Me and My Girl | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre

Kate: Good evening Ladies & Gentlemen. Welcome to the pre-show talk for “Me and My Girl” I’m Kate Mosse. I’m a novelist & playwright & the biographer of CFT. It’s my great honour to be allowed to interrogate the creative people about their shows & sometimes the cast afterwards. It’s absolutely brilliant! I saw it last night & it’s a complete delight. I want you to say why you chose this particular musical. Obviously you’re the king of musicals. You had such amazing success here & in Sheffield with them. I did feel this is just what everyone needs at this particular moment in life, in history, in the world. Proper, beautiful, perfectly executed fun. That’s what it felt like. So was that your reasoning? We don’t need another miserable show. (Laughter) Not that the shows are miserable in any way but you know what I mean, it’s unabashed joy. Daniel: Exactly that & it’s also a great contrast with “Fiddler on the Roof” which does have its misery. While “Fiddler” is also joyous & funny it’s a troublesome subject. So we were thinking about a musical that would be a contrast & also thinking about the times in which we are living currently. There’s lots of doom & gloom out there about what might or might not happen with Brexit & our economic downturn etc. It wasn’t long before we could alight on “Me & My Girl”. “Me & My Girl” in it’s genre which is a British musical – Kate: Which is rare – not a Broadway musical. Daniel: – which is rare, particularly from this period, is also a brilliantly crafted script & a wonderful score. One of the things I get moved by is that people who come sing along. I don’t mind people singing along. The actors might say something different. Somehow the score of those songs & this composer Noel Gay was able to create tunes that really got into your core. Not just ear worms but body worms. They somehow become part of our consciousness. They lift the heart when you hear them. We are lucky to have a cast that sing them particularly well. It’s a well made piece with a beautiful score, a very funny script that also has some substance. It’s about class & Englishness. It’s set in Hampshire so just across the border. It felt, for many reasons this was an apposite choice. Kate: In fact it’s not only one of the rare British musicals but it was 1937 so it was actually going out into the world at quite an interesting time. It became a “thing” in the paper didn’t it? Hitler & Chamberlain & all of these things but all everybody wanted to talk about was doing the Lambeth walk! It was part of history wasn’t it? Daniel: It was. There was a famous
quote which I’m going to forget now. Kate: It’s in the program Ladies & Gentlemen. It’s a shameless plug for selling the program. Daniel: It’s about how dictators across Europe were doing the Lambeth walk just in that pre-war period & throughout the phoney war. So, yes, you’re right, it encapsulates a time of innocence in fact. As we’ve been working with the cast we’ve realised that all the jokes or pieces of business that we’ve included that are not innocent need to be removed. That’s because there’s a particular kind of English innocence that this piece thrives on & that the audience delight in. Kate: When you make a decision that you’re going to do that sort of show, it’s both itself but you’ve done quite a lot of new things to it. We’ll come on to that in the music a little bit later. Presumably the casting then becomes absolutely essential. It is around one particular lead character, the cockney boy/man. Also there are some great big characters on the stage. Did you immediately think, well if we do it we need somebody of Matt Lucas’s stature in order to be Bill Snibson? Daniel: Yes, I guess it was more to do with Matt’s particular comic gifts. As you say Bill is such a huge leading role but a comic role through & through. We needed someone who is going to be able to pull off both linguistic & physical comedy. I’d long admired Matt’s work on television. I knew that he could sing, in fact I’d seen him in a musical, the Boy George musical “Taboo” in a small theatre in London, I think it’s called the Leicester Square Theatre about 20 years ago. I’d seen the documentary about him playing the role of Thénardier in “Les Miserables” & doing the concert at the o2. So I’d heard him sing. I knew that he could move from seeing his sketch work. But also & perhaps most importantly I knew that he had a way with comic timing & a connection with audiences. I’m thrilled to say that’s really borne true both in our rehearsals how he’s made us & the cast laugh, & there have been times when we’ve been in tears of laughter with him, but also now how he’s able to have a connection with the audience almost in a way that means the fourth wall is broken down completely. Kate: A couple of times last night it did break down because he was wonderfully ad-libbing with the audience. Daniel: There was a mishap that happened last night with one of our props. Kate: It was actually hilarious. Daniel: Both he & Caroline Quentin too are able to be quick-witted & react in the moment. Kate: With that sort of sense of comic timing one of the things that I thought was so wonderful about Matt Lucas’s