Putting notes on stage
by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-03-05
This weekend sees the return to the West End of Notes From New York, a show featuring music from a trio of American Jewish composers.
Included in the show are songs by Jason Robert Brown, composer of the award-winning musical parade (about a Jewish factory worker in the early 20th Century), Jonathan Larson (who wrote the Broadway hit Rent and died tragically of an aneurysm in 1996), and Bill Finn (whose recent work has been inspired by events in his own life, including his being mis-diagnosed with a brain tumour).
The show was first staged at the Arts Theatre in Londons Covent Garden last November and proved so popular that it is getting a fresh outing, this time at the Donmar Warehouse just up the road. Here SJs Caroline Westbrook meets director David Randall, who despite not being Jewish has made a career out of Jewish roles.
What can we expect from the show?
Basically the whole concept of the show is that a lot of work by these American composers has never been done in this country, and a lot of the stuff that were doing is premiering in the West End for the first time. And the composers happen to be Jewish, or the material they write about is inherently Jewish, notably Bill Finn, who is Jewish and a lot of his material is about Jewish life. But theres also the gay aspect within it as well, how that affects the Jewish faith and the whole lifestyle of that, how Jewish families cope with homosexuality in that way. A lot of the material has hardly ever been performed here, and its been my job to take the existing material and turn it into another show, which is what Ive done.
What kind of Jewish material is featured?
We have songs from a show by one composer, Jason Robert Brown, about a guy whos Jewish and the girl that he falls in love with isnt, and he sings a song called Shiksa Goddess which is basically saying Im breaking my mothers heart. And in the show that Ive devised we have another character a girl whos married, and she is Jewish, and she sings a song about the fact that her mother wants her to be a good Jewish girl, and she doesnt marry a Jewish guy, but her relationship breaks up and she begins to think maybe her mum was right. It is difficult to make the material work in that sense because Im taking it all from pre-existing shows but a lot of it happens to be Jewish.
Is is quite daunting being a director after being an actor?
Not really, it was with the last one I did, but then I thought Id love to do it, I knew the material backwards, and I just did it. Its still slightly daunting because at the end of the day a lot of the responsibility comes down to me but at the same time I love it and it is also very rewarding. And I dont feel that I wish I was up there doing it because Im still playing a role, its just Im playing the role of the director.
Is this the first Jewish project youve done?
Well, actually on a personal level its almost like I owe my career to the Jewish faith, because the roles that Ive always played, in musicals and stuff, have always been the Jewish roles. Like I was in the West End production of Fame and I played Shlomo, which was the Jewish guy from Brooklyn whose father was a violinist he was based on the character of Bruno, only I played the violin in it instead of the piano. And I played the fiddler in Fiddler On The Roof, and you couldnt get much more Jewish than you tried. I loved doing Fame, it was very similar to the film, because it traces the four years of going to a drama school and then coming out the other end and graduating. And doing Fiddler was great and the music is inherently very Jewish. It was great to be able to do that and play that.
So you probably know more about being Jewish than a lot of Jewish people
When I was doing Fiddler the cast would come to me and say Ok, what does that mean, what are matzah balls, whats Chanukah? and Id tell them, and theyd say how do you know that? and Id say I dont know, I just do. Its like Sabbath, I know exactly what to do on Sabbath because we did it in Fiddler every night! A number of the cast were Jewish, and they worked with the director telling him what to do.
Notes From New York is on Sunday March 7 at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2. For further information call the box office on 0207 369 1765