Having performed in the original 1966 London production of Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand at the Prince of Wales Theatre, MAURICE LANE is playing Mr Keeney in the current West End production.
Now celebrating 68 years in showbusiness, Maurice started at the age of nine, touring in variety with his father, comedian Sandy Lane.
Maurice’s mainstay of work has been in musicals, starting at the Windmill Theatre and going on to perform in 21 musical productions in the West End, notably The Boys From Syracuse, She Loves Me, Passion Flower Hotel, Fiddler On the Roof, Billy, Show Boat, 42nd Street, The Witches of Eastwick and several royal command and charity performances. Maurice could last be seen in the West End in Dirty Dancing at the Aldwych Theatre.
At 13, Maurice arrived in London to study theatre at the Corona Academy of Theatre Arts, after which he went into repertories at Perth, Colchester and Oxford.
By the age of 17, he had his own TV series, Sugar and Spice for BBC Children’s Hour. He has consequently worked extensively in every aspect of the profession, including, theatre, film, radio and also cabaret, both here and abroad, with the act Jo, Jac and Joni.
Maurice has also directed several productions, the last being Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which toured nationally and then transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Maurice took time out, before the end of the London run at the Savoy, to chat to Musical Theatre Review’s Lisa Martland.
Funny Girl is your 22nd show in the West End. That’s pretty impressive, what would have been your first?
Well, my first appearance in the West End was at the Windmill Theatre and I was there for two years. It was an hour-long show and we did continuous performances from two o’clock in the afternoon to 10 o’clock at night.
It was called Revudeville. The seasons used to last about 12 weeks, and then they’d change the show. We’d perform for six weeks (with every other day off) and then the next seven weeks. Then there were rehearsals for the next two.
That must have been an incredibly valuable experience for a young performer?
Yes, there weren’t many places like that, we did lots of different things. In the first show I might be in the opening, then in the second I might be in the sketch that followed it. Every show was different.
I know your father was in variety and encouraged you. I hear your first performance was at about the age of nine?
That’s right, I worked with my father in his act. You know in pantomimes when the Dame has children up on the stage and everyone does a singalong? Well, my dad was a comedian and a Dame in pantomime.
I would take the children back to their seats and watch the end of the act from out front. During the singalong, he encouraged everyone to stand up. I was up in the circle once, by the balustrade, which I used to stand behind. I started to sing, and I must have had a loud voice, because everybody started looking around and stopped their singing.
So my dad said to the guy operating the follow spot “Go on him”, and he picked me up and I finished the song like that. After the show, the manager came around and said: “That was great idea. What gave you that idea?” After that, it was kept in, and my dad started using me in his act all the time.
And then you travelled to London to study?
I went to the Corona Theatre School in Chiswick when I was 14, although after the first term, my dad realised he couldn’t afford the fees, the digs and the travel costs.
I went to Rona Knight who ran the school and told her I was going to have to leave, but she said: “I think you’ve got talent, so I’ll make sure you get enough work to pay for yourself and I’ll forgo the fees.”
A large percentage of the children at Corona got work, especially in all of the old black and white films. I got a lot of work and I eventually paid for myself.
How old would you have been when you went to the Windmill?
I must have been about 20/21, something like that.
But more than 20 West End shows since then, and I know you’ve done film and television as well. Are you still getting the same kick out of performing as you did in previous years?
Oh, yeah. I’m just more worried now because, you know, I’m growing older. I’m 78 and I’m feeling it! I’ve always thought, in my mind, ‘I can do anything’, but I do a little bit of dancing in the show and I think I couldn’t do much more than that.
Tell me about how you got involved in Funny Girl?
Well, I was in the original London production too, it was about my fourth West End show. I was in the chorus.
Streisand made a massive impression during that period. What was it like watching her perform?
It was magic. She was lovely. I remember to this day, on the last night, sitting in the wings watching her do the final number. Beautiful, beautiful.
How does her interpretation compare to Sheridan’s?
