Impressions of the Scheherazade Showcase
Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy Of Music, London
19 & 20 December 1997
To be a fan of Renaissance in the Netherlands has always been a bit of a lonesome occupation. Their last gig in this country must have been in the stone age. Most LPs and CDs are only available in small quantities, proper information in music papers is non-existent and fellow fans are hard to find. No wonder I had given up hope long ago to hear Renaissance’ music live, even just once.
And then suddenly there was this faint sign of life and hope, with the release of the Renaissance compilation CD Tales Of 1001 Nights. In the CD’s extensive liner notes dated October 1989, David Samuel Barr wrote: “Michael Dunford and Betty Thatcher have been working for several years on Scheherazade, a full-length musical with its roots in the aforementioned 1975 cantata, which at this writing is well on its way to being staged in London, possibly preceded by a studio recording.” I have been looking forward to this musical ever since, as I quite like English musicals and saw this as a great opportunity to hear a combination of great music so dear to me in a live performance. Now, how could I get to know more about this musical?
For five or six years nothing seemed to happen. I regularly checked London’s guide Time Out to see if there was any news. And then suddenly there was this wonderful web site — Northern Lights — that revived worldwide interest in the music of Renaissance, and on top of that, it bore positive news about the musical!
Before long there was a web site dedicated to the musical itself, and no hesitation on my part when, in 1997, Michael Dunford and director Stuart Wood encouraged Renaissance fans to contribute to the musical. It only took a small investment to become a stakeholder in the musical and to get a CD and two tickets for the Showcase performance on Friday the 19th December as well. Thanks to Barry Potts, one of the performers, I was also able to go to the last performance, on the 20th December. What follows are a few impressions of the musical by a diehard Renaissance fan.
The musical needed a broader plot than used in Renaissance’s interpretation of the story in their “Song Of Scheherazade,” which eventually led to an entirely different ending. Of course, it still is a happy ending, but it is not Scheherazade who lives happily ever after with the Sultan. Her role in the story is to restore Yasmina, the only true love of the Sultan, who was presumed killed after his evil brother Za’Zaman duped him into believing she had been unfaithful to him. The final scene of the musical shows the reunited Shahriyar and Yasmina centre-stage, while Scheherazade sings that her task has been fulfilled and that she must go.
The story is less about Scheherazade the person and the person Shahriyar, but more about balance between gentle and wise feminine behaviour and blind and brutal male behaviour. Shahriyar at the beginning of the musical is a balanced person. He is respected, wise and confident in his relationship with Yasmina. So logically he defends Za’Zaman’s son, who prefers to stay a boy rather than learn how to kill animals and thus become a man. But after he has been led astray by his vile brother Za’Zaman — expertly played by Russell Wilcox — who hungers for power, Shahriyar becomes violent and brutal as well. Scheherazade brings balance. This was beautifully visualised by Poppy Tierney. Whenever on stage, Scheherazade dominates the scene by showing determination and thus becomes the anchor of the play.
Instead of Renaissance’s “The Young Prince and Princess,” Scheherazade tells two longer stories in the musical. The first story is told by Scheherazade on her wedding night, and is called “The Story Of The Hunchback.” While Shahriyar listens to Scheherazade, lying on the bed, the scene is performed by the five travelling players on stage.
The second story is called “The Story Of The Enchanted Horse.” It is the last-but-one and crucial scene of the musical. During the story, Za’Zaman is killed and Shahriyar is faced with the unjustness of his deeds. He realises he wronged Yasmina, and is reunited with her afterwards.
I didn’t really grasp the definitely profound and symbolic meaning of this story as performed by the entire cast. It is a complex plot as many storylines from the musical come together. Nephita’s story is a good example. She saw Za’Zaman kill his wife when she was very young and returned years later confronting him unable to remain silent any longer. Angered when she would not agree to “an arrangement,” Za’Zaman put a spell on her, made her mute and banished her. She then regained her voice after Za’Zaman’s son, Rashid, fell in love with her. In the Scheherazade’s second story, Nephita washes herself at an imaginary pool, probably symbolising the innocence of Yasmina. The meaning of the horse itself, a golden statue which can fly, remains a mystery to me, even after seeing the scene twice.
The storyline as presented during the Showcase without typical West End sets was a bit too complex to follow. Some of the people I talked to that had not read the plot — either in the Promotional CD booklet or on the website — before seeing the Showcase found the story difficult to follow, especially in the second half. Perhaps this is a result of the rewrites leading up to the first public performance. But afterall this was a Showcase performance to illustrate the creative team’s concept and what can be done rather than to demonstrate a finished product.
The Showcase performance had a gap where the story about killing the virgin brides by the Sultan might have once been told. After Yasmina has fallen from grace, the group of travelling players enter stage and their song states that Scheherazade is waiting in the wings. I had expected to hear and see the song “Future Brides” (from the Promotional CD) at this point, in which various women compete to become the next bride to the Sultan. During the break I learned that “Future Brides” had been eliminated during rehearsals. Although it was sung in one of the numbers, it was not very obvious that the Sultan had married many times between Yasmina and Scheherazade, and that he had killed his brides after their respective wedding nights.
