In my experience it seems that true musical theatre lovers have at least one show that they will travel great distances to see, especially when a star performer is involved. My own list includes Evita, Sunset Boulevard, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Tell Me on a Sunday, which later became the first half of Song & Dance.
From the above list of musicals, the one I have seen most often is Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, having thoroughly enjoyed the Norma Desmonds (in no particular order — and some multiple times) of Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close, Karen Mason, Petula Clark, Florence Lacey and Loni Ackerman. Another favorite Lloyd Webber score is the one he penned for the song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday, which began as a BBC concert and recording featuring Marti Webb, who, at the time, had just succeeded Elaine Paige in the original West End production of Evita. A few years later, following the suggestion of producer Cameron Mackintosh, Tell Me on a Sunday and Lloyd Webber's Variations would comprise the 1982 London musical Song & Dance. Webb repeated her work in the first half of a somewhat revised Tell Me, while Wayne Sleep led the dancers in Variations.
When Webb departed the hit production at the Palace Theatre, she was succeeded by Lulu, Gemma Craven and Liz Robertson, whose work all went unrecorded. Before the show closed, however, it was filmed by RCA/Columbia Pictures International Video for home video distribution starring a then-mostly unknown Sarah Brightman. Although Brightman's soprano soared on such tunes as "Unexpected Song" and "Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes," she was, at the time, too inexperienced an actress to handle the show's dramatic and comedic demands. That said, the video does preserve the superb dancing of original star Sleep.
My history with Tell Me on a Sunday dates back to the early 80s when Channel 5 (before it became Fox TV) aired the Webb BBC broadcast. I vividly remember the commercials advertising the song cycle, but cannot recall why I didn't watch it at the time; thankfully, years later, I was able to secure a copy and have enjoyed viewing Webb's performance numerous times.
In 1985 it was announced that Bernadette Peters, who had just scored a major success in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, would play the role of an English girl in America — the character was given a name (Emma) and a profession (hat designer) when the production came to the States — and the lyrics, originally written by Don Black, were substantially revised by Black and Richard Maltby Jr. (One of the joys of following this musical has been charting how the lyrics and the placement of songs have changed from production to production.)
Already a fan of Peters from the original cast recording of Sunday in the Park, I eagerly awaited the New York debut of Song & Dance, which I first caught during previews, subsequently returning three times. Peters' performance remains one of the highlights of my nearly 40-year theatregoing history. Each time I returned, there were more nuances in both her acting and singing of the role. I wish her star turn had been preserved for PBS; as great as the cast recording is, it fails to capture just how funny she was delivering the letters home. I have often found with roles Peters created that no one mines the material for as much humor as she. I remember her drawing laugh after laugh during "English Girls," and the trills and other vocal flourishes she added to the score later in the run, unfortunately, were not preserved. She was also heartbreakingly real, delivering "Tell Me on a Sunday" with palpable pain, and her self-discovery at the end of the show was as thrillingly sung as it was emotionally honest. Watching her performance in the show's first act was one hour of complete joy.
When Peters left the production, she was succeeded by Tony winner Betty Buckley for the musical's final six weeks on Broadway. Unfortunately, I was in college at the time and was unable to catch Buckley as English hat designer Emma, but I have heard audiotapes of her performance, and her singing is phenomenal, some of the most exciting belting of her career. Buckley, in superb voice, belted the F sharps in the final verse of "Unexpected Song," and in the title tune, she held the word "Take" in "Take the hurt out of all the pain" longer than anyone I've ever heard. It is simply stunning singing from start to finish.
Years later, I had the pleasure of catching Tony winner Alice Ripley perform the role in a limited engagement at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but I always regretted never having seen the woman for whom the role was written (Webb) perform what is arguably the best song cycle to showcase the talents of a female belter. In fact, Webb was the one singer I grew up listening to that I had never seen perform live. So, when it was announced a few months ago that the 69-year-old Webb would re-create the original BBC version of Tell Me on a Sunday, I thought this would likely be the last opportunity to catch the English actress in the role. Truth be told, I hadn't boarded a plane in about a decade (the last time I flew ended in an emergency landing at an air base), and it wasn't until a week before her run that I actually booked the flight.
As I told Webb after her performance, I had waited 30 years to see her live, and she did not disappoint. Her vocals remain almost eerily unchanged, a clarion tone that easily handles the demanding score.
The one-week run of Tell Me was staged in the intimate St. James Theatre, a relatively new venue that also features an adjoining restaurant. It was exciting to walk into the theatre and see the stage set up similarly to the BBC TV broadcast. In fact, the performance also included the same Mickey Mouse phone that is featured during "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad," although the receptionist was definitely not voiced by Elaine Stritch this go round.
