Tuesday, 18 January 2022

The View from This Window


My writing desk sits under the window in our front bedroom, though we have rarely used the room as such, and it gives me a clear view of the strip of grass on the opposite side of the road. It is that writers’ activity, doing anything else but write, and mine is staring out of that window and watching life pass by on that strip of grass. Whenever I do it, I stop myself, tell myself I should be writing, and turn away from the window, but so often some fascinating tableau out there will catch my attention.

We live in a Victorian back-to-back terraced house in East London. It was the type of house originally built for factory and dock workers. Its layout is simple, almost identical to all the other ones that once filled this area. It was built with two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs and a tiny courtyard at the back, which backs directly onto the courtyard of the house behind us. It’s small but we love it, it’s our home. Our bedroom is the bedroom at the back of the house while the front bedroom has become our spare room/store room/laundry room/my home office; it’s rather cramped but it is amazing to have a place where I can go and write.

There isn’t a matching row of terraced houses on the opposite side of the street to our house, instead there is a long and narrow strip of green grass, a public green space, where the opposite row of houses once stood. Our area of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and the opposite row of houses was a casualty of that bombing. After the war, this strip of bombed houses was turned into a green space, rather than just building on it again. It is so pleasant having this green space right on our doorstep, even though there was a tragedy behind its creation.

This grass was always the territory of two crows, which I named Ronnie and Reggie because they always strutted across the grass as if this was their very manor and would chase away any other birds who dared to land there. They would happily chase away the starlings and pigeons who tried to encroach on their territory, though they were always wary of the seagulls. That was before the Covid lockdown. During the first lockdown, the number of crows multiplied by almost tenfold. There is now a murder of crows that can number twenty or even thirty some mornings, marching across the strip of grass, and they show such little fear of us human residents. One day, returning home from the supermarket, I found two crows sitting on the roof of our car, parked outside our house. They were angrily ripping apart a piece of bread. As I approached the car, one of them hopped away, but the other one remained standing in the centre of the car’s roof, staring angrily at me. It didn’t move as I passed within feet of it. Maybe our street has become their manor.

Many joggers run around the strip of grass as part of their exercise. Some are dressed in the latest running clothes with the latest technology to aid them, their smartphones attached to their forearms by a dedicated strap-on pocket, their fit-bit or smartwatch on their wrist measuring every step they take. Or else they are dressed in old T-shirts and mismatched jogging bottoms. There are joggers who start their run with elaborate stretches and twists and joggers who just go straight into their slow and purposeful runs. The most memorable jogger is the jogger who has been there as long as we have been living here. She is now a woman in her late sixties or early seventies and every Monday to Friday, at seven o’clock in the morning, she runs around that strip of grass. She always wears the same tracksuit of black leggings and a DayGlo top, which is currently bright yellow. She always runs in the same way, short and fast-paced steps with her arms raised up against her chest. She will run around the grass three or four times before running off to the newsagents for her daily newspaper. She then walks home, with a long and flowing stride, the opposite of the way she runs. She’s a very lithe and sprightly woman, so her jogging has served her well.

The dog walkers also exercise their pets on the strip of grass. Some energetically exercise their dogs there, running with the excited dog, throwing a ball for it, chasing it around. Some dog walkers bring their children too, leaving them to do the running around with the dog while they stand on the side and wait for all that energy to be spent. Other dog walkers have their dogs on a retractable lead, where they can stand and let the dog run off by itself until it needs to be pulled back. There is one dog walker who has always grabbed my attention; he and his dog look so alike. He is a portly middle-aged man and his dog is an equally portly Jack Russell terrier. Almost religiously, they walk around the edge of the strip of grass several times a day. I don’t know whether it was his doctor or the dog’s vet that recommended they get more exercise to lose weight. He always walks right around the grass with no shortcuts; his dog always follows behind him, but it always cuts off the corners, taking a diagonal shortcut across them.

On a weekday morning there is the rush of mothers taking their children to school. Those mothers hurriedly rush their reluctant children along, their children trying to stretch out to the maximum the time they aren’t in school. Those mothers are much more interested in talking to their friends as their children hurry on ahead of them. At three-thirty the flow is in reverse, but this time it is teenage boys in their black blazers and matching school ties from the boys’ school on the opposite side of the main road that cuts this area in two. Though they may all be dressed in their neat and dark school uniforms, they still behave like teenage boys. They walk in groups, physically jostling one another, that one-upmanship between boys. They kick a football between them, shout excitedly at one another when they are walking next to each other, eating chips from the cheap fried chicken shop on the corner of the next street. Both of these different rushes of school children are over in barely half an hour each time, over and gone in a quick rush.

