Edinburgh International Festival
**** (4 stars)
It was a grand afternoon – sunny, hot, and with a delightful breeze – for this thought-provoking performance in an enormous open-sided marquee in the Junior Academy’s spacious grounds.
A Grand Night for Singing was the brainchild of director and producer Walter Bobbie. Over thirty years after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration on The Sound of Music, Bobbie worked with musical director and arranger Fred Wells to create a revue musical using Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs and re-imagining their settings to create a loose story line linking them together. The show opened in New York in 1993 and was nominated for best musical and best book in 1994’s Tony awards.
Nearly thirty years later I found some of it very uncomfortable watching, despite splendid performances from the cast – Danielle de Niese, Kim Criswell, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Richard Morrison – and the incredibly versatile Edinburgh Festival Ensemble directed by Wayne Marshall. Many of the songs were extremely familiar to me – Hallo, young lovers; the Surrey with the Fringe on Top; A wonderful guy; If I loved you; Maria and others from The King and I, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Carousel and the Sound of Music. A number of songs were new to me, including the gentleman is a dope [Allegro]; Don’t Marry Me [Flower Drum Song]; that’s the way it happens and It’s me [Me and Juliet]; A lovely night [Cinderella].
My dis-ease can be most easily exemplified by the short dialogue in the middle of Honey Bun, when the singer, describing his ideal girl [she’s broad, where a broad should be broad], was asked “can you really say ‘broad’ in 2021?” and the MD responded “Danni, it’s musical comedy” – i.e. anything goes, you can be as sexist as you like and that’s completely okay because it’s only a bit of fun… [how often does that line come out of the mouth of a certain type of man?]
I found myself in sympathy with the feelings in many of the women’s songs, but largely unmoved by many of the men’s, and wondered why – surely it wasn’t the singers’ fault? Then I realised – no wonder I made such appalling relationship choices in my life, if that’s the diet of two-dimensional pap I absorbed in my youth – a doll I can carry, the girl that I marry must be / some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger… / I’m just a girl who cain’t say no / [this man is] something wonderful… Nothing was sung about the reality of life, the hard work required in relationships of all kinds, or the need to respect people as all of equal worth.
By contrast, the less well-known songs [generally sung by the girls] were more believable – the stepsisters in Cinderella wondering what the prince saw in her, the sad secretary bemoaning the fact that she’s invisible to her boss, and the forgettable girl who comes to life on stage when she’s being somebody else [this last a stunning performance from Anna Jane-Casey].
There were some fabulous frocks [and a number of lightning-quick costume changes backstage] and some excellent solos and ensemble work with very socially-distanced dancing. I appreciated the cast’s talent and versatility and the little touches that brought the settings right up to date. The audience loved the show and applauded heartily at the end of almost every number, with an especially vociferous outburst to show their appreciation of the band’s contribution and of their joy at being at a live performance at last.
A Grand Night for Singing was very well done, but it left me feeling dissatisfied – maybe the distance from the stage and other audience members contributed a bit? – but mainly I think because the attitudes expressed in so many of the songs really don’t chime with the way I feel today: attitudes which I hope will soon become matters of historical interest rather than ones still experienced, especially by women, today.
Edinburgh International Festival, A Grand Night for Singing – music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Edinburgh Academy Junior School for tickets go to:https://www.eif.co.uk/events/a-grand-night-for-singing