Whereas Barbra Streisand made Fanny Brice a rather sophisticated lady at times, Sheridan has made her a comedian. Which she was! On and offstage. So you can’t compare the two, because they’re so entirely different.
What was it like being asked to be part of the Menier production?
I moved out of London seven years ago, really to sort of semi-retire. It had been three years since I had done Dirty Dancing. I thought: “well, that’s my lot. I’ve had a good stint.”
But then I saw that Funny Girl was coming on. So I told my agent I would love to have something to do with the production. It would be my swansong.
So tell me about your role as Mr. Keeney…
He’s the one that fires Fanny early on and says she has no talent. The line I say to her is: “Go home, find a nice guy, have a couple of kids. You ain’t cut out for this.”
Is the character fun to play?
It’s great for me, I manage to get some nice laughs, some lovely material. I make three entrances in Act I, and then in Act II I also play another character, an actor.
What is it like working with Sheridan Smith?
I was a bit in awe of her on the first day, but when I met her she ran out and wrapped her arms around me and said: “I’m so honoured to be working with you.”
I am in awe of what she does. In rehearsals I never saw her with a script in her hand, it was as if she was ad-libbing the whole thing. It’s wonderful. She is a special artist, there’s no doubt about that. She’s got something that is really, really special.
What was it like changing from the intimacy of the Menier to the Savoy?
I was worried. I didn’t know how it was going to change, because the show had such an intimate feel there. And Sheridan used to talk to the audience and ad-lib with them. She used to go down into the audience at one point, it was really lovely.
That’s pretty impossible at the Savoy because the band’s in the way, but it’s still lovely. She still has that eye contact with the audience.
What did you think about Harvey Fierstein’s changes to the book?
I think the changes have tightened the production up and made it a bit sharper. Director Michael Mayer also has a great eye for telling a story. I think it works very, very well.
Strange question I know, but I was told you have done The Knowledge and have also driven a black cab in the past.
It’s funny, but when I was last at the Savoy I was in a production called High Spirits. It was Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit turned into a musical, with Cicely Courtneidge playing Madame Arcati, and Denis Quilley was the lead.
The choreographer had to stage a bicycle number which was very difficult for Cicely Courtneidge. They tried it and tried it, and at the end of the day we were all stuck in the auditorium and he came out and told us: “Okay, kids. At 10 o’clock tomorrow morning we’ll do the bicycle number.” And this voice from the back of the auditorium said: “The bicycle number is cut!” And that was Noel Coward.
At the time we were in Manchester, where we did the pre-London tour, and the choreographer replied: “Well, I may as well go back to London, because this was all I had to do.” And he started to walk off the stage, and I stood up, because I wanted to say: “Well, if he’s going, I’m going!”
And suddenly thoughts of rent, rates and school fees flashed through my head, and I sat back down again. And I thought I have got to do something so I am not in that position again.
So you thought to yourself, I can’t leave this show now, because…
The money would stop that week. That’s when I did The Knowledge. It was the best part-time job in the world. You could just take it up and leave it.
I still have my own taxi now, outside the house. I’m not using it, but I drive it to go into London sometimes.
Well, I should congratulate you on your 68 years in the industry, and what an amazing job you’ve done! Are there any particular shows that have stood out?
I think two shows, really. There was Fiddler On the Roof. That was a wonderful experience. Jerome Robbins came over to redirect it at the end, and he was just amazing.
And 42nd Street, I absolutely loved. I remember watching an American awards ceremony which featured the railway station scene in 42nd Street. I thought how wonderful it must have been to be involved in that. And I remember on the first night at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, when I was standing on the railway station set, how incredible that was.
It’s really lucky in this business because we have lovely memories and get praise and thanks for doing what we love.
* Funny Girl continues at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. A tour of the show begins in Manchester on 18 February 2017.
Tickets for the West End run of Funny Girl can be bought HERE.
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Sheridan Smith will join Funny Girl tour – News
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