Eric Woolfson's Poe
A pleasure and joy to get to work with the late Eric Woolfson. He had great faith in my ability to give his songs a voice (when he has had so much success as one of the voices of APP). The showcase was a very hard but rewarding process and I got to work with some amazing performers. Oh, and the beautiful raven...
Role: Edgar Allen Poe
Venue: Abbey Road Studios, London
Date: 6-8 Nov 2003
|Eric Woolfson's Poe: The World Premiere Performance DVD
Released: 6 Sep 2009
|Eric Woolfson - Edgar Allen Poe CD
Released: 31 Aug 2009
|Eric Woolfson - Poe - More Takes Of Mystery & Imagination CD
Released: 29 Sep 2003
|Steve Balsamo - Immortal CD Single
Nov 2003 - Poe Press Release
Eric Woolfson's POE, More Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a magnificent follow-up to the Alan Parsons Project's 1976 debut album.
Eric Woolfson was the creator and writer of the Alan Parsons Project, who released Tales Of Mystery And Imagination - Edgar Allan Poe, in 1976, which went on to sell over 8 million units. The Alan Parsons Project released ten albums between 1976 and 1986, which have sold in excess of 45 million copies to date.
POE, More Tales of Mystery and Imagination, features the amazing lead vocals of Steve Balsamo, who played the lead in the recent West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Eric comments that "I have finally found my 'Voice'. My material has never sounded better than when Steve Balsamo sings it". Steve Balsamo continues that "It's probably the best recording yet of my voice, and there seems to be a beautiful marriage between Eric's music and the way I sing".
Top musicians, including guitarist John Parricelli, who played the mandolin in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, bassist Laurence Cottle, who has worked with Sting, Cher and Seal, keyboards man Simon Chamberlain (Bjork, Pet Shop Boys, Paul McCartney), Ralf Salmins (Madonna, Van Morrison, Mike Oldfield), an 80 strong choir and a forty piece orchestra were enlisted to record the album.
POE, More Tales of Mystery and Imagination has taken 6 years to make and cost over 3/4 of a million pounds to record in Abbey Road Studios.
The album was recently previewed with three stunning, sold-out, "POE In Concert" world premiere performances at Abbey Road Studios, featuring a 16 strong cast, a full orchestra and a specially constructed set, lighting and sound system. This staged rock opera concert version of POE was filmed and recorded for release on DVD later next year.
Nov 2003 - Gibraltar Live Music Society - James Martin - Rock on the Rock at Abbey Road
Rock on the Rock Club was recently represented at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in St John's Wood, London. The Club's Press Officer, James Martin and his wife Peri were invited to attend a preview of Eric Woolfson's new musical Poe being performed at the studio, by Steve Balsamo who takes the lead in the show. Steve performed at this year's National Day Concert.
James said: "Steve had a great time in Gibraltar with his band and the visit was a thank you for organising his visit." The visit was also a surprise birthday present for Peri, and Steve arranged that they attend the champagne reception and the after show party, as well as having two seats in the second row. James and Peri stayed as guests of Steve and his girlfriend Tracy at their London flat. Peri said, "It was a wonderful birthday treat and a complete surprise as James, Steve and Tracy managed to plan it without my knowledge - I only found out at the last minute exactly what we were going to London for. Steve and Tracy are a lovely couple."
James said: "After performing at the National Day gig Steve flew back to the UK to sing some songs as the BBC Wales contribution to the Proms. This included Gethsemane, the song he is most famous for in his West End role in Jesus Christ Superstar."
The ecstatic audience in Swansea gave him a standing ovation. Following this he has been hard at work recording the Poe soundtrack and appearing in the preview. This week he is in Holland promoting the show with Eric Woolfson.
Celebrities in attendance at Abbey Road included promoter Harvey Goldsmith, Lords Sainsbury and Owen, and the drummer from David Gray's band. "Steve's three performances in Poe are electrifying and once again he received three standing ovations for his role from the capacity audience of three hundred. He had another ovation when he entered the after show party. The song Immortal is a show blockbuster with an incredible performance from Steve."
Both James and Peri are fans of The Beatles and of the Alan Parsons Project which Eric Woolfson put together and whose songs sold over 45 million copies. "To be in the same studios as these great musicians recorded in was amazing. Studios 1 and 2 have barely changed since the days of The Beatles, although obviously the control rooms contain the latest technology as you'd expect when they charge a thousand pounds an hour to record there! I told a few people I could fix them up in some Gibraltar studios for twenty pounds an hour!"
James is currently trying to arrange a return visit to Gibraltar by Steve and his guitarist Rob Thompson, and it is anticipated they will perform some acoustic, laid back gigs locally. "Steve has been invited to perform in Sweden over the New Year but is very excited about returning to Gibraltar," said James.
12 Dec 2003 - dailyvault.com (Duke Egbert) - Review
Thomas Wolfe said you can never go home again. Apparently no one told this to Eric Woolfson. Good thing, too.
Woolfson, half the central core of the Alan Parsons Project, has been doing a lot of different things since the Project's breakup in 1987. He's done some musicals in Germany and Korea (including the critically noted Gambler), written some songs, and spent a lot of time working with more theatrical music - unlike his counterpart, Parsons, who has stayed in rock and whose new album is reportedly a venture into electronica. However, it seems he's always wanted to revisit the first subject he ever handled as a musician - the work of Edgar Allan Poe, the subject of the Project's 1976 debut. Finally, Woolfson, working with a new band and vocalist Steve Balsamo, has released Poe.
First things first. This is not a Project album - this isn't even a progressive rock album. There are elements that are similar, but Woolfson has spent a decade or more in musical theater, and it shows. Poe is closer in spirit to Chess or the work of Tim Rice. That's actually a good thing; longtime Project fans know that Woolfson's commercial-sounding vocals (on songs like Time) helped destroy the Project's progressive rock sound through record label pressure. Free of that preconception, Poe turns out to be a solid, enjoyable, and well-performed work with very few miscues.
The musicianship is excellent; sometime Project bassist Laurence Cottle joins a host of new names to put together a stellar performance. Special kudos have to go to guitarist John Parricelli, who handles multiple styles with ease and aplomb. Production and engineering show that Woolfson must have taken notes during all those years of collaboration; the sound is crisp and clear, no simple task on harmony-heavy tracks like Goodbye To All That and The Murders In The Rue Morgue.
So it seems Poe rests on the songwriting - and that's almost perfect. I confess to not having much of a liking for Freedom Train, but once that's out of the way, Poe is astonishing. Tracks like Tiny Star and Wings Of Eagles are brilliant, The Pit And The Pendulum is appropriately horrible, Somewhere In The Audience is heartbreaking - and the closing track, Immortal, may be the greatest thing Eric Woolfson has ever written. Steve Balsamo's soaring celebration of Poe's literary immortality gave me chills. Simply beautiful.
Eric Woolfson has come full circle, and gained a good deal of wisdom and talent along the way. Take the time to dig up a little Poe - you'll find it to be a poetically good listen.
Jan 2004 - getreadytorock.com (Jason Richie) - Review
Eric Woolfson was involved in the Alan Parson's Project Tales of Mystery and Imagination album released in 1976 and here Woolfson carries on his passion and interest in the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Woolfson composed all the music and lyrics, which are either based on Poe's works or parts of Poe's life. Steve Balsamo adds his vocal talents to much of the work, none more so than Wings of Eagles, a grand production number with lush strings and choral backing and reminding me of Kansas! Fred Johanson adds a deep baritone to Train to Freedom, a song with a distinctive traditional southern sound. The Bells is pure musical, from the female fronted choir and the epic feel of the track. Same goes for The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which is great fun with its multitude of voices (I personally love big musical numbers like this!). A very ambitious (recorded with full orchestra and an Abbey Road setting) and personal project, that manages to pull of the feat of being both accessible musically and one to enjoy on a deeper level for Poe readers. Steve Balsamo suits the dramatic soundscapes well and how about a stage show based on this work next? (**** Pretty Damn Fine)
Mar 2004 - Spotlight On Musicals (Mike Gibb) - Review
Poe is not a cast album nor even (as far as I am aware) a concept album for a yet unproduced stage musical. But in the light of Eric Woolfson's pedigree - Freudiana, Gaudi, Gambler and so on - I felt it was worthy of a review in the column.
This is not in fact Woolfson's first involvement with the world of Edgar Allen Poe, having penned the material for The Alan Parsons Project 1976 release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. But he admits that he is so smitten with the work of the writer that he felt the need to return to the subject.
If, like me, you have enjoyed Eric Woolfson's earlier work then you will find much to admire here. True there is nothing to match the best moments of Gaudi (Closer to Heaven, Parca Guell and the like). But it is still a highly enjoyable piece of work.
The opening instrumental leads into the powerful Wings of Eagles and the first of many appearances by Steve Balsamo (of Jesus Christ Superstar fame). Balsamo is in outstanding form, equally at home with the big numbers like The Pit and the Pendulum and Immortal, where he lets his remarkable voice off the leash, or purring out the gentle ballads Somewhere in the Audience and Tiny Star.
Writer Woolfson steps up to the microphone himself with Murder on the Rue Morgue with the impressive chorus also to the fore. Indeed on the strength of their contribution to that song, the interesting The Bells and in particular the album's highlight, the fascinating Goodbye to All That, I would rather have liked to have heard more from them.
In the light of the fact that this album has been six years in the making, apparently costing over a million Euros in the process, you will not be surprised to learn that the sound is wonderful. Whether or not we will one day see Poe on the stage, only time will tell. But at least in the meantime we can enjoy the music, courtesy of this fine album.
16 Jul 2004 - musicalworld.nl - Interview with Eric Woolfson & Steve Balsamo, Abbey Road Studios
Steve, we first met you at the premiere of Musicals in Ahoy in Rotterdam, Netherlands. How did you experience those shows?
Steve: It was difficult. First of all I was very lucky and privileged to be invited across. When I got there I realised how big the venue was and how scared I was so it was very nervewracking. And of course all the people were very well known and very established musical stars, so it was kind of strange going in because everyone knows each other. Also going in and just do 2 songs was much more difficult than doing 10 songs, because you build yourself up and then you have to let it go for a while and then you have to do it again at the end of the show.
How did you get involved in that show?
Steve: Eric was contacted by several people of Joop's company who came to see the showcase that we did with Poe last year here at the Abbey Road Studios. So they approached us to see if we wanted to be involved in that show.
Eric: I went to see the show and I really enjoyed it, it was quite something. The quality and the standard was incredible. I know how difficult it is to even get a sound in that place because its like a huge fishtank but the sound was fantastic. The production was so big that somebody at one point said to me 'did you see the horse and the rider?'. And I hadn't seen it. For a horse with a rider come into the venue and you haven't seen it ,because I was too busy looking at the motorcycles, that really tells you how much effort went into that production.
At Musicals in Ahoy Steve sang Immortal from the musical Poe - More Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Back in 1975 the first Tales of Mystery and Imagination album came out by the Alan Parsons Project, also based on poetry by Edgar Allen Poe. Eric, why Poe? What's your fascination with him?
Eric: Normally you are impressed with somebody's work. The difference with Poe is that his life is even more bizarre than his works. So you have a double dose of inspiration. You can actually see how the life trauma's led to the works. When the inspiration is so big you can't contain it all just to one album, so I always knew that after the 1st tales of mystery and imagination there should be more. I thought about a movie those days, I hadn't even thought of musicals then.
How did you get involved into writing musicals?
Eric: I used to work in a publishing company with two unknown other writers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, this was in the sixties. Andrew and Tim quickly realised that to get there songs recorded, they needed a vehicle and they developed the stage musical. I eventually developed the Alan Parsons Project as a vehicle but then I realised that there was more to it than that and that Andrew Lloyd Webber was right and that the stage musical was a fulfilling media for a writer like myself. I got into stage musicals in the mid-eighties.
