Singular Sensations – Janie Dee in conversation with Edward Seckerson at the Charing Cross Theatre, London.
This was the third in the series in which music journalist (and one-time actor and singer) Edward Seckerson talks to musical performers about aspects of their lives and work. Kerry Ellis and Howard Goodall were the first two guests at these informal gatherings at the Charing Cross Theatre. The idea is to throw the spotlight on the guest and let them provide the musical illustrations that have had an important bearing on their careers.
Janie Dee is a fine actress, singer and dancer who has made a great impact on live theatre both in the UK and the USA. She has won two Olivier Awards in London and Obie and Theater World Awards in New York. She is comfortably at home in either musicals or straight plays, is a mistress of comedy, and is even now adding directing to her many talents (she staged Central School of Speech & Drama’s production of a musical version of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen).
Janie’s musical CV includes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, The King and I and South Pacific, Marvin Hamlisch’s They’re Playing Our Song, Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee, the Gershwins’ My One and Only, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Anyone Can Whistle, Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel and Hello, Dolly!, and even Shostakovich’s Paradise Moscow and Kern’s Show Boat for Opera North. At the Charing Cross Theatre she began her Sunday afternoon appearance by singing ‘(When I Marry) Mr Snow’ from Carousel in which she played Carrie Pipperidge in Nicholas Hytner’s production for the National Theatre in 1992, a personal success for Dee which won her her first Olivier Award.
From the first line of the song you gain the impression that Dee is not just singing the song, but is acting it too. In musical theatre this is almost essential, although not all performers see it that way. Then Seckerson and Dee talked about the merits of Rodgers & Hammerstein and why they are sometimes put down as being overly sentimental. In fact both concluded that the most successful of musical partnerships dealt in very dark stories – sexual obsession and death in Oklahoma!, physical abuse in Carousel, the clash of cultures in The King and I, miscegenation in South Pacific, and fleeing from the Nazis in The Sound of Music, not the usual bill of trivial fare meted out on the musical stage of the 1920s to the 1940s. Both agreed that the timeless work of Rodgers & Hammerstein would last for ever, as it speaks to each new generation as it comes along.
The first music that impressed Dee was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and that made her want to be part of music and theatre. Asked by Seckerson if she ever turned down any job of work, Dee replied in song by singing that greatest of all positive songs, ‘Yes’, from Kander & Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70. She says ‘yes’ to most things, provided the script is good and really grabs her attention. She has had the distinction of having Alan Ayckbourn write a play, Comic Potential, specifically for her, in which she played a robot nurse called Jacie Triplethree, and for which she won her second Olivier Award, as well as further awards in New York. In tribute to Ayckbourn, she sang his comic song ‘Copy Type’, portraying the thoughts of an office girl as she is typing a letter – very funny and again a song to be acted rather than just sung.
After Dee introduced the Charing Cross Theatre audience to her daughter Matilda who sang and played guitar (an obviously talented young lady following in mother’s footsteps), the actress sang ‘A Quiet Thing’ from another Kander and Ebb show, Flora, the Red Menace. It transpires that Burt Bacharach is a favourite songwriter of the actress and she performed a very pleasing version of ‘Alfie’, a number written for the film of Bill Naughton’s stage play.
Dee helped organise the Concert for Peace just as the Iraq War broke out and collected various contributions from the likes of Harold Pinter. As the Singular Sensations programme fell on Remembrance Sunday, she read Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Last Post’, a BBC commission to commemorate Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, the last two British soldiers to fight in the First World War. Then came ‘Danny Boy’, coupled with a song by Stephen Sondheim from The Frogs.
This was a very civilised afternoon’s entertainment in which Seckerson just prompted Dee into talking about her life and the way she works. Her next major appearance will be in Putting It Together, the Sondheim revue, a sort of sequel to Side By Side By Sondheim, which opens at the St James Theatre in Victoria on 14 January, 2014. Dee is still learning ‘Getting Married ’, but she gave us a little taster of what’s to come. Other work on the cards includes Racine’s Phèdre and possibly Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The afternoon ended with the title song from Sondheim’s shortlived Anyone Can Whistle (Dee was in the British premiere at the London Theatre) which Dee interpreted most movingly.
She obviously couldn’t leave us without something from her latest hit at the Leicester Curve, the title song from Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, the only show that Dee’s father ever asked her to do. The audience was encouraged to join in for this last number for which Dee even made a grand entrance: a fitting finale to a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment.
* Future Singular Sensations shows at the Charing Cross Theatre are John Wilson (8 December), Patricia Routledge (19 January) and Jenna Russell (26 January).