What is crooning? How and when did it start? Who were the best at it and is anyone still doing it today? To accompany my program on Radio 2's 50s pop up, here's an article on the Art of the Crooner that explains all.
When Wayne Rooney is called a national treasure you know something's up. Like 'legend' and 'genius', it's been over used and misused so that anyone who's been on the telly for more that five minutes is an automatic candidate. Tonight I've found a surprising but truly worthy candidate in Julian Clary.
Having grown up watching him on on Saturday Live with heavy makeup, a leather collar and spikes, I wasn't sure what to expect. We were after all at the Crazy Coqs, one of London's swankiest cabaret rooms. I assumed we'd get a hard hitting, acerbic set designed to keep us on their toes and ever so slightly afraid. I couldn't have been more wrong.
This Julian Clary was charming, gracious, gentle, intelligent and quick to smile at his own preposterous (but probably true) stories. It's a clever ploy. By wrapping us up in his cozy warmth even the inevitable bum jokes and references to Norman Lamont didn't seem smutty or cheap. You can't help but like him. His everyday observations had me thinking more than once of Alan Bennett. “I don't have children,” he tells us, “but I've often thought that waiting for your suitcase to appear on the carousel at the airport must be very like standing at the school gates waiting for your kids to come out.”
He sang in the Professor Higgins speaking style only four or five times. The rest of the set was a collection of anecdotes about holidaying with his mum, cheating on his partner, and his affair with a confused people smuggler. With each one he shared a little more about himself. Like all great cabaret performers his honestly shattered the forth wall and fostered intimacy amongst strangers. Simon Wallace at the piano provided the ideal unimpressed stooge.
The laughter was suspended mid-set when he sang the Nick Cave's 'Into My Arms'. It's a moving lyric which Clary the actor delivered with poetic sensitivity. The moment could have been even more poignant had he contextualised it with a reference to finding true love (or not) in his own life. It did though show a maturity and confidence by suspending the laughs in favour of a theatrical arc.
Anyone who's read Cabaret Secrets will know the importance of leaving the audience with a poignant “message”, some kind of sincere wish or thoughtful reflection that makes us stop and think. Clary did just that closing with a song of his own reminding us that gay rights still languish in the dark ages in many parts of the world. Whereas John Barrowman can't help shoving his sexuality down our throats, Clary's subtlety makes him a far more effective politician.
Julian Clary has grown up. He's had the highlife snorting crystal meth (by accident, he says) in New York and these days prefers to walk the dogs in Kent. What we get is an intelligent performance from a man comfortable in his own skin who's ready to share himself with his audience.
It was a sublime blend of music, wit and camperoo that left me in no doubt Julian Clary is indeed a national treasure.
About this time five years ago I was hobnobbing with Gloria Estefan as she and six other nautical godmothers launched the Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship. Entertaining the 5800 guests was the Broadway show Hairspray. Now Tracy Turnblad and Link Larkin have made way for Rumpleteazer and Mr. Mistoffolees as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats makes it's debut at sea. I'm back to see what this means for cruise ships and the West End. Moving away from the review shows typical of cruise ships, Hairspray was among the first at sea to tell a story from beginning to end with lead actors and a full supporting cast. It was the closest anyone had got to recreating the West End experience on a ship. It was a success and Norwegian Cruise Lines took on Rock of Ages and Legally Blonde. Royal Caribbean followed that with Saturday Night Fever, Chicago, Mamma Mia and soon We Will Rock You.
Casting for cruise ships
There were early concerns about quality control, especially the challenge of casting. Cruise ship entertainment is still considered as unimaginative, low-grade cheese by some. Would enough performers of the right calibre be prepared to leave home for nine months to work on a ship? It appears so. Lured by world-class creative teams, state of the art theatres and a chance to travel the world, great performers were soon lining up to audition. As more performers discover the opportunities that ships can offer, the general talent pool casting directors have to work with is growing. Christi Coachman-Orengo, Royal Caribbean's Director of Entertainment told me how their decision to use Broadway casting directors has helped create more opportunities for everyone, “There was an occasion when we cast a role but later realised the singer did not have the vocal range to handle our second production show. In that case, the casting director snapped them up for Broadway.”
Attention span of cruise ship passengers
Most shows at sea have last less than an hour. Hairspray and Saturday Night Fever pushed it to 90 minutes. Cats is different. It's the first time a full-length, unedited book show in its original form has been staged at sea. With Really Useful's creative team collaborating with Royal Caribbean, no one was worried about the quality of the show. The concerns were regarding the audience. Would cruise ship holiday makers want to sit through the full 2 hour 20 minute production? And what about intermission? Seats in cruise ship theatres are not numbered or preallocated so people sit where they like. If they leave the theatre during the intermission would they loose their seat?
