (20 lovesick maidens we-ee.) and farmers and cowboys or Japanese noblemen (if you want to know who we are…….), while dad would demonstrate to Henry Higgins how to threaten and cajole everyone (why can’t a women be more like a man?), and to Jud Fry how to nauseate Laurie. We saw the scenery go up, we saw the make-up go on. We copied the dances in the quad. We peeped through the doors watching the audience’s reaction to the ‘business’ our parents had devised. Dad would often write new words for the patter songs, full of local allusions, Rhodesian and Prunitian.
Mum and Dad had records of musicals such as The Boyfriend, Oliver! and The Sound of Music. Noel Coward songs were to be found on the piano.
When I was 11, my piano-playing skills were good enough for me to be brought in as second pianist for The Yeomen of the Guard. Nepotism or not, I was IN! Now I saw the making of a musical from within. Every tune and page turn is with me still. The C minor of the march that precedes the (thwarted) execution now appears in Keynotes C minor.
The next year I was a high school pupil and became a love sick maiden myself. The music of Patience is some of the best in all G&S. 1968 was flower power time and somehow, even at a boy’s school in break-away Rhodesia, it was not completely irrelevant. ‘Exactly so.’
1969 saw a break with tradition as Oklahoma! took the boards and my parents had to change style, and many more sets were required. Again it was the girls’ chorus for me with my unbroken voice. I mugged up all the music and arranged a piano medley for myself to play at the End of Term Concert at the end of the year. My voice lasted one more year and as a sister or a cousin or an aunt in HMS Pinafore with top B flats at the end of Act 1, I appeared for the last time in a musical. After that it was back into the pit on the new-fangled electric piano. This was when the art of arranging and adapting began for me, especially when I took up the clarinet at the time of My Fair Lady in 1972. I listened to the record of the film version and notated the clarinet bits for myself to play. That musical went on tour round the country (anti-clockwise in convoy) so we were all word and note perfect. In 1980 I played the oboe in the pit band in Bulawayo for a professional production of the show. It was my intern year yet I was able to play 9 nights on the trot! So that show is deeply embedded in me, too.
After school, musicals and I have continued to be friends. I listened to every show I could on the radio while at university in Cape Town, recording programmes and notating the songs from the 20s to the (then) 1970s so that I could play them on the piano. When writing skits, this long list of songs comes in useful. A chronic paediatric bed shortage in hospitals in Cape Town takes ‘Words!Words!Words!’ from My Fair Lady and becomes ‘Beds, Beds, Beds!’. Registrars carrying lists of patients for whom they cannot find beds excites a version of “‘I’ve got a little list’ from The Mikado. And I have whole musical on diarrhoea! ‘How do you solve the problem Diarrhoea?’
My family have endured many Sunday lunches eaten to the sounds of musicals on Musical Memories presented by Rick Everett on Fine Music Radio. It is a standing joke that any song from Annie Get Your Gun or the sound of Ethel Merman’s voice cause loud groans and pleas for mercy! Yet my appetite for musicals remains strong. As the children have grown up I’ve watched a younger generation playing those parts, and listened to my own children in the pit orchestra.
The combination of clever or poetic words and excellent tunes that suit them, and the use of music to enhance almost any situation are, for me, what make musicals work. How to do it and who has done it well and why they have succeeded make a most interesting study, that does not diminish the delight I experience when it all works.
And now I have my own magnum opus – 3 Acts of ‘Love in a Time of Tuberculosis’. It has had a long gestation, perhaps starting when the songs from Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance sung by untrained young voices first stole into my callow consciousness in Plumtree where i was growing up as one of Rhodes’ many children – but that’s the subject of another musical that is still to be written.