All Star Productions is presenting the first UK stage production of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s musical comedy Face the Music at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, Walthamstow until 3 July.
In the cast are JOANNE CLIFTON (World and European Professional Ballroom Dancing Champion, Strictly Come Dancing pro dancer 2014) as the Street Walker and actor/singer SAMUEL HAUGHTON (Wind in the Willows, Singin’ in the Rain, Tick, Tick… Boom!) as Hal Reisman.
The story focuses on producer Hal Reisman as he desperately seeks backers for his Broadway show. Because of the Great Depression, once rich investors are ‘Lunching At the Automat’. In his search, Reisman meets crooked policemen who need to get rid of their illegal money before they are found out. The corrupt police chief Martin van Buren Meshbesher and his eccentric wife Myrtle become investors in the show, expecting it to be a failure. However, when risqué material is added, the show is raided and the government tries to close it and the flop becomes an instant hit because of the publicity.
Face the Music opened on Broadway on 17 February 1932, playing for 165 performances. After lying dormant for nearly 70 years, the show was restored with an adaptation by David Ives for presentation at New York City Center Encores!
Samuel Haughton’s theatre credits include: Ratty in Wind in the Willows (national tour); Roscoe Dexter in Singin’ in the Rain (Upstairs At the Gatehouse); Marinelli in Emilia Galotti (Baron’s Court Theatre); Captain Hook and Mr Darling in Peter Pan (Italy tour); Man in Songs For a New World (Theatro Technis); Jon in Tick, Tick…Boom! (Africa Centre, Covent Garden) and The West End Men (Vaudeville Theatre). Cabaret credits include: Guys or Dolls (Battersea Barge) and his one-man show Songs From the Shower (London Theatre Workshop).
Joanne Clifton’s theatre credits include: professional dancer partnering Scott Mills in Strictly Live Tour (UK tour) and cast member in Burn the Floor (Japan and Australia tour). TV credits include: Strictly Come Dancing (with Scott Mills) and partnering Russell Grant in the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special. Joanne’s brother ‘Kevin from Grimsby’ also appears in Strictly.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with Sam and Joanne during rehearsals.
Tell us about your character in Face the Music, Hal Reisman.
He is a producer and when the audience first meets him, the Great Depression is in full swing in New York. Everyone is down on their luck, everyone is having to struggle to make ends meet and make compromises. He bumps into one of his old chorus girls, an actress he’s worked with before called Kit Baker, and she says she wants to do a show. She is so desperate for a job, that she goes away and finds backers [crooked policemen], and then makes Reisman the driving force behind the show.
He’s then given a hunk of money and told he has to lose it all on the show. He can’t make a single profit so he goes to town and orders elephants, big tanks for an underwater ballet and there are rhinestones everywhere.
But then he becomes so infuriated with the backer’s wife and the people he’s working with who don’t know anything about theatre, that he walks out. It’s our big Act I climax.
How do things pan out for Reisman in Act II?
I had a really interesting conversation with Brendan [director Brendan Matthew], and we came to the conclusion that Reisman’s feelings of failure don’t come out of the show making or losing money, but more from the fact that he has ended up walking out. In his Act II number, the audience gets to hear him in more reflective mood when he sings from the heart. He has a lot of tantrums so it’s nice that you get to see his softer side!
Was Reisman the part you were hoping for?
Not exactly. When I auditioned, I thought I was being seen for one of the ensemble parts. However, when I went in for my recall, Brendan grabbed me beforehand and said that they were thinking of me for Reisman. That was great, although I still didn’t know what the role entailed at that point.
That’s not a surprise as Face the Music is rarely performed. Did you know the show at all?
To be honest, it wasn’t really on my radar, so it’s been a real treat to discover something brand new for the first time. Most of us don’t really have any frame of reference for the show, so it’s almost like we are originating it.
When I say Face the Music has grown on me, that doesn’t mean I had an aversion to it at first, but the more I have worked on the show, the more I have grown to love it. The show is pure unadulterated fun, and then the satire kicks in, and it’s even more of a joy.
The great thing about satire is that it enables everyone to connect with the story. It doesn’t just become a show of in-jokes, it’s dealing with issues that everyone is aware of and characters that everyone can relate it.
Do you think any of the themes are relevant to contemporary society?
Absolutely, I couldn’t possibly comment on the state of our police force of course (!), but in terms of the recession that we’ve been in…
Plus there’s all the material about having to do shows on a shoestring, finding the money and what happens when you lose it, the complications in a creative team – all quite relevant when you hear about how many shows are closing, especially on tour.
So there is a relevance to the world outside and the one that we as performers often experience.
Does the show work well in a small space like Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre?