performance & indeed Caroline Quentin, is that for those of you who don’t know the story it is in a way a rags to riches story. Are they above their station are they not? Are they suitable, the girl that he loves? It’s all of those things, quite a traditional story. What I thought was so amazing was that it was very moving. You felt that it genuinely mattered to him to not lose his girl. The “Me & My Girl” part of it. Was that a decision that you were going to actively make sure that the storylines sang as well? That it wasn’t going to be just the amazing big numbers? Which are there anyway! Daniel: I think with any musical & you’ve heard me say this a few times, there’s a kind of snobbishness. There can exist a kind of snobbishness around musicals which means that some people don’t value them in the same way as they value plays for example. I don’t share that opinion & I think especially when they’re well made, that means having a really good script, because often the downfall with musicals is that the script isn’t as good as the songs. That’s why when you get pieces of musical theatre like “Fiddler on the Roof” or “My Fair Lady” where the script absolutely matches the quality of the score & the songs, then you’re able to take people on a journey that’s epic & personal. One of the reasons why I love the casting of Matt & indeed Alex Young who plays the girl. Kate: She’s terrific! Daniel: She’s wonderful, she comes to us from playing young Sally in the National Theatre production of “Follies”. I’ve been lucky to work with Alex twice before in “Anything Goes” & on “Showboat”. These actors are able to convey two oddballs. They are both characters who have felt like they don’t fit in. Indeed maybe felt like they might not find a partner in life. Perhaps later on in life, maybe in their 30s have found each other having thought that they would be alone for a long time. So the stakes for them when this huge change comes upon them, when they find that he has inherited huge millions, she feels very vulnerable. She asks him: “where do I fit in, is this going to have an effect on our relationship?” He might be seduced by the millions & seduced by the glamorous daughter of the household. She has to fight for him. She has her own tactics in trying to keep him & he has this realisation that actually he loves her more than riches or more than property or class. That’s where the moving aspect hopefully comes in. Kate: But did you make a decision about the age of casting? Quite often they are what used to be called the juvenile leads. Daniel: “Ingenue”. Kate: Exactly they’re 19 although they ‘re played by 35 year olds. It looked like you’d made a decision that they were grown-up people not children. Is that deliberate? Is there any guidance to casting age? Daniel: No. I’ve seen it played younger. I think Robert Lindsey when he starred in it famously in the ’80s was a little younger We consciously made a decision. For example when Sally says: “if they marry you off to one of their lot then I’ll die an old maid” It was important to me that this was “last chance saloon” for them. It’s a little like when you see an older Beatrice & Benedick in “Much Ado about Nothing”. The stakes for those two people finding each other & then keeping hold of each other just feels heightened. That’s certainly true, I hope anyway, in Matt & Alex’s performance. They really can mean it when the potential & the danger of them being parted is a real potential tragedy in their lives. Kate: It makes sense of Caroline Quentin’s Duchess of Dean when she says quite near the end… … I didn’t realise she meant so much to him. She then becomes human. Caroline Quentin also is just tremendous. With that that sort of casting I imagine there’s a danger that some of those big roles could take over. Yet it seemed bizarrely an ensemble piece. Even though there were these huge central roles. Daniel: That’s right. There are really 4 central roles. SirJohn Tremaine is played by Clive Rowe. It’s a quartet but there are also many other parts. That’s one of the things I love too about spreading the love. Making sure that there are opportunities throughout the cast for people to shine. We have one person who’s making her professional debut with us & she opens the show actually. Lots of our ensemble are very young. Newbies, new kids on the block. They also have their moment. It’s a show where everyone gets a moment in the sun. That’s really gratifying as a director. You get to work with everyone individually. Also you know, well hope, that they all are invested because they get their moment. Kate: It does feel like that. It feels fun on the stage & fun in the audience. I don’t know if it will happen this evening, I don’t know if it’s happened in every preview, it is an extraordinary thing that people started to sing & sway in the overture. It had barely started & people were thinking “way-hay we’re off!” Can we just talk a bit about what you guys have done? This is a new production it’s not the book that was written by Stephen Fry & done in the ’80s. Actually I was surprised at how little it had been done over the years since its first performance with Lupino Lane. You’ve done a lot more with the re-scoring with the wonderful Gareth Valentine. We