But how come that it took nearly 30 years between the first Tales of Mystery and Imagination album and the Poe, More Tales of Mystery and Imagination album?
Eric: When we did the 1st album, it was with a record company we only had a deal with for one album. Then we were signed by another company and they asked what we wanted to do so I said that I'd like to do volume 2 of Tales of Mystery and Imaginations. They said that they didn't have volume one so they didn't want it. So I had to wait a while to go back to my great inspiration... Poe.
Steve, what about you, were you familiar with Edgar Allen Poe before you started to work on this project?
Steve: Yes, I've read lots of his books. As a kid I grew up with the Hammer horror films from the seventies. So I was also aware of his work through the horror movies.
We're here at the famous Abbey Road Studios. Last year there were three sold out Poe in Concert performances right here. Eric, how did it feel to perform these songs live?
Eric: We were trying to create something special. The audience was an incidental thing, we only had about 300 seats because we did it in our recording studio and not in the theatre. It was a showcase, there were no technical effects because there are no theatrical possibilities here. It was a very basic thing with costumes and some choreography and a minimum of set. We didn't think that the 1st show would work out, but it worked like a dream. Fortunately we got it all filmed.
Will that footage ever be released on DVD?
Eric: It's a very interesting DVD but of course our prime interest is getting it properly done in the theatre, so that means that the DVD has to wait for a while.
What's the situation with Poe the Musical at the moment? Are you working on getting it into the theatre?
Eric: Yes, there are different schools of thought. There are some who say that it worked so marvellously here in the Abbey Road Studios, why don't you do it like that. And there are those who say that if you put the special effects to the max, you could have the biggest show in the world. So at the moment, I'm investigating these possibilities.
Steve: Because of the strength of the music, the show could be taken slightly left-field. You can compare it a bit with Notre Dame the Paris. That show moved theatre slightly to the left as well and opened up a whole different audience, a much younger audience. I think Poe could go down that avenue because its different from the traditional musical theatre.
Eric, after your work with the Alan Parsons Project, you began to write musicals. These musicals were shown in Austria, Germany and Asia, but not here in England. Any reason for that?
Eric: I think it's a continuation of what happened with the Alan Parsons Project. We sold very well in countries like Holland, Germany, America and Australia, but in England we didn't do too well. So when I came to do musicals, those countries which had bought the Alan Parsons Project were very receptive to do the musicals so I tended to go there. But I hope that this particular work (Poe) will eventually go everywhere.
Steve, will you be a part of it when it does come to West End?
Steve: Of course!
Eric: He'd better be! (laughs). Steve and I have an unusual business relationship, something that I have never experienced before with an artist. In our own way, we are both slightly misfits. Although Steve is in great demand by the theatre producers of this country, his heart is, like mine, half in the music business, half in the theatre and that makes us slightly difficult to pin down. But the reality is that I have never had my music sung better than by this guy. He takes it to another level and it really suits his voice.
Edgar Allen Poe is a very important person in the history of literature. Don't you think it's a risk to make a musical about such an icon?
Eric: No it's not, because with Poe you can relate the songs to either his life or to the works. So if a director only wants to portray his life or only his work, that really makes no difference for the songs. I'll give the director a free hand to do what he wants, I'll leave the style for this musical up to the him and the producer.
Steve: I'd love it to be a dark, gothic, slightly surreal, slightly avant-garde spectacle.
Steve, you are mainly known for your role as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Even today you still perform songs from that musical even though you were seen in that part back in 1996/1997. Aren't you afraid that you will carry that label forever?
Steve: It's a difficult one. What I've achieved with Superstar was fantastic, it gave me a platform to move on and eventually make a record. But there is so many times that I can sing Gethsemane and weep on the floor without getting a nervous breakdown and I'm coming quite close to the end now. Last week I had a Jesus Christ Superstar concert at Portchester Castle and that was the last time that I did it, they can't pay me enough now to cry anymore (laughs).
Eric: One of the lucky thing for me and one of the unlucky thing for Steve about Superstar is, that when he came to do it, it had been done probably a hundred times by other people. He did an outstanding job, but with Poe, he's the first and that's what makes the difference.
Steve, you also have your own band, The Storys. How are things with that?
Steve: Things are going good, we just finished recording, starting to mix. Hopefully we start touring in the future. The music that we make is kind of like the Eagles, bit of the Hollies and Crosby Stills and Nash, very seventies.
Is the band your main focus now, or will we be seeing you again soon on West End?
Steve: Musical-wise the only thing I'm interested in is making sure that Poe reaches its logical conclusion of getting a huge producer who makes it an incredible and visual spectacle.
Poe's biggest fear in life was to be buried alive. What is your biggest fear?
Eric: That Poe the Musical is buried alive (laughs). Can you thing of anything Steve?
Steve: I was going to say something rude but I can't... (laughs).
Feb 2010 - Classic Rock Presents Prog (Malcolm Dome) - Poe DVD Review
Notre Dame de Paris
I was amongst some of the best singers in the world on this show - great music and incredible dancers. Great fun. Lovely memories of recording the album in Montreal and Paris.
Venue: Dominion Theatre, London
Date: May to Oct 2000
|Notre Dame De Paris London Cast Recording CD
Released: 21 Feb 2000
Feb 2000 - BBC News Online - Musical Limbers up in Cannes
Stars of the forthcoming London version of France's most successful musical, Notre Dame de Paris, have been giving a sneak preview of the new production. The two leads for the West End show, Australian pop star Tina Arena and British singer Steve Balsamo, showcased their production at Midem in Cannes. Midem, the record industry's annual marketplace, has attracted over 4000 companies from more than 90 countries.
The show, which opened in Las Vegas last week and has broken box office records across Europe and Canada, is heading to London's Dominion Theatre in May. The musical, based on Victor Hugo's story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, opened in Paris in 1998. Within less than a year it became the most successful musical in French history, selling more than two million tickets and seven million CDs in Europe.
The first English language version of the lavish musical opened in Las Vegas last week. The original French version of Notre Dame de Paris was written by Italian Richardo Cocciante and Canadian Luc Plamondon, a close friend of singer Celine Dion who has recorded one of the songs from the production. The English lyrics have been written by Grammy winner Will Jennings, who wrote the words for Celine Dion's Titanic song My Heart Will Go On.
27 Feb 2000 - Sunday Express (Nigel Williamson) - Just a Hunch But Quasimodo Can Ring Our Chimes
It's the biggest box office musical in the history of French theatre and it has already transferred triumphantly to the bright lights of Las Vegas. But the creators of Notre Dame de Paris know that ultimately the success of a really great production is measured by a run in London's West End.
The English language version of Victor Hugo's classic tale arrives in the capital's theatreland in May with a glittering reputation, a hatful of good tunes, a spectacular set, stunning choreography and the Australian star Tina Arena in the lead role.
Rendered into English by Will Jennings, who won an Oscar for My Heart Will Go On, the love theme from Titanic, it is hard to see how Notre Dame de Paris can fail. Already they are talking about it as a rival to Les Miserables. Not that this will prevent a few traditional first-night nerves when the curtain eventually goes up at London's Dominion Theatre.
"You never know how it will work in another language," says Luc Plamondon, the French-Canadian songwriter and playwright responsible for the original French version. "I saw it eight times in Las Vegas and it seemed to get the same response as in Paris. But London is the big game because we know that if we have a hit in the West end, it will be a hit all over the world." Certainly the wind is set fair for this French theatrical invasion. Already Notre Dame is the most successful musical ever in the French-speaking world and has been seen by two million people in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.
Based on Hugo's 1831 novel about the hunchback Quasimodo and his love for the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda, the studio album of the show's songs has sold five million copies. The original cast's live recording has sold a further two million and was only kept from the top of the French album charts by the rival studio recording, which stayed at number one for 17 weeks.
The new cast in the West End production sees Arena as Esmeralda, joined by Steve Balsamo, who shot to fame two years ago as a complete unknown in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar and Garou, the gravel-voiced Canadian star, as the hunchback. When they premiered the songs from the English language version in Cannes last month at a music industry showcase, the theatre was packed to the rafters.
The English language album was released last week with a £1 million marketing budget behind it and not one but two version of the show's power ballad, Live For the One I Love, sung first by Arena and then again by Celine Dion. Even before the show opens, the soundtrack, with music by Richard Cocciante, looks set to become one of the biggest-selling albums of the year. But the record is merely a curtain raiser for the show's imminent West End arrival, which should catapult Arena into the megastar bracket alongside her close friend and rival Dion, who is currently on a two-year career break.
If the English-language version is as successful as everyone expects, Plamondon is ready to attribute much of that to Will Jennings's translation. "He spent six months writing it and he introduced new rhymes and new patterns, but it is faithful to the original. The remarkable thing was that, when I rang him in America two years ago to ask him to do it, he was reading Hugo's novel at the time. With coincidences like that, you know this was meant to happen."
May 2000 - Curtain Up London (Lizzie Loveridge) - Review
I thought I had been transported to an alien planet. I was surrounded by people cheering, giving a standing ovation to the new sung-through musical, Notre Dame de Paris. This show is so bad, it could become chic. I haven't laughed so much for ages but my great hopes for another Les Mis were dashed.
Please do not ask me for a plot summary because I have completely lost the plot and I expect M Hugo is revolving in his tomb, but still let us not hold that against this production. Oliver was a big hit without being exact to the Dickens' story, Oliver Twist.
If you really want to know what Esmeralda's relationship is with the perverted priest, Frollo, the captain of the guard, Phoebus, and the hunchback, Quasimodo and you cannot face the large French tome, then maybe watch the Disney cartoon The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What is risible is the standard of lyric writing, or more exactly English translation of the lyrics from Oscar winning Will Jennings.
To give an example, sung or rather growled by Quasimodo, the hunchback, singing about his bell tower is this gem, "Notre Dame de Paris/It's my home in the sky/It is all part of me/It is my world where I'm free/Where I'm happy to be/Here in my house in the sky/The weather's always nice/Summers pass us by/Safe from winter's ice".
The music is - well, how shall I put it? - very French although composed by an Italian. Some tunes are good, some derivative, some reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest's "nul points". The singing was excellent but the sudden, harsh and often discordant crescendos startled me out of my seat. However, give me a tape of the show and I could well be singing along to some of the tunes in a few weeks' time.
It is visibly where it all falls apart. Much of the choreography seemed based on St Vitus' Dance. In the middle of a song up to thirty dancers, break dancers and assorted acrobats fling themselves around on the stage, flailing arms, fingers outstretched, flick flacking in almost complete anarchy. During the opening number The Age of the Cathedrals, high up on the wall, a hooded figure hangs by his knees, swings and pirouettes, then gesticulates as if "signing" the performance to those of us who are too impaired to appreciate the lyrics. Almost every song in the first act suffered from a surfeit of these distracting, uncoordinated, gyrating dancers. I loved the scenes where they swung round dancing with crash barriers on wheels. I gasped with merriment as three giant bells swing onto the stage with their human clappers, alternating arms and legs hanging out of the bell. There is abseiling and acrobatics.
The set looks like something out of American Gladiators and, in fact, many of the cast seem to be competing in some pointless contest to burn the most calories in the least amount of time. Large blocks of grey stone dominate, the rear wall has handles for people to hang off, steps to scale and shin up and three immense gargoyles pop up from their grey plinths. At one point (I'm not sure why) a reinforced steel joist, almost the full width of the stage, is lowered and balanced above the action. Asymmetrical prison bars are impressive as they fill the stage. The lighting is brash, blocks of vibrant blues with a red background or all the stage bathed in violet, ultra violet! The costumes too had me confused. Much seemed to be 1970s lounge wear, hair was mostly New Age or punk, the soldiers wore a uniform which can best be described as Boxer Rebellion meets black eiderdown meets Ninja riot gear. All the principal singers have head set mikes which is a bit incongruous for 1482, surreal even.
