The Life started its life in 1990, Off-Broadway, and then had its moment in the sun on Broadway in 1997 where it ran for over a year in a production directed by Michael Blakemore. Twenty years later, Blakemore returns to The Life in this production at the Southwark Playhouse. It is a salutary reminder about what makes a great musical, and how the musical form can encompass any kind of story, as long as it is skillfully directed. The score is remarkably rich, but the key, quite extraordinary, thing at play here is women. Fabulous women.
Someday is a promise that is always broken, someday is a day you’ll never see. Someday and a buck will buy a subway token, someday is for suckers like me. We’re gonna get there, who says we’re not. Don’t tell us we’re dreaming, dreams is all we got.
By 1997, all of Sondheim’s musicals bar Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show had been performed; Rent had shaken up Broadway and Cy Coleman was most renowned for Sweet Charity. His score for The Life reflects all this. It is a startlingly original score, richly glorious in every way, with echoes of great Broadway classics such as Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street and Mack and Mabel, as well as turning points like The Threepenny Opera. If Sondheim had written the same score, it would be an undoubted cult classic.
Now playing at the Southwark Playhouse is Michael Blakemore’s production of The Life, his second major production of the work and the first staging of it in the U.K. The twenty year wait has been worth it. Blakemore’s direction is incisive and detailed, fleshing out character, mood and atmosphere every way possible. Full weight is given to Ira Gasman’s spirited lyrics, and although the book by David Newman, Gasman and Coleman (further revised by Blakemore) is long, Blakemore ensures it never lags, is always full of bright, vigorous interest. London stages are rarely graced these days with direction this layered, this fundamentally inspired.
6 hours of Roman Tragedies recently proved that quality and interest in theatrical endeavour is not defined by the maxim “A short play is a good play”. Three hours including interval is not too long in the theatre. Hamlet plays for longer, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf about the same. Rosencrantz And Guildenstern feels like it lasts longer. Why do musicals have to be shorter than three hours or invoke ire? Especially where, as here, the music is endlessly intriguing and exciting?
Nor is frenetic pace in staging necessary. No doubt time could be shorn by pushing through transitions and scene changes, but life is not always like that. The slow, deliberate nature of tragedy unfolding has much to recommend it. Blakemore understands this and exploits it.
He also understands the power of music and the need for the musical aspect of The Life to have dominance without overpowering. Perhaps his cleverest decisions in bringing this production to fruition involve his choice of Musical Director and Designer, for in Tamara Saringer and Justin Nardella he has hit gold.
Saringer makes the eleven piece band produce superb support for the singers while also ensuring that each number has its own flavour, its own tempo, its own, sometimes utterly irresistible, beat. The quality of the orchestrated sound is exceptional. There are no bum notes, no bad playing; but there is a hot, pulsing, jazzy sensibility that makes you think 25 musicians are working hard.
Nardella has hidden the orchestra away, high above the audience – a clever move which, in a single stroke, focuses attention on the sound and makes that sound part of the fabric of the narrative. You don’t need to see them to hear them, and by not seeing them, you hear them more naturally. Sebastian Frost’s skilful sound design ensures that every word, every note the cast sings carries, with Saringer’s band rightly and brightly in a supporting role. This kind of harmony in terms of band, design and sound is rare, and even rarer in a space like the Southwark Playhouse where resources are small.
The set design is quite brilliant. Not a glass box in sight, thankfully, but a first class design which takes you effortlessly to a New York very different from the one in which you now can enjoy Times Square: more steel and concrete jungle than anything else. Use of grey sliding doors (are they real steel Ibeams?) is both functional and mood-setting, a sense of grim functionality anchored from the start. It’s not just evocative, seedy and dark, it’s alive with a sense of corruption, survival and brutality, a rudimentary harshness and unfairness which properly underscores everything that happens. Most importantly, it is alive with a sense of the streets of old New York.
There is a particular sort of light to be found on New York streets when the Sun is not in ascendancy, and David Howe’s exquisite lighting design captures that light precisely. It is not a hopeful light, but one that suggests desperate possibilities. It adds a luminous layer of depressive honesty to Nardella’s sparsely furnished, bespoke, almost-in-the-round, stage configuration. A truck brings key items on and off, notably a drinks bar; the reveal of a gaudy purple Kingsize bed is a true delight.
The sense of the transition from the 70s to the 80s permeates everything, effortlessly grounding the work in its proper period. Nardella’s costumes are deliciously gaudy, makeshift glamour. Shoes get their own laughs. The Hooker’s Ball is agog with glamour of a certain kind; gospel singers are magnificently severe; the men are louche, the women remarkable.
There is clever use of projections and videos (Nina Dunn) and these too have their humourous aspect. Nothing about the design feels out of place or cumbersome; on the contrary, everything about the design enhances the production, helps it work.
The story concerns some hardworking, tough-talking prostitutes, their pimps and the vagaries of their lives. Tough difficult lives, lived under pressure and on a tight-rope. Despite that, there is a cameraderie which is almost ebullient; friendships are strong, romance is spiky, and danger is everywhere. The title refers to the ways of the prostitutes and perhaps is a more genteel title than say, Pimps and Whores or The Oldest Profession – but somehow those titles seem more apt.
