Flashback: LEND ME A TENOR at the Gielgud Theatre
It's a strange old time right now, with our beloved theatre community mourning the loss of jobs, of creative outlets, and of the human connections that theatre is so brilliant at creating. This collective grief is felt over at BroadwayWorld too, and we want to do what we can to continue celebrating the industry we love so much, so we've launched a series of features that celebrate musicals and plays from days gone by.
For me, the choice was obvious. In 2011, Ian Talbot's musical adaptation of a 1986 play by Ken Ludwig, set in 1930s Ohio, had its UK premiere at the Gielgud, with an assembled cast of some established theatre 'greats' and an original score by Peter Sham and Brad Carroll. This premiere followed a brief out-of-town tryout in Plymouth, which received raved reviews.
I was lucky enough to be offered a free ticket to see the show in its previews. I knew I'd witness some strong performances based on the calibre of the cast, but other than that I didn't know what to expect. I think I was totally sold by the end of the first scene.
For those not familiar, Lend Me a Tenor unashamedly leans into the tropes of old-fashioned farces - think Noises Off, but with an operatic edge. Protagonist Max Garber (played adorably by Damian Humbley) is the unassuming assistant to Henry Saunders (Matthew Kelly), the GM of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. A timid yet likeable man, he never quite manages to stand out from the crowd, much to the frustration of his on-again off-again girlfriend Maggie (the legendary Cassidy Janson).
Act I kicks off with Henry anxiously awaiting the arrival of a world-famous opera tenor, Tito Merelli (the inimitable Michael Matus), who is joining the company to lead its production of Otello. Max is tasked with looking after Tito and his erratically hot-tempered wife Maria (Joanna Riding - 'nuff said), which is fortuitous as Max is an aspiring opera singer himself. Through a variety of misunderstandings, Tito ends up being knocked out by a non-lethal concoction of tranquiliers and is unable to go on as Otello...so who is forced to become his reluctant stand-in and save the day? You guessed it - Max!
Despite positive reviews from press and audiences alike, Lend Me a Tenor was sadly served its notice and closed after just eight weeks. I don't have the superlatives to adequately describe my love for this incredible cast, sumptuous score and accomplished production values - from set design to costume. Or as the 'youths' would say, "I cannot EVEN...". So, in lieu of my impassioned ramblings, I've spoken to some of the cast and creatives to get some insider insights on what it was like to be part of this production.
Michael Matus was involved with the project from its inception, playing Tito in Plymouth before the West End transfer, and he recalls how that almost didn't happen for him.
Michael Matus: "We rehearsed in Plymouth, got the show up in four weeks and it ran for three weeks to full houses and great reviews. But there was no West End theatre available immediately, and after six months we had begun to lose faith that it might ever transfer. And then suddenly we got the call that Umbrellas of Cherbourg was closing, and we could move in to the Gielgud in a matter of weeks.
It was a nightmare, because I was contracted to a play at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and was already in rehearsals. The dates clashed, so it looked like I wouldn't be able to do it. But, thanks to the goodwill from both directors (Jonathan Munby and Ian Talbot), along with the kindness of our producers, I was allowed to commute from Leeds to London every day at 6am for 10am rehearsals and leave at 3pm each day to do the play in Leeds. Exhausting, but worth it! So, it was a frantic transition for me, but fine for everyone else!"
Kara Lane was part of the ensemble in the West End, and covered the roles of Diana and Anna 3. She describes the experience of joining a cast that was already established:
Kara Lane: "I was one of only a few new cast members to join the West End part of the run. I'd never merged with an existing company before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. It was a bit daunting at first, as most people already knew each other and I'm really not very good in large groups at the best of times, but every single person was a delight and made all the new cast members feel incredibly welcome.
"Our director, Ian Talbot, and the rest of the creative team were fantastic at allowing the actors to experiment and come up with new ways to make things work. It meant that not only did we have the benefit of knowing what worked in the Plymouth run and were able to transfer those moments to the West End, but it also meant that the show was enhanced even further by new ideas."
