Downbeat Shows For Lockdown
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a total theatre rat, going at least once a week, travelling miles and taking risks on the unlikeliest productions. The virus has wrecked my playgoing plans for the year, so I’m going back over old albums and recordings. This week the Lockdown showbiz show to beat them all (‘Sondheim 90’) was put up free on YouTube. It’s exhaustingly ‘New York’ but has some terrific highlights, one of which is this, although it’s always Audra McDonald’s voice that knocks everyone else out of the way.
I started thinking, what other cast albums are good for a lockdown? If you want something grand and heartbreaking that will test your speakers and have the neighbours complaining, try ‘Titanic – The Musical’, which could have been risible but instead took a surprisingly affecting look at the politics behind the ship’s construction. Backed by a dark choral score, all classes were represented on stage by boxes containing different cabins that slowly tilted. The UK revival ended with the names of the dead projected over the sobbing audience. The album is superlative.
A show where everybody dies at the end? Not bleak enough for you? Then try ‘The Visit‘, a very, very dark parable about the rise of fascism, played straight recently in London but also more tightly produced as the final Kander & Ebb musical which has a distinct ‘Cabaret’-era sound, and makes an unusual cast album. Here’s the trailer;
How dark do you want to go? I love the musical ‘Parade’, which doesn’t have a parade at all but a rape-murder resulting in an anti-Semitic trial. Or how about ‘Grey Gardens’, another true tale of Kennedy bad behaviour. ‘Urinetown’ – probably the first ever show to have a phonetic pun in the title – was a grimly funny look at rampant capitalism and a lot cleverer and funnier than it might at first have seemed. Like many minority-interest oddities it made its way to London (we get the best of the obscure bombs, lavishly restaged) The cast recording is interesting, and shares the dank aesthetic of the others mentioned here.
‘Bat Boy’ was a genuine oddity based on a fake National Enquirer story, and was given a brilliant score, including a standout fantasy number about woodland spirits. It played in a tiny empty damp theatre in London one rainy winter night. I went along with a very game Maggie Armitage, and we remembered this song, in which a mother and daughter attempt to make a panicked flight from an abusive spouse, not realising the danger they’re taking with them…
Still not strange enough? The hero of ‘Floyd Collins’ plays the entire show hanging upside down from the roof, suspended by his ankle. The London version was staged in a creepy old Victorian swimming bath. The score is demanding and unusual, but grows on you. It’s a cynical, true tragedy about a poverty-stricken farmer who discovers caves beneath his house and gets trapped there. The media folk exploit his plight, and realise they’ll make more if he suffers for longer. It became Billy Wilder’s film ‘Ace in the Hole’, and there’s a good Spanish update called ‘La Chispa de la Vida’. Be warned; it does not end well. All other weird cast album recommendations accepted for a follow-up article.