Lisa Martland writes: This week (starting today, Tuesday May 12!) HOWARD SAMUELS and LUCY DIXON return to London’s Crazy Coqs for three performances of their sell-out show Invade My Privacy, a cabaret devoted to the genius that is and was Fran Landesman.
Dixon and Samuels first met in the Sondheim musical Company and worked together again in the National Theatre’s production of Frogs before pairing up with director Linda Marlowe on the highly acclaimed original production of Invade My Privacy (King’s Head, Riverside Studios and Criterion Theatre).
Fran Landesman – who passed away in July 2011 at the age of 83 – was a New York songwriter, beat poet, performer and lifelong bohemian who earned herself the title ‘godmother of hip’. In 1949 she met her future husband Jay Landesman, then the publisher of Neurotica, a magazine that backed the work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Durrell and John Clellon Holmes.
Having run a hip nightclub called the Crystal Palace in Jay’s hometown of St Louis, Missouri (Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen played there), the bohemian couple moved to London in 1964 where they remained.
More than 30 years later, Fran hadn’t lost any of her bohemian qualities. While appearing on Desert Island Discs, she asked Sue Lawley if she could have a supply of cannabis seeds as her luxury item (the BBC received a number of complaints).
When reviewing Samuels and Dixon’s previous visit to the Crazy Coqs, I wrote: “Landesman was such a wonderful wordsmith, able to shock one minute by speaking her mind (famously so in ‘If They Can’t Take a Joke’) and break your heart the next with the tender emotion of ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ and ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’.
“In performing these last two numbers that became jazz standards, Samuels and Dixon demonstrate their capacity for deep, bittersweet emotion through music, but in contrast their great comic timing is also evident throughout the more lighthearted ‘It’s Nice Weather For Ducks’ and ’Paranoia’ (a fabulous parody of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!).
“This review comes with a strong recommendation that you catch that show.”
I caught up with Howard Samuels to hear all about his return to the cabaret stage and the huge personal and professional influence Fran Landesman has had on his career.
When were you first aware of Fran Landesman’s work?
In the autumn of 1982, I was involved in bringing a show I had co-written, I’m Just Wilde About Oscar, to the King’s Head, Theatre in London. I had just got back from playing a ‘Puerto Rican with a headband’ in a production of West Side Story in Perth in Scotland, so I was keen to work on something on of my own.
During the run Fran left me a letter wrapped around a cassette (on it was a collection of her songs about movies). She said she had loved the show and would like to work with me some time. It’s awful, but I didn’t know who she was and it was pre-Google so I had to go and do a bit of research – it was only then that I found out Jack Kerouac played bongos outside her window, she was asked out for tea by an admiring Bette Davis and labelled “one of my heroes” by Tom Waits.
After I discovered all of that, I thought ‘wow, this person wants to work with me?’ I’m Just Wilde About Oscar was an hour-long revue and I had carefully looked at what songs worked within the story. I think Fran liked the musical choices and the performance level. I used the song ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (Paul McCartney) during an emotional scene between Wilde and Bosie, and Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ when Wilde was in jail.
What was your first meeting like?
We arranged to meet at her house in Islington, and when I rang the intercom, it was the first time I heard Fran’s husky, Jewish-American, New York voice. We sat on her famous bed, talking, talking and talking, discovering we had a mutual passion for the movies she had written about in her songs. Then my stomach started to rumble so went in search of the meal she had cooked in what seemed like a very dark, cold, empty kitchen. There was no sign of anything cooking and I soon discovered that Fran might have been a genius as a writer, but a domestic goddess she wasn’t!
And your first creative collaboration?
We decided to take the songs and put them into a musical called Don’t Cry Baby, It’s Only a Movie [the title referred to how Fran’s brother use to say ‘there there, it’s going to be alright’ when they were watching movies together] at the Old Red Lion, Theatre. Penny Faith and I wrote the book and Fran and Jason McAuliffe wrote the songs. It was staged around the same time as the Woody Allen movie The Purple Rose of Cairo came out, and had exactly the same idea, all about the power of music and fantasy, about fiction connecting with the real world.
What was it like working with Fran?
Fran was both incredible and exasperating, she could be fantastic and crotchety. What did become evident as I saw her do more and more gigs was how amazing her whole catalogue was. I felt I had to do something with the material. In addition to some of the more well-known songs like ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ and ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’, Fran began showing me others songs, lyrics and poems. She kept them underneath her bed!
