Fans of musical theatre know that Sunday is the day for listening to four hours of your favourite music on the radio - Alex Hall’s Songs from the Shows on BBC Radio Newcastle, and Elaine Paige on Sunday on Radio 2. And a fine job they do too, not only playing great music but also providing vital promotion for local productions.
But there’s still nothing like seeing some great singers performing these favourite songs live.
Last Sunday evening brought The Best of British Musicals, the latest of a string of end-of-the-weekend concert spectaculars to have the ‘house full’ signs up at Sage Gateshead. ‘British’ was defined as where the musicals had their stage premieres, even if the writers were not Brits.
David Firman, with his pedigree of countless years’ conducting original productions in the West End, brought all his experience to bear in this collaboration with Royal Northern Sinfonia, the evening’s pit orchestra. With them were four experienced and contrasting solo singers - the evergreen Graham Bickley, making his fourth appearance at Sage over the last year, Ricardo Afonso, Abbie Osmon and Sophie-Louise Dann.
Of course everyone’s idea of what constitutes ‘the Best’ will be different, so this show’s first half took the audience on a journey from the Gilbert and Sullivan light operas of the late 19th century – the forerunners of today’s musicals – to the 1960s, stopping off to highlight some of the favourites of those times, including Spread a Little Happiness by Vivien Ellis, very much the Lloyd Webber of the 1930s.
The work of other great names of that period, including Noel Coward (Room With a View) and Ivor Novello (We’ll Gather Lilacs), was also showcased.
But the appreciative audience’s ears really started to prick up, hearing songs in the living memory of many of them. Excerpts from Lionel Bart’s 1960s hits Blitz and Oliver – with a particularly fine Fagin from Bickley, Reviewing the Situation – and Tony Newley’s work with Leslie Bricusse, were featured.
The second half of the programme brought us straight into the golden period of the last 40 years’ of West End productions, when the Brits have ruled the musical stages both here and around the world.
The overture from Sunset Boulevard set the scene, with the song itself included later, continuing with the major hits from both Chess and Blood Brothers, performed by the ladies. Sophie-Louise Dann provided beautiful diction in a reprise of Julie Andrews’ original Practically Perfect from Mary Poppins, made into a stage musical in 2004.
Abbie Osmon’s My House from Tim Minchin’s Matilda was pitched to perfection, as was her Sun and Moon duet with Afonso, from Miss Saigon.
The real hit performances of the evening were left to the end, with Afonso’s memorable Till I Hear You Sing, from Love Never Dies – always guaranteed to prick the eyes – and Music of the Night, with Bickley finely reprising Michael’s Crawford’s original stage performance.
A memorable medley from Les Misérables performed by all the soloists and finishing with Do You Hear the People Sing, crowned the programmed performance, with an encore clap-along Mamma Mia medley completing the entertainment. Our orchestra took it all in their stride, performing with huge enthusiasm and feel for the music.
Graham Bickley apologised for not being able to include everyone’s favourite songs, and suggested they could all come back with a new set in due course. Unsurprisingly, the audience loudly cheered that suggestion. You read it here first.