This is such a shame when you realise what good voices the principals have. Australian Tina Arena's voice is clear as a bell (apologies for the terrible pun) as she sings pretty songs like The Voluptuary or The Birds They Put in Cages. Canadian heart throb Bruno Pelletier sings the role of the poet Gringoire - great voice, great presence and big hair. Luck Mervil is a charming rasta haired Clopin. Garou as Quasimodo, hugely humped, hedgehog hair styled, rags round his legs, has the deepest register a la Joe Cocker, a voice in his boots, not so much tuneful as character rich. Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) the villainous priest is a doppelganger Rowan Atkinson; vertical upstanding haircut, crow costume, clenched shoulders, arms tight by his side but with oh, such expressive hands. Steve Balsamo as Phoebus, bearing a striking resemblance to Neil Morrissey, was at his most exciting when singing Torn Apart, "Two women want my love/I'm glad I've got enough love for two!".
The directors of Notre Dame de Paris could learn from the maxim, "Less is more". Much of the staging struck me as pastiche. As Frollo sings, "Your love will kill me", stone plinths close in on him and he has to dart out from under to avoid a squashing. I liked the idea of a song about the discoveries happening in the world of the Renaissance, "Talk to me of Florence" but again those lyrics, "All those poems and songs/Men can read of right and wrong/The little words are strong". The finale, a brilliant but wasted opportunity for some peace, has Quasimodo singing his farewell to Esmeralda whilst in the background four duplicate Esmeraldas are suspended twirling from wires as they are winched up to heaven. But why four? What for?
May 2000 - Time Out (Jane Edwardes) - Review
Given the anti-French feeling that pervades the Blackadder film at the Dome, it might have been a good antidote to have imported Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante's musical as the Dome's main show. As a stadium spectacle, there are things to admire: Cocciante's soft rock recorded score; Martin Miller's athletic choreography; the powerful voice of the memorably named Tina Arena as Esmeralda; the gravel-scraping one of Garou's Quasimodo and the broad sweep of a through-sung musical that never pauses for breath.
By most theatrical considerations, however, the show is a disaster. The classic story of the hunchback who falls in love with a gypsy girl and sacrifices his life to save her is almost impossible to follow. Director Gilles Maheu of the performance group Carbone 14 has given the tale a modish spin, turning the gypsies into today's asylum seekers who are regularly beaten up during the evening by riot police with truncheons and visors. The opening song declares "This is the Age of the Cathedrals" (sung by Bruno Pelletier's winsome Gringoire) but there's nothing mediaeval about Christian Ratz's bue lit, space age Notre Dame, a series of floating pillars with gigantic gargoyles on top. On the opening night, there was a nasty moment when an erratically moving pillar threatened to squash Daniel Lavoie's tortured priest (you could tell by his make-up that he was the villain) as he sang with increasingly real desperation of his battle between faith and lust.
The visual confusion is not clarified by the emotional range of the principals who have clearly not been chosen for their acting skills. Looking like a stocky serving wench from a mediaeval banquet for tourists, Tina Arena hardly has the allure to drive men mad. Most of all, Willing Jennings' English lyrics are invariably mundane and frequently gruesomely predictable. Failing the Dome, this spectacle should get to Wembley Arena where it belongs. At least Tina will feel at home.
May 2000 - The Observer - Review
Richard Cocciante has supplied a girningly memorably melody - Live for the One I Love - for Notre Dame de Paris. Apart from that, there are only two glimmers of hope in this assault on the ears and on Victor Hugo. First, when Esmeralda advances towards a huge bed: for a second you expect "The Song of the Hump". Second, when villainous Frollo ("I'm a priest", he sings) is pursued by two untethered pillars which, gliding pointlessly around the stage, approach him in a pincer movement.
Luc Plamondon's story is impossibly jumbled; his words (English versions by Will Jennings) are mostly indistinct. A madly vigorous choreography - with characters abseiling up walls, somersaulting onto mattresses, cavorting in swimming trunks - adds to the air of desperation. Two particularly nasty moments feature a chant of asylum seekers, pretty in pastel rags, and a dance with a troupe of men waving in unison the corpses of their girlfriends.
24 May 2000 - Evening Standard (Richard Allen) - Super Party, Dud Show - There's Nothing Like This Dame Party
The after-show party was one of the best ever seen in the West End. If first night hospitality could guarantee success then Michael White, the producer of Notre Dame de Paris, has ensured a very long run indeed.
He took over the nearest open space to the theatre, Bedford Square, and filled it with an enormous marquee. Inside, he created a fantasy marketplace full of stalls providing a gastronomic journey through French culture. Two enormous ice sculpture of cathedral bells greeted guests who stood among ornamental trees tasting pate de foie gras, lobster bouillabaisse and fillet steak under a canopy of artificial stars.
There was never any danger of the supplies of Grande Cru Chablis drying up for the 1,200 guests, some of whom could not resist speculating on the money being lavished on them - one educated guess put it at £300,000 - while others made the most of it, perhaps in the belief that they would never see its like again.
Sophia Loren, a friend of the musical's composer Richard Cocciante, stayed long after some younger guests fell by the wayside. When asked what she thought of the party she could only repeat: "Fabulous, fabulous". Hairdresser-to-the-stars Nicky Clarke said: "The only other party I can remember that came close was a Donna Karan one, and even that did not have the same ambition". Dannii Minogue was there with her Formula One racing driver boyfriend Jacques Villeneuve to support her fellow Australian Tina Arena, the show's leading lady who plays Esmeralda, the object of the hunchback's devotion.
At midnight the music was turned up and whereas at the average after-show party this would be ignored, here an army of towering catwalk models led the charge onto the dance floor. One woman poked in the eye by an over-hanging branch still made it onto the dance floor. On a night like this nothing was going to spoil the party.
24 May 2000 - Metro (Warwick Thompson) - Review
Oscar Wilde once wrote that on certain revengeful occasions it is more than a duty to speak one's mind - it is a pleasure. But he was wrong, I get no kind of thrill revealing that watching Notre Dame de Paris is like staring at the appalling death-throes of some mangled screaming creature for two-and-a-half hours.
Yes, I admit the direction is squirmingly, eye-poppingly incompetent. (One helpless character is even chased around the stage by surprisingly dainty granite blocks). And yes, oh dear, yes, its lack of variety, characterisation, melody, orchestration, drama, plot, subtlety and humour is offset by a painstakingly pompous banality that clearly took a lot of effort to achieve. Oh, and the scansion is ludicrous, the syntax contorted, the rhymes unintentionally hilarious, and one of the singers sounded like a superannuated coffee-grinder. And the 49 godawful unvaried Europap songs were so unremitingly loud that I couldn't even hear myself crying.
But do you think I take some kind of bitter, sadistic pleasure in reporting these sad facts? Ah, if only I could.
24 May 2000 - The Express (Robert Gore-Langton) - I've Got a Hunch Not to Back this Quasi Show
Les Miserables has a lot to answer for. It gave credibility to sung-through musicals based on gloomy chunks of French Lit. Now here comes Victor Hugo's other best seller. It is long-haired rock opera horribly reminiscent of Seventies concept albums.
The pre-show hype has all been for Tina Arena, the new Olivia Newton-John, who plays Esmeralda. But she's not going to melt many hearts belting out platitudinous songs. Oddly in lyricist Luc Plamondon's bizarre interpretation, Quasimodo, played by Garou, sounding like Joe Cocker with a slipped disc, gets around fifth billing. The love-torn Phoebus - played by the talented Steve Balsamo - Frollo and the outcast Clopin all totally eclipse the poor, hunched chap.
Still, it's all very visual. The chorus of choreographed refugees is endlessly acrobatic. One minute they are cripples, the next they are doing cartwheels and occasionally the men wear nothing but underpants for reasons I couldn't fathom. Stage design is a disaster, with huge blocks of ugly concrete representing Paris' beautiful cathedral. Richard Cocciante's surging Euro-pop score comes alive when Ms Arena splendidly lets rip in Live For the One I Love. But there is little romance, beguilement and fantasy. The show is all bats and no belfry.
24 May 2000 - Daily Mail (Michael Coveney) - For Quasimodo, There is Nothing Like This Dame
Notre-Dame, based on the great Victor Hugo novel and trailing glory in the pop charts of France, is a curiosity to say the least. It hails from Paris via Montreal, bids to be some sort of rock amalgam of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables and ends up as some sort of romantic Europop sideshow.
As such, I really enjoyed it. Tina Arena sings the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda and sings it sensationally well. Floating towards the audience on a brick and singing the hit song Live for the One I Love (also recorded by Celine Dion) she very nearly stops the show.
Trouble is, the show to be stopped had never really started. Esmeralda is loved by four men. The hunchback Quasimodo, the priest Frollo, a captain Phoebus and Clopin, leader of the homeless, or asylum-seekers as they are here designated.
This is not a musical. It is a concert with dance, lighting effects and a lot of French singers throwing their hair around in a collective display of gravelly-voiced pique.
The music of Richard Cocciante, the book and lyrics of Luc Plamondon, with the lyrics translated by Will Jennings, are consistently and rockingly entertaining. French chanson meets off-cuts of the recent transatlantic musical. Dance-wise, Arlene Phillips meets Polybus and Siobhan Davies.
This, overall, is very different and its very own kind of musical spectacular. For a start, the music is recorded, so the singers sing to a backing track. Producer Michael White has had to placate the Musicians' Union by hiring a female string quintet who play the score - very well indeed - in the circle bar. Against a randomly produced tape of synthesized sound, the narrative flounders, disappears in fact.
The stage strains to show a different picture each minute and for that, despite everything, I really respect, and maybe love, this show. Tina Arena is superb, and the microphoned voices of French pop stars Garou - as Quasimodo, sounding as though he has lived for ten years on a diet of broken glass - Daniel Lavoie and Bruno Pelletier, are as good as any heard on the London stage in the last 20 years.
24 May 2000 - Evening Standard (Nick Curtis) - It's a Crock, Monsieur - by Comparison, Disney's Film is a Masterpiece of Faithfulness
The French have a word that describes this witless Gallic musical, but it's too rude to use here. Suffice to say that this is a complete crock, monsieur. Writer Luc Plamondon and composer Richard Cocciante have taken one of the world's best-known stories and turned it into a nonsensical, through-sung procession of Europop ditties, re-upholstered with buttock-clenchingly clumsy English lyrics by Will Jennings.
Director Gilles Maheu's staging is reminiscent of a TV summer special, favouring an endless parade of flick-flacking dancers over content or coherence. Anyone who pays £37.50 to watch this has every right to get the hump. By comparison, Disney's animated film is a masterpiece of slavish literary faithfulness.
The curtain raises on a vast stone wall, adorned with the odd gargoyle. The poet Gringoire (Bruno Pelletier) tells us that it is 1482, but the precise date seems unclear. For one thing, Notre Dame is surrounded by asylum-seeking New Age travellers, and soldiers in riot gear. The hunchback Quasimodo (played by the mono-named Garou) is a gravel-voiced, gurning punk with a pillow stuffed up the back of his jumper. He, like most of the men on stage, falls for Esmeralda played by Australian singing star Tina Arena, and then the story really falls apart.
One minute Esmeralda is shimmying her gypsy hips against Steve Balsamo's anguished Captain Phoebus; the next she's with Quasimodo on the roof of his "home so high, (where) the weather is always nice". She marries Gringoire, flirts with her refugee protector; and inflames the loins of Daniel Lavoie's hypocritical Frollo, who's marked out as a villain by his heavy eye make-up and the bat-wings on his priestly garb. Now, Ms Arena sings very nicely, thank you. But she doesn't have the sexual charisma that warrants the abandonment of most of Victor Hugo's story.