all know him from many things here not least of all “The Pajama Game”. What do you have to ask from an estate if you want to inject new character into a score? How much new music can you add? How many new words can you add? How does it work? Just talk us through it a bit. Daniel: It’s a complicated process & I remember this discussion last year. It’s perhaps tricky when you are in discussions within an estate or the creators have passed away. You’re often dealing with lawyers. Kate: Like family solicitors. Daniel: They are very protective of their intellectual property – rightly so. Kate: They’re there for us – they’re there for the writers who can’t speak for themselves. Daniel: Exactly. Often, & I mean this in the best sense, there’s also a financial element to this. They they know that what those creators made were successful because of the very ingredients that they created together. So we are lucky on “Me & My Girl” that the grandson of the composer, a man called Alex Armitage who now runs the Noel Gay organisation collaborated with us right from the start. Alex represents all 3 members of the estates of the lyricist the book writer & indeed Stephen Fry & Mike Okrent. They created the book on which this is based. (He also represents) obviously his grandfather, Noah Gay. It’s really honest, thorough, discussion from the start around the fact or the negotiation, around how can we respect what has gone before & maintain the quintessential elements of “Me and My Girl”, & at the same time make sure that we speak to an audience now & make sure that it feels fresh & inventive & lively because no one comes to the theatre to see a museum piece. No one wishes to make a piece that is in formaldehyde. It’s a balance. We’ve set it in its period. There are some elements I don’t want to give away because there are lots of people who haven’t seen it. There are some elements that we have changed To come to your point about Gareth’s work, (Gareth Valentine, our musical supervisor & musical director), it was really a case of him, me & Alistair over a series of mornings getting together in Gareth’s flat with the piano. Kate: Alistair David is the choreographer? Daniel: Yes, we got together over many meetings. We were thinking & asking ourselves: “what is each number about, what is at it’s core?” Once we latch on to that core, how can we express that core in the most creative way possible. For example the first number at the top of Act 2 is “The Sun has got it’s Hat on”. It’s a number that is for us an expression of unadulterated joy. Visitors have come to stay at this posh house, Hareford Hall, where there are endless wonderful facilities to play all kinds of sports, to be pampered, to drink, to cavort & all the rest of it. We wanted to explore a kind of carnival atmosphere. So Gareth helps us with a certain Latin-American feel. We are able to begin with English Madrigal singing but end up with a conga. Kate: (Laughing) I felt it was wonderful, all the way through the show, you’ve put little bits of – not teasing – but references to other pieces of work other musicals, other plays, other references. For anyone who is a musical fan they’ll think “oh they’ve got that from there!” Did those things all start when you first went into the rehearsal room? Or do they get sprinkled on like gold dust as you go along? You think it would be funny if we put that in. Daniel: They actually started before the rehearsal room. It’s really Gareth’s knowledge of musical theatre & his knowledge of classical music. Gareth is a classicist. His knowledge, particularly of sacred music for example, is vast. It matches his musical theatre knowledge. There are elements of those references that are based on what Noel Gay himself intended. So there’s a number that’s based on Gilbert & Sullivan. We’ve just taken that a little bit further. So for the “G&S” afficionados you’re able to spot those references from “Pinafore” etc. But there are other references. We brainstorm & throw all kinds of ideas in. Most of them get ditched because they’re not appropriate or they’re OTT. There’s a reference to Bill’s “succession” as the Earl of Hareford. Of course the most famous anthemic tune of succession is Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” which makes an appearance. You know it is used at weddings & coronations still. So hopefully there’s some enjoyment for those people who can spot the references. But they are a great tunes, you don’t need to know the references. Hopefully they add some texture & richness to the musical experience. Kate: We’ve mentioned Alistair David, the choreographer. He is also familiar to us here in Chi. It is wonderful choreography & there are all of what I think of as proper old-fashioned musical theatre numbers which are just a total delight. With that sort of work there are lots of people on the stage doing a lot of moves. It’s very complicated. It’s proper ballet, proper tap, really great tap. When you move from the rehearsal room into this wonderful space – but it is a 50p piece – Gareth & the band are down there so there’s a great big hole in the middle of the stage, how much adjustment does the company have to make when they get here? That’s in terms of their shape & how they