29th March 2017
Every now and then, a musical comes along that talks to us as grown-ups. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does the experience is unmistakable. And this is such a show. It's an adult story about sex, money, power, drugs, exploitation, ambition, cruelty and life as a daily struggle for survival and success. It's not for children. And it is not just in that respect that ‘The Life' breaks with convention: nearly every rule of ‘how to write a musical' is thrown away here, and is replaced with something much newer, edgier, more daring and exciting. Go into it with your eyes – and mind – open, and the effect is remarkable, especially when you consider the particular and very unusual basis for this story.
‘The Life' is like having Chester Himes provide a story about life on the mean streets of New York and Quincy Jones provide the music for it. It's like a 1970s blaxploitation movie peopled with hookers, pimps, drug-dealers and -users, nightclub denizens, barflies, street preachers, cops, hicks and city slickers; a tacky, cheap, brutal world suddenly awash with the glamour and warmth of the brassy sound of a big band, the crooning of lounge singers and the flash and sparkle of fashion on the dancefloor. The concept sprang into the mind of Ira Gasman one day when he saw for himself the rough-and-tumble of streetlife on Times Square; he wrote the book with David Newman and Cy Coleman, and penned the lyrics for Coleman's magnificent score, his final masterpiece. The show ran on Broadway for a year two decades ago in a production by Michael Blakemore (who also revised the book); since then Blakemore has been trying to get it to come over to the UK, but nobody wanted to touch a story that strayed so far from observing the proprieties of sentimental musical theatre.
Until, that is, along came producers Amy Anzel and Matt Chisling. Anzel had fallen in love with the show and wanted to do it; she and Chisling applied for the rights to produce the show on the London fringe, and were told by the Coleman estate (the composer died in 2004) that only Blakemore would be allowed to produce it. The thought of getting such a major theatrical figure to work at the Southwark Playhouse seemed an impossibility. So they went ahead and asked him. A meeting was set up, and an agreement rapidly made. Since then, with a clutch of other producers coming on board to raise the not inconsiderable sums required to pay for the enterprise, a superb creative team has been built around the project and the combined fruits of their labours have now made a production that is one of the most remarkable achievements of recent years.
The show begins in reverse, with an introduction by the brilliant narrator figure of Jojo (John Addison), who sets the tone of frank honesty, stripped bare of euphemistic pretence, as he catalogues the fates of each of the characters we are to meet. Far from taking narrative surprise from the story, this approach fills us with fascinated interest: the tawdry, unadmirable personalities put on display would not normally attract our sympathetic attention, but – knowing in advance their all too human destinies – we begin to warm to them. It is one of the many, many original strokes of genius that inform the script.
Then we lurch back in time to meet them all properly and see for ourselves some of what happened, and how. The list of characters in this tale reflects very specific stipulations made in the script about age, body shape, ethnicity and gender that are also of central importance in ensuring this show pushes out the boundaries of what the form can do, absolutely refusing to toe the line of convention. Blakemore got every single one of his first choices in casting, and the ensemble is breath-taking. Sharon D. Clarke gives a stellar performance as the grande dame of street hustlers, Sonya, oozing imperious command in every minutely observed and perfectly controlled moment she inhabits and giving vocal performances of utterly thrilling proportions. Her sisterly affections are directed towards trying to help T'Shan Williams' honey-and-steel voiced newcomer from Georgia, Queen, whose traumatised Vietnam vet boyfriend-cum-pimp, David Albury's desperately energetic Fleetwood, is the motor who propels them into their final crisis. Their central chemistry is gorgeous and we come to care about them, and particularly Queen, more and more, valuing her strength and sorrowing over his tragic weakness.