Throughout the day, people walk past this strip of grass. People walking to work, people returning home with their bags of shopping, people talking on their phones as they walk, children playing haphazard games on the grass. In the summer, people actually sit on the grass having picnic lunches, though these lunches are far more often chicken and chips from the chicken shop than picnic lunches bought from the local supermarket, though some people do this. And one day there was a young woman recording a video. I noticed her walking around the grass, holding her phone in front of her face and talking in an animated style into it, her right arm gesturing to illustrate what she was saying. At first, I assumed she was making a video call, face-timing someone, but then she walked past for the third time and I realised she was performing the same hand gestures. She was recording herself. Somewhere on the internet is her video, with our street as her background.


On overcast, winter mornings fog can cling to the grass. Some mornings it can be so thick I cannot see the blocks of flats behind the grass. Some mornings it can be just a fine layer, a foot or so deep, just clinging to the grass like a haunted fog from a gothic horror film from the nineteen sixties. And this fog will disappear with the full rays of the sun. And then other mornings the grass will be frozen white by the early morning frost.

So many of the images and people I see out of that window bleed into my writing. They are not so much inspiration for me, but some things I use to add colour to my writing. If I want to describe a minor character or a passing tableau then often I will use something I have seen out of this window. So much of my life bleeds into my writing. In this coming year I’ll be sitting in front of that window a lot, I have so much I want to write about.

 

Happy reading.

Drew

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

“Ah, But Underneath”: Words, Music and Character Development

 


She was smart, tart 

Dry as a martini—

Ah, but underneath…

She was all heart

Something by Puccini—

Ah, but underneath...

 

Ah, But Underneath, Follies - Original London Cast, Stephen Sondheim

 

Julia McKenzie, dressed in a white silk dress, walked slowly to the centre of the stage, dry-ice swirling around her feet, and picked out by a single spotlight. Then she stopped, looked off into the middle distance, and began to sing “Losing My Mind”. She stopped the show.

It was 1987 and I was sitting in the audience at the Shaftsbury Theatre, London, watching Follies, my first West End musical. I had heard so much about this musical, about the A-list cast taking to the stage in it, I had already bought myself the cast recording of it before seeing it. “Losing My Mind” was a torch-song about unrequited love, but listening to that album I had no idea of the power of that song. Sitting there in the theatre, that song hit me face-on, and it stopped the show. I could feel other people around me reacting in the same way.

Now, Julia McKenzie is a very fine actor, with a wonderful singing voice, but it wasn’t just her performance of that song, it was her performance that whole evening. We had seen how her character was deluding herself, chasing after a lost love from twenty years before and denying the problems in her marriage. When we reached the part of the musical where she sang “Losing My Mind” near the end of the second act, we knew this woman and we felt so sorry for her; we were swept up in the real nature of the song because we were hearing it in context.

My mother always loved musicals but she loved the big, Hollywood, romantic musicals. The musicals where the action would stop for its great love songs and it always had a happy ending where the star-crossed lovers found happiness together. I hate those musicals, especially the unrealistic nature of them where the action stops for another song. Growing up, I was sure I didn’t like musicals; well, I didn’t like the ones I had been exposed to.

As a teenager I discovered the television show The South Bank Show. This was a weekly arts show, broadcast on a Sunday night. Unlike most arts shows then, it wasn’t a magazine show, filled with short segments about different and often unrelated subjects; The Show Bank Show would dedicate the whole show to one subject, one writer, one artist, one film, or one play. One Sunday night in 1980, it was about the musical Sweeney Todd, which was soon to premier in London. I watched it in amazement. The musical was about multiple murders and cannibalism, not your usual musical fare. (It was based on the London legend of Sweeney Todd, the barber who slit the throats of his customers, and his sidekick Mrs Lovett, who cut up those bodies and cooked them into meat pies.) But it was more than just a musical horror story; the songs examined the nature of revenge and the destruction of a man’s mental health. I was fascinated and I’d discovered my first musical hero, Stephen Sondheim.

Three years later, a touring production of Sweeney Todd came to Manchester; I was still living with my parents in Liverpool. I persuaded my parents to take me to a matinee performance. I was a teenager and learning how to “persuade” my parents to let me do what I wanted to do. It was a musical and that was enough to appeal to my mother, and my father went along with it because my mother wanted to. My mother, though, after the curtain rose and the songs began, rapidly disapproved of it, and she could disapprove with a force like thunder. The last song of the first act is called “A Little Priest” and is a comic song about cannibalism. My mother was audibly huffling throughout it. During the interval, my mother announced, “Tommy, this isn’t what I call a musical!”