dance. Daniel: It’s really interesting. As much as you can explain things in the rehearsal room, for those people who aren’t used to acting on a thrust you can see that it doesn’t quite compute yet. They can’t quite get their heads around it It’s not in the round but it’s almost in the round. So a process happens. You see people have major realisations when we get on a stage. “Oh? OK!” So there is a penny dropping that you can visibly see with actors. It’s just in the technical rehearsals & during previews. Two nights ago I deliberately sat where I could see what the experience is from the sides,. for those audiences on the side. I love working on a thrust. You then conscientiously try & make sure that sight lines are clear. There are times of course – & I know our audiences are used to this – where you get someone’s back but you’re getting someone else’s front. So there’s a kind of shared communal experience that happens in the thrust that I love. If we’ve done our job properly those people aren’t stationary for too long. You keep things moving. What I hope & what I can see with the cast is that eventually actors love the challenge of being able & having to portray characters more or less in 360 degrees. There is nowhere to hide & I think the best actors embrace that. Kate: With the conversations you have had about the importance of previews, that many of this audience will have heard us have before, about what happens in the preview. We were talking about wonderful “Quiz” by James Graham. It played (in Minerva) last year & there has been a wonderful run in the West End. You were very open saying there were still cuts going in right up until Press Night. With something like a musical with such a large company, does it get on the stage as it’s going to be delivered on the stage? Do you have the same ability to cut things out or add things in in previews? Or is it just too complicated a show? Daniel: It’s a bit of a balance. Particularly where musical numbers are concerned it’s obviously more complicated. It’s not the same as just saying: “Oh change this word here or change this line or let’s cut that section.” There’s a band underneath here & there’s an orchestrator. So when you make one change there’s a whole chain. Kate: It’s like dominoes. Daniel: The repercussions are huge so planning becomes really important in the numbers. Luckily we’ve had 2 orchestrators, Mark Cumberland & Doug Besterman. Doug is an American & has been with us for the last week & a half. He flew back to America yesterday. Mark is English & so has remained with us so we are still able to make adjustments. They’re not necessarily minor adjustments, nor do we wish to because we’re happy with the structure that we’ve put in place. We are also aware that this week we have 4 afternoons in which we can make changes. We have to choose to pick our battles well. Luckily we’re in a good place so that actually we are tweaking now. Luckily we have orchestrators at hand. They can go to their computers or indeed Gareth writes things longhand on scores. This makes sure that the band with 11 players in total all have new parts for tonight. They all can play it through & know that they can play as professionally as possible with the cuts. Kate: I thought it was astonishing it was a preview. It felt so ready & done. It didn’t feel like a preview. Daniel: Touch wood. Is this wood? Kate: Could be anything? One final thing before I start to take some audience questions. In comedy there’s always that moment whenever I’m talking to directors or writers of comedy where things that have had everybody rolling around in the rehearsal room, when they come into the theatre & the audience reacts with:- “why is that funny?” Does that happen very often in these things? You’re all so used to something that it’s brought it’s own momentum with it then it just doesn’t quite land in the audience. Daniel: That’s been one of the great, great pleasurable things about working on “Me & my Girl”. It’s working with great comics. They will say many times in the rehearsal room that this will never be complete until the missing character arrives. That’s the audience. So what’s been wonderful about Matt & Caroline for example is that they are both writers as well as performers. Kate: They’ve done Stand Up. Daniel: God help them!. Kate: I’m sure that must make difference Daniel: They’re not afraid of trying new things & of self-editing. They’ll come off & say “that’s not funny we’ve tried it a couple of times now so let’s try something better.” They’re courageous in that sense. They are willing to ditch or “kill” their babies. OK we all thought that was funny but it turns out it’s not. So we’re willing to try new things. It’s been a great joy to see them improvise or try new stuff in front 1,300 people. That requires bravery. Kate: How long do you give those sorts of comic moments? Daniel: Two nights. I think if it’s not funny the second night then it has to go. Kate: That’s quite brutal. Daniel: Well we’ve had such good audiences & they have been consistent. Also I trust our actors. Our actors have impeccable instincts. It’s been really pleasurable being able to say:- “let’s not set this quite yet – because we really don’t know what reaction we’re going