Professor Joe Goldblatt
When the legendary Broadway director Jerome Robbins was summoned to Washington, DC’s National Theatre as a ‘Show Doctor’ to try and save the musical comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” he turned to the composer Stephen Sondheim and said “It needs an opening number to set the scene for the audience.” Sondheim immediately returned to his hotel room and wrote the catchy opening tune entitled “Comedy Tonight!” and not only was the show saved from closing on the road, it went on to become a smash hit on Broadway, in London, around the world as well as on film. The musical begins when a comic slave named Pseudolous welomes the audience with his large outstretched arms announcing “Playgoers, I bid you welcome!” followed by these lyrics that were quickly conceived by Sondheim.
Something for everyone
A comedy tonight!
Such is the magic of live theatre. Often the seemingly smallest adjustments reap the greatest long term benefit. Last evening as I ascended the grand staircase in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre with each successive step I felt my heart beating louder and faster as if a kettle drum was slowly and deliberately rolling at the start of an overture. As I proudly presented my ticket to the usher and she replied with “Welcome back!” I realised that I was soon to experience a magical reunion with an old friend whose hallowed name is Live Theatre.
Upon taking my seat in the front stalls I noticed the orchestra beginning to tune up and the audience rustling in their seats in anticipation of the curtain rising. Suddenly the house lights began to slowly dim and as the handsome young conductor raised his baton, as one united theatrical family we began our sacred pilgrimmage back to the world of live theatre. To my surprise, the normally staid and sedate Edinburgh audience was immediately swaying from right to left to the beat of the orchestral sound and the enveloping joy was more infectious than any pandemic could ever hope for.
The cast of the Southern Light Opera company selflessly performing to support the restoration of Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre opened the show with a lively song from the Jerry Herman smash hit musical comedy Mame. The lyrics from It’s Today provided a perfect frame for all of the fun, poignancy, drama and sheer entertainment that would follow.
Light the candles
Get the ice out
Roll the rug up
Though it may not be anyone’s birthday
And though it’s far from the first of the year
I know that this very minute has history in it
The announcement of “We’re here!” was a rallying cry for all of us who love live theatre and it as returned by an immediate live cheer from the audience. Following nineteen long months in the desert, we finally witnessed a moment of paradise upon the horizon and it was no mere mirage. Dozens of highly talented and skilled artists including actors, singers, dancers, lighting designers, costumiers, and the creative team had braved the long winter of their discontent to meticulously bring forth this beautiful gift for all of us to enjoy.
As I watched the large cast assemble on stage I wondered how they managed to muster the will and resolve to return to the rehearsal studio to prepare this amazing gift. Then, I realised as I look to my left and right and saw the beaming smiles of the audience as they mouthed the words to the old familiar songs that the Southern Light Opera company had no choice. They realised, as do I, that without live theatre, entertainment, sports and other diversions, many of us would perish emotionally and when one has a prolonged period without joy and happiness one shall eventually suffer physically as well. Their performances were indeed a rescue mission to insure our survival and for many of us, a life saver or a lighthouse of hope that was leading us back to a better world.
As the house lights rose for the interval I noticed that some audience members were slightly confused. They did not know if this was the end of the performance or of they were to remain in their seats for the second act. Such is the confusing nature of pandemics when associating with others is discouraged. A few audience members rose from their seats, however, the majority remained glued to their chairs as if to silently announce that they would not leave, not now, not ever!
As the music before the second act began to rise from the orchestra pit I looked up to my right and left and noticed how the architecture of the beautiful Festival Theatre included a sweeping curvature of the balcony as if her giant loving arms were embracing the entire audience. I found this embrace comforting as if the theatre itself was whispering to the audience that we would indeed be alright because we had finally found our way home.
At the end of the performance I made my way down to the orchestra and shook hands with the conductor and then with a sweep of my hand said to all of the players “From the first note, I was weeping with joy!” To my surprise, they all smiled and gave a collective sigh of appreciation.
Unlike previous performances where the audience often bolts for the doors after or even before the final note is played, the audience for Southern Light Opera lingered for a long time in the auditorium and upon the front steps of the theatre itself. The thick fog surrounding us made me wonder if all of this had been but a brief dream. In fact, I was reminded of when as a young actor I played Puck in Benjamin Britten’s operatic interpretation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These were my closing lines.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends
And Robin shall restore amends.
This brave and essential act of assembling on stage to entertain their fellow human beings did indeed begin to restore the amends of a long period of theatrical drought. Their small gift will, just as Jerome Robbins suggested, set the scene for our recovery, reconciliation and resolve to return to the theatre whose mighty arms are now outstretched and ready to welcome us home.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and is a former actor and dancer. To learn more about his views about live theatre visit www.joegoldblatt.scot and to support the King’s Theatre visit https://www.capitaltheatres.com/support and to learn more about the Southern Light Opera visit www.southernlight.co