The singing of the leads is the show's only redeeming feature. Like Arena, Lavoie, Balsamo and the throaty Garou have voices well suited to a score soaked in melodramatic anguish. Even so, they strain to hit the high and low notes. And the quality of the songs is another matter. Most of the (recorded) music disappears under a slurring bass thump. The most distinctive ditties are also the most derivative. And Jennings has come up with some truly awful lyrics. Esmeralda sings of Phoebus: "He is shining like the sun, but he's as tough as anyone". The original pronunciation of all the names has been preserved to fit the cadences of Cocciante's songs, which makes them sound even more absurd.
Director Maheu and choreographer Martino Muller seems to think they can redeem this sprawling, maudlin mess with stage business and zesty dance routines. They send acrobats scampering up the boring façade of Christian Ratz's set, and fling break-dancers under crash-barriers in a riot scene. Sometimes, as music thumps and bodies fly, their approach works through sheer bombast. More often, it results in unintentionally hilarious vignettes. Dancers writhe in their underpants during Balsamo's rendition of Torn Apart. Frollo is molested by the very stones of Notre Dame. In the final scene, as Garou's Quasimodo launches into yet another verse of his throat-wrenching laments for the executed Esmeralda, various blokes come on with their dead girlfriends, and watch wistfully as the twirling corpses are winched up to Heaven.
This chronically confused, misguided musical is so insultingly bad it's almost good. The large French-speaking contingent of the first-night audience received it with delirious enthusiasm, but I have a hunch it won't last.
24 May 2000 - The Guardian (Michael Billington) - Quasimodo in Cut-Out
Alan Ayckbourn imagines a future in Comic Potential whereby TV soaps are performed by androids. We seem to have got to a similar point with this ghastly robotic Gallic musical. The characters are simply cartoon ciphers, and they all sport headset mikes, which rule out any close encounters and suggest they're all in contact with HQ. The music is from a backing track, adding to the air of inhuman detachment.
The bitter irony is that all this is applied to a highly theatrical Victor Hugo story that reeks of frustrated passion. The Gypsy, Esmeralda, is loved by the hunchback Quasimodo and lusted after by the priestly Frollo. Esmeralda adores an amorous captain, the rising Phoebus, himself engaged to the frenzied Fleur-de-Lys.
Enough love there to generate a bit of heat. But in Gilles Maheu's antiseptic production we seem to have a rock concert in frocks spiced up with displays of muscular aerobics from performers purporting to be asylum seeking refugees.
The bitter irony is that all this is applied to a highly theatrical Victor Hugo story that reeks of frustrated passion. The Gypsy, Esmeralda, is loved by the hunchback Quasimodo and lusted after by the priestly Frollo. Esmeralda adores an amorous captain, the rising Phoebus, himself engaged to the frenzied Fleur-de-Lys.
Enough love there to generate a bit of heat. But in Gilles Maheu's antiseptic production we seem to have a rock concert in frocks spiced up with displays of muscular aerobics from performers purporting to be asylum seeking refugees.
24 May 2000 - The Independent (David Benedict) - Hunchback of London Wins Nul Points for this Load of Old Bells
Ever since I alighted upon the magical phrase Zut alors in first form French with Mr Guidon, sorry Monsieur Guidon, I've been longing to use it. Now, with the hit French musical Notre Dame de Paris I have a golden opportunity but, alas, other phrases are springing more readily to mind. One of them is "a load of old bells".
Now producers get a little uppity with critics. "Oh," they cry, "you've all done too much homework, the public don't know all that historical stuff." Well, gentle reader, I entered the vast Dominion Theatre a Quasimodo virgin. Unaccountably I've missed the six (yes, six) previous operatic versions of Victor Hugo's classic and, even more mysteriously, have failed to either read the book or see any of the movies. Sadly, by the end of the evening I was none the wiser.
Judging by all the rampaging and the cranked-up angst level of everyone involved, there was clearly a lot of plot to be had but heaven alone knows what was actually going on. Everyone belts out heart-felt numbers of pain and suffering but it's all so overblown that it's impossible to care.
Apparently we're in "The age of the cathedrals" (15th century) but you'd never know from the hyper-athletic, Nineties choreography beneath the rock concert lighting. Then there are the grunge-goes-Catholic costumes. There was a moment late on when Esmeralda was rescued from a chic cage by a bunch of refugees. Refugees from where? Judging by their grey hooded ensembles, from a Gap commercial.
Musically we're somewhere between Eurovision power-ballads and pomp rock. Let's call it schlock-rock. The defining compositional mode is to encourage the singer to hold a loud, high note for as long as possible. Imagine Celine Dion marrying Rick Wakeman and you're there.
And speaking of Celine, it was she who sang that song from Titanic with lyrics by Will Jennings, the man responsible for the English lyrics we get here. When did he write them? In a lunch break, perhaps? A coffee break? Realising that Esmeralda's name isn't exactly famous for its record appearances in a rhyming dictionary, he and the original lyricist, Luc Plamondon, call her Belle (let's not discuss the pun, shall we?) and then wring every imaginable rhyme out of it - even "quell" makes an appearance.
Indeed there were any number of people and moments I would have been happy to quell, like Frollo the priest whose make-up made him look like Herman Munster after a nasty accident with some blue eyeshadow. Quasimodo (a singer by the name of Garou) seems to imagine that he's Tom Waits. I have news for him. Mind you, in common with everyone on stage he gives his all. Everyone has a strong voice and wins eleven out of ten for effort. For achievement? Well, as Monsieur Guydon might have said, nul points.
31 May to 7 June 2000 - What's On in London (Roger Foss) - Ring Out Them Bells!
Just when you think musical theatre is becoming tired and predictable or just downright Les Mis, along comes Notre Dame De Paris to capture the imagination, if not the soul. A huge cult phenomenon all over the the French-speaking world, Luc Plamondon's highly theatrical musicalisation of Victor Hugo's classic novel turns out to be more a concept Euro-pop concert performed to pre-recorded backing tracks than a conventional show. Musical traditionalists will no doubt reach for the holy water. This is a youthful show and totally, totally French. But this anglicised "tale of lust and love so true" crosses the channel freshened up with Aussie pop star Tina Arena as an alluring gypsy Esmeralda and the extraordinary French-Canadian singer Garou repeating his acclaimed performance as Quasimodo.
Although constructed as a series of sung-through set piece scenes, Hugo's narrative grips mainly because the production's contemporary approach constantly hits you with the unexpected at almost every level. You are immediately flung into a 12th century with Notre Dame still under construction, long before it became what Hugo called "the aged Queen of French cathedrals". Christian Ratz's stone-grey setting forms a backdrop to the lusty medieval muscularity of a body-popping chorus of streetwise refugees, who abseil up and down the Gothic pile's rock face, swing effortlessly on steel girders or dangle from huge bells. Within this sacred space, composer Richard Cocciante has come up with some memorable and melodically glorious music, drawing on all sorts of Mediterranean and Gallic influences, that soars way above the menacing gargoyles. Indeed the opening sequence of The Age Of The Cathedrals, The Refugees and Belle is one of the finest scores I've heard for a long time, only to be outclassed in the second act by the torchy dramatic emotion of the chart-topping "Live For The One I Love" sung with sheer bravado by Tina Arena mounted on a gigantic moving plinth lit by azure floodlighting. Hear these songs reprised during the interval by the excellent live sextet in the foyer to confirm the sheer quality of Cocciante's music.
Will Jenning's English lyrics do tend to get a bit repetitive, so it's the singing that really counts. Arena's Esmeralda may not be quite the tragic siren who enchants no less than three men with her paganistic "Ave Marias", but she is vocally exciting. Steve Balsamo's wonderfully sexy high-register singing trandscends his face mike. And the funereal Daniel Lavoie sings like a bat out of hell as the tortured priest Frollo. But it's the punky-haired Garou's gravelly delivery as the humpy "I'm so ugly" King of Fools who gets you all a tingle. When this creature born without a face sings searingly "Please let my poor soul fly free" to Esmeralda's corpse, it's like boiling Perrier. OK,so it may not be "Les Mis", but if this is the new face of French musicals, I can't wait for the Euro.
July 2000 - Eurostar Magazine (Marc Boujnah) - Notre Dame Attacks the West End
On 23 May, Notre Dame de Paris, opened at the Dominion Theatre. The public is curious, but the critics have been scathing. The French music industry may at last have a toehold in London's anglophone West End. The battle, however, is far from over...
Try convincing the British of the lip-smacking voluptuousness of frogs' legs. Foisting a French musical on a British public is hardly any less perilous. The task is quite simply daunting and the odds are about a million to one against you.
Nevertheless, this is exactly what the producers of Notre Dame de Paris hope to achieve for the first fully-fledged French musical ever to try its luck in London, the pitiless and ultra-protectionist European capital of the genre. In the French-speaking world, the extravaganza put together by Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante pulled in more than three million spectators in fifteen months and has sold some nine million CDs world-wide. Yet "the most successful show in the French-speaking world", as the official press release calls it, is anything but sure of a British jackpot.
The critics who greeted the show when it first opened didn't mince their words: "Notre Dame de Paris is an antiseptic production... spiced up with displays of muscular aerobics from performers purporting to be asylum-seeking refugees," wrote The Guardian, in a review entitled "Quasimodo in cut-out". For Time Out, the show was a "musical disaster", while The Daily Telegraph felt the music appealed to those with downmarket tastes. As for The Evening Standard, which has the reputation of making or breaking a show, it thought Notre Dame de Paris "the worst musical... ever seen these last two decades".
Not that the scathing critical reception has kept the spectators away: nearly 200,000 tickets have been sold and the 2000 seat Dominion Theatre is booked out until the end of July. There's a glimmer of success, then, even if the producers prefer to remain cautious for the time being. "It's not the number of spectators that determines the success of a show like this but the number of years it runs for," observes Luc Plamondon. "A musical is a success in London if it breaks the ten-year barrier." This explains the huge poster campaign (roughly a million francs) and the star cast, designed to make a buzz: Tina Arena, the Australian pop star whose faith in the show is unshakeable; Steve Balsamo, who played the title role in the hugely successful English musical of the 1960s, Jesus Christ Superstar; and Will Jennings, composer of the Celine Dion hit from the original soundtrack of Titanic, and translator of the libretto of Notre Dame de Paris.
The hostility of the critics doesn't much bother Michael White, one of the producers of Notre Dame: "The British are francophobes. It's like the nationalism you had at the time of the Napoleonic wars, this fondness for putting down 'bloody Frenchies'," he remarks in Le Monde of 28 May. After all, plenty of musicals have run for decades after getting a bad press. Think of that other "French" musical (the first major breakthrough before being "taken up" by an English company), Les Miserables, torn apart on the opening night in 1985 and still running fifteen years later. In France, too, Notre Dame de Paris was written off as a "flea-bitten catastrophe" the moment it opened in autumn 1998 and held up to scorn for being "overly consensual". The show, which cost 40 million francs, has since brought in more than 300 million in the French-speaking world.
"Things will be slower and less idyllic in England," however, warns Stéphane Noir, a special consultant at the Culture Commission of the European Parliament. "The Anglo-American market is very closed, particularly with regard to music, and governed by very special rules regarding language, style and marketing. The press there is very aggressive towards French-speaking culture, which is seen as old-hat. Moreover, in their view, a French musical is a contradiction in terms." True, the genre went into decline in France after the war, when it was eclipsed by the operetta. "And Notre Dame isn't the only one jockeying for first position," adds the European Parliamentary consultant. "At present, more than twenty similar shows are playing in the West End, and half a dozen more are due to be launched very shortly. What's more, soaring production costs in one of the most expensive cities in the world reduces profitability and pushes up the number of small-size shows targeted at a specific audience." With its nine-million-dollar budget, Notre Dame de Paris seems slightly behind the times, though this might ultimately work to its advantage according to one British producers: "The English aren't used to this type of highly emotional and very costly operatic musical. For them, it's a new concept, and they're all keen to see what it is. The only real question, in fact, concerns the type of public that will be moved: will Notre Dame attract a specialized public or a more popular audience, like in France? That's the great unknown."