to get.” Over the previews it has been a case of saying “OK”… …”we know that might work & that might work, that not so much so let’s try something else.” Kate: This is going to be a ludicrous question or comment because we’re sitting here & you can’t see anything. We have to mention the great Les Brotherston & the fantastic set & design which you’re rightly keeping secret. At what point does Les become part of this? In an awful lot of the comedy is partly to do with the design & how cleverly it works together. The way that it’s sometimes totally naturalistic. At other times & I hope this is not a spoiler but there is an astonishing dream sequence. It is incredible. So you’ve got some surreal elements as well as the Hampshire country home. Daniel: The process really begins with Les. Les & I started talking about it last summer as we were opening “Fiddler on the Roof”. We were doing lots of research together. The set is based on a famous place. Hopefully people will recognise it. I feel very lucky because Les has an impeccable instinct for reading a scrip & listening to a score. In discussions, he is able, lazer-like, to put his finger on what the requirements are. both dramatically, practically but also comedicly. I think partly that this particular show works in that dynamic. That see-sawing that you’ve just talked about where it can veer into heightened musical comedy & sometimes get very surreal, not least in some dance numbers, but has to always be rooted in a real situation with a real Duchess & a real family. Also a real barrow-boy. That’s the balance that we all talk about but particularly with Les. It could so easily become cartoonish. Sometimes it has to but it has to be grounded in a reality. Kate: There’s almost none of that I would say. The cartoonish thing – it always stops before that. That’s why it’s moving when it’s so heartfelt. That’s a relief isn’t it – I like it! Time for you to ask some questions. Does anybody have a question? Thank you. Audience Member: I’m interested in you having an orchestra pit because once before I’ve seen that done like here. The difference was phenomenal it just set the whole thing alight. So was this a decision from the beginning? Or did it grow as you were rehearsing – to have a live orchestra? Daniel: It was a decision right from the beginning. It was a question that we tussled with for a little while. Because of the musical comedy nature of this particular piece, we felt it would be more useful for the musical director to be able to be in charge of the evening, to have all the actors in view so that he or she (he in this case) could react in the moment. So Gareth is able to impeccably time when to come in after applause or if he needs to come in much more quickly. If, say, laughter isn’t as hearty one night then he’s able to be close to the audience & react spontaneously. he can be nearly in the same position as the actors. Whereas being right at the back that particular relationship isn’t as close. We have to work quite hard to make that connection exist. Whereas here he is one of the cast & also can be one of the audience. Kate: It’s actually rather lovely, him being partially visible. I noticed a lot of people wanted to peer down & see what he was up to. Another question? Audience Member: You mentioned “intellectual property” Daniel. I wanted to ask you about whether this is a show or there might be other shows similar to this from the canon of musicals from the past that could be portrayed in a different kind of way into the future? Could “Me & my Girl” be played by two women for example? Or “Me & my Boy” be played by two gay men? What do you think about that? Should we have that kind of musical here in Chichester? Daniel: That’s a really interesting question Kate: …& he wishes you hadn’t asked it… Daniel: No, no it’s good. The question of gender as you know is a big question nowadays for theatre-makers. Thanks to say the Shakespeare trilogy directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar where the great Harriet Walter played Prospero, Henry IV & Cassius, there is a lot of experimentation going on. People are seemingly enjoying the richness of interpretation that can come through some gender realignment of parts. For those of you who’ve seen it there’s one particular example that happens in “Me & my Girl”. Kate: It is a brilliant one. She is astonishing. Daniel: Good, I’m glad you think so. Kate: Her voice is amazing. Daniel: Yes, & she’s a great tap-dancer. There are many aspects to your question. My mind is slightly exploding. Did we did we consider it? Yes, but made decisions to explore those avenues in certain areas of the musical, not in the leading roles. I certainly made a decision that we were going to have a diverse company. It felt to me that would add to the richness of what we see on our stages in terms of ethnicity. Would I be interested in seeing that kind of reassignment in leading roles? Yes, probably, but it wasn’t the kind of piece that I wanted to make here & now. I wanted firmly to set it in its period. I wanted to keep the gender politics of the foursome, the main foursome. That wasn’t what I wanted to explore. I really wanted to explore class & the fact that love can trump class. Whether