I was there for the first preview performance. Every one of the 1380 seats for each show was taken. The air fizzed with excitement. Everyone knew they were witnessing something special. Fears about guests coming and going during the show were largely unfounded. Everyone came back after intermission and no one had to fight for their seat.
What it means for the West End
As more book shows inevitably make their way to cruise ships the West End should be in buoyant mood. It means another income stream for writers and more work for directors, choreographers and technicians. For performers cruise ships are a real alternative to the West End or touring. A third place to do what they love.
In bringing a true West End experience to sea Royal Caribbean were hoping their guests would rise to the occasion. They wanted the same sense of anticipation you'd find in a West End theatre. It was a risk but it seems to have paid off. It's hasn't all been plain sailing but early audience reactions are strong. As Gus the Theatre Cat says, “There's nothing to equal from what I here tell, that moment of mystery when I make history.”
I'm embracing middle age: my hair's falling out, I can spell haemorrhoid and I'm beginning to enjoy DIY. My dad was always very handy. He'd spend hours pottering about in his shed producing cupboards, fruit bowls and on one occasion a drop-leaf kitchen table.
In an obvious attempt to impress him I too wanted to make something, but what? I was nine; it had to be small, simple and practical. I decided on a coffin for my hamster. My dad was speechless. So was my hamster - it hadn't died yet. I put my crayons in it instead.
Thirty-four years on and as the owner of a 200 year old flat I'm certainly not short of jobs to do.
I've been sawing, hammering and painting anything I can get my hands on. A trip to Wickes is strangely exciting. Last week a bought a file. There's something very satisfying about doing jobs around the house: fixing a cupboard door that never closed properly, building a new shelf to make life that little bit easier. As a singer I don't have much to show for my work - I do a concert and it's over - but my shelf will be there forever (as long as I used the right rawl-plugs).
I'm getting better all the time. I'm not sure I'll ever manage a drop-leaf kitchen table but if anyone's got a hamster on it's last legs...
My powers of irony are failing. A few days ago, having about the best time of my life at my first Glastonbury Festival, I told my Facebook pals, "Glastonbury is rubbish". Everyone thought I was serious. No - I was joking. It was, in fact, one of the most exhilarating and enlightening experiences of my life. Exhilarating to see the headliners like Robert Plant, Paulo Nutini, Kaiser Chiefs and the bedazzled Dolly Parton but just as rewarding were the more intimate gigs: Tankus the Henge, the Beautiful South's Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbot, Peatbog Fairies, Vintage Trouble, Rusty Shackle and CC Smugglers.
Most of the acts I saw wouldn't have been given the time of day by Simon Cowell and his money making bandits. This was about real artists making real music.
It's a massive festival and it's full of surprises. Some of the best times were spent wandering aimlessly from stage to stage stumbling across stunning acts I'd never heard of but will never forget.
Enlightening because almost everyone one of the 120,000 ticket holders were there to enjoy music, meet people and have fun. It's a sort of paradise – a hedonistic Brigadoon where everyone smiles and connections are instant.
I spent the wee hours of the last night partying in a filthy disco packed with people of all ages who hadn't bathed for five days. No pretentious dickheads, designer labels or moody bouncers here (who ever decided that was fun?). Everyone wore crazy outfits and limboed across the dance floor in wellies caked with mud. The music was fun, the dancing was silly and everyone (regardless of what they do in the real world) had the time of their lives.
And finally, to the hippy epicentre of Glastonbury – the Stone Circle. Littered with campfires and candles there was no better place to contemplate the last five days and watch the sunrise over the massive festival site.
Thank you Glastonbury. You dragged me through the mud and replenished my spirit. My body may be broken but my mind has never been better.
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We're having a great week at The Crazy Coqs with the Nat Cole show. You can click here to read Classical Source's review of the show and here's what Debra Craine from The Times said:"Gary was terrific. Lovely voice, yes, but a wonderful sense of humour too and he made everyone in the room feel special... It's a brilliant example of how cabaret should be done."
I've always hated working on Valentine's night. Too many years singing cozy ballads to couples desperately trying to remember what they ever saw in each other. “Where are you taking me Valentine's night?” It's a problem. Most couples are so busy with kids, work and everything in between that they need Hallmark to remind them to spent some quality time together. But a whole evening of uninterrupted conversation with the love of your life is an alarming prospect. Seeing a show or a movie is a welcome distraction but not without risk.
Listening to someone like me singing “love is here to stay” only reminds you and your beau of what you're missing. Do you really want to hear the hits of Nat 'King' Cole when you can barely stand the sight of each other?
I have a better idea. An evening with Barb Jungr singing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. If it's passion your after, this is the real thing. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Everybody Knows, A Thousand Kisses Deep, Chimes of Freedom – it doesn't get much better. Barb Jungr is a great lover. She listens, caresses every line and holds nothing back.
No sugared sentiments here but you will see true love in action.
Tonight at the South Bank.