Opening this week, The Life at Southwark Playhouse is a revival of a musical which has not been seen since its original Broadway production 20 years ago. For this anniversary revival, the show’s original director Michael Blakemore has returned to the show.
With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman and a book by David Newman, Gasman and Coleman, The Life explores the stories of prostitutes in 1980s New York, in the era when Times Square was a seedy part of town.
Musical Theatre Review’s Scott Matthewman went along to rehearsals to talk to Blakemore about the project.
You directed the Broadway production of The Life 20 years ago. What is it like returning to it two decades later?
Michael Blakemore: It’s initially rather difficult. It’s like looking at something through two pairs of glasses. The one you did was finished and had a certain level of excellence.
You’re now seeing people who have to familiarise themselves with the material, but there comes a point where suddenly the original show begins to fade and the personalities and the skills of the people you’re dealing with come into focus.
Was there anything that you weren’t happy with from the previous incarnation that you thought you could address this time round?
Yes, there was. I’ve made some amendments to the book. I’d made an uncredited contribution to the book the first time round, and the owners of the property, including Cy Coleman’s widow, agreed to this when I passed it by them.
I’ve tightened the book up a bit – in New York, Act I lasted much too long. I think we’ve now got a good yarn, a good story. I hope.
Cy Coleman is perhaps best known for his music for Sweet Charity. Are there any thematic similarities between that work and The Life?
Absolutely. Sweet Charity was based on that Fellini movie [Le notte di Cabiria] in which the girl was a hooker. They tidied it up for Broadway, and turned her into a taxi dancer. Cy always felt that that was a bit of a compromise.
The idea for this show wasn’t his, it was Ira Gasman’s, but Cy was interested in coming to grips with the real thing. And The Life is very unflinching. It makes no bones about the horror of the life, as well as the sort of companionship that always exists when people do something together.
And as I say it’s such an odd show because it’s on a very grim subject – and yet there’s this incredible charge of Cy’s music. It’s like a contradiction in a sense.
The show is set in the world of Times Square before it was cleaned up (some say gentrified, others say Disneyfied). How important is it to know of that period in New York history, or could The Life be set anywhere?
Well, it could in the general sense, in that the world of prostitution is much the same anywhere. But when we did it first, Broadway was in the process of being gentrified, almost completely. The 1970s were over.
But that was an extraordinary time in New York history. 42nd Street was unbelievable. The pimps swayed about the town, dressed up to the nines… It coincided with the sexual revolution, but it was of course the revolution’s dark side. So it seemed a good idea to set it in that period.
What is it like directing a show which you previously directed on Broadway in a much smaller space on the London Fringe?
I was very nervous about this. But I think it’s got its advantages, you know. The people who own the show asked us to have the same orchestrations, so I think it’ll be the first show ever at Southwark which has got a full band of 11. I like that.
I mean, the producers were mortified! But I was absolutely delighted, because it’s built around the music. And I think some of the numbers, such as ‘My Body’, will blow people away.
I think there’s a lot of excitement in the musical theatre world, because this has be one of the unacknowledged quality shows of American musical theatre. We ran for a year and a half, and we got all these awards and things, but it’s never really been revived on Broadway, never been touched again. And I think it’s time to bring it back.
It’s essentially a genre which I love in American musicals – that of the tragic melodrama. Stories which come off the street, of which justly the most famous is West Side Story. But there’s Porgy and Bess beforehand. They have an authority, I think, among American musicals that some of the more refined Europeanised musicals don’t have.
And it’s set on the same streets as Guys and Dolls…
Yes, Guys and Dolls is another one, although that’s much more benign. But the same thing.
Has there a part of the show which has proven especially difficult to crack during rehearsals?
Because the narrative has been reworked, I think it’s a pretty good tale. I can’t contrast the two companies because they were, and are, both brilliant. This company is very different, but in its own way just as good. We have very young, very sympathetic lovers, Queen and Fleetwood [T’Shan Williams and David Albury], they’re both musically very gifted. And that beautiful girl over there – did you see her, playing Queen? Stunning.
You are the only director to have won Tony Awards for directing twice in one year for both a musical (Kiss Me, Kate) and a play (Copenhagen). What do you find are the differences between directing the two forms?
In an odd way, a play is harder, because you have so many collaborators in a musical. In a straight play, I sit in the rehearsal room all day and don’t get any respite. Butt if you do a musical, the choreographer gets up and spends half the day with the cast, or the musical director wants people and calls them away for a music call.
In that sense it’s sort of easier, but at the same time it’s as if I’m riding a chariot with three horses, and I’ve got to make sure they’re all pulling in the same direction.
But I look at Tom [Jackson Greaves], and he’s an absolutely brilliant choreographer. It’s lovely to be present, seeing a talent exercised that you don’t happen to have.
* The Life continues at the Southwark Playhouse until 29 April