I mentioned last Friday that it was the 1974 West End musical The Good Companions that got me hooked on J. B. Priestley’s book of the same name. And at that time I noted that a young Judi Dench starred in it along with John Mills and Christopher Gable. Dame Judi in a musical???? She can sing? Who would have thought?
During her long career the good Dame has appeared in several musicals, and though she has admit that her singing voice sounds like she has a permanent cold, always with great success. Best known as a Shakespearean actress – Ophelia, Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s landmark R&J, Isabella in Measure for Measure – at the beginning of her career, she decided to try her hand at musicals. And in 1968 when the West End production of Cabaret was announced she auditioned for the role of Sally Bowles. She was so frightened that she sang from the wings leaving the poor audition pianist alone in the glare of a single work light. Her performance – and singing – was greeted with both surprise and plaudits and her rendition of the title song can still send a chill down the spine.
Her next outing, The Good Companions had a fine musical pedigree: Priestley’s original material, book by Ronald Harwood, music by André Previn and lyrics (the last he was to write for a musical) by Johnny Mercer. It did tryouts in Manchester and opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in July of 1974 and played 252 performances. It was the second time that an adaptation of Priestley’s book appeared on the boards at the venerable theatre: the first was an 1931 stage adaptation with a young John Gielgud. Despite its West End success the musical had to wait twenty-six years before it was transferred across the Atlantic; at the time the subject was considered “too English” for North American audiences. In 2000 the San Francisco based 42nd Street Moon company gave the work its American premiere with some success.
The original material was considered a bit dated even in 1974 but Previn and Mercer played to that nostalgia and created a great score with some jaunty music hall style numbers, several lovely ballads and this haunting song.
In 1981 while rehearsing for her next musical Dame Judi fell from a piece of the stage machinery and tore her Achilles tendon. As a result she was unable to go “up, up, up to the Heaviside layer” and Elaine Paige went on to sing “Memories” at the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats. However in 1995 Dame Judi went on to win an Olivier Award for her performance in a revival of A Little Night Music and her version of “Send in the Clowns” almost rivals that of Glynis Johns, who had created the role of Desiree on Broadway.
On this day in 1862: Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH) opens as the first hospital in British Columbia