Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Which Witch Preserved

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Which Witch Preserved The news that Andrew Lloyd Webber is taping the musical Cats in London for release on video is interesting indeed. In recent years, most of the musicals preserved for television and video release have been Stephen Sondheim pieces (Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into The Woods, Passion) that, unlike Cats, did not have extremely long Broadway runs or national tours and were thus obvious choices for such preservation.
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The news that Andrew Lloyd Webber is taping the musical Cats in London for release on video is interesting indeed. In recent years, most of the musicals preserved for television and video release have been Stephen Sondheim pieces (Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into The Woods, Passion) that, unlike Cats, did not have extremely long Broadway runs or national tours and were thus obvious choices for such preservation.

London has had TV telecasts (but not video releases) of two Sam Mendes-directed Donmar Warehouse musical revivals--Cabaret and Company--plus video releases of Five Guys Named Moe and Buddy (the latter still running). Japan saw on TV 42nd Street and the original Broadway casts of The Will Rogers Follies and Victor/Victoria, but we have been pretty much confined to Sondheim and the occasional documentary or concert tribute.

No doubt the success of the Les Miz London anniversary gala on TV and video has something to do with the Cats taping, although the Les Miz taping did not preserve an actual performance, but rather a concert, albeit in costume and with the performers acting their roles. Perhaps even more of a factor in Lloyd Webber's decision to release on tape the longest-running musical in West End and Broadway history was the fact that the release on video of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance has in no way cut into the international box office success of those attractions. It's probable that Lloyd Webber chose Cats for his first full-scale taping (Song and Dance was aired on British TV and released on video some years back, but that's more a novelty piece) because even if the release has a negative effect on the show's box office (and I doubt that it will, in the long run) and curtails its run, Cats has already enjoyed success beyond any previous show.

Cats may be the first of several Lloyd Webber musicals to be released on video, but beyond those, I can think of any number of musical productions from the last decade or so that ought to have been preserved and released: My One and Only, The Secret Garden (once announced for a PBS telecast that never happened), Kiss of the Spider Woman, Assassins, Crazy For You, Grand Hotel, City of Angels, Falsettos, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and the revivals of On Your Toes, Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, Carousel, and Hello, Dolly! come immediately to mind as productions that would have made for exciting home video.

So what is the latest musical to be preserved and released on video? None of the above, but instead Which Witch, a hit in Norway but a legendary West End calamity at London's Piccadilly Theatre. Witch was taped in its entirety at its 76th and final West End performance on Dec. 19, 1992, and wouldn't you know that the video release (available on the U.S. NTSC system) from Notabene Records (the same company that released the double-CD London cast recording of the show) is one of the most beautiful stage-to-tape transfers ever? The show is another matter. With music co written by leading lady Benedicte Adrian and musical director/arranger Ingrid Bjornov, English lyrics by Kit Hesketh-Harvey (of the popular London comedy team of Kit and the Widow), and book by Piers Haggard, the two hour and 17 minute all-sung show is very serious and very lugubrious, with a mostly dull score.

Set during a period of religious conflict (like Martin Guerre) in Rome and Heidelberg in 1537, it's the would-be tragic story of young Italian Maria Vittoria and her star-crossed passion for the German Bishop Daniel, who is torn between Maria and God. Escaping from an arranged marriage, Maria runs off to Germany with Daniel, but Daniel's jealous, repressed sister, the evil Anna Regina, plots against the lovers. To make a long and very convoluted story short, Anna poisons her brother, who undergoes an exorcism as a result; Maria is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake; and Daniel throws himself on the pyre and dies with Maria.

Which Witch is awakened from its torpor by a couple of camp highlights, particularly the first act finale, in which Maria, asleep in a forest, dreams of a witches' Black Mass, led by none other than Anna Regina in a red body stocking. Witches fly overhead, smoke billows, and there's orgiastic writhing and a floor that opens up; as the scene concludes, Maria is airborne, carried off by Satan. The sequence rivals Carrie's unbelievable second-act opener, the "kill-the-pig" ballet.

And may I hereby start a fan club for co-composer and star Benedicte Adrian, who gives one of the most unintentionally amusing performances I've ever seen? A lovely blonde, Adrian conveys the horrendous vicissitudes of her character with facial expressions that suggest a valley girl piqued by a morning of high-school detention for cutting class. Her soprano is shaky throughout, but she nonetheless (co-) composed for herself a big second act dungeon aria called "The End" with fiercely difficult coloratura passages that are beyond her. So taxing was the role that Adrian only played five out of the eight weekly shows.

The rest of the cast manages to keep a straight face, and the leading man is Graham Bickley, who also suffered through Metropolis, even if he got to take over the leads in the West End productions of The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and Sunset Boulevard (he's the lead in the new West End musical Maddie). A very elaborate show, Which Witch is beautifully designed and orchestrated.

It's actually too bad the production wasn't captured two days earlier, at the final Thursday matinee, because it saw a scandal that made the newspapers. Owing to the utter lack of ticket sales, the casts of current West End shows were invited to attend gratis, and what ensued was what can sometimes happen when an in-crowd is assembled at an unintentionally hilarious event: Unable to control themselves, many in attendance misbehaved, laughing uproariously in the wrong places, and offering a volley of bravos mixed with hoots after Adrian failed as usual to make the high notes in "The End." So bad was the reaction that Adrian left the stage in tears, and it was reported a day or two later that bouquets were delivered to her backstage from various West End companies apologizing for their (inexcusable but all too understandable) behavior. No such reaction is to be heard on the released tape, which concludes with a prolonged ovation by what appear to be die-hard Which Witch groupies.

To think that this incredible stew of a show exists- superbly edited and in hi-fi stereo--and is now available for posterity to marvel at, while so many recent New York/London musicals are not generally available. We can only hope that the Cats video release is so successful that it leads other producers to do likewise with their shows.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com