My father replied, “But it’s very interesting, dear, and those actors are taking good parts.” We stayed for the second act.

The atmosphere in the car on our journey home that day was tense. My mother silently oozed disapproval; it had not been her idea of an afternoon spent at the theatre, especially as the second act seemed drenched in murder and madness. I sat in the car’s backseat silently because I had been swept away by what I had seen. It had been a fast-paced plot with a cast of not-so-lovable characters, but it had also discussed some big themes like the nature of revenge, how destructive it can be, and how it doesn’t give you justice or peace. This was what drama could be about.

I had to wait until I’d left home and moved to London to see my next Sondheim musical, Follies. This was a very different musical, about the 1970s reunion of the Follies Girls, showgirls from a 1950s musical extravaganza. This musical was about relationships, nostalgia and how we can fool ourselves with both, plus it didn’t have a neatly happy ending. It showed me how fantasy can be used so effectively in drama, where the characters can step forward and tell the audience what their problems are, in this case with four very different and very original Follies numbers. “Losing My Mind” is one of these numbers.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to see theatrical productions of all his musicals; some have been memorably good, some have been easily forgotten. Sondheim’s musicals do demand so much from actors and production, they are not easily staged in a room above a pub with mediocre actors. Living in London, I have been fortunate to have been able to see some amazing theatrical productions, and so many of them have been Sondheim’s musicals.

What Sondheim’s musicals do, which I found revolutionary when I first saw them, is that his songs still carry the plot forward. In one of his musicals, the plot does not stop for a song; instead the songs are so important to the plot, moving characters and plot forward. His lyrics also capture the characters’ speech patterns; you can hear their dialog in the lyrics of the songs they sing. The meaning of the emotions in his songs deepens when you hear them in context, when you have spent an evening with the characters who are singing them, when you know who they are and why they are singing that song.

Sondheim’s most famous song is “Send in the Clowns”. It is always sung as a romantic song, a love song, but in the musical it is something very different. In A Little Night Music, it is sung by the character Desiree who has spent the musical chasing after Fredrik, an old lover who she thinks will make the perfect husband and father for her teenage daughter. In the second act, she finally gets Fredrik alone in her boudoir and he tells her he really loves his wife. She sings “Send in the Clowns” as her reply. The song is an “oh shit” song. She has finally got Fredrik where she wants him, but he doesn’t want her and she realises she really doesn’t want him. It is such a human and awkward moment, but you do not get that if you only hear the song out of context.

It was a great joy introducing Martin, my husband, to Sondheim’s musicals. I had worried at first that he wouldn’t like them, that he would see them just as camp froth, as so many people claim them are. Fortunately, he saw in them what I do, he too enjoys the plots and characters that are carried along by Sondheim’s sharply lyrical songs, what he also enjoys are their plots. None of Sondheim’s musicals could be described as having “conventional” plots, no two of his musicals even have similar plots, but they always have fascinating plots, even if the plot does not hit the mark, like in Anyone Can Whistle.

When I first moved to London, the first gay men I met happily told me that Sondheim was gay, he was one of us. At first it was reassuring; such a genius like Sondheim was also gay. I found comfort in those famous and intelligent and creative men who were also gay. Later, I came to realise, as I read more about Sondheim and his life, that him being gay was one part of the outsider that he was and that his outsider-ness, not being at the heart of any of the societies he belonged to, made him such a talented composer and songwriter. He was looking in from the sidelines, not celebrating from the centre, and so could comment on all he saw, good and bad. I have found that in myself, so much of my writing is me looking in at something I didn’t fully belong to.

On the 26th November 2021, Stephen Sondheim died. He was at home with his husband when he did.

He has been called a titan of musical theatre and he certainly did reinvent the musical form. But I fear that we won’t get another Sondheim. He made his songs an integral part of the musical’s plot, but musicals have changed so much in the last thirty years. They now cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to stage and MUST be a hit. So we get lots of revivals and jukebox musicals, musicals based on the back catalogue of a famous singer or group or musicals based on famous eighties blockbuster films, which use eighties pop hits as their songs. Musicals with a big and ready audience before they even open, musicals that guarantee a happy ending. Unfortunately, I do not see any space for new composers and songwriters who are trying to do something different, like Sondheim. But there is always fringe theatre.

With his death, I have lost the hope that maybe there could be a new Sondheim musical somewhere in the pipeline. He was not the most prolific of composers but always produced quality over quantity.

I do have the hope of more productions of his work. In 2017, the National Theatre staged a production of Follies. They got every element of it right; the casting, staging, orchestration and direction were so right that they generated a perfect production and we got to see it. It is a memory I will happily never forget.

Drew