It’s probably fair to say that there’s a professional production of at least one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Big Five” musicals (Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music) running at any time in the UK. All of these musicals have gained iconic status and having triumphed last year with the European stage premiere of the duo’s only musical written directly for the silver screen State Fair (which earned a West End transfer), Thom Southerland returns to the intimate Finborough Theatre with the even more obscure meta musical Me and Juliet. Me and Juliet played for 358 performances on Broadway in 1953 and has (to my knowledge) never been revived since.
Me and Juliet is almost two musicals in one, dealing with the backstage intrigue (will the nice guy rescue the girl from her boorish boyfriend?) amongst the cast and crew of a frothy revue, probably not dissimilar from the ones that dominated Broadway when Rodgers and Hammerstein had the audacity to open Oklahoma! with a middle aged woman churning butter onstage, full of contrived lyrics, stock characters and songs and dance routines full of hats, canes, feathers and fans. The ‘real’ characters are fairly weak by Hammerstein’s standards, but what happens offstage is still more engaging than the revue numbers.
The original production boasted a cast of 74, which is scaled down to 15 on the Finborough’s compact stage (plus the pianist) and features some ingenious staging. Alex Marker’s set evokes the bare bones of Broadway grandeur and the less glamorous backstage and choreographer Sally Brooks does her best to make the show-within-a-show numbers interesting. It’s a parody of fluffy schmaltz and although Hammerstein was the real radical of the partnership, he wasn’t a writer of seemingly effortlessly punchy lyrics like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter and these numbers fall rather flat (not that Rodgers’s music is much more inspired). However, the references to meta theatre with The Big Black Giant, about the changing nature of audiences and Intermission Talk, in which audience members lament the decline of theatre are cleverly done and show how little things change, even if front of house staff no longer sell cigarettes.
I think the greatest aspect of Hammerstein’s genius was being able to make ordinary characters and stories extraordinary and there are hints of this in the central romance. Jeanie and Larry’s exploration of their feelings for each other through rehearsing the show’s love ballad No Other Love is very much in keeping with the ‘love song with a twist’ pioneered by Hammerstein. It’s fun spotting all the little references to Carousel, most notably in Jeanie’s macho, commitment shy boyfriend Bob (John Addison) a Billy Bigelow type, but impossible to feel any real sympathy for because of the delight he takes in mocking his girlfriend. His crisis of masculinity with a bottle of scotch and attempt at redemption doesn’t tug at the heartstrings in quite the same way.
Laura Main, who was a lovely ingénue in State Fair, is just as endearing as the uncertain chorus girl Jeanie and sings with a beautiful purity. Her romance with the utterly decent, nearly middle aged ASM Larry (Robert Hands) is a bit like watching Julie Jordan marry the Starkeeper, but the very warm and sincere chemistry between the two makes it work. Jodie Jacobs also has fun as sassy Southern soubrette Betty, whose duet with Jeanie It’s Me, about being able to become a different person deserves to be better known.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to a Rodgers and Hammerstein newcomer (better to start with one of the meatier offerings), that is not in any way to belittle Thom Southerland’s lively and unpretentious production and the spirited cast. It offers a fascinating insight into a rarity and the scale is spot-on- to try to recreate it in its original lavish form would be slightly ridiculous. Perhaps Thom Southerland could be persuaded to give the same treatment to Allegro or Pipe Dream to complete his collection of Rodgers and Hammerstein rarities- I’m sure many Rodgers and Hammerstein groupies would appreciate that. And as his next project is apparently Carousel, the most glorious of the canon, I hope he casts Laura Main as Julie Jordan.
Me and Juliet plays at the Finborough Theatre until October 30th. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.