Julian Eaves attended a preview presentation of new musical The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Ben Frost and Richard Hough.
The wonderfully gifted songwriting team of Ben Frost (music) and Richard Hough (lyrics) are making their way steadily up the ladder of new talent in the world of musical theatre, and with this – their most recent project – they score a number of important successes. Seen just twice, in workshop ‘concert’ performances (although Ryan McBryde’d direction gave us nearly a whole production, at least as far as the six principals and narrator – the forces available here – were concerned), first in Letchworth and then at The Ambassador’s with an industry-heavy audience, this was a fascinating insight into the development of a new musical entertainment.
Commissioned by James Seabright, the pair have devised and elaborated their own libretto, inspired by – rather than based on – the brief, rollickingly funny poetic sketch by Goethe (the one we all know from Disney’s precise dramatization of it, with Mickey Mouse as the mischievous would-be wizard, in the 1940 animation, ‘Fantasia’). It begins magnificently with a glorious opening solo number for tenor: here, the stunning vocal equipment and stage artistry of Neil McDermott was on hand to knock ‘There’s magic in the air’ into the playlists of every fan of musicals across the globe. On the basis of that number alone, particularly when given such a glorious rendition, you know you are in for an evening of enchantment and thrills. Frost’s music is lyrically powerful and Hough’s lyrical ideas unfold to create an entire world, preparing us to join them on a great emotional journey. We are in for an exploration of the tensions between personal feelings and science, between belief and truth. Goethe, a leading figure in German romanticism would be delighted with this.
What follows is a sequence of events involving a clutch of characters not mentioned in the source. It soon turns out that we are not hearing the words of the eponymous hero, but the sorcerer’s dad, Johan Gottel, and the clumsy wielder of magic – in a modern twist – is neither boy nor mouse, but his daughter, Naomi Petersen’s wonderfully voiced Eva Gottel. Petersen does everything possible to emphasise the energy and humanity of Eva and is at her most persuasive in her songs, which are delivered with excitingly clear attack and phrasing. Frau Gottel is not in the picture, having succumbed to a bizarre malady that turned her into a shadow, nor has the socially well placed Herr Gottel subsequently considered remarriage (which, as we know, can and does happen in musicals set in German-speaking Europe). There are no other children.
Early on, though, Eva has an accident falling off her bicycle (which places us in the late 19th century, at the earliest: so, a modernisation of Goethe’s faux-medieval romp). Witness to this mishap is Blair Gibson’s likeable Lieutenant Erik. Meanwhile, in another part of the kingdom, senior monarch Queen Larmia (a name which may or may not remind viewers of another land where magical things are par for the course) is fading away, also falling victim to the as yet untreatable shadow virus. In Tracie Bennett, Larmia finds an interpreter who commands the stage with great skill, making vivid sense of her scenes, even with some very bold switches in the state of her fortunes to contend with. As seems to be the norm in this country, she is another single parent with but one child. Her offspring turns out to be villain-of-the-piece, Jos Slovick’s unctuously sociopathic Prince Fabian. Slovick does get to sing some pretty amazing music, exploiting his fine upper register with appealing ease. Finally, trusty Chancellor Breel – Nigel Richards, in super form – tries to limit any damage from the heir apparent, and negotiates some of the script’s most salient tonal shifts with nonchalance. One ingredient provided for the showcase, enabling us to switch from place to place without the benefit of scenery, was the engaging narration from the ever good-humoured Jan Ravens.
Through it all, Seann Alderking on a pretty grand piano and Ed Scull on percussion played and elaborated Simon Nathan’s impeccable arrangements, realising the music with theatrical panache: often convincing us that we were hearing a full theatre band, which says a lot, I think, for the quality of the musical team.
This set up is imaginative and pretty clear and should allow for a ‘coherent and compelling narrative’, which is the avowed objective of the writers. And, as said straight away, the opening is a devastatingly effective moment indicating that they have the chops to carry this through and get brilliant results. What grows out of that opening is full of interesting potential and raises a number of fascinating questions. For example, if this is Eva’s story, then why does Johan get the first three numbers in the show (the third gradually turns into a sort of duet with his daughter, but – even so – his dominating position seems a little unusual). Another question might be, if Eva is driving the story with her desire to become a sorcerer, then why does she apparently possess so little agency and is usually passively acted upon by all the men around her.
As regards the ‘score’, there are a few comments to make, none of which, I’m sure, has not already occurred to the creative team. What we have here are almost all individual songs; there are a couple of duets, including one where the diametrically opposed Queen and Prince sing exactly the same music (which as we now realise doesn’t make any kind of dramatic sense). Strangely, there is only one ensemble number: it is a very complex and marvellous polyphonic moment in the show, but it rather throws into stark relief the absence of intermingled vocal textures elsewhere. And quite a lot of the numbers are on the slower side, with plentiful darker, minor modes. Musically, this makes the pace of the action appear to slow down as the story progresses.
Some members of the audience were asking: if this is being developed, then what is it going to compete with? The obvious answer to that question is, ‘Wicked’. And the comparison is, arguably, instructive. Not only did Stephen Schwartz process an immense amount of material, and go through endless re-writes of the script, before coming up with the winning combination that is the final show, but he put the relationships that Elpheba has at the heart of the story, and made her career option a matter of comparatively secondary importance. In terms of accessing the public’s ability to warm to the central character and closely identify with her, that seems to have been a very wise move. In Frost and Hough’s post-modernisation of an old fairy tale, as they move forward with the project, they might well already be thinking about how they can continue to address that particular challenge. I think they abundantly possess the talent and imagination to tackle it and produce results that will be more wonderful still than what we heard in this first public showing of a terrific new show.
Before that happens, we will have the delightful experience of seeing what they do with the story of ‘Billy The Kid’ for National Youth Music Theatre in their season this summer at Leicester Curve. So, watch out! A couple of new kids are definitely on the block. And many congratulations to James Seabright, who has had the vision to initiative and follow through with this exciting project and bring such beautiful work to the stage.
This was a workshop concert performance and in keeping with usual practice, no stars are allocated to such events.