On the other side of the Channel, their sights are set more on the future. As the French music business sees it, Notre Dame de Paris is the flagship for French entertainment abroad, and success on English soil would be like an old French dream come true. A Triumph in London would mean success world-wide. Behind the imposing presence of Esmeralda stands a large chunk of the French recording industry, watching for an opening in a notoriously difficult market where a jackpot would open the gates to Broadway. "Everyone's dreaming of Notre Dame de Paris breaking the box office in the English-speaking world," confirms the marketing executive of a Parisian record company. "Not only for economic reasons on account of the size o the market, but also because the profession has the feeling that, for the first time in years, French musical sensibility chimes with the mood of the day. If the show takes off over there, an important breach will have been opened that will (at last) allow our productions to be exported on a big scale." Everyone in the Paris music world, in other words, is on tenterhooks... and busy drawing up projects for filling new openings in the market. "The French Classics have long captivated the British public," remarks Plamondon. "La Cage Aux Folles, Le Fantome de l'Opera are still running more than twenty years after they were created."
Despite the cultural and psychological handicaps, then, Victor Hugh's medieval tale is still in with a very good chance. And, who knows, perhaps one day, frogs' legs will be on every Englishman's table?
Role: Feuilly and understudied and played Marius
Venue: The Point, Dublin and Edinburgh Playhouse
Jesus Christ Superstar
Looking back, probably the most profound learning experience I've ever had. A real (excuse the pun) baptism of fire! Outrageously talented cast, band, musical directors and a brilliant director in Gale Edwards.
Role: Jesus of Nazareth
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, London
Date: Nov 1996 to Sep 1997
|Jesus Christ Superstar 1996 London Cast Highlights CD
Released: 11 Mar 2002
Label: Really Useful
|Jesus Christ Superstar 1996 London Cast Recording CD
Released: 25 Nov 1996
Label: Really Useful/Polydor
Aug 1996 - Evening Standard (Robin Stringer) - 'Unknown' Lands Role Of New Superstar
A "complete unknown with no formal training", Steve Balsamo, has landed the title role in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's imminent £3.5 million revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. The show is due to open at the Lyceum in the Strand - now being restored by Apollo Leisure at a cost of £15 million - in November, 25 years after it burst upon the world on Broadway.
Balsamo, a 25-year-old Welshman who runs his own rock band, Living Room, walked into a general audition and, according to director Gale Edwards, "completely bowled us over". She added: "He had a natural charisma, an otherness about him. When he stood at the piano and sang we all had our pens poised and we all looked up together. He has an astonishingly good rock and roll voice, he looks good and his instincts are very quick."
Balsamo remembers the audition process differently. "I love the show and I just fancied doing it," he said. "I sang Gethsemane from the show, pulled out all the stops and that's what I will go on doing."
1 Aug 1996 - The Times (Dalya Alberge) - Unknown Is Chosen To Be A Superstar
A man who took up singing to impress a girlfriend has been plucked from obscurity to take the lead role in Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Steve Balsamo, 25, was jealous of the adulation that the girl gave to rock stars. Although the romance later broke up, he dropped out of art school when he realised he could sing, became lead singer with a rock band called Living Room and took on acting roles including a television appearance in Casualty. Gale Edwards, director of the revival rock musical, said that Balsamo was among 1,000 hopefuls who auditioned over eight months. She said: "He had a natural charisma. He also has an astonishingly good rock 'n' roll voice."
Sep 1996 - Prince's Trust - Unleasing Potential - From Dole Queue To Stardom
Steve Balsamo has just landed the title role in a new West End musical. He will play Jesus of Nazareth in Jesus Christ Superstar, opening on 19 November at The Lyceum Theatre in London.
For Steve, land the role is the climax to six months of outstanding success. He has emerged from the frustration of long-term unemployment which was despite substantial singing experience to become a major new star - thanks in part to The Prince's Trust - Action.
Six months ago Steve, from Cardiff, was just another young person with an unfulfilled, but special talent for music. He had been unemployed for two years, struggling to carve out a career as a musician.
On the point of giving up on his dream, he applied to attend The Trust's Rock School music course for unemployed young people, in Cardiff.
The Rock School course is a week-long residential course designed to give participants the opportunity to learn from established session musicians whilst building their self esteem.
Tutors at Rock School were so impressed with Steve's ability that they asked him to front a Rock School band to perform at the MasterCard Masters of Music Concert for The Prince's Trust, in Hyde Park last June.
Steve says, "After the course I had a call to see if I would like to play a small outdoor gig - I said yes, fantastic, where is it? He answered Hyde Park."
Along with seven other Rock School graduates he opened the concert, featuring rock legends including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend and played live in front of 150,000 people.
He says of the experience, "Having the opportunity to perform on the same stage as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Alanis Morissette was beyond our wildest dreams."
Steve also feels that attending Rock School helped him to develop the confidence and belief in his own abilities to play at Hyde Park and go on to land his West End role.
He says, "The Hyde Park band all attended Rock School because we wanted to learn more about music. The tutors were great and they gave us all, not only the chance to improve our musical skills, but also the confidence in ourselves to get out there and perform. When I started the auditioning process for Jesus Christ, I never dreamed I'd even get through the first round. Rock School gave me the confidence, which I had lost through two years of unemployment, to perform to my full ability."
Steve beat off stiff competition from professional, established singers and actors to become the next Jesus of Nazareth. He went through 15 nerve wracking auditions before finally getting picked.
Jesus Christ Superstar opens at The Lyceum Theatre on November 19th. Until then Steve will be busy rehearsing and recording an album of the show's hits.
25 Oct 1996 - Evening Standard (Robin Stringer) - Jesus Christ Superstar Meets Miss Saigon Jo
On a brand new stage in one of London's oldest and most celebrate theatres, a fresh young cast is just starting to relive the most famous story in the world. The theatre is the Lyceum in the Strand, restored at a cost of £15 million by Apollo Leisure, and the story is the story of the New Testament - as told by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice in their 25-year-old hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar. These first pictures, taken on John Napier's arena-style set - designed to accommodate 80 members of the audience at the very heart of the action - show Welshman Steve Balsamo carrying the cross in the title role. Co-starring are Filipino actress Joanna Ampil, a former Miss Saigon, as Mary Magdalene and Zubin Varla, recently the Royal Shakespeare Company's Romeo, as Judas.
With five weeks of rehearsals already behind her, and two weeks to go to the opening preview, director Gale Edwards is itching to let the cast off the hook, but first the long and complicated technical process must be put in place.
"What is interesting is that Andrew has asked for a piece of story-telling," said Ms Edwards. "So we have stripped away the trappings of a whizz-bang musical and gone back to something that is actor-focused. The musical has suffered in the past because of its success as a touring concert show. We are attempting a psychological exploration of the piece, which I don't think other productions have done before."
Among a select few being given a foretaste of the show next Thursday - nearly three weeks before the official first night on 19 November - is the Prince of Wales. He will see excepts from the show especially staged as part of the formal opening of the restored theatre, which dates back to 1834.
Another important element came last night with the opening of the new restaurant, Irving's, named after its most famous actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, who gave his last performance there in 1902.
Guests expecting to see the Lyceum in its full crimson and gold rococo glory will be disappointed, as Napier's grubbily grand set extends into the auditorium covering all the boxes at the side of the stage. The orchestra pit has also been covered, and the drum-like set reaches so far into the body of the theatre that 400 front stalls have had to be removed to make way for it.
However, the Really Useful Group's James Thane put theatre conservationsts' minds at ease, saying: "We are under obligation to return it to its original stage when the show is over."
Nov 1996 - Hello Magazine - A Superstar Is Born
Steve Balsamo faced stiff competition when he auditioned for the sought after role in the revival of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which opened last week.
The unknown Welsh singer is said to have beaten former Take That member Robbie Williams and Wet Wet Wet's Marti Pellow to the post for the coveted part in the Wet End show.
Steve, who is 25 years old, has put singing with his band, Living Room, on hold so that he can take up his 12-month contract.
But Steve, from Swansea in South Wales, will not be daunted by performing in front of a West End audience. He has already played to a crowd of 150,000 at The Who's Quadrophenia in Hyde Park, fronting the Prince's Trust rock group.
Nov 1996 - Hello Magazine - Music Man Tim Prefers To Be Out In The ColdOne of the theatre comebacks of the decade is undoubtedly Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical which has been receiving ecstatic reviews. The buzz at the opening night party at The Waldorf Astoria, though, was that Sir Tim deliberately snubbed the event and went on a walking holiday in the Lake District instead.
Nov 1996 - Time Out - Review
"Jesus Christ Superstar" was never really hip even if it did turn Christ into a hippy. Edwards' dynamic production tries to forget the 70s but they keep intruding in Tim Rice's jaunty, anarchronistic lyrics, which now seem irredeemably trite. This is a bustling affair, at its best when the story turns nasty: when the crow-like priests gather on the walkways; Nick Holder's booming Herod scoffs, surrounded by decadent acolytes; and Christ stops looking petulant and really starts to suffer. Balsamo's superstar has a thrilling, screeching voice but no charisma. He's most comfortable with his head in Mary Magdalene's lap while Zubin Varla's jittery, terrific Judas sniffs around for a whiff of fornication. There's nothing for the audience to do but admire; this is one resurrection that's likely to last longer than 40 days.
Nov 1996 - Theatre Magazine (Amanda Hodges) - Review
The reopening of the magnificently restored Lyceum Theatre is an event to celebrate wholeheartedly, and it is good to see such a stylish show launching what will hopefully be the first of many triumphs of this celebrated venue's new era. this year marks the 25th anniversary of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera, and presumably its scale was seen as complementary to the grandeur of the Lyceum.
John Napier has designed a striking set that projects deep into the auditorium, accommodating 80 members of the audience in the very hub of the action.
Director Gale Edwards, at the behest of Andrew Lloyd Webber, has abandoned the familiar trappings of a lavish musical spectacular and opted instead for a spartan, chiselled set that recreates the rocky terrain of Judea. This shift of emphasis is to enable the show to become properly 'actor-focused', rather than allowing the spectacle to dwarf the integrity of the story. It has re-emerged as what Edwards describes as a darker psychological exploration of the piece.
In the main this approach pays dividends. The excellent performances by the three leads cannot wholly disguise the fact that the lyrics at times undermine the musical content, but their respective strengths as performers camouflage the weaker aspects that might otherwise be more apparent.
The choice of RSC actor Zubin Varla for the role of Judas was a good decision. While singing is not his principal forte, he rises well to the challenge of portraying the disenchanted disciple, skulking in the shadows, his every move expressing the physical pain of his impending betrayal. Joanna Ampil, as Mary Magdalene, is equally good, her strong, sweet voice memorably recreating the familiar "I Don't Know How To Love Him". But it is the lead actor, Steve Balsamo, only months ago in the ranks of the unemployed, who anchors the show, giving a commanding performance as Jesus. His striking falsetto voice reaches a powerful crescendo in the rendition of "Gethsemane", sung on the even of his arrest. The energy that Balsamo - and indeed the whole cast - generate is one of the show's main strengths, along with the pounding rock score that sweeps it along to what will surely be a long and successful run.
Nov 1996 - Matthew A James - Review
I admit to being quite curious as to how Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to revive this very dated, rock musical. The result, however, is surprisingly good. Opting for a far darker, more sombre production than the original ever was, has added a dose of credibility to a somewhat imperfect score. With such an incongruent blend, of biblical epic and rock opera, it does actually take a few songs before one can begin to appreciate an orchestra 'jamming' away with characters such as Judas Iscariot - electric guitars et al.
