If you’ve checked out my About Me page you’ll know I’m a Broadway Baby – I love musical theatre and regularly
steal borrow from the genre. Whether it’s naming my lead character Maggie Valentine after West End legend Ruthie Henshall (no, really – it’s connected!), or using the lyrical genius of Sondheim to anchor a post, musical theatre has long been a source of inspiration to this writer.
When I first started this blog two years ago, I also began writing for the theatre website, BroadwayWorld. As a contributing editor I have been given a backstage pass into a world I have loved since I was a kid, and at the end of 2013 I closed out an amazing year of theatre by travelling to Shanghai for a peek behind the curtain of Do You Hear The People Sing?.
This concert celebration of the works of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg was headlined in Shanghai by two of my 15-year-old-self obsessions, international theatre stars Lea Salonga and Michael Ball. When producer Enda Markey offered me the chance to head backstage before and after the show, I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed; I decided to take a weekend round-trip to Shanghai to honour that 15-year-old me, and her passion.
Though the subject matter differs from my usual posts, I wanted to share my peek behind the curtain of Do You Hear The People Sing? with you here at body, remember. When I started this blog I took my first steps as a public writer, and now, two years on, I feel like I’m in a full, joyous run. It is all connected – really!
(If nothing else, I hope my little adventure inspires you to find ways to honour your teenage self in 2014) …
The Shanghai Grand Theatre
It’s a chilly, starless night in Shanghai, but behind the scenes of Do You Hear The People Sing? the creative team is neon-lit with energy. Australian performer Amanda Harrison has taken ill, and suddenly there are four voices to work with, instead of five. Parts have to be rearranged, and headliner Lea Salonga has taken on double-duty, picking up some of the numbers originally performed by Harrison. Backstage before tonight’s show, the atmosphere has a sense of chaotic vigour to it; everyone is meeting someone about something. Last minute plans. Next minute plans. Things they can’t tell me. And a few things they can tell me (but I can’t tell you just yet!).
As the cast arrives, there’s Marie Zamora, Cosette from the original Paris production of Les Miserables, all wrapped up against the Shanghai night, and Lea Salonga, hair still in rollers, heading for her dressing room. Salonga is impossibly pretty in the flesh; she looks just the same as that fresh-faced girl from the original Miss Saigon. Follow Salonga on her entertaining, fierce Twitter feed and you’ll know she’s a mature, grown-up woman now. But for a split-second when we shake hands, I see the teenage Lea, the young girl at the very beginning of all this. I manage a Nice to meet you, as I mentally pinch myself, and remind myself not to stare too long at a woman I’ve admired for more than half my life.
Next up it’s Michael Ball. We are introduced via my immediate confession that I used to keep a framed picture of him next to my bed. A little bit of worship is something he’s used to, this man. Ball has fans that travel the world to see him perform; some of these Ballettes – the moniker give to his most dedicated female fans – will be in the front row of the Shanghai Grand Theatre tonight. I ask him if it feels like a responsibility to have people follow him around the world like this, and he counters that it feels more like a privilege.
“These women have all travelled from various parts of the world to come together, to meet up so that they feel safe in a foreign place. They go off and have their trips together, then they’ve got this focal point of seeing the show. I think it’s just heavenly,” he tells me as we settle in his dressing room for a pre-show chat.
“I love talking to the girls, and finding out about them, and encouraging what they do,” he adds.
In a way Ball is passing on to these women all that his voice has given him. His talent has taken him around the world, and now he’s opening up that world to his fans, providing the impetus for them to visit cities like Shanghai – cities that would not generally make their vacation list.
“Some people think we’re crazy” one of the Ballettes half-joked to me earlier, but actually I think it’s brave in its way, how they follow their fancy like this. Ball, too, seems to genuinely appreciate their dedication.
I could talk to Michael Ball all night; it’s easy with someone so warm and effusive, and so ready with that trademark giggle. I reluctantly leave him to his voice warm-ups a half-hour before the concert, but not before I ask him what his 15-year-old self would have made of all this – of concerts in Shanghai, and people travelling the world to see him perform.
