Funny Women: Patricia Routledge

One of the joys of Netflix (and possibly its downfall as well) is finding shows streaming in their entirety. One of these shows is the British hit Keeping Up Appearances starring the one and only Patricia Routledge as the one and only Hyacinth Bucket, the irrepressible social climbing snob. While the writing is rarely up to the quality of the cast, the show is often quite funny with Hyacinth getting carried away with herself and foiled by her down-to-earth relatives and friends. One of my favorite episodes is the one where she was desperate to get a part in a local production of The Boy Friend and spontaneously burst into song at the drop of a hat.

Routledge was the subject of an episode of the BBC series Funny Women, which profiled some of the funnier female stars of British stage and television, including Maureen Lipman and Prunella Scales. I relish in every opportunity I have to see Routledge’s film and TV work, as I was not yet born when her stage career was at its peak in the mid-70s and early 80s. Even if the shows themselves failed (as was the case with her Broadway career), critics and audiences fell in love with the vivacious comic soprano. She won a Tony for Darling of the Day, which lasted 31 performances in 1968 (and should be the next Jule Styne score heard at Encores!). The star could have taken the audience home in her pocket after her memorable “Duet for One” in the otherwise loathed 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (which ran only 7 performances).

The half hour episode briefly touches on her whole career, but focuses mostly on her TV work featuring interviews with the Ms. Routledge, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Nigel Hawthorne and TV leading men Clive Swift and Dominic Monaghan. One of the things I especially loved was that people came up to Hawthorne after a gala performance and exclaimed “I never knew Patricia Routledge could sing!” I’ve had the same conversation myself many, many times. (And I would just love to have the entire clip of her singing “I Want to Sing in Opera”). Enjoy.



The First Cantata

The premiere of A White House Cantata was on July 8, 1997 at the Barbican in England. The concert rearrangement of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was aired on BBC radio a week later. Before each act, the radio announcer talks briefly about what is to be seen (as opposed to the Collegiate Chorale concert in 2008, which ran without intermission). After composer Leonard Bernstein’s death in 1990, his estate set out to revise the original failed musical since the music had remained mostly neglected. With both Bernstein and librettist-lyricist Alan Jay Lerner dead, the estate hired Erik Haagensen to restore the original rehearsal script. From what I understand there was a sort of gypsy runthrough that went over well, then a full production was staged at Indiana State University in 1992. The production later played the Kennedy Center, but was abandoned afterward. In 1997, this revision was established which highlighted the historical musical scenes, eliminating almost all of Lerner’s script.

German baritone Dietrich Hensel played the Presidents, and sings the role with operatic gusto. However, it’s jarring to hear the Presidents of the United States speak in a German accent. American soprano Nancy Gustafson plays the First Ladies. While not quite Patricia Routledge, she’s worlds better than June Anderson, who replaced Gustafson on the studio cast recording of the score, and offers an engaging and colorful “Duet for One” (though she doesn’t cap it with the D above C). Thomas Young and Jacqueline Miura play Lud and Seena, whose energy makes up for their less than stellar vocals. The London Voices comprise the chorus and Alexander Bernstein, Leonard’s son, narrates a dry historical context in between songs.

The live presentation of the score is much better than what was recorded for Deutsch Gramophone the following year. For starters, the musical calls for a 2-disc recording. The musical had about two hours of score when it played in NY, which was trimmed and revised to approximately 90-100 minutes in concert form. The final CD release, listless and wan, runs 80 minutes and becomes highlights of highlights of a musical.

My quibble with the three presentations of this piece that I have encountered is that the powers that be insist on using opera singers. The songs of 1600 call out for theatre actors who can sing with legitimacy. The singers I have seen have serviced the score well, but provide very little color and range in their interpretation. And I’m sorry, but a spoken line in a musical shouldn’t be spoken like a spoken line in an opera. Also, musical theatre choruses are more colorful and textually driven than the staid choral groups who generally provide backup. I am still adamant that this shouldn’t be the final word on the score.

The BBC narration offered me my first glimpse, albeit small, into that showstopper for the ages, “Duet for One.” I’ve been searching high and low to find a production photo or a sketch or anything to give me an idea how the elaborate number was staged. As per the BBC announcer:

“Then comes a schizophrenic “Duet for One” as two First Ladies, the incumbent Julia Grant and the incoming Lucy Hayes – both sung by the same singer – comment on each other while they’re waiting for the election results to come in. Patricia Routledge, who sang it in the original production, described it as a wonderful cliffhanger presented in Busby Berkeley fashion, surrounded by ladies in parasols.”

Well, that sounds like fun.