What does stand out as a major difference between this and other contemporary musicals is that the whole of act one flies by without a single line of spoken dialogue. So much so, that it sounds like a live concert. Despite Rice's peculiar lyrics, 'Hosanna, Hey-sanna, sanna Superstar', the cast turn in fine performances. Steve Balsamo as Jesus displays an astounding vocal skill, though he has a tendency to sing in a high pitched falsetto voice at every opportunity, which becomes increasingly annoying by the end of act one. Being an updated production (bringing it from the 60s to the 90s), Lloyd Webber has cast former Miss Saigon lead, Joanna Ampil, as Mary Magdalene. And while her version of the moving ballad I Don't Know How To Love Him is quite heart wrenching, there is a certain fragility about her voice that is just too reminiscent of Kim from Miss Saigon.
Running for only two hours, this new production is well worth a night out, if only for the breathtaking crucifixion scene which left me close to tears. I can honestly say, it's one of the most moving scenes I have ever watched in a stage musical.
Nov 1996 - Telegraph - Great British Hopes - Rising Stars In The Arts Firmament - Steve Balsamo
Nov 1996 - Review
Jesus Christ Superstar returns to the London stage after a fourteen year absence, at the beautifully restored Lyceum Theatre. The last drama to be staged there was Sir John Gielgud in Hamlet on 1 July 1939. At the curtain call Gielgud said to the audience, "Long live the Lyceum!" Fated words indeed, as after that the theatre closed and subsequently became a dance hall, a disco, and a venue for pop concerts before becoming derelict. Apollo Leisure have just spent £15 million to turn it back into a playhouse where Sir Henry Irving gave many of his finest performances. But I digress.
Superstar was written in the late sixties when the hippies were at their height, and the feel of that era is still very strong in the piece. Musically the influence of pop groups like Cream and Jimi Hendrix can be heard in this rock opera, one of the first of its kind. It tells the tale of Jesus of Nazareth, his betrayal by Judas Iscariot and his subsequent crucifixion.
Steve Balsamo as Jesus is excellent, as are Zubin Varla (Judas), David Burt (Pilate), Joanna Ampil (Magdalene), and Nick Holder giving a wonderfully camp performance as King Herod.
What is slightly disappointing is the overall ensemble playing. It's not quite sharp enough, and this seems to be a typical British problem, when it comes to musicals. It may be unfair to compare them to the American cast of Smokey Joes's Café, but if you see both shows, you'll know what I mean. In the end it comes down to the director, and the direction for this show is not exactly inspiring. But what is, are the fabulous lighting design/effects by David Hersey.
The music and songs still sent a little chill down my spine, with such favourites as I Don't Know How To Love Him, Gethsemane, Pilate's Dream and the eponymous title song. But if you're looking for a show stopping reprise of Superstar then you might be a little disappointed. Overall however, it is quite entertaining.
Nov 1996 - Daily Mail (Shaun Usher) - Still As Super As Ever And That's The Gospel Truth
Time is the main hazard to this revival of the record-and-taboo-breaking success of a quarter-century ago. The greatest story ever told cannot become dated - though parts of the score are very Sixties - but the shock value and exhilarating effrontery of the first night I covered a generation or so ago cannot be recaptured.
We've all grown harder to scandalise, and a percentage of the potential audience wasn't born when young Tim and Andrew made enormous waves. Many people seeing their notorious 'Jesus musical' for the first time will be hard put to it, detecting mere irreverence. Darker and starker than the original, the new version strips away most of the glitter to concentrate on emotions.
It's effective, especially with John Napier's striking set - a seven-tiered arc blending suggestions of Roman amphitheatre, catacombs and a bullring - forcing attention inwards. Today's Superstar tends to be close-focus instead of wide-angle. And shunning jaunty satire or an occasional thumbing of the nose at New Testament solemnity, the latest Messiah, His disciples and doubters are in agonised earnest throughout.
If anything, director Gale Edwards is too anxious to avoid the spectacular past: the cleansing of the Temple builds up to be a frenetic set-piece, then ends in a trice. The entire pace is headlong, with scant time for reflection. Steve Balsamo, broodingly ascetic and the best-singing Jesus in my experience, conveys the figure's uncertainty, even if his authority is muted. Joanna Ampil makes a sweet-voiced, though rather reserved, Mary Magdalene. The devil may not get the best tunes here, but villains get the best of their scenes. David Burt's Pilate, mutating from jeering authority to uneasy awe, is toweringly, melodramatically effective. Nick Holder as Herod - hitherto a black-comedy jester - injects memorably venomous rage and palpable evil into his rejection of Christ. Superstar remains, with apologies for the incongruity, a hell of a show in its way.
While the rock fanfare of a theme song and Mary Magdalene's tribute-lament 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' are standards, the reunion proves that virtually every number works well in its context. Countless wan musicals of recent memory would have killed for the least of Lloyd Webber's bygones. Reservations and all, make room for a really useful draught of showbusiness wine in a new bottle.
Nov 1996 - Evening Standard (Nicholas de Jong) - Review
Director Gale Edwards sensibly aims for a dark, brutal atmosphere. But John Napier's hideous Roman amphitheatre sets which invade the beautiful, restored theatre and a mood of misplaced jollity - like students on campus - do not help. And Tim Rice's lyrics are as divine as an income-tax inspector's demands. But the second half is knockout. The driving climactic excitements of Lloyd Webber's thrilling music and Steve Balsamo's sometimes falsetto, always athletic voice help achieve a savage high.
13 Nov 1996 - The Express (Robert Gore-Langton) - The Son Of God Is Welsh
Until Recently Steve Balsamo, 25, was a singer in a Welsh rock band. Now he is the the Son of God - on stage, that is. Steve is to play the title role in the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical - a rock 'n' roll account of the Passion - which opens next week at the revamped Lyceum in the West End.
He was previously known only as a pop wannabe with the ungodly habit of hanging about Swansea's pubs "getting sloshed with mates".
Should you be interested, you can hear him crooning on a CD titled Bros Blant Y Byd, and he recently went on a music biz course run by the Prince's Trust. This led to Balsamo and his band, Rooster Two-Buckets, enjoying a warm up slot at The Who's Hyde Park concert last year. "Indirectly, Charles got me the Jesus gig at the Lyceum," reckons blokeish Steve, who was born the year after the show first came out.
He now joins the ranks of distinguished performers - Colin Blakely, Frank Finlay and Joseph Fiennes among them - who have portrayed the Messiah. But how times have changed. When Max Von Sydow played Christ in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told, prayers were held on set every day and Von Sydow was treated with due reverence.
None of that at the Lyceum, says Steve - a non-believer - who was surprised to find one or two members of the cast praying in private before rehearsals. "When I think of Christ, I think of Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth on the telly every Sunday night."
His parents - dad is a chef of Italian extraction - were worried their son might come to no good and think the part might prove his salvation. Even the members of his old band have been supportive. During auditions Jesus still got home for pub crawls with the lads.
When the show started, I quit boozing. I've got to live the part now," he says with a note of Welsh evangelism.
15 Nov 1996 - Daily Mirror (Anton Antonowicz) - Prince Charles Brought Me To Jesus - How a Jobless Unknown Became Lloyd Webber's Latest Superstar
Jesus is late. Then in he walks, fresh from the gym while Mary's putting on her make-up and saying that she's trying really hard to think like a whore. Suddenly nature calls and Mary nips out to the loo.
Jesus, meanwhile, perches, legs dangling, on top of the dressing-table, stroking his beard and saying it's all been a miracle. A year ago he was out of work and on the dole in Swansea. Not having the £1 for the bus fare, he had to walk four miles to see his girlfriend. And lo! Now he's got a chauffeured car outside, a reformed prostitute to hug six nights a week and people keep calling him "Superstar".
"It has been out of this world," says Steve Balsamo, the brown-eyed, long-haired "unknown" who is about to premiere as Jesus Christ Superstar in the new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. "And, you know," he adds, "a lot of it's down to Prince Charles." Earlier this year Steve took a week-long Rock School course in Cardiff run by the Prince's Trust charity. Teachers there encouraged him to audition for the star role. And the 25-year-old beat off more than 1,000 professional singers and actors to become Jesus. After 14 auditions he received God the Father's blessing... Sir Andrew finally looked and said it was good. And then last month he performed two of the show's songs in front of Prince Charles at London's newly-refurbished Lyceum Theatre.
"He was great," Steve says, "He wished me every success and said I was already a star. Not that I believe him. Fact is I don't feel like a star - just a bloke from Neath in South Wales who's kidding everyone I can sing a bit. Not so much Jesus of Nazareth. More Jesus of Neath. But, thinking back over all those auditions, I confess that even Jesus can run out of patience." Steve first started singing to impress a rock-mad girlfriend. "She was potty about Bon Jovi. I joined a band and loved it. But I lost the girl."
"Never mind," says Mary Magdalene who's returned from the little girl's room. "When one door closes, another opens." She should know. Three years ago she was getting £3-a-week pocket money. Now she's getting at least a grand a week. "The Lord gave me this job because he knows I can do it. I do my best for the Lord. I am a very spiritual person," she says.
"Fair enough," I hear myself saying. "But you're supposed to be a fully-fledged whore." "I know it's nothing personal," replies Mary, "But these are the facts. My real name's Joanna Ampil. I come from Manila in the Philippines. I was spotted during a talent show there and became Miss Saigon in the West End. Now they've cast me as Mary Magdalene in this show and they've been working very hard on making me a really convincing ex-prostitute because, as I told you, I am a Christian. I put my trust in the Lord. I do my best for him."
"Look," I hear myself again, "Do you mean that you're more a virgin than a Mary Magdalene?" And though she doesn't quite answer the question, you get Joanna's drift. "Well, let me say it's been a learning process. Mary Magdalene has required continuous research because she's so different from what I am. She's very, very naughty. A woman with a past. I think she's a woman who longs for genuine affection and she finds that in Christ. But no, I don't think she ever 'goes with him', if you see what I mean. But I still had to prepare myself for the part. First they gave me books about prostitution. Then they gave me sessions."
"Pardon?" "Yes, sessions in a little room which I had to imagine was a red-light district. They wanted me to fantasise about being a prostitute. Act like one. Get the feel, dress like one. They made me wear revealing clothes. They told me to be confident about my body. I had to pretend to seduce someone, to be the biggest turn-on. Well," sighs 21-year-old Joanna, "I found it very hard at the beginning, but now I think I'm getting there."
"Mmmm, she's beautiful," says Jesus from the wings. But he's already spoken for with a Welsh girl he won't name who's coming up to North London to share his flat in Willesden. Nevertheless, he puts his arms round Mary and gives her a reassuring hug. She needs it because her throat's a bit ropey and she is, by her own admission, a hypochondriac. "I got all the cast to have flu jabs," she says, "And I think I probably test their patience because I moan all the time. You see, I'm a worrier, such a worrier."
"Ohhh, you're lovely," says Jesus, giving her another long hug. She smiles at him and quickly changes the conversation to the property she's bought back home. And the shoes she's also bought. "What is it about Filipinos and shoes?" she asks. "Look at Imelda," she adds, referring to the late president's wife who had more shoes than a colony of well-heeled millipedes. "Anyway I've got loads of pairs. It's one of my treats. Otherwise I stay in my Pimlico flat, watching telly or reading. I know it sounds boring, but I have to keep fit. And what would happen if there were photographs of Mary Magdalene all over the papers burning up the night... clubbing it?"
"No," she adds, smearing heavy blue Mary Magdalene make-up over her wonderful eyes. "I must put my confidence in God - and refuse to worry." Then she sees me continuing to watch her making-up. "My eyes have to be very heavy. I've also got to be a bit dirty," she laughs. And Jesus, still within ear-shot, looks sorely tempted.
19 Nov 1996 - Financial Times (Ian Shuttleworth) - Review
The show which truly put Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical map in the 1970s is now the cause of the Lyceum Theatre's return as a permanent West End venue after half a century. This is a big event, but then Lloyd Webber seems to have decreed that everything about his shows is now to be a big event - By Jeeves succeeds largely by dint of Alan Ayckbourn's unstinting efforts in forbidding such an approach.