A seminal moment near the end of Act I is when Tito helps Max find his voice, and they duet with "Be You'self" - a powerful anthem of self-realisation and mutual respect between the two characters. The delivery of this moment by Matus and Humbley took my breath away on all 13 of my visits, and Matus describes how he prepared for it:
Matus: "'Be You'self' is one of the greatest musical theatre numbers of this century. Damian and I had to work hard on it, obviously, but the real work had been done by Brad Carroll. It needs to be on everyone's playlist!
"I took lessons with an opera singer called Marc Callaghan, and they were invaluable. I learnt so much - mainly that I had been busking it for years! I finally got to grips with proper singing and a proper technique, without which I could never have played Tito."
Lane made it on for one of her cover roles, Anna 3, and had a scheduled date to play the operatic diva Diana, but sadly the closing notices were posted before she got her chance:
Lane: "The role of Diana was played by the very talented Sophie-Louise Dann, who was simply brilliant. Her solo "May I Have A Moment" was a show-stopping triumph every night. I was chatting to her earlier about this and didn't realise that she contributed to the creation of the song, which evolved around operatic arias in her rep. She tells me it is one of her most fulfilling 'page to stage' stories.
"I did have a date that I was meant to go on for this role, and my parents had booked their flights from Australia to come and watch, but unfortunately we received our two-week notice and closed only a week before they were due to arrive. Coincidentally, we went to watch the play Yes Prime Minister on the evening that they were meant to be watching us. We didn't realise when booking the tickets that it was on at the Gielgud, so it was rather surreal sitting in the auditorium of the theatre that I was meant to be performing in, on the night I was meant to be sharing my West End debut show with my parents."
One of the most notable components of Lend Me a Tenor is the classic farce, and high energy needed to deliver it. Cassidy Jason recalls that "lots of door-slamming practice" was the key:
Lane explains how she observed her castmates in order to perfect her craft:
Lane: Watching Joanna Riding work with the props and scenery during the technical rehearsals until she perfected each gesture. Witnessing how Matthew Kelly would adapt to the endless amount of last-minute line changes with such calm professionalism. Seeing Damian Humbley and Michael Matus perfect the way they bounced their comic timing back and forth between each other. Learning how much sass and personality Cassidy Janson could bring to her character while still remaining the romantic ingenue. These were all lessons you can only learn when watching the best."
It's clear that Lend Me a Tenor made a permanent impression on those involved with creating it, as well as the audiences who watched it. As I sit here, clutching my official Lend Me a Tenor mug (which is now looking significantly battered after nine years of constant use), I'm overwhelmed with a sense of affectionate nostalgia. Theatre isn't a meritocracy, so quality writing, direction and performances don't always translate to lengthy successful runs. But when that magic is created, it lives on in other ways - in the hearts and minds of those who were fortunate enough to experience it, however short-lived that may have been. To wrap things up, I asked the cast what their fondest memories were from working on the production:
Kara Lane: "Just how much everyone loved the show and felt so honoured to be a part of it. It was short and sweet, but when I run into people who saw the show, the genuine excitement and pleasure they have in telling me how much they loved it is always a joy to hear. A lot of people put their all into creating it, so in that way, at least, it paid off."
Michael Matus: "Fishing in Plymouth with the cast - catching a ton of mackerel, then gutting and barbecuing the fish. Oh, and making the album."
Cassidy Janson: "Probably a silly game the cast would play every night backstage. After a certain scene, I'd come off and always go the wrong way and interrupt someone's quick change. So the cast started doing 'Guess the show' re-enactments to stop me. It got ridiculous. Every show got more and more elaborate until the last show, when one of the cast dressed up as Maggie - my character in the show! Ah good people and good times."
The Lend Me a Tenor original London cast recording is available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music
Photo credits: Tristram Kenton