I really love working in smaller spaces, I only recently appeared in Singin’ in the Rain at the Gatehouse too. These shows might normally be done on a huge stage, but while that’s great from a spectacle point of view, you lose the intimacy with the actors. There is a lot of singing and dancing in Face the Music, but so much of the real story happens in the scenes. When the audience is that close, you can’t fake it, you’ve really got to be in the zone emotionally, it’s terrifying in a good way.
You have been pretty busy since leaving Guildford School of Acting in 2012, is there any particular experience that has stood out so far?
I have enjoyed all of the shows, all have been great learning experiences. I did a lot of workshops after graduating, new pieces that are still in development, and I got to build great relationships with the writers. That was exciting because it helped cement everything I had learnt at GSA, about trusting instincts and playing with characters and seeing where you could take them.
The first major part that I had was playing Jon in the Jonathan Larson musical Tick, Tick… Boom!, which was great but also a huge, terrifying challenge for me. I was only 21 when I played that role and the whole story was about him turning 30! It’s definitely a part I would like to go back to when I can understand it a bit more.
What has the creative process been like for Face the Music?
This part has been both a great challenge and great fun. What’s brilliant about the environment created by our director Brendan, Aaron [musical director Aaron Clingham] and Sally [choreographer Sally Brooks] is that we get to play, no one is standing over us saying we have to get it right first time. We’re constantly trying new things. The other day we went back to the scenes we did right at the start of the rehearsal process to see how what we’d learnt since then might change our approach. We were able to have a bit more fun with the text because we had spent a few more weeks together.
TV audiences were introduced to you via last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, but have you always liked the idea of being part of musical theatre too?
Being in musical theatre was a dream I had when I was a little girl. I had a few singing and acting lessons alongside the dancing, but it got to a point when my parents said they didn’t have enough money for me to do theatre school and pursue a dancing career, so I had to choose. Now it’s like living a childhood dream, I’m so happy.
How have you gone about pursuing different projects outside of your career in dancing?
As soon as I moved back to England last year [Joanne had been training at the Team Diablo Academy in Bologna, Italy], I starting learning about presenting (I did some presenting during Strictly and I found that really liked that). But I also wanted to start up my singing and acting. I said to my agent, if anything comes up, just chuck me in, at least I can have a go.
Then I got an audition! My first ever audition for a stage production of any kind. I obviously had done dancing, but people knew me in that world and knew what I danced like. To be a bit vulgar, I was bricking it on the audition day, but everybody was so lovely to me, it was such a nice audition.
Did your dancing skills help you get the role?
Not really! Originally I was going for the part of Pickles, she’s a dancer in the show. I thought I would probably have more chance that way, even though I did read that you had to be good at tap – I had never really done tap,
However, when I went to the dance audition, it turned out I was awful at tap! So they called be back to read and offered me the role of the Street Walker. I called my dad and said: ‘How proud are you of me? I have my first role in an original cast in London and I am a prostitute!’
My friends and all my family can’t believe it because if there are rude jokes going on, anything sexual, I’m the one who gets embarrassed. Everyone can’t wait to come and see me in it. They can’t imagine me as a prostitute!
What’s is the Street Walker’s story?
She was in New York, looking to be a big star, and more than anything wanted to sing a torch song, but things went bad so she ended up as a prostitute. I get arrested, but by singing my song, I convince the policeman to let me go, plus he gets me into Reisman’s show.
I’ve also got a duet with the main character [Kit, played by Joanna Hughes] called ‘The Nudist Colony’. It’s worth coming to see the show just for that, you won’t believe what we’ve got on or not got on…
Are you enjoying dancing as part of a musical theatre narrative?
I love it so much. What is going to be challenging, although I’m managing okay so far, is the dancing and singing at the same time. The breathing to sustain that is completely differentto what I’m used to.
It’s everything and more, I’m lucky, it’s such a good company, everyone is so lovely. Brendan is such a great person and so helpful as well. He knows exactly what he wants, and gives brilliant direction. I’m actually just learning watching the other cast members too, I look at them and just think ‘wow’.
What makes Face the Music so exciting as well is that it has been so rarely, and it’s set in the 1930s too, I love that era.
Was it difficult to leave Italy and then retire from competing in December 2013?
No, I had achieved what I wanted to achieve and I wanted to do different things. Not long after I got to be part of Burn the Floor for two months, both in Australia and Japan.
I’ve always been so focused on what I want. I wanted to be a world champion in dancing so I thought if I had to move to Italy at 16 then I would do it, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by really nice people.
Have you got the musical theatre bug now?
Oh yes, after Strictly is over for another year, I want to continue training as much as possible. Having seen the other cast members, I know I’ve got to improve. I’ve learnt so much already, I just want to keep it up, and then try out next year. I know you have to put the work in.