There were also a few flaws in the storyline as written and sung. For instance, the travelling players sing in their first scene that it had been five years since the Sultan had been betrayed. During this time the Sultan has had many wives but Yasmina (disguised as a nurse) and Sheherazade return with a baby boy born the night before. What has actually happened to Yasmina after she had fallen from grace isn’t explained and the extra four years of pregnancy certainly don’t make sense. However minor, the story still needs a few corrections and further “moulding” before it can be presented to a wider audience in the West End or on Broadway.
Luckily, the Musical’s six song Promotional CD arrived two weeks prior to the Showcase, so I could have a general idea of what the music would be like. The more I listened to it, the more I recognised from Renaissance’s “Song Of Scheherazade.” So far, I have recognised themes from “Fanfare” in “Dance Of The Masks”, “The Sultan” in “In A Land Of Ancient Kings” and “The Young Prince And Princess as told by Scheherazade” in “In The Stillness Of The Room.”
The two other familiar Renaissance songs are “A Love So Pure” and “Northern Lights.” After Za’Zaman has lured his brother by creating a fantastical scene that showed Yasmina surrounded by many lovers, Shahriyar and Yasmina sing out their anger and disappointment towards each other in “A Love So Pure.” On the CD it is sung by Richard Henders, but in the musical it is a duet, which makes it even more impressive. The vocal qualities of Gerard Casey and Eve Polycarpou are beyond description. But the strength of this song lies also it its sheer musicality. No wonder that the theme has haunted Michael Dunford for so long: it has been around for many years now, as “Dreammaker” (first performed on the 1984 tour and released recently on Songs From Renaissance Days), as “Love Lies, Love Dies” (on The Other Woman, and Annie Haslam’s Blessing In Disguise). The intro surfaced in the musical several times including in the beginning of “Northern Lights.”
After the Sultan had ordered Scheherazade’s father, his visor, to prepare her for the wedding, Scheherazade presents herself by singing “Northern Lights.” I didn’t really look forward to hearing this song in the musical because I found it hard to imagine how this song could fit into the story. But it turned out to be one of the highlights of the Showcase. Poppy Tierney’s interpretation was breathtaking, and the song illustrated the hopes and imagination of the young Scheherazade. It was really amazing to see how such a Renaissance classic can be transformed into a theatrical performance.
Equally spectacular was the song “In The Stillness Of The Room,” already a classic amongst Renaissance fans. This song, performed during the wedding festivities, showed that Scheherazade was nervous about the wedding night and that she had also heard rumours about women being killed after the wedding night. With these two songs the dominance of the personality of Scheherazade had been made obvious. She was the person to right all the wrongs.
I was also very impressed by “Remember me”. The showcase version, sung by Ingeborg Barstad playing Nephita, was very very powerful and sent shivers down my spine. Equally impressive was the performance of Eve Polycarpou as Yasmina especially in her song “Is It Possible?” which occurs in the musical a few times and leads to the finale. Yasmina also contributed strongly to the feminine touch of the musical.
The musical also contains dialogues and quite a few songs by the company such as “A Woman Who’s Clever (Is Better Off Dead)” and “There’s A Rumour.” Songs like these usually require tremendous concentration from the audience to understand the lyrics. But although I am a non-native English speaker, I had no problems at all understanding these songs as well, which is definitely due to the high quality of the cast. But it might also have to do with the venue. The acoustics in the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre were absolutely fabulous.
Of course I am biased in my judgement about the music of the musical. Although the arrangements and instrumentations are definitely closer to, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber, than any Renaissance album, the links are obviously there to enjoy. If anything, the Showcase struck me as highly ‘musical’ and melodic. Some songs contain expressions of very strong emotions, which were noticably picked up by the audience. I also liked the central role of the piano. The three musicians who accompanied the cast, Chris Nightingale and Steve Miller on keyboards, and Chris Ridley on percussion, deserve nothing but praise. It was hard to believe that there were actually just three musicians playing. I very much look forward to hearing orchestral arrangements of the songs.
From the sheet that was handed out at the entrance of the theatre, it was clear from the start that it was a big cast: eleven leading roles, five travelling players, and a company of 30 students from The Royal Academy Of Music and The Milennium 2000 Dance School. I heard that there had only been four weeks of rehearsals before the Showcase. But talent was obviously abundant and spirits were high, so the overall impression was rather overwhelming.
I have always admired the British for their musical and theatrical skills, and this Showcase, actually a look behind the scenes of the birth a musical, took my admiration one level higher. Michael Dunford must be a lucky person to be surrounded by so many talented people to perform his songs so well. I am confident that there will be many casts in the future performing Scheherazade on the stage, as the general feeling afterwards was very positive. If they reach the level of this Showcase cast, it is bound to become an everlasting success.
To conclude: it was great to see Terry Sullivan at the Showcase on the 19th, taking such an interest in the musical activities of a member of his former band. The other Renaissance band members were sadly missed, but as Michael Dunford has written to those who helped realise the Showcase: “We have lots of exciting ideas on how we can tie up the links between the musical and Renaissance”. I’ll be here, waiting patiently for his next move.