At the auditions for the original production of Invade My Privacy in 1993, actress and singer Jacqui Dankworth (who was cast in the show) performed another great Fran song, ‘Before Love Went Out of Style’, which she wrote with Dudley Moore no less.
What was Fran’s reaction to the first version of Invade My Privacy?
She loved it and was happy that her songs were being heard by a wider audience. She said it was like ‘pure ecstasy’, and she had never seen her songs interpreted as well as they were in the show [the piece was brilliantly directed by actress Linda Marlowe].
Invade My Privacy started off with three shows at the King’s Head and then moved to the Riverside Studios. There was also a night at the Criterion Theatre, a fundraiser for The Prince’s Trust. Fran was so thrilled when she saw the ‘sold out’ sign, and she said she felt like the Queen when watching the show from the Royal Box.
People kept coming back to see the show and brought others they knew would like it. Fran’s lyrics are deceptive, they seem so clear and simple, but then you realise how clever she is with words. You think she means one thing, then it turns out to be something different. ‘A Brontosaurus Named Bert’ is one of my favourites of all time. The words are so sweet, but the lyrics also say so much about moving on in life, about lost innocence.
We recorded the soundtrack and I still have people saying to me that they play it often. That’s a compliment to the production and the work.
What has the reaction been like to the latest Invade My Privacy show?
The reaction is as fresh now as when I met Fran, and the work is pertinent as it has ever been.
When my dear friend and musical director Russell Churney died seven years ago now, I couldn’t face performing in cabaret for a long while, but during the last couple of years I began to feel that maybe I was ready to do something again
Then I had a call from Lucy [Dixon, also an original member of the Invade My Privacy cast] in Paris, where she had been living, and she wanted to perform more of Fran’s material. I suggested we do a show together and it’s working out so well. I am absolutely loving every single minute of it, the experience has reminded me how much I adore Fran’s material and how much I adored Fran.
I also think we are giving the songs a renewed depth. Lucy and I have returned to material we have known for a long time, but in the meantime we have lived life a little more. That makes the new shows even more extraordinary.
Have you made any changes to the show following recent performances at the Crazy Coqs and St James Theatre?
I think it’s much clearer that we tell Fran’s story throughout the piece, explain who she was, how she came to be in England, with stories and anecdotes, through the music. The feedback has got better and better each time we’ve done it. The show is even stronger now, the audience really feels like they know Fran’s journey.
I just hope we can take the show across the pond at some point in the future. I firmly believe Invade My Privacy is meant to be seen in America, its spiritual home. It would be great to have the chance to perform it in a club in New York – for Fran.
You must miss Fran…
It’s like a love affair, she has been a huge influence on my life, both professionally and personally, and I miss her enormously. She was unlike anyone I have ever met in my life.
We had even collaborated on a musical version of black comedy Harold and Maude. We were going to perform it ourselves as a two-hander, maybe do it for the radio. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to bring that to fruition one day.
I believe it was kismet that Fran and I met. Without that cassette, none of all this would have happened. She was one funny, funny dirty old lady!
* Invade My Privacy will be performed from 12–14 May at the Crazy Coqs. The show is once again directed by Linda Marlowe and backed by the piano playing of Gary Jerry.
Readers may also be interested in:
Lucy Dixon and Howard Samuels – Invade My Privacy – Review
* Howard Samuels is currently playing Max in the national touring production of The Sound of Music. His recent work includes: Tom Hurley in the London premiere of the Harvey Fierstein/John Buccino musical A Catered Affair (London Theatre Workshop), the voice of Jack the Ripper in Luc Besson’s forthcoming animation film Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Billy Life in Payback the Musical (Riverside Studios), Needles in Hoods the Musical workshop (Arts Theatre) and Oscar Jaffe in On the Twentieth Century (Union Theatre).
Among his West End credits are Jorge in Tonight’s the Night (Victoria Palace), Frank‘n’Furter in The Rocky Horror Show (Duke of York’s, also UK tour), Knucklemouth in Dear Anyone (Cambridge Theatre) and Fyedka in Rebel in Paradise (Young Vic). Further musical theatre roles have been in shows such as Honk!, Company, Grease, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.