‘Theatreland’ now released on DVD


Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Patrick Stewart (Vladimir) in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ Photo: Sasha Gusov

In 2009 the Theatre Royal Haymarket mounted the most successful production ever of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This was followed by the first staged adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. During the creation of these two historic productions, the Theatre Royal opened its doors to a television crew, for the recording of a unique and fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary of what goes on in a major West End theatre as the management, cast and crew work against the clock towards the opening of a new season.  This documentary is called Theatreland, and it’s just been released on DVD.

Filmed over a period of six months, Theatreland covers every aspect of the preparation involved in the staging of a major production. We meet the actors, the artistic director, the theatre managers, ushers, stagehands, carpenters and plumbers. The commentaries are relaxed and informal – the maintenance staff just going about their day to day tasks whilst chatting to the camera about what has to be done to keep one of London’s oldest theatres in good shape – regularly checking absolutely every part of the building, from the 100 year-old seats to the plumbing system of a similar vintage.


Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen Photo: Sasha Gusov

Godot – hailed as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century – stars four of Britain’s most bankable actors – Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. Filmed in their dressing rooms, backstage, or in the wings, they talk about the challenges they face, the huge burden of responsibility that the four of them carry with a play such as this, their anxieties, their on- and off-stage relationships with their colleagues and director, Sean Matthias – and the strange, almost insular existence of a group of actors during the run of a production. It was, quite obviously, a very happy company, and despite the stature of the stars, there was no clash of egos.


Vladimir and Estragon support Lucky (Ronald Pickup) with Pozzo (Simon Callow) in the background Photo: Sasha Gusov

The cameras continued rolling at intervals throughout the 14-week season, capturing both the magic and the emotional burden imposed on the four main actors by a somewhat dark and introspective work.  When it closed, after 172 sold-out performances, with 100,000 people having seen the play, the feeling of loss experienced by the cast was all too real, so much of themselves had they poured into this hugely successful production. The end-of-season backstage party, however, worked its charm, with the fizz of champagne and a sparkling cake on which a photograph of the four of them had been superimposed. Below it was an inscription which read: “We waited for 172 sold out performances, but he never turned up”!


Simon Callow as Pozzo Photo: Sasha Gusov

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – starring Anna Friel and Joseph Cross – presented a different series of pre-production challenges – notably the huge, complicated, rotating ‘fire-escape’ set which had to be constructed off-site and assembled on stage.  Just the right costumes – from the vast wardrobe of the costumiers – had to be selected, to portray 1940s wartime New York, and Wayne McGregor – Resident Choreographer of the Royal Ballet – was brought in to coach the cast in the dance style of the era.  Anna Friel had never before played the guitar, and she also suffered the inevitable anxiety about the possibility of forgetting her lines, and her performance being compared with that of Audrey Hepburn – although the two productions are vastly different – the 1961 film having been only loosely based on Truman Capote’s novel. And  then there was Jasper, the gorgeous ginger feline (and his equally beautiful white and grey understudy), who had to attend rehearsals, too, being coaxed off-stage at the appropriate moment by a plentiful supply of kitty treats waiting in the wings!

Theatreland was broadcast on public television in 2010, and the recently released two-disc DVD set includes a viewer’s guide, with profiles of the main players from both productions, and some interesting snippets of information about the plays and the playwrights.  There’s a timeline of the history of the Theatre Royal Haymarket, an overview of London’s West End theatres, and an article about ghosts of the London theatres.  The Theatre Royal itself is said to be haunted by the ghost of John Baldwin Buckstone, actor-manager of the Theatre in the mid 19th century – an apparition that Patrick Stewart was said to have seen during one of the performances of Godot.


Ronald Pickup as Lucky Photo: Sasha Gusov

The documentary was produced, directed and filmed by Chris Terrill for Sky Arts, and has been released by Athena, an RLJ Entertainment Inc brand.  DVD sets are available from select retailers, catalogue companies, and direct from RLJ Entertainment. The documentary can also be streamed on AcornOnline.com.


