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Letter from London 2006


Letter From London 2006
by Kenneth Lyen

In August 2000, when I was last in London, I commented that compared to a decade earlier, many of the shops that I used to frequent had gone, that there were more large bookshops along Charing Cross Road, that London had become more cosmopolitan where English was hardly spoken along the streets, and while services had improved, there were still holes. [See London Revisited 2000.]

Six years later, some things have remained the same. The streets are still full of non-English speaking peoples, and the weather lives up to its dismal reputation. But overall, London had changed yet again. More shops have disappeared, including several of the larger bookshops on Charing Cross Road, like Dillons, Books Etc. However the large department stores along Oxford Street are still there, including John Lewis, Selfridges, Debenhams, etc.

I was very sad to hear the demise of Tower Records. RIP. Fortunately the other large music and DVD shop, Virgin Superstore, is still going strong. I remember when I was a university student in my early 20s, I used to frequent Virgin's, a small dingy overcrowded record shop along Tottenham Court Road. It was the cheapest place to buy LPs. The shop is still in the same location, but they expanded backwards into Oxford Street, and now occupy four storeys. The classical collection is still great. I looked for (but did not buy) my favorite recording of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius violin concertos played by a young 20s-something Kyung Wha Chung, whom I heard several times playing in London…. often only seeing her back because I would buy the cheapest tickets, which was behind the orchestra.

I was glad that another shop was still around, and that is Dress Circle, along Monmouth Street. If you do not already know, this is the greatest showbiz shop in the world. Here you can find CDs and DVDs of musicals and plays that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Japanese or German versions of musicals like Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera. Plus you can rummage through oodles of obscure musicals, like Dance of the Vampires, a Polish vampire musical. I bought a slew of DVDs, including the Swedish version of Chess, and that highly controversial opera, Jerry Springer.

Allow me to deviate for one paragraph. Jerry Springer is a hybrid between Opera and Musical Theatre, a little bit more opera than musical theatre. I have always considered that sung-through musicals to be the modern form of opera. This would include Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, etc. Therefore it is with great interest that the new London revival of Porgy and Bess is advertised as "The Opera Reborn as a Musical"! I anticipate a further convergence of these two art forms. So what's the difference between an opera and musical theatre? Allow me to quote from Andrew Clements  of the Guardian newspaper, who says that "in an opera the drama is largely generated by the music, while in a musical it is largely defined by the text, with the music taking an illustrative and expressive supporting role."

Back to musicals. This time, owing to time constraint, I could only watch 5 musicals out of the 30 or so musicals currently showing (simultaneously) in London... all highly recommended and well worth watching.

The first one I watched was Wicked by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman. This show lives up to its hype, a musical that truly defies gravity. It is spellbindingly stunning, with fantastic sets and brilliant costumes. The two central ladies, Idina Menzel (Elphaba the Wicked) and Helen Dallimore (Glinda the Good), are the stars and they are simply breath-taking… yes they can hold their breaths for those suffocatingly long notes! The story, as many of you already know, is like a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, and redresses the bad press that Wicked Witch Elphaba has received. In this musical, you empathize with Elphaba, as she is born with a socially unacceptable skin pigmentation that has led to her ostracism from society. In contrast, Glinda is a stunning beautiful blonde, who is naturally very popular, a song which she sings. The theme is about appearances, and that they are not what they seem. This, plus true love means you got to make sacrifices, is at the heart of the musical. Yes, it is highly enjoyable, and possibly my top recommendation. My only gripe, and hey, that's the job of a critic, is that I was rather disappointed with the music. For a composer who had written such beautiful songs like Day by Day (Godspell), Corner of the Sky (Pippin), and When You Believe (The Prince of Egypt), I felt that Stephen Schwartz was underachieving. The songs are pleasant enough, and to some extent, catchy. But they are not the strong "blow your sox off" melodies that you know he is capable of writing. There was a standing ovation at the end of the show.

The second show I saw was Spamalot. It is Monty Python through and through. Completely irreverent, a meandering plot, pure indulgence, over-the-top hamming, and yet absolutely irresistible. The glue that holds everything together is Tim Curry. He is unquestionably brilliant, and the only other musical I remember seeing him in is the Rocky Horror Show. Spamalot is one laugh after another. It lampoons many of the shows currently on in the West End. And when it runs out of ideas, there is a number called "The Song That Goes Like This", about the type of song that is usually sung at that point in a musical. You need to be on the same wavelength as the main writer, Eric Idle, and enjoy the slapstick , wacky, preposterous, offensive, humor that is the mainstay of Monty Python. For example, there is a song "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (unless you're a Jew)". What this song has to do with King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail, you just have to see the show to understand. My only criticism is that there are too many borrowed songs, not written specifically for this musical (I like musicals to be written with new original songs). The audience loved it, and there was a standing ovation during the curtain call.