“He wouldn’t have believed it. Not for a minute,” Ball answers after pausing to consider the question. “And [he] would have really loved the idea of it being a possibility. My 15-year-old self, he was quite unhappy. So to know that he would have had this to look forward to would have been absolutely wonderful.”
Yours truly (snuggling) with Michael Ball
If backstage was buzzing before the show, there is a different kind of energy after, a kind of post-show diffusion. When I talk with Australian performer David Harris, he is still trying to shake off the effects of going from the high-octane Master Of The House to the poignant control of Bring Him Home in the second act. As he signs autographs for kids from the wonderfully named Shanghai Honey Kids Children’s Choir, I tell Harris how moving it was to see the somewhat reserved Shanghainese audience so invested in these songs. Master Of The House had one particular audience-member in my row pogo-sticking out of his chair with joy, before Bring Him Home left that same man open-mouthed, leaning so far forward in his chair it was as if he was being pulled onto the stage. If audience reaction is anything to go by, our Australian talent very nearly stole the show tonight.
As Harris leaves, I am introduced to Alain Boublil, the lyricist and librettist who together with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg gave us the songs of Do You Hear The People Sing?. For the first time all night I am genuinely star-struck. Boublil is a Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated writer. He is also charming and thoughtful, and immediately puts me at ease; in conversation I discover that Boublil talks like a writer too, he speaks in lyrical sentences that trail off, he wrangles ideas with words, and constantly reaches for a better phrase to describe his work, and his love of it.
We discuss the meld of art and politics, and the global reach of Les Miserables, as Boublil tells me that requests come in from all over the world to use the song, Do You Hear The People Sing? for a particular social or political cause. It has become a cross-cultural anthem, this song of people rising. Though Boublil does not allow for any commercial use of the song (an affinity for the song does not guarantee an affinity for a cause after-all), he is genuinely moved by the impact Do You Hear The People Sing? continues to have around the globe, more than 25 years on.
Les Miserables and Miss Saigon are still keeping Boublil busy, all these years after their creation. Both musical have major revivals set for 2014, as does the lesser-known Martin Guerre. Each show is a living, breathing entity that changes and grows with time. Parts of Miss Saigon will be fully revised for the new London production, and both Les Miserables and Miss Saigon have had new songs added. Boublil tells me there is no compulsion to write a new musical right now; he’s as busy as he’s ever been, working with the ones he’s got.
And what musicals they are. Musicals that have played all around the world, musicals that break down cultural barriers though melody and message, even as they entertain. Here tonight, in this, my first non-English-speaking theatre audience experience, the truly international impact of the musicals of Boublil & Schönberg has been a beautiful thing to observe.
As the night ends, I say goodbye to producer Markey, who still has another show tomorrow, and the next stages of his Asia-Pacific tour to plan. I see it in him too, the 15-year-old kid who can’t believe his luck. Here on the other side of the world, doing what he loves, working with people at the top of their game, and all of it making him better too. Earlier in the evening I had asked Markey that same question I put to Michael Ball – just what would his 15-year-old self make of all of this? Markey didn’t answer at the time, he joked that he was afraid of being cheesy. But as we hug goodbye, I get it. Here in Shanghai we’ve both experienced that moment where you want to pinch yourself and say –Can you believe this is happening to me??!
Except now you know it isn’t luck, the way you think it might be when you are 15, and dreaming of it. It’s hard work, and courage, and sticking at it – that’s what gets you where you were always supposed to be. It’s being the best at what you do, and doing what you love, and having this turn out to be the same thing in the end.
So that when you do finally peek behind that curtain into a world your kid-self dreamed of, and ask Can you believe this is happening to me? – the answer that comes back from the grown-up you is an emphatic and truly deserved –Yes!
Celebrating after the show at Glamour Bar
Post Script: It has also been announced that on January 29th and 30th, 2014 there will be a gala concert presentation of Do You Hear The People Sing? in Manila to aid victims of Typhoon Yolanda. This concert will feature Lea Salonga, Marie Zamora and David Harris from the Shanghai cast. For more details on this special event, and the corresponding Charity Auction offering you the chance to win opening night tickets to the 2014 revivals of Miss Saigon in London, and Les Miserables in New York and Melbourne, click here.