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Putting notes on stage

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2004-03-05

David Randall

David Randall

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 London’s 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 SJ’s 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 we’re 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 there’s 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 it’s been my job to take the existing material and turn it into another show, which is what I’ve done.


What kind of Jewish material is featured?

We have songs from a show by one composer, Jason Robert Brown, about a guy who’s Jewish and the girl that he falls in love with isn’t, and he sings a song called Shiksa Goddess which is basically saying ‘I’m breaking my mother’s heart’. And in the show that I’ve devised we have another character – a girl who’s 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 doesn’t 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 I’m 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 I’d love to do it, I knew the material backwards, and I just did it. It’s 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 don’t feel that I wish I was up there doing it because I’m still playing a role, it’s just I’m playing the role of the director.


Is this the first Jewish project you’ve done?

Well, actually on a personal level it’s almost like I owe my career to the Jewish faith, because the roles that I’ve 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 couldn’t 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, what’s Chanukah?’ and I’d tell them, and they’d say ‘how do you know that?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know, I just do’. It’s 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