Random Thoughts on This and That

I’ve been looking over the upcoming season and I gotta say I’m most excited this fall for Hamlet with Jude Law as it’s my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (and I’ve never seen it live), Oleanna because I enjoy Bill Pullman, A Little Night Music because of its rumored cast and the Kennedy Center import of Ragtime. Did I fail to mention Superior Donuts? After August: Osage County, I’ll see anything Tracy Letts writes. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else that I’m forgetting about… Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

I’m watching the the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! as I type. For those who don’t know, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash was shot twice, once in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lensed widescreen system using an aspect ratio of 2.55:1) and in the brand new Todd-AO, a large format 70mm system developed by Mike Todd. Todd-AO used a wide-angled lens, and a deeply curved screen which was meant to rival the expensive and impractical three camera Cinerama. Todd-AO didn’t require anamorphic image compression and displayed a spherical aspect ratio of 2.20:1.

Each scene was shot twice in each process which means there are two versions of the film available. The most notable difference between the two are the opening credits, but there are also differences in line readings and camera angles. When it originally opened in 1955, the Todd-AO format played the major roadshow engagements in NY and other major markets. The traditional CinemaScope version played other theatres throughout the country. The CinemaScope version made the initial video releases, but was supplanted by the restoration of the Todd-AO print, which was marked with superior sound and image quality. In 2005, 20th Century Fox released a 2-disc special edition containing both versions, though for some reason the Todd-AO transfer doesn’t improve on the 1999 release, except in making it 16:9 friendly. There’s a comprehensive website called the American Widescreen Museum which goes into explicit detail on the history and technological details of these different processes that are for the most part no longer used in filmmaking.

This video of Gloria Grahame singing “I Cain’t Say No” gives you an idea of the different versions:

The following year, Carousel was shot twice in CinemaScope and a process called CinemaScope 55 in an attempt to combat Paramount’s VistaVision process. The new CinemaScope process was an experimentation with 55 mm film that was heralded in both Carousel and The King and I. The idea of shooting Carousel twice is what led Frank Sinatra to quit the project, since he didn’t like the idea of shooting two films for the price of one. Ironically enough, they abandoned the 35mm shoot during filming. CinemaScope 55 was actually never really used: both R&H films were shot in 55mm stock and had their prints reduced onto regular 35mm, since it was more feasible than requiring movie houses to accommodate the unusual film size. From what I understand, the 55mm prints were never even used.

I’m still unable to get The Norman Conquests out of my head. So I decided to watch Table Manners from the 1977 BBC adaptation. It’s an entirely different animal from the recent revival, but it is still quite extraordinary. The television version stars Tony-Award winner Tom Conti as Norman. After Stephen Mangan it is seriously difficult to imagine any other actor in the part and unfortunately Mr. Conti’s performance suffers (The problem here is he’s not nearly as likable in the breakfast scene, in fact he’s downright irritating). David Trougham is a bit too stiff for Tom. However, Richard Briers makes for a game Reg, while Fiona Walker scores as Ruth. Penelope Keith won the bulk of the praise and a BAFTA award for her turn as Sarah (deservedly so – she was the only original London cast member to reprise her role onscreen). It was particular fun discovering that Jessica Hynes’ fellow Shaun of the Dead actor Penelope Wilton played the same role here in the TV adaptation (and quite well). Will be getting around to Living Together and Round and Round the Garden before long.

Sadly, this is out of print on DVD in the UK and has only been released on VHS in the US. BBC America, get on it! However you can get a sampling of it on youtube. Here are the first ten minutes of Table Manners:

There are two weeks left for you to catch Mary Stuart. If you haven’t had the opportunity, run don’t walk to the Broadhurst. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are giving titanic performances as Mary and Elizabeth I, respectively. It’s worth the price of admission for the first scene of the second act alone, which depicts the fictional meeting between the two monarchs. The two leading ladies are breathtaking and deserve to be seen, again and again and again. Plus, there’s a fantastic discount code for the rest of the run. This one is not to be missed.

I’m off to Long Island for the weekend. A friend is getting married in Centereach (sadly no East Hampton this trip) and the honor of my presence has been requested, so I will resume my blog perch on Sunday evening. I’ll be thinking of my friends spending some quality time with those titans at the Broadhurst tomorrow while enjoying marital libations.

Happy Birthday, Patricia Routledge!

The site’s resident Britcom favorite turns 80 years old today. Though she never had much success in the NY theatre scene, her performances were always greeted with love letters from the critics and winning her a Tony in the process. In her native England, she found greater success appearing in the original cast of Noises Off! as Dotty Otley and would become internationally known as Hyacinth Bucket in the series Keeping Up Appearances. While I still search for that lost clip of “Not on Your Nellie” from an appearance with Ed Sullivan, here is a brief clip from her last series, the successful but short-lived Hetty Wainthropp Investigates. Her co-star is Dominic Monaghan from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the TV series Lost.

And for old time’s sake….

Patricia Routledge criticizes the BBC

Many years following the cancellation of “Hetty Wainthrop Investigates”, series star Patricia Routledge slams the BBC:

Miss Routledge, 79, this week said: ‘We were betrayed by the BBC. We finished series four of Hetty Wainthropp, we were told there was going to be series five.

‘But no word ever came – how rude! The BBC is run by 10-year-old children.’

Never mess with PR. She’ll give you the what-for.