Theatre Royal Haymarket

Samuel Beckett

Truman Capote

RLJ Entertainment




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‘Show Boat’ sails into the repertoire of San Francisco Opera


The ‘Cotton Blossom’ arrives at Natchez, Mississippi © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

In a delightful departure from conventional programming, San Francisco Opera opens its Summer Season on June 1 with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical masterpiece, Show Boat.

At its first Broadway performance in December 1927, Show Boat marked an important milestone in the history of American theater – the confluence of European operetta and American opera, resulting in what would later come to be known as ‘musical theater’.

This production, by San Francisco Opera’s General Director, David Gockley, is staged by internationally acclaimed opera and theater director, Francesca Zambello. It’s based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edna Ferber, and includes substantial sections of the score and dialogue from the original 1927 production.

Following the lives of those who inhabit the Mississippi riverboat, Cotton Blossom, Show Boat spans a period of 40 years – from 1887 to 1927. It’s a passionate story of tragic love and racial prejudice, mirroring the vast social changes of the time. The score includes a host of enduringly popular songs such as Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Make Believe and Why Do I Love You, and the San Francisco Opera production promises wonderfully colorful sets by Peter Davison, gorgeous costumes by Paul Tazewell, and thrilling dance sequences choreographed by Michele Lynch.


‘Show Boat’ features thrilling dance sequences choreographed by Michele Lynch © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

Although a first for the Company, David Gockley’s production had its world premiere with Houston Grand Opera in 1982. Following an extensive tour across the United States, the show ultimately reached the Uris Theatre on Broadway, and was subsequently recorded as a best-selling album on the EMI label. In 1989, Gockley revived the production for Houston Grand Opera – described in the Houston Chronicle as “a towering work, [with] magnificence in its music, its narrative sweep, its deep awareness of something bigger than ourselves” – and then took it to Cairo as the inaugural performance of the newly-constructed Cairo National Culture Centre.

Although the inclusion of Show Boat in the operatic repertoire might seem unusual, Gockley’s rationale is sound. “In this day and age,” he explains, “only opera companies command the resources necessary to give a grand work like Show Boat its artistic due ….. As a top tier opera company, we are able to present this work the way Kern and Hammerstein intended it, and we are able to cast the type of rich, legitimate voices required to give it its luster”.


© Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera

Francesca Zambello – having directed Show Boat for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera – now brings her consummate skills to the San Francisco Opera production. “Show Boat has it all,” she says. “It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville and musical comedy, but – equally important – a compelling American story of social and political importance ……… We could not have had Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Sondheim without this work. Nor could we have found a bridge from opera to our own evolving American art form.”

The cast of San Francisco Opera’s production includes performers from the worlds of opera, Broadway, theater, dance, television and film. Soprano Heidi Stober makes her debut as Magnolia Hawks, and Cap’n Andy Hawks is played by actor and vaudeville performer, Bill Irwin. Michael Todd Simpson – in his debut performance for San Francisco Opera – is the handsome gambler, Gaylord Ravenal, a role with which he achieved great success at Washington National Opera. Actress Harriet Harris – well known for her television appearances – is Parthy Ann Hawks, and soprano Patricia Racette appears in her first performances of Julie LaVerne. Joe is played by Morris Robinson, who also appeared in both the Chicago and Washington productions, and was described by The Huffington Post as having “a rich basso that can penetrate the listener’s bones”, and whose Ol’ Man River “brings the house down”. Joe’s wife, Queenie, is played by dramatic soprano, Angela Renée Simpson, who played opposite Morrison in the Chicago and Washington productions as well.


Angela Renée Simpson (Queenie) and Morris Robinson (Joe) © Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The San Francisco Opera and Chorus are led by Maestro John DeMain – who teamed up with David Gockley for the 1982 production of Show Boat for Houston Grand Opera as well, and was instrumental in recreating much of Jerome Kern’s original score. His most recent collaboration with San Francisco Opera was the Gershwin masterpiece, Porgy and Bess, in 2009 – also directed by Francesca Zambello – which the Company has recently released on DVD and Blu-ray.