we should or could do so here at Chichester? Yes we could. Kate: Following on from that, which is quite a big debate in all theatre, I would say as a writer, & a lot of us sometimes feel this, stop redoing everything differently & commission some new work. A lot of us writers feel that there is absolutely this story to be told with two men or two women even or whatever it is but what about a new piece of work that may be inspired by it rather than rewriting somebody else’s work? We all feel a bit protective. I have friends who’ve had pieces of work that have been done & they’ve felt:- “I would have written you something different if you wanted that story”. So that question of interpretation is quite a knotty one isn’t it? Daniel: It’s very knotty & I think it would be the wrong decision to impose something on a piece for its own sake. I think there has to be a genuine interpretive reason that means the piece would be enlightened by that kind of exploration. That would mean the piece would be seen in a brand new light & it would revolutionise how the piece was seen. As I said, that wasn’t something that I wanted to explore on “Me & my Girl”. Kate: Another question? Gentleman there, thank you very much. Audience Member: You refer to your cast as diverse in ethnicity. What about ability/disability? Would it work if one of the main characters was disabled in some way? Are we going to see that tonight? Daniel: You’re not going to SEE it tonight because as you know some disabilities are invisible. I don’t have permission to talk about the invisible disabilities of some members of cast. These are discussions that we’re having all the time when we cast. There are some plays that require specifics in casting. “Random” & “Generations” for example at the beginning of the season was one such example. The writer is absolutely certain & is very prescriptive about the ethnicity of the actors. Debbie Tucker-Green was adamant that our choir in “Generations” needed to be majority South African. We were very proud that we were able to provide 100% South African choir for Debbie. These are conversations that are ongoing both for us & indeed the wider industry. Audience Member: Will the songs be for the visually/hearing impaired? Will they be signed? Daniel: There is a signed performance, a captioned performance & an audio described performance There is also a relaxed performance. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s for people who want to see a show in a more relaxed atmosphere. So we don’t sell all of the tickets, the house lights don’t fully go down. We explain to some people who require a summary or indeed require warnings of loud bangs or strobe effects when they might happen. In fact we might tone them down, particularly for people who are living with Autism or Asperger’s. My nephew for example, loved coming to a relaxed performance last season. Actually some friends & some cast members from the play in the Minerva came. They said “oh I think I’d like to come to more of those performances because I could get up & go to the toilet & eat my sandwich in the middle and no one minded.” So those are things that we are including & exploring more and more here. To make sure that we can open our doors to everyone. All kinds of people are welcome here. Kate: Thank you. What happens when you select someone who has never performed professionally before? Can you tell that story? Daniel: You’re talking about the person who’s making her professional debut with us. We work with a casting director whose job it is to help us acquire relevant people. Also there is a casting breakdown that explains the particular attributes of characters She is expert at knowing actors & she sees lots of theatre. She particularly goes to the shows that the drama schools do at the end of the training. All drama schools in the third year or whenever the training ends put on plays & musicals. She goes to those. She acts as a kind of talent scout. Then we hold major audition processes.
For “Me & my Girl” there were 3, sometimes 4 rounds. You’re tested on your acting ability, your singing ability. There’s a general movement call & then of course there’s a tap movement call. You have to make it through each of those rounds to make it to the cast. Once we’ve seen everyone in that process & that takes place over a month, we then are able to select a balanced group of people where we each feel that we can deliver the show that we want to deliver in each of those disciplines to the maximum. Kate: It’s a lovely final question because it is a terrific cast. I’m now very aware that we need to give the stage to them so they can warm up. It opens on Monday & I have absolutely no doubt it’s going to be a complete runaway success. It’s so wonderful. Daniel it’s been such a pleasure. One day I would like to entice you back to talk about the whole season not you as a director. It’s such a great privilege for all of us that you’ve given us the time this evening. We hope that you have a brilliant press night. I have no doubt all of Chichester is going to be “Me & my Girl” dancing up & down North Street very soon. Ladies & Gentlemen could you please thank Daniel Evans. (Applause)

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