Singin’ in the Rain
Music by Nacio Herb Brown, Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart & Roger Edens, lyrics by Arthur Freed, and Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Incidental music by Lennie Hayton
Orchestrations by Conrad Salinger, Lennie Hayton, Skip Martin, Maurice de Packh, Wally Heglin, Robert Franklyn and Alexander Courage
Orchestrations reconstructed by John Wilson, Paul Campbell and Andrew Cottee
Original screenplay by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, adapted by Kim Criswell
Don Lockwood – Julian Ovenden
Kathy Selden – Annalene Beechey
Lina Lamont – Kim Criswell
Cosmo Brown – Josh Prince
R. F. Simpson / Crooner / Announcer / News Vendor – Matthew Ford
Kim Criswell – Director & Narrator
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 7 November, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1952 film “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of the best musicals ever to come out of Hollywood. Even the original poster was apposite in calling it a “Technicolor musical treasure”. It has just about everything going for it, starting with a bright and breezy screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a great catalogue of familiar songs performed by top-notch stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen. It’s also a movie original, not an adaptation of a book or a story, and it takes a sly look at the cinema industry itself at a crucial time when silent pictures were beginning to become talkies. This it does with immense good humour and charm. In short it is classic film entertainment, the like of which no longer exists.
It came out of the Freed unit at M-G-M, the music department supervised by Arthur Freed, legendary writer, film producer and lyricist who was writing songs for films from 1929 and whose career as a producer started in 1939 on “The Wizard of Oz”, for which he was an associate producer. He went on to field some of M-G-M’s greatest hits, namely “Babes in Arms”, “Strike Up the Band”, “Lady, Be Good”, “Cabin in the Sky”, “Meet Me in St Louis”, “Ziegfeld Follies”, “The Harvey Girls”, “Good News”, “The Pirate”, “Easter Parade”, “On the Town”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Show Boat”, “The Band Wagon”, “Silk Stockings” and “Gigi” among many others and, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain”. His songs include ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll’, ‘Beautiful Girl’, ‘I Cried for You’, ‘I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’’, ‘You Were Meant for Me’, ‘Broadway Rhythm’, ‘All I Do is Dream of You’, ‘You Are My Lucky Star’, and ‘Singin in the Rain’.
Many of these songs from the Freed back-catalogue were taken by Comden & Green to form the basis of the original screenplay for the film “Singin’ in the Rain”. Normally in musical comedies from the 1930s and 1940s the silly plots are the least interesting parts of the films. However, for “Singin’ in the Rain” Comden & Green built a very witty story of some substance and great humour around the passing of silent films and the coming of talkies. This perfect screenplay, hitched to the skills of co-directors and choreographers Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (and an uncredited Gwen Verdon as assistant choreographer) plus the music of Nacio Herb Brown and original incidental music by Lennie Hayton and Roger Edens, contributes a piece that wins hands down in displaying the talents on show and the entertainment value they imbue.
The orchestrations of the music, however, reveal the real essence of “Singin’ in the Rain” and give the film its essential qualities – the lushness of the strings and the boldness of the brass section of the M-G-M Studio Orchestra present that definitive M-G-M sound. This is in no small way due to the work of the studio’s orchestrators, Conrad Salinger, Skip Martin, Maurice de Packh, Wally Heglin, Alexander Courage, Robert Franklyn and the invaluable contributions by musical directors Lennie Hayton and Johnny Green. The idea behind the South Bank’s one-off concert of the full score of “Singin’ in the Rain” was to celebrate the sounds and orchestrations of the M-G-M studio output in its heyday.