Struggling with drug-addiction and the pressures of gender expectations, Fleetwood picks up an apparent ingenue on the scene, Joanna Woodward's wide-eyed Mary, who quickly establishes herself in the employ of a local strip joint and then – in a scene compressing into a couple of minutes most of the plot of ‘Gypsy' – makes a splash as the hottest new stripper on Times Square. That throws her into the arms of the local financial kingpin, Jonathan Tweedie's Theodore, who briskly promotes Mary into ‘Angel', sees her crowned queen of the Hustlers' Ball, and then hustles her out of town and towards the relative respectability of the new porn industry growing up in LA. There are winners, as well as losers, in this world, and the script shows us both, with affectionate objectivity.
This leaves the field open for Cornell S. John's terrifyingly magnificent cock-o'-the-walk top pimp, Memphis (a name, which, like all the characters' appelations in this show, is carefully chosen for its mythic and symbolic resonances), to move in on the vulnerable Queen (as a girl, she was called Princess, but Fleetwood ‘promoted' her). While Fleetwood leaves her to languish in gaol, Sonja intercedes with Memphis to get her bailed, a gesture he extends, but not without considerable strings attached. And thus is the stage set for the inevitable showdown between these two rivals for the emotional and economic control of Queen. Sexual politics is the meat and drink of this entertainment, and it never fails to deliver hearty fare.
Meanwhile, down at Lacy's Oasis, splendid minehost Jo Servi punctuates the goings-on with exquisitely delivered rhymed couplets of wisdom and razor-sharp observation, as his place serves as HQ for the local sex trade, the establishment filled with pimps and their girls. Not since ‘The Threepenny Opera' has this underworld been so lovingly, and so pitilessly represented in the musical theatre. The girls are Jalisa Andrews, Charlotte Beavey, Aisha Jawando and Lucinda Shaw, while their pimps are Matthew Caputo, Lawrence Carmichael (who also serves up the scarily credible fight arrangements), Omari Douglas and Thomas-Lee Kidd. They make a formidable chorus and do most of the work in bringing to beautiful life Tom Jackson Greaves' sensationally inventive and vividly characterised choreography.
The whole production is dressed and staged by the delicious sensibility that is Justin Nardella, who has also created original frocks for the Hustler's Ball: he never puts a foot wrong in recreating the seedy ambience of the underbelly of Mayor Koch's New York. Onto his convincingly urban set play Nina Dunn's elaborate and expertly judged video projections, which blend perfectly with David Howe's by turns flamboyantly stagey or grittily cinematic lighting. Sebastian Frost creates the limpid sound that allows every syllable of Gasman's bright as a button lyrics to scintillate on the ear and amplifies the score with delicacy and assurance.
And what a score it is. In the hands of masterful MD Tamara Saringer, we get to hear the whole of the original Broadway score, in the utterly fantastic arrangements written by Coleman himself, who entrusted none of the scoring to other hands. Her 11-piece orchestra is the very finest. In addition to her, it comprises: Zach Flis, AMD 2nd keys; Dan Giles, bass; Felix Stickland, guitar; Danny Newell, drums; Alice Angliss, percussion; Joe Atkin Reeves, Elaine Booth and Matt Davies, reeds; Annette Brown and Lewis West, trumpets. Honestly, their playing alone is enough to justify your presence here.
What Coleman and his collaborators have done, and very few people have come close to their achievement, is to build on a different kind of tradition, one that sets itself different kinds of theatrical ambition from those common in music theatre. They have taken up the baton of works like Gershwin's ‘Blue Monday Blues' and ‘Porgy and Bess', of Kurt Weill's ‘Street Scene', of Bernstein's ‘West Side Story', and run another mile with it. It's a particular kind of musical theatre that isn't part of the ‘standard model'. It shouldn't be confused with what it is not and is not trying to be. But there is more truth in this show than in ten other shows currently playing in town, and if you care about life, if you want to see it as it is, not as some escapist fantasy might like you to imagine it to be, then you will find no greater pleasure than to spend a few hours in the company of these wonderful people who have brought to London's stage, after twenty years, this astonishing and remarkable event.
Photo: Conrad Blakemore