In the Lyceum, however, we get the works. John Napier's set of timber and masonry, grilles and gas jets, looks somewhere between a derelict colosseum and a catacomb; as the performing ensemble extends around the auditorium on walkways, so the audience penetrates the stage from precarious galleries at the rear. Richard Ryan's sound design is loud... and I say this as one who once fell asleep three feet in front of the speakers at a Glenn Branca electric-guitar symphony performance. Under Simon Lee's musical direction, guitars do not quite approach Branca-esque aggression, but the occasional nod is made to Eddie Van Halen, and at one point I am certain the instrument's tone painstakingly reproduces that of Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner".
For this, let it not be forgotten, is a pop opera. And, refreshing as it is to hear Lloyd Webber working with more straightforward chord changes (albeit in self-consciously unusual time signatures), the years have not been kind to it. What was once mould-breaking is now musically and lyrically slight and dated. Recognising as much, the creative team applies huge production values to buoy the show up.
David Hersey's lighting design settles after the interval into a tedious sameness of gloom slashed by spotlights (except at the moment of Jesus's death, when instead of "darkness over all the earth" a great white light momentarily blazes); almost without exception Gale Edwards's direction makes obvious choices, strong in overall vision but losing its advantage through an equal and opposite laxity concerning individual performances and moments. Steve Balsamo's tall, slim, Celtic Jesus is opposed by Zubin Varla's squat, sinisterly foreign Judas and a King Herod (Nick Holder) who suggests an inflatable Richard O'Brien. Jesus's and Judas's vocal scores respectively serve as a reminder that, at the time of composition, the world's hottest male vocalists were Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. However, Balsamo turns in a wonderful performance on Act Two's solo "Gethsemane"; laurels, too, for the fifty-megaton bass voice of Steve Fortune as Caiaphas.
This revival has to compete with shows (including Lloyd Webber's own other works) which are more able to bear the weight of these opulent trappings and still remain more or less upright beneath them. However, it has been commanded to be a sensation, and since more is deemed to be better, this is how it is made sensational. My own, rather less strong, response was unexpectedly mirrored by a final bemusing touch of stagecraft. To signify the mortal departure of Christ's glory from this earth, behold, a not especially mighty drizzle covers the land.
20 Nov 1996 - The Guardian (Claire Longrigg) - Second Coming At The Lyceum
The theatre that has been closed for more than 50 years reopens with a 25-year-old rock opera. There's no business like old showbusiness. A new production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened last night, 25 years after its world premiere in the United States. The grandfather of rock opera is being revived at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, which reopens as a theatre after 56 years.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical opened in London's West End in 1972, and grossed £7.5m during its eight-year London run. It was the longest running musical until overtaken by other Lloyd Webber offerings - Cats, Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera. The Lyceum has been dark for more than 10 years, before that it was a dance hall, a bingo parlour and a venue for the Miss World contest. The refit cost £15m.
Jesus is played by a 25-year-old Welsh rock singer-songwriter, Steve Balsamo, the opening act of the Prince's Trust Masters of Rock concert in front of 150,000 people in Hyde Park in July. According to the director, Gale Edwards, Balsamo is uncannily suitable for the part "He's got a great charisma."
Rock opera has returned from the Seventies to haunt us, along with tank tops, huge sideburns and lava lamps. A revival of Hair was staged in London in 1993, but the Age of Aquarius, it seemed, no longer held the same attraction, and the musical did not last. James Thane, managing director of the Really Useful Theatre Company, which is producing the show, said Superstar seemed right for revival. "It's rock opera. I think there is a real renaissance of rock 'n' roll. We have tried to go back to the complete original score as much as possible. If you think the original cast were using hand-held mikes - this was before the ago of radio mikes. When it's done with modern sound techniques, it sounds like today."
The production has tried to remove the show from its Seventies garb, taking it as far as possible from modern styling. Mr Thane said: "A big factor was the Lyceum Theatre becoming available. I was a kid when I saw the Australian production in the Seventies. It's quite a confrontational piece, and we wanted to do it in a way which avoids too much technology." John Napier, the designer, has done just that, by pouring rubble on the stage and placing planks across the proscenium arch. "One hopes the whole look of the production is that it could have taken place any time in the last 2,000 years, "said Mr Thane.
The musical launched Andrew Lloyd Webber on to the international stage, but it's marathon runs also launched a series of stellar careers. Paul Nicholas, who played Jesus in the original London cast, said he found it a harrowing role: "I was so upset at being on the cross that I wept the whole way through the scene. I felt guilty about being up there; as if it were an awful cheek." Mr Nicholas went on to a highly successful career in television, and is producing the hit West End production of Grease. The musical also launched singer Yvonne Elliman, who played Mary Magdalene in the original Broadway cast, and reached the top 50 with her signature tune, 'I Don't Know How to Love Him'. The last revival of Jesus Christ Superstar was in concert form at the Barbican Theatre in 1989, but this was soundly upstaged by the Japanese kabuki version at the Dominion in 1991.
"The most sensationally wonderful production I have ever seen anywhere," said Andrew Lloyd Webber modestly. "It was everything I would have wished the Broadway production to be 20 years ago." Enthusiastic notices remarked, perhaps unkindly, that Tim Rice's lyrics sounded much better in Japanese. Sir Tim preferred to stay away last night. He opted instead for a walking holiday in Lowestoft, Suffolk.
20 Nov 1996 - The Guardian (Lyn Gardner) - Gold Lamé Face-Off Is Stylishly Camp
Jesus lives! Twenty-five years since it was first produced, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's youthful effort is back in the West End, bringing the good news that Jesus was just a rock star down on his luck to a whole new generation.
The variety and dramatic momentum of the score, as if the young Lloyd Webber was showing the world just what he could do with a freshness and exuberance lacking in later works, is never matched by a production that fails to convince that Superstar is better staged than listened to.
The 1992 Japanese kabuki version proved the effectiveness of a stylised simplicity, but Gale Edwards's production falls back on those old tricks of doing nothing very much in the first half and too much in the second to compensate.
The first impression on entering the refurbished Lyceum auditorium is that someone forgot to remove the scaffolding, but it turns out to be part of John Napier's cumbersome set which, with its on-stage seating for some of the audience, encourages the idea that this is an oratorio. The suspicion is that design has largely been incorporated into the production as a means of getting the characters on and off the stage.
Edwards's problem is that until the scene of the money lenders in the temple, the narrative is pretty lax and directionless. After the interval, there is much more focus, but unfortunately also more gold lamé and bondage and take-offs of the Supremes. In a show that revels in pastiche, it is hard to avoid camp, and once she's got the whiff of dry ice in her nostrils, Edwards doesn't hold back.
Where the show is at its brilliant best is in the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Over the last supper, the two face each other like gunslingers at high noon. The devil may not get all the best tunes but Zubin Varla, who plays Judas, gets the best part. Varla plays in as a reluctant Iago, a shifty, troubled outsider who takes his revenge with a passionate kiss. Jesus is the less meaty role, and Steve Balsamo initially relies too much on looking saintly but sorrowful. However, he hits all the right emotional notes in the run-up to the crucifixion and dies beautifully. But in the end this is a Superstar that, apart from Tim Rice's lyrics, always sounds far better than it looks.
28 Nov 1996 - Sue Krisman - Review
The Lyceum is the most beautiful theatre which has just been renovated for the sixth time since 1771. And graciously in good colours and with dignity, this time - with full marks even for the loos. he outside is gorgeous anyway - shame it's tucked around the corner of Wellington Street - Apollo Leisure are responsible for rescuing this glorious building for us.
But I'd like to know whose idea it was that this precious place should be opened by this particular musical. In fact, there are a lot of things I'd like to have know but the programme is very odd - very unusual. Nothing, not one word is said about the history of the show. Not even that it ever existed before or the date of its world premiere.
Not how many performances and transitions it went through - not a thing about the making of the musical - nothing. Could it be something to do with the alleged falling out between Tim Rice, the lyricist, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer?
Certainly, what is wrong with the piece is the words. Often they are feeble, often they are dull and sometimes they just plain don't fit. And the character-building is wrong. And the one with the toughest hill to climb is Jesus. As this - surely charismatic - character, Steve Balsamo has to play Jesus the way the lyricist wrote him.
Steve Balsamo has a marvellous appearance and a great voice. This could be his big moment and yet he is cornered into having to play Jesus as a worn-out, exhausted shell at the end of his tether like a moany old woman who is tired out after too long a day at the sales.
The story is the last seven days of Jesus's life and frankly I think it's a mistake. I mean, let's say there were a few flashback sequences - that would have been great to show the good times and allow a lightness to the grim proceedings. And the background of the alleged loving and healing stuff would make some sense out of the jealousy Herod felt from the adulation of the masses.
It is said that the applause that used to greet Henry Irving on this very stage was called 'THE LYCEUM ROAR' - you certainly heard it for Judas, played by Zubin Varla, at this performance and for Pontius Pilate, marvellously portrayed by David Burt and for Mary - sung to perfection by Joanna Ampil (you'll remember her as Kim in Miss Saigon?).
It has to be said that there was a lot going for it. Not only was the production excellent but it stood out a mile how well the ensemble had been tutored and rehearsed. Each chorus person was first-rate, given their head with their own individual style and allowed to use it to the full. (The Martin Guerre lot could have done with a bit of this discipline). The dancing was excellent - original, well-paced, glorious. Top marks to Aletta Collins, the fine choreographer. The lighting, the staging - all good - quite a good theatrical experience over all, but - the trouble was that it was so seldom moving or engaging that you came out slightly empty - not how a really top musical should make you feel.
And it was definitely Jesus and his motivation that put the damper on it. The baddies were men with deep low voices (Nick Holder's Herod was quite brilliant) who made you feel the menace, the nice guys were fine and made you feel safe, but Jesus made you feel nothing at all. He was just played as a wimp and the words of the lyrics confirmed why. For example, in the scene when the lepers asked for his help, he was too exhausted to do much and they went away as ill as they'd turned up. A perfect opportunity, I would have thought, for them to have thrown off their dusty grey things and dance in symbolic healthy lightness.
When the whole world turned against Jesus, only Pontius Pilate's part showed any dramatic truth at all - clever to show him actually suggesting they flog him but not put him to death and allowing the crowd scenes to examine the way fans always like to punish their heroes when they fall out of favour.
Jesus just hung around for much of the last part, being 'done to' and it was all a bit what my friend calls 'ho hum', I regret to say, despite the great appearance of the stage and the marvellous rock-singing, too loud music notwithstanding!! The effects were great, by the way - the flogging and the ups and downs of the trapdoors and the crucifixion were brilliantly handled.
Over all, take your youngsters if they haven't seen much theatre because I think they'll love it, but if you adore the depth that comes from being tremendously moved, this isn't the one for you.
29 Nov 1996 - Sunday Express (Sally Morris) - It's All Over... Steve Balsamo, 10.10pm, Friday 29 November, Lyceum Theatre, London
This is hardly Waiting for Godot. He comes off sweating and thirsty and covered in blood and bruises. Blood? Bruises? Well, make-up which certainly gives that impression. Steve Balsamo, 25, stars as Jesus of Nazareth in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and at the end of the show he's totally exhausted.
"As soon as I come off stage I stick on a tape of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and have a wee, a long wee. I drink water all through the show because it's so hot and by the end I'm bursting. I come off covered in blood and bruises from where I have been whipped, and my dresser, Midge, and I have to scrub it off with peculiar-smelling make-up remover. Then I wash away all the theatrical blood in my hair. The long hair is all my own - I think that's why they gave me the part. But washing it every day has ruined it. Everyone else has left by the time I've finished cleaning up, so my social life usually consists of going straight home. If I travel by tube I sometimes get recognised by the audience and they crack the usual jokes about turning their bottles of Evian water into wine. It's funny the first 15,000 times, but it's wearing off a bit now. During the day, I write songs and I paint a lot. But the show takes up most of my time. I went home to Swansea for Christmas Day but because I had two shows to do on Boxing Day I couldn't really indulge with the lads down the pub as I would have done in past years."