Conductor and arranger John Wilson has had an abiding interest in film music for years and has reconstructed many of the old M-G-M orchestrations for films such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gigi”, the complete scores of which were destroyed in 1969 when the M-G-M music library was demolished to make way for a parking lot. However, Warner Brothers, who own the M-G-M catalogue, still have short scores from the films. With these plus soundtracks, liner notes and repeated viewings of the films, John Wilson was able to painstakingly reconstruct the original full score which were often arranged for up to one-hundred players in the M-G-M Studio Orchestra. The lengthy ‘Broadway Melody’ ballet sequence from “Singin’ in the Rain” was premiered in Wilson’s reconstructed score at the BBC Proms in 2009. In the Royal Festival Hall he conducted the complete score.
Hearing the music in toto, from the opening M-G-M Fanfare to the closing credits, is an utter joy to witness and John Wilson and the Philharmonia Orchestra did the music proud in resurrecting a clutch of songs popular in their day – Nacio Herb Brown was a great tunesmith, if not an outstanding composer – and fashioning them into the high art that was always expected from a slick M-G-M movie musical. The film became such an iconic work that it later on begat a stage musical originally starring Tommy Steele and Roy Castle. It also had a Broadway run and subsequent productions at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the National Theatre and Sadler’s Wells. Although not a patch on the original film (it interpolated other writers’ songs), it was nevertheless a popular hit. Considering its antecedents, it couldn’t fail to have success written all over it, even though films do not always make great stage shows. There are exceptions, such as “Mary Poppins”, “Dirty Dancing”, “The Producers”, “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hairspray”, for instance, while the stage musical of “Billy Elliot” has made more money than the original film. On the other hand the shows of “The Red Shoes”, “Some Like It Hot” (aka “Sugar”) and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, all had short runs, the last closing while still in preview in 1966.
For this Southbank performance of “Singin’ in the Rain”, singer-actress Kim Criswell adapted the original screenplay and appeared as Lina Lamont, the silent-film star whose voice is so appalling she cannot be allowed to speak or sing in talkies. Kim did a marvellous impersonation of the role originated by Jean Hagen in 1952 and includes her most famous lines: “But of course we talk – doesn’t everybody?” and “I earn more than Calvin Coolidge – put together!” Lina acts as narrator, reading from her ‘autobiography’ and recalling the times she had in silent films at the Monumental Pictures studio with co-star Don Lockwood (Julian Ovenden) who she imagined was in love with her. Don is more interested in young Kathy Selden (Annalene Beechey), a nightclub dancer who is taken on by the studio and gets to be the ‘voice’ of Lina when the silent film of “The Duelling Cavalier” has to become a talkie called “The Dancing Cavalier”.
The confines of the Royal Festival Hall stage meant that only a certain amount of the action in the film could be reproduced. The ‘Broadway Melody’ ballet sequence had to forgo the dance (remember Cyd Charisse?) but the music rang out loud and clear: “Gotta dance! Gotta dance! Gotta dance!”. However, the highly talented Josh Prince as Cosmo, the studio pianist (the Donald O’Connor role) accomplished most of dancing including ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ where he runs up the wall, except there was no wall, but he knocked himself out anyway, choreographically speaking.The principal singers were good and received fine support from Philharmonia Voices. Julian Ovenden as Don is a natural hero-figure, although without any rain effects the title number was a little anti-clima(c)tic, possibly not even worthy of Eric Morecambe. Annalene Beechey played Kathy (the Debbie Reynolds part) with sweet conviction and Kim Criswell was hilarious as Lena. Matthew Ford contributed a collection of smaller roles including that of studio head R. F. Simpson. Even Wilson got into the act by being called upon to read some lines as a singing coach … and conductor.
However, apart from the marvellous sound of the Philharmonia, the rest of the show fell between two stools. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the stage version. It worked as a concert, though, as the voluble audience reaction clearly demonstrated but, even in giving us the chance to evaluate the score and its lush orchestrations, as a total event it lacked cohesion. Still, it did allow us to appreciate the music and want to rush home and watch the film again. “Singin’ in the Rain” is the kind of movie that loses nothing as the years roll by. It’s a perfect gem, the entertainment value of which came across in John Wilson’s tireless work on re-establishing the full orchestral score. In this respect it was a treat.