If there is an overarching theme to The Life, it is that men treat women capriciously and vilely but, despite that, women are indomitable, resourceful and triumphant. The sense of matey, malevolent misogyny is thick in the air as the tale of Queen and Fleetwood plays out. Blakemore’s unsparing and unsentimental direction ensures that central story, together with the antics of Sonja, Memphis, Mary, Jojo and Theodore, is as clear as the jagged hate and appalling sexism which underpins everything. On its own, this is sufficient reason for real attention to be paid to The Life.
Coleman’s score provides another, equally compelling reason. It is as varied and dynamic as the working women, from the zesty opener Check It Out!, through intense, characterful solos such as Don’t Take Much and He’s No Good, terrific ensembles My Body, Why Don’t You Leave Us Alone, The Hookers’ Ball and “Someday” Is For Suckers, and show-stoppers such as The Oldest Profession, I’m Leaving You, We Had A Dream and My Friend. None of these songs are hits in the way some of Coleman’s other big show numbers are, but they certainly deserve to be.
Coleman hides, sometimes, not too deeply, cultural and Broadway references in some of his songs. The James Bond theme gets referenced, so too does I Won’t Send Roses, and the spirit of Hard Candy Christmas from The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. There probably are others; the point is that the score is its own entity as well as being part of a wider spectrum. Not many composers can pull off this sort of duality. Coleman does it effortlessly.
Also effortless is Sharon D. Clarke who, as Sonja, anchors the entire production with lashings of good humour, ruefulness, and wry philosophy. She is quite extraordinary, a bloom of full vocal joy as well as an empathetic force of nature. Her faultless rendition of The Oldest Profession shows her weary humanity; her rousing duet with T’Shan Williams’ desperate Queen reveals her latent mothering instincts. She has a near perfect opposite in Cornell S. John’s striking, silent, still, and undeniably dangerous Memphis. He is garishly affected as she is unrepentantly unaffected. They dance around each other with real panache, but she wins every encounter, regardless of how it seems at the time.
Williams is an astonishing discovery, and she makes Queen beautiful, determined, and the heart of the piece. She sings with genuine bravura accomplishment, her voice strong and steady across the registers and particularly thrilling at the top. She completely conveys her adoration for David Albury’s shattered self-loathing Fleetwood and together they etch, clearly, a passionate but doomed alliance. Williams also manages to be one of the Girls, while standing away from them, al least until Memphis’ intervention. She charts Queen’s disturbing emotional journey with painstaking precision.
Indeed, all of the women are wonderful here: Lucinda Shaw (a brash, bold Tracy), Charlotte Reavey (brassy blonde April), Jalisa Andrews (vibrant, feisty Chi Chi) and Aisha Jawando (wide-eyed, unpredictable Carmen). They sing lustily and full throttle, with absolute skill, dance with real energy, and enliven every moment in which they feature. Their ensemble numbers are complete triumphs. There is a moment when Shaw plays a second part, along with Jawando – solemn churchgoers with gospel on their voices. They are unrecognisable, singular, remarkable.
As the Pink Lady of the piece, the kind of anti-Peggy Sawyer character, Joanna Woodward is quite superb. She plays the ingenue expertly, her accent as convincing as her naivety, slowly revealing the truth. It’s a blinding double bluff, that works a charm on the audience. She makes you believe that butter wouldn’t melt, but then whips out her breasts for cash in a twist which carries the make-believe further.
When the truth finally comes out, the discombobulation is total. Woodward sings with guile and real beauty, and knows how to use her body to best advantage. Her work with Johnathan Tweedie’s vile porn magnate, Theodore, is superb. People Magazine is a true highlight.
Jo Servi’s Lacy is a joy, a perfect example of a two-faced, cocktail-infused, darkness dealing rascal. He is funny and deceitful, light on his feet, and big in the vocal department.
There is excellent ensemble work from Matthew Caputo (a superb dancer, a smiley Oddjob), Thomas-Lee Kidd (a quirky Bobby) and Lawrence Carmichael (whose Snickers is slimy and revolting).
There are two real disappointments. John Addison is curiously implausible and colourless as Jojo, the narrator of the piece. He needs charm and charisma in spades; instead, he is a study in macho tics and tells, but none of it convinces. There are too many Runyon overtones, and just as many inappropriate Grease overtones. A role which should energise the production remains flat and dull.
Tom Jackson Greaves provides choreography that might work in a colourful revival of Guys and Dolls, but which is ill-suited for the debauchery and razor-blade tension of The Life. It is too tricky and cartoonish; style and substance is what is required. All of the cast excel in enlivening the steps and their attack and energy is assiduous. But the steps themselves do not make the most of the music or the situation, the only purpose of choreography in a show like The Life.
These issues don’t detract unduly from the overall enjoyment of Blakemore’s production, one of the most incisive to grace the Southwark Playhouse’s stages in recent years. This is a production which should transfer to and play on the West End.
The Life is a terrific musical, probably the best one Cy Coleman ever scored. It is difficult, detailed, and delightful, the characters vivid and real, and the songs brilliant and celebratory, as well as narratively perfect. With Nardella’s brilliant design and Saringer’s superb musical direction, Blakemore has scored gold.
If you like life, see The Life. It is a stunning slice of reality, wrapped up in the ephemera of Broadway, metaphorically, musically, and literally. It should cause men to squirm and women to rejoice; it might be historical in one sense, but it is still lucid and timely in terms of sexual politics.
If this is Blakemore’s last gift to the stage, it is a significant one.