Emma Thompson: Musical Theatre Leading Lady

Maryann Plunkett won the 1987 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Me and My Girl, but what many might not know is that the role of Sally in the Stephen Fry-Mike Ockrent revisal of the British classic was first played by Emma Thompson in the West End.

The show was a mammoth success in London, besting Les Miserables for most of the awards (most particularly Robert Lindsay’s sweep of Best Actor in a Musical) and running for 8 years.

From the Royal Variety Performance here’s Lindsay and Thompson performing the title song:


They are joined by the company for the rousing “Lambeth Walk”


“The Lambeth Walk”

Call me the Ghost of Tony Awards past. I’ve seen a lot written about the lackluster Tony Award telecast that spawned a lot of commentary about the quality of the telecast and the presence of Hollywood actors. As I’ve said, I’m more concerned with the former than the latter. So I’ve been looking at clips from previous awards ceremonies and am in awe of the numbers that used to be shown, in terms of length and quality.

This Tony Award clip comes from Me and My Girl, a 1987 Best Musical nominee. The show was written by Noel Gay in  1937, where it became a huge success after a performance was aired on the BBC (a last minute replacement for a canceled sporting event). The show was a vehicle for British song and dance man Lupino Lane, running 1,646 performances. In 1939, a performance was televised (making it the first British musical comedy to be aired on TV) and film adaptation starring Lane was released (retitled The Lambeth Walk due to the song’s – the show’s major breakout hit –  immense popularity in the days leading into WWII.

The musical was revived in a big way in 1984 at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre , with a new book by Stephen Fry and direction by Mike Ockrent. Tidying up and contemporizing the book, the new production starred Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson and transferred to the West End in 1985. The production housed the Adelphi Theatre for a whopping eight years and 3,313 performances. Lindsay opened the Broadway production in 1986, opposite Maryann Plunkett, George S. Irving, Jane Connell, Jane Summerhays and Timothy Jerome. Once again, the show was a massive success, running for 1402 performances at the Marquis Theatre.

Plotwise, the show is fairly simple. Bill Snibson, a happy-go-lucky Cockney who is named heir to the Earl of Heresford. In order to inherit the title, Bill must learn to be upper class and pass muster with the elite but faces loses his girl Sally in the interim. The show that ensues is a genial, old-fashioned musical comedy about cultural clash between the British classes.

Lindsay’s performance took both coasts by storm. The classically trained actor had a career triumph, receiving rave reviews that most actors could only dream of. He went on to win practically every theatre award in both London and New York (and repeatedly besting Colm Wilkinson’s Jean Valjean). The London production also won the Olivier for Musical of the Year; the Broadway production received thirteen Tony nominations (including one for Stephen Fry) and winning three for Lindsay, Plunkett (Best Actress in a Musical) and Gillian Gregory (Choreography). Jim Dale replaced Lindsay on Broadway, Tim Curry took the show its national tour.

For the telecast, the original Broadway cast performed  “The Lambeth Walk,” the showstopping act one finale in which Bill’s Cockney friends crash an elite party and get the stuffy upper crust to cut loose. It’s one of the more infectious and endearing numbers I’ve seen on the Tonys. Things to take note of: the running time is a leisurely five minutes, including audience participation, and is allowed to build. The television direction is also much simpler. No flashy edits and camera shots. The number is intimate and looks, feels and sounds like a full-out Broadway showstopper. Not rushed, not constrained but just allowed to be. And notice how the audience in the Mark Hellinger Theatre (oh lost!) laps it up. Enjoy.