A musical revue in two acts with music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. Originally conceived by Steven Scott Smith and produced off-Broadway by Janet Brenner, Michael Gill & Daryl Roth
Clare Burt, Ria Jones, Michael Cahill & Glyn Kerslake (singers)
David Randall – Musical director, piano & vocals
Harriet Scott (double bass)
Robert McWhir – Director
Matthew Gould – Producer & Choreographer
Jason Denvir – Designer
Jean Gray – Costume designer
Mike Robertson – Lighting designer
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 19 September, 2010
Venue: Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, Clapham, London SW9
Lyricist-director Richard Maltby Jr and composer David Shire work together and apart. Maltby has contributed to musical shows including “Fosse”,“Nick and Nora”, “Miss Saigon”,“Song and Dance” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. He also wrote the screenplay for the film “Miss Potter”, with Renée Zellweger as Beatrix. Shire is a songwriter and composer for theatre, film and television. His wife Talia is the sister of film director Francis Ford Coppola for whom Shire wrote the score of “The Conversation” as well as other films including “All the President’s Men”, “Farewell, My Lovely”, and “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”. He was Barbra Streisand’s accompanist and worked on her television shows. His theatre work, however, has always been in collaboration with Maltby. Both “Baby” and “Big” were nominated for Tony Awards. “Take Flight”, about the early pioneers of flying, was premiered a while back in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. “Take Flight” is a highly original show and it’s surprising that it never reached Broadway, for which it may have been just too good.
There have been several compilation shows of songs by Maltby and Shire. “Starting Here, Starting Now” which began life in 1976 features some of their best work. Similarly, so does “Closer Than Ever” from 1989, which had its UK premiere at London’s Bridewell Theatre in 2006. It is presented now for a 21st-anniversary production at the Landor in Clapham, home to many a good musical revival including “Follies”, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, “Into the Woods”, “Side by Side by Sondheim”, “The Apple Tree”, “Once Upon a Mattress”, and the UK stage-premiere of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”.
The genesis of “Closer Than Ever” lies in a collection of songs, ideas, observations and other notes about friends and acquaintances that Maltby started to compile in 1984 under the title of ‘Urban File’. This included songs that had been cut from the collaborators’ earlier shows. In 1987 the Manhattan Theater Club was looking for revue material on urban themes and took songs from the Urban File along with sketches by writers including Terrence McNally, Christopher Durang and Arthur Miller to form the show “Urban Blight” which had a profitable six-week run. Its success led to Maltby’s assistant Steven Scott Smith compiling a cabaret revue of just Maltby and Shire songs which became “Next Time, Now!” at the Greenwich Village nightclub, Eighty-Eights. Its popularity led to its expansion into a complete, two-act show, “Closer Than Ever”, a production that subsequently opened at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, and then transferred to New York.
“Closer Than Ever”, which Maltby calls “a bookless book musical”, takes the various themes that Maltby and Shire have covered over the years – love, sex and marriage, unrequited love and sex, broken and second marriages, parents and children, the aging process, friendships, security and mid-life crises. Many of the songs are based on the lives of people they knew along with other observations, rather like those of Stephen Sondheim and his show “Company”. It is not irrelevant to mention Sondheim for, as Maltby himself has admitted, any current songwriter has to be wary of imitating Sondheim or trying to outdo him in the clever-rhymes department or even trying not to sound like Sondheim. The only answer is to sound like yourself.
Maltby and Shire certainly do have their own singular voice. The songs in “Closer Than Ever” are a distillation of their work mainly from the 1980s, although they have been collaborating since the early 1960s. Their characters have their problems which generally arise from the changes in their lives and they express them in a conversational tone that imbues a definite credibility that’s not unlike, er, Sondheim. If Maltby’s felicitous way with words is not unlike Sondheim’s, Shire’s music, however, is more pop-orientated.
The cast of four performers plus two musicians need to be at the top of their form. The songs are not easily put across except by dedicated professional singers who also need to be skilled actors. In Clare Burt, Ria Jones, Michael Cahill and Glyn Kerslake the Landor has its ideal cast. The opening number by the company is ‘Doors’ with the inference of opening and closing, perhaps shutting out an old life and opening up a new one and moving on. This is a theme that carries on throughout the show with characters questioning themselves, their motives, their lives and their partners. Some of the philosophies are sad, some are humorous. When Glyn asks Ria ‘You Wanna Be My Friend?’ she admits that she has enough friends, thank you, but what she really needs is a man, a husband who will look after her. In ‘Life Story’ Clare plays a woman who has had a bad marriage, her husband has left and she has become a feminist writer and seen her son through college. She has liberated herself from her marriage but to what purpose? ‘One of the Good Guys’ bemoans the fact that being such means you’re happily married but still missing something else besides. In ‘If I Sing’, Glyn plays a performer witnessing the last moments in his musician-father’s life, a moving tribute possibly to the writers’ own parents.
Other songs are just fun such as Ria as ‘Miss Byrd’ who has a secret: she takes time off during her working day showing clients around properties to have sexual encounters with her building supervisor. In ‘The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole’ Clare recites ways in which the females of the animal kingdom species treat their mates, usually by leaving them out or ignoring them. ‘Three Friends’ is a razzmatazz number for Clare, Michael and Ria as buddies from Minnesota who seek their fame and fortune in New York, only to forget eventually that they were once friends. For ‘Fandango’ Clare and Glyn are parents who both have careers. Every morning they cannot wait to get to work, leaving the other behind, hoping they will take care of the baby.
There are over twenty songs in this vein, on the difficulties of existing in today’s urban blight-infested lifestyle. As well as getting the best out of the available material, the cast is joined by musical director and accompanist David Randall, also in great voice, on ‘There’ with Ria ironically bemoaning the fact that the ‘he’ in her life was never there. The double bass player, Harriet Scott, adds a certain plangency to many of the songs and the instrument comes into its own on Ria’s sexy version of ‘Back to Base’. Perhaps the most personal song is ‘Another Wedding Song’ in which Ria and Michael play a couple both embarking on their second marriage in the hope that the other will be “the first to be my second” or “the first to be my last”. Regrets? All Maltby and Shire’s people seem to have a few but then, ‘that’s life’, which is never a bed of roses or a bowl of cherries for anyone. They may take more rough and less smooth than is usual but then Maltby and Shire really do get to the heart of the matter. There’s something to which everybody can relate at some point.
“Closer Than Ever” is basically a song-cycle with movement but director Robert McWhir and choreographer Matthew Gould give the piece some proper pizzazz, turning a compilation into a stylish and moving piece of real theatre.
- Closer Than Ever is at the Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, Clapham, London SW9 until Saturday 9 October 2010
- Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 2.30 p.m.
- Tickets: 020 7737 7276
- Landor Theatre