The current production of Show Boat will be recorded in high-definition for future release on DVD and Blu-ray as well – once again in partnership with EuroArts Music International and Naxos of America, the organization responsible for the release of the Company’s other two DVD and Blu-ray productions – Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.  (San Francisco Opera Shop)


© Robert Kusel, Lyric Opera of Chicago

San Francisco Opera’s production of Show Boat runs in repertory with Verdi’s La Traviata (June 11–July 13) and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (June 15–July 9).  All performances take place at the War Memorial Opera House and feature the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.



San Francisco Opera

David Gockley

Francesca Zambello

John DeMain



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MTT and San Francisco Symphony release West Side Story CD


Cheyenne Jackson (Tony) and Alexandra Silber (Maria) with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are releasing a CD of their world premiere concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s complete score from the musical West Side Story – which MTT describes as “…. a new and rare opportunity to hear Bernstein’s complete score sung by a sensational young cast and a knock-your-socks-off orchestra”.

The recordings for this CD were made during performances in late June and early July 2013, after Tilson Thomas had obtained permission from all four rights-holders of the musical to perform and record the entire score in a concert setting – the first orchestra ever to have done so.

West Side Story was based on a concept by choreographer Jerome Robbins, who in 1949 suggested to Leonard Bernstein the idea of collaborating on a musical based on the story of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Bernstein thought it a “noble idea”. Playwright Arthur Laurents was engaged to write the book, and the then-unknown composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, was persuaded to provide the lyrics.


‘America’ with Jessica Vosk (second left) as Anita

Based on the feuding between American and Puerto Rican street gangs in New York’s Upper West Side during the 1950s, the production was a reflection of the social issues of the time, and marked a significant turning point in American musical theatre. With overall direction and choreography by Robbins, score by Bernstein, book by Laurents and lyrics by Sondheim, West Side Story was finally given its official Broadway opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957, making what was described as a “seismic impression” on the audience.

It wasn’t until several years after the premiere of the musical that Michael Tilson Thomas first met Leonard Bernstein, and they remained close friends and colleagues until Bernstein’s death in 1990. Their shared interests included a dedication to music education and a passion for promoting the music of Mahler.


Michael Tilson Thomas (right) backstage with Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber

The songs from West Side Story have been recorded many times since the version by the original 1957 Broadway cast, and Bernstein’s music has been winning awards since the film adaptation was released in 1961. Michael Tilson Thomas has frequently led the San Francisco Symphony in the music of this celebrated composer and conductor, including the all-Bernstein gala concert at Carnegie Hall in 2008, to mark the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth – a concert which was broadcast on PBS in the Great Performances series, and is available on the SFS Media label.

This new release from the San Francisco Symphony – with the original instrumentation – features Cheyenne Jackson as Tony, Alexandra Silber as Maria, Jessica Vosk as Anita, Kevin Vortmann as Riff and Julia Bullock as A Girl – all making their debuts with the Symphony – with members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus as Jets and Sharks.


Leonard Bernstein © Paul de Heuck, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, appears to be as delighted with the release of the CD as she was with the performance last year. “Michael really understands my father’s music – how to conduct it and how to bring it to life,” she says. “It was such a treat to hear the entire score of West Side Story performed by the San Francisco Symphony on a stage. It is the greatest way to hear this music.”

The collector’s edition two-disc set of West Side Story on the SFS Media label is already available on pre-order from the San Francisco Symphony’s online store, for free worldwide delivery by the release date of June 10. This recording is playable on both standard CD and SACD devices – and included with the set is a 100-page booklet featuring a new interview with MTT, notes from Rita Moreno and Jamie Bernstein, a West Side Story historical timeline, archival photographs, complete lyrics, and rehearsal and performance photographs.


Jerome Robbins © Didier Olivre

The recording is also available for an exclusive early download from iTunes.com/SFSymphony (as of May 20), mastered for iTunes and offered as an interactive iTunes LP with bonus visuals and content provided when viewed in iTunes.


MTT, the Symphony and cast acknowledging the enthusiastic applause

All photographs courtesy San Francisco Symphony unless otherwise stated

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas

Leonard Bernstein

Jerome Robbins

San Francisco Symphony Chorus

SFS Media



San Francisco Symphony
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