Simply dressed in a blouse and slacks, Webb entered to thunderous applause. One suspects many in the audience were long-time fans and had watched the BBC broadcast years ago. Webb possesses great comic timing, which was especially evident in her delivery of the "Letter(s) Home." I was particularly moved by her rendition of "Come Back With the Same Look in Your Eyes": Her joyous waving to her departing lover was touching, especially knowing that this love affair was ill-fated. Her delivery of the title tune was simple and haunting — she slowed down the line "take me to a park covered with trees" to dramatic effect, and she had much fun with an energetic "I'm Very You, You're Very Me." It was also great to hear "Nothing Like You've Ever Known," a song cut for the Broadway production, as well as "Last Man in My Life," which was replaced by "Unexpected Song" for New York. Webb also summoned anger well in a particularly devastating "Let's Talk about You" that ended with a forcefully belted, "Are you absolutely sure you don't want to stay for tea?!" The evening ended with new lyrics to "Take That Look off Your Face," which included references to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx as well as the Guggenheim Museum. The actress was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation. (Afterwards, my teary-eyed, 78-year-old mom, who traveled with me, said Webb's performance was worth the trip.)
For those who are fans of the song cycle, the complete list of songs from the St. James outing follows:
Take That Look off Your Face
Let Me Finish
It's Not the End of the World If I Lose Him
First Letter Home
Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad
You Made Me Think You Were in Love (the original version, with the lines "Last thing at night you used to call me...")
It's Not the End of the World If He's Younger
Second Letter Home
Last Man in My Life
Come Back with the Same Look in Your Eyes
Let's Talk About You
Take That Look off Your Face-Reprise
Tell Me on a Sunday (the complete version, with the added lines "Don't run off in the pouring rain, don't call me...)
I Love New York
It's Not the End of the World If He's Married
I'm Very You, You're Very Me
Third Letter Home
Nothing like You've Ever Known
Let Me Finish
Take That Look off Your Face
In an informative interview with Webb in the program for Tell Me on a Sunday, she discusses how both the original and current incarnation of the musical came to be. About the former she said, "I had just taken over in Evita in 1979, a week in and Andrew Lloyd Webber asked me out for dinner with Don Black the lyricist. They told me they'd been working on a new project and asked if I would like to be involved. They'd only written a couple of songs so it was a work in progress, and of course, I jumped at the chance! I then went to stay with Andrew at Sydmonton House where a car would take me to and from the theatre every night, and during the day we would work on the songs in the studio. The songs were written one by one, so it was very unusual for an artist to be involved in the creation process. Don Black said to me, a phone call can change your life and it's so true. There are moments in your life you would never have imagined what happened and then suddenly you're there and living it and it's very surreal."
About the recent run, Webb explained, "I was doing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall for Don Black earlier this year, where I sang 'Take That Look off Your Face' and 'Tell Me on a Sunday.' Andrew was there and told me it sounded exactly the same as all those years ago. Lewis Carnie from Radio 2 was also there and he said, 'Do you think you could do the whole piece?' So feeling rather exuberant and excited, I replied, 'Oh yes, we could do it with a small band and you could record it.' And he said, 'That's exactly what I was thinking of doing!' So that's how it all started."
Lyricist Black also provided some notes for the evening, writing, "Tell Me On a Sunday has been written more times than Graham Norton's cue cards! The changes began when the original star Marti Webb had finished her successful run and Lulu took over the role. Marti played the part of a girl from Muswell Hill, but everyone knows that Lulu is Scottish, so Muswell Hill became Glasgow. As the show went around the world, Muswell Hill became Sydney, Tokyo, Munich, etc. Also, with the passage of time people started to suggest that a girl writing home to her mother sounded dated and she should e-mail her. So, yet another round of rewrites to modernize the piece. The next phase of rewriting was to do with its length. We were asked to make it longer as it only lasted an hour — not enough for a complete evening." That elongated production, starring Denise Van Outen, was staged and later released on CD in 2003; when Van Outen concluded her run, Webb stepped into the show, performing an amalgam of the original and revised versions.
About a decade ago, I had the chance to interview Webb by phone when she was starring in the West End production of the Tony-winning Thoroughly Modern Millie; click here to read that article. And, if you're lucky enough to be in London next month, Webb, due to ticket demand, will perform Tell Me on a Sunday for two weeks at the Duchess Theatre, Feb. 18-March 1.
For those unable to make the transatlantic journey, it was just announced that Webb's performance at the St. James Theatre was recorded for a BBC Radio 2 broadcast in April. The one-hour program will feature interviews with both Webb and lyricist Black with the full recording of Tell Me On a Sunday. *
For tickets to Tell Me on a Sunday at the Duchess Theatre, visit nimaxtheatres.com/duchess-theatre.
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.