29 Nov 1996 - Darren Dalglish - Review
In 1971 this musical first opened on Broadway, which then went on to run for 3,358 performances at the Palace Theatre in London from 1972. Although I'm old enough to have seen this production, I admit I never have. Nor have I actually listened to the music before, except for a couple of the songs. Therefore I am unable to compare the old production with the new one.
I found the musical to be a little average, mainly the music. But then I thought the same of Martin Guerre when I first saw it. But when I went to see it again, the music grew on me, maybe the same will happen with Jesus Christ Superstar? The sound system was a little too loud, at times there was a lot of vibration which stopped the show from being a polished production. The show is fast and thunderous and lasting 2 hours with an interval time goes by very fast, making it hard to get bored even if you're not enjoying it. The best part was the last 20 minutes when Jesus was put on the cross, it was very effective and gripping.
The best performance is from Zubin Varla who played a convincing Judas Iscariot. He really threw himself into the part very passionately. It was an exceptionally powerful performance with a strong voice, he is an extremely good actor. I've seen him lately in 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Painter of Dishonour' at the Barbican and 'Beautiful Thing' at the Duke of York theatre a year or so ago. A versatile actor to look out for in the future.
Steve Balsamo, who plays Jesus of Nazareth, has an incredibly strong 'screaming' voice which made you feel the torture he was suffering. Joanna Ampil who plays Mary Magdalene was adequate, but she did look a little feeble on this big stage and I didn't particularly like the way she sang 'I Don't Know How to Love Him'.
The audience was full with young and old alike. On looking around at them to test their reaction (like I normally do), I think they were mixed about the show. I expect Jesus Christ Superstar to run for quite a while and is well worth seeing, even if the music and particularly the lyrics sound a little dated.
29 Nov 1996 - QX Magazine (Kevin Wilson) - Review
The greatest version of this Seventies rock opera - the first sizeable hit from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice - was a Japanese Kabuki staging at the Dominion Theatre in 1993. An army of stage hands in white overalls raced around like demons pushing and pulling a collection of little old-fashioned British Rail-style luggage trolleys - the sort that tilted like a seasaw - and used these to form walkways, walls, mountains, even. This 25th anniversary production, reopening the stunning Lyceum Theatre after a £15 million restoration, is set in a tiered Coliseum setting, a honeycomb of exits and entrances, nooks and crannies, with many of the audience perched high on the set like contestants on 'Blankety Blank' or 'University Challenge'. Into this arena-setting, the high priests descend on a walkway like menacing birds of prey, and King Herod's flame-encircled S & M-inspired bordello and the temple that Christ clears of money-lenders and tradesmen rise and fall into it in an instant, then depart just as quick, leaving the stage stark for the most intimate of moments such as Christ's foot aromatherapy massage from Mary Magdalene and his agonised 'Gethsemane' lament.
Welshman Steve Balsamo as a JC with Brad Pitt-like flowing locks, dressed in Imran Khan cheesecloth pants and smock, tears at your soul in this second act number. In fact, it's the emotional highlight of a hit and miss evening. Caught in the crossbeams of four blazing lights, Balsamo his ever increasingly unlikely high notes to scream at God, 'Allright, I'll die. Watch me die, see how I die'. It's a far more emotionally affecting moment than the final rain-soaked crucifixion. In the first act, it's hard to credit Balsamo's Christ with the Messiah-like threat to the entire nation that stirs the high priests to action - 'he's bigger than John was when he did his baptism thing'. And Zubin Varla's black leather-clad Judas is more annoying pipsqueak than deadly Iago. He, however, does achieve one of the show's other emotional highs with his final betrayal - 'Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?'. The atmosphere in the theatre fairly sizzled as his full-on-lips betrayal of JC lasted for what seemed like an eternity, Jesus himself gasping for breath like he'd had the very life sucked out of him. Another inspired touch has the rope Judas uses to hang himself after finally admitting, in a bitter, twisted refrain from Mary Magdalene's showstopper lament, 'I don't know how to love him', used to haul Jesus out of his prison tomb in the ground. Herod is not played as a camp showman by Christopher Biggins as per recent productions, but rather with a sneering malevolence by Nick Holder, surrounded by his harness-clad groupies. 'Prove to me that you're so cool, walk across my swimming pool. Prove to me that you're divine, change my water into wine.'
This is Tim Rice's word play at its best. Only in 'Evita' has he surpassed his talent here for irreverent mockery of his subject. David Burt, complete with 'Batman'-style rubber pecs, is quite the sexiest Pilate and his voice (how will it last out for eight shows a week?) is to die for. From his haunting entrance, 'I Dreamed I Met a Galilean', to his hysterical meting out of 40 lashes on Christ's near-naked body as he pleads, like everyone else, to understand Jesus, this is a towering, breathtaking performance. JCS is Lloyd Webber and Rice showing off in glorious style, from pulsating, walking guitar riffs to affecting ballads. Sure it's an uneven show, with not enough happening in the first act and a rollercoaster of emotional highs in the second. But director Gale Edwards has successfully resurrected a groovy rock dinosaur and breathed new life into it. Rock on!
7 Dec 1996 - Jason L Belne - Review
The first thing to marvel at is the theatre itself. The Lyceum, formerly one of London's great theatres, has been restored from it's run down dilapidated state, to a beautiful new theatre at considerable cost to Apollo Leisure and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company.
Aside from that, this is a spectacular revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's monster hit from the Seventies. It has been updated and brilliantly re-orchestrated, and is consequently much less dated than many provincial versions I have seen in recent years.
The piece is the story of the last seven days in the life of Jesus Christ. It concerns itself with the frustration of Judas Iscariot that the whole thing is getting out of hand and is worried of the danger of antagonising the Roman Priests and Kings a little too much, to the point where he betrays Jesus to the Priests who have crucified him.
You arrive in the auditorium to be faced with a huge set, a kind of roman arena, which has seats on the stage (called Tribune Seating). This is where I watched the production from, and although it's quite exciting to be right in the middle of the action, it is somewhat frustrating how much time is spent looking at the back of actors' heads. They do all face the back at token points in the proceedings, but this has not been directed for "in the round", and I would not recommend you sit here.
As Jesus, Steve Balsamo has the most phenomenal voice, and his big number Gethsemane was the best I have ever heard it sung. The star of the show for me was Zubin Varla who's Judas Iscariot was entirely mesmerizing. His singing was superb, and he acted the part with great depths and feeling. From his opening number, Heaven on Their Minds, to his tremendous rendition of Superstar he never stepped out of character once, and he took us on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and won the sympathy and respect of the entire audience.
Joanna Ampil was a great Mary Magdalene, however she should concentrate on learning to act through the music rather than taking sharp intakes of breath, or sniffing during her emotional numbers when she wants to stress an emotion. There is much drama in the music and she needs to use it. The disciples were all strong and worked well together, Glenn Carter in particular gave an energetic performance as Simon.
David Burt gives the performance of his career as Pontius Pilate, he appears to have worked hard on this role and it was definitely worth the effort. Nick Holder is well cast as Herod, and gives the show some much needed comedy.
I have to mention the Priests, who looked like drag nuns, and were exceptionally camp. They had many people hysterical with laughter, although I am not sure this was the intention of the director. Martin Callaghan as Annas kept me well amused with his dreadful overacting - when he has concluded his contract in this production, he should definitely try out for Abanazar in Aladdin, he is made for the role!
Director, Gale Edwards, has brought together a magnificent production team, David Hershey's lighting, John Napier's breathtaking set, Aletta Collins' choreography, and an extraordinarily talented cast, all blend together to form one of the best shows currently available in the West End.
Winter 1996/97 - Musical Stages (Cassine Joseph) - Superstar Returns
When Jesus Christ Superstar first reared its outrageous and provocative (then) head, Britain was still, in the main, in the thrall of conventional Christianity. Then, 1972, Church leaders spluttered, pundits muttered and a party of would-be trendy but devout nuns uttered their defence of show which provided manna for endless debate. Not so now. Nearly a quarter of a century later, it has attained the status of a classic but on the way, lost its controversial excitement in these less religious days. But it is ripe for a remount and the choice of the newly restored Lyceum Theatre, just off the Strand, was perfect.
Three resurrections under one roof - although we don't see the third. The show only takes us through the last seven days to Gethsemane and Jesus' death.
So how is it? You can hardly fault a piece of theatre based on what is always referred to as 'the greatest story ever told'. Nothing wrong with the book, then.
The score and lyrics are both engaging and varied, harking back favourably to the young Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice collaborators in the good times.
In the main roles, Steve Balsamo as Jesus has a truly beautiful voice, as has Joanna Ampil as Mary Magdalene. Both give excellent, real and satisfying performances. Fortunately, neither of them is required constantly to sing at a hysterical level of emotion. Zubin Varla as Judas is, and as a result we do not really hear him. The sound level for his numbers is frequently ear-splitting and somewhat distorted. When he does have a quieter moment in 'I Don't Know You' we realise that his voice is also very much worth hearing. A pity this, since he is the one telling us the story.
Peter Gallagher as Caiaphas is an imposing presence with a voice seeming to come from somewhere way beneath the stage. David Burt is Pontius Pilate and acquits himself with his usual style when showing his frustration at being unable to sway the rabble into settling for a quick flogging. Every character actor grabs the chance to play Herod and Nick Holder satisfyingly camps it up in a court full of coke-junkie sycophants. Jesus is simply an irritation to him and his venomous dismissal is entirely in keeping with his decadent persona. Glenn Carter as Simon and Paul Hawkyard as Peter both grab their moments.
John Napier's set is based on the colosseum and works well for the action. However, the idea of putting a line of audience just above ringside, as it were, seems a bit daft. It hampers the essential suspension of disbelief, even though we don't see the anoraks once the lights are down. Further, the set extends out across the boxes, which is another reason not to book seats in the side stalls - you'll miss some of the action at either side of the stage. Having made those points, Jesus Christ Superstar is still worth seeing.
But - and this is a big but - I suspect that Musical Stages readers will find the orchestra extremely disappointing. Whilst accepting that this is a rock opera, did it really have to be so tinny? On a show of this importance, why do we have to have synthesisers? It really is a great shame. If our major producers can't stump up for a full orchestra, who can? The band, then, is tucked away behind the set, and in compensation there are b/w television sets hung in the wings, in the corridor at the centre of the set and across the front of the dress circle so the cast can see the conductor. Not good if you are sitting in the side stalls. The flickering keeps catching in your sightlines and distracting you. Book in the centre stalls or circles.
1997 - Sharon Davey - Spotlight Steve Balsamo - Are You Saintly?
Apr 1997 - Hello Magazine
Prince Charles chats with Steve Balsamo at the gala performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in aid of the Prince's Trust, at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Steve, who plays the title role in the musical, is no stranger to the Trust - he attended one of its music training programmes, called Rock School, last year. It was a nostalgic return to the theatre for Prince Charles - he "opened" the revamped Lyceum last year after it had undergone renovation.
10 May 1997 - The War Cry (Nigel Bovey) - Real Cross Is Too Heavy - Superstar's Solution Is No Act
Jesus is carrying a lighter cross. Steve Balsamo, who has been playing the part of Jesus in the West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar since it opened in November, has found carrying the cross can seriously damage his health.
For the agonising crucifixion scene Steve has had the weight of a 12-stone (77 kg) cross on his shoulders eight times a week. The effort of carrying the equivalent dead-weight of another person for 200 shows plus rehearsals has taken its toll.
Having lugged an aggregate load of 15 tons, Steve cannot be accused of not putting his back into the part. Now he's been saved the prospect of serious spine injury by being given a two-stone (12 kg) burden to bear.