Charles Strouse performed in cabaret, with special guest Bonnie Langford, at The Pheasantry, London.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Composer Charles Strouse is a Broadway legend, not only on account of his great age (he was born in 1928), but also for the sheer number of musical shows he has written since Bye Bye Birdie which opened to great acclaim on Broadway in 1960.
He was here to eat a pizza, share his show songs and, dropping a line that might have been coined by Mel Brooks, give thanks to us for being ‘very generous in paying me for the rights to use them!’
The London productions of his shows include Bye Bye Birdie with Marty Wilde as Conrad Birdie (Her Majesty’s), Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. (Palladium), Applause with Lauren Bacall (Her Majesty’s) and Annie (Victoria Palace). Strouse lived in London for 11 years when he wrote I and Albert (Piccadilly) starring Polly James as Queen Victoria and Flowers For Algernon (Queen’s) with Michael Crawford.
From It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman, a production of which transferred from Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre to the Leicester Square Theatre earlier this year, it was a treat to hear Bonnie Langford singing affectionately to the veteran composer, ‘You’ve Got Possibilities’. Strouse introduced Tim Rice, who in his role as a DJ, had popularised his early rock‘n’roll ditty, ‘Born Too Late’.
Like several of his songwriting colleagues, Strouse is a fine exponent of his own work and a formidable pianist with a strong sense of rhythm, witness numbers like ‘A Lot of Livin’ to Do’.
He opened with ‘Welcome to the Theatre’ from Applause, giving a nuanced and insightful reading of Lee Adams’ lyric that charts the pitfalls yet irresistible pull of the profession. ‘I Want to Be With You’ from Golden Boy was tender and moving, so too was ‘Once Upon a Time’, a tender ballad from All American, where Strouse’s singing and filigree piano accompaniment were a special delight.
He told us that he had flown to London to play this score for Ron Moody who he’d so admired as Fagin in Oliver! Moody loved the piece which was about a European man visiting America for the first time, but the director Joshua Logan said no twice to Moody and instead cast an all-American star Ray Bolger, so killing the show stone dead.
Strouse dwelt on his difficult professional relationship with Sammy Davis Jr. who adopted a ‘put-downish’ attitude towards him (ironically one that he himself would have experienced many times), and Warren Beatty, the star of Bonnie and Clyde – Strouse conducted the film soundtrack. Beatty had a taste for interrupting take after take of orchestral cues. They came to blows before director Arthur Penn stepped in.
On a lighter note, he recalled the Hollywood film version of Bye Bye Birdie where they cast Ann-Margret, a real vamp in Strouse’s opinion, as the virginal ingenue lead, and then paid him and Lee Adams a fortune to write her a new song to open the film. In desperation for an idea they locked themselves away in separate rooms, where in turn each penned the first thought that came into their heads.
Another facet of Strouse’s style came when Eugenia Copeland sang the semi-operatic ‘Children of the Wind’ from Rags, composed for the show’s operatic star Teresa Stratas who was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance.
To conclude, we had a medley from Annie, a hit so big they had to film it twice, with everyone joining in with ‘Tomorrow’. “I’m not a performer, you don’t have to do anything in response,” Strouse had said earlier in the evening. But we did applaud this dear man and fine songwriter many times.