The third show I watched was Mary Poppins. This has a very strong book, and of all the five shows I watched, possibly the strongest. The writers did something right. They did not slavishly convert a Disney film to the stage. They rewrote much of it, added a new character, the martinet replacement nanny called Miss Andrews (an unfortunate choice of name because it conjures up Julie Andrews, which she definitely is not). The plot is very touching, and when little 10-year old Michael Banks tells Mary Poppins "I Love You", the whole audience went "awwwww!!!!" Certainly Mary Poppins the musical is the most touching of all the five musicals I watched. The only fault I could find is that the lead actress playing the role of Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen, is the weakest of all the lead performers of the five shows. This does not mean she is bad. Indeed, she is still far better than our best Singapore singer. But I guess when you watch 5 smash hits in a row, your standards are somewhat elevated. Nevertheless there was a standing ovation at the end.

The fourth show I watched was The Producers. This is another one of those "must watch" musicals. I had already seen both movie versions, including the musical film. But the stage show is still far better than them all. It is simply stunning. This must be the best comedy I have ever watched in the West End. It has a brilliant script, pretty-good-but-not-fabulous melodies, but delivered with such aplomb and pizzazz that makes the show emanate with buoyant energy. You will undoubtedly know that the premise is based on the notion that you can earn more money by staging a Broadway flop than a hit, because when a show closes, you can run away with the money and the taxman will not chase after you. The leads are stupendous. Both are unknown (to me). Cory English plays the part of Max Bialystock, and Reece Shearsmith Leo Bloom. Spot on comic timing, great voices, and there was never a moment of boredom. When an audience member shouted out a comment, both the leads adlibbed and cracked a few unscripted jokes that brought the house down. Production values in The Producers is top notch. You laugh until your stomach hurts.

The last show I watched was Avenue Q. Very original and well worth watching. The muppet-like puppets have great personality, and the performers were excellent., able to take on multiple puppet roles. Contemporary issues like university education, racism, and gays, are tackled in a comic manner, but seriously. What bothered me a bit was that this show seemed to be assembled… "at this point we talk about education and we insert this song... and now we talk about racism and so we have a song on racism... and then at this point about gays so gay song coming up". It is assembled a little bit like Sesame Street (but different)…. "let us talk about the Letter F, U, C and K". Yes, if you still have the Sesame Street mentality, you will be shocked. There is graphic depiction of sex, blowjobs, etc. The songs are catchy, the production values excellent. Possibly this is the show I enjoyed least out of the five. On the other hand, because of its inventiveness, and the way it strives to tackle serious contemporaneous issues, I think it is a show you must watch.

As an aside, I did make a note of the cast size of each of the five musicals for my own reference:







Mary Poppins


The Producers


Avenue Q


What else is there to say about London? The warnings for suspected terrorist activities are definitely something that did not exist 6 years ago. Now we are warned not to leave our bags unattended and to report any suspicious activity. What I felt was the most inconvenient measure taken, was the removal of all the rubbish bins in the Underground stations. Presumably this is to prevent bombs being secreted in these bins. Jumping ahead a bit, airport security was tight and tedious, but I guess this is the price we pay for relative safety.

You only see what you want to see. I may have walked by all the middle eastern restaurants in the past and never noticed them. But now, suddenly I'm aware of 2 Lebanese restaurants, 2 Moroccan restaurants, and several other middle eastern restaurants with names like Halal, Bedouin, all within a few minutes walking distance from where I am staying in Bayswater. There is even a middle eastern bookshop, and several newsagents run by immigrants from the middle east.

One of the delights of London is its rich variety of museums and art galleries, most of them free. I visited some of them, including the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. I made a beeline for the impressionist painters, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro. And I drooled over my favorite Van Goghs, including his sunflowers, the wheatfield, and his rustic chair. There was a special exhibition of Cezanne and I was delighted to see so many of his paintings assembled from various international galleries. Seurat was also well represented, as was Gauguin, Picasso. I had to race through the older paintings of Constable, Holbein, Canaletto, Titian, etc, as it was time for the next musical show.

Yes, London is a very invigorating city. So much to do, so little time to do it in. Wish I could have stayed longer... sigh ... with luck, I hope to go back in a few years’ time!

October 2006