Our Memories of Sir Peter – A True Hallmark Of British Theatre

It has been announced that Peter Hall has died at the age of 87.  One of the major figures of post War Theatrical Britain he was renowned for his direction of the classics and modern plays and operas.  However, Sir Peter directed three musicals.  The first was a Vivian Ellis children’s show (see also our feature on Ellis published today) and the other two much larger adult animals.

Listen to the Wind happened at the beginning of his career when he was directing for the Arts Theatre in London in 1956.  The cast included Clive Revill, Ronald (Ronnie) Barker, Roderick Cook and Miriam Karlin.  Hall also directed a production of this at the Playhouse in Oxford with some of the London cast and a then unknown Margaret Smith – better known now as Maggie.  It was a success but, in the way of things, a minor one.

In the seventies Peter Hall became the artistic director of the National Theatre.  He had an eye on producing a hit musical that could transfer and earn money for the theatre (two years later the RSC would have Les Miserables to help their coffers).  Earlier he had worked in the States with the playwright Julian Barry who came forward with an idea of a musical based on the life of Jean Seberg, a tale of Hollywood, fame and disaster.  Originally the score was to be by lyricist Christopher Adler (the son of Richard Adler of The Pajama Game fame and the one who approached Barry with the idea) and with music by Nathan Hurwitz.  However, the offer of composer Marvin Hamlisch to take over was too much (the success of A Chorus Line made him a hot contender) and Hurwitz left the production while leaving some musical interludes without credit.

Jean Seberg was considered an American musical for obvious reasons, something the British press and others thought was not quite right for the National Theatre – if the show had been a success then they may well have changed their minds.  But it was not.  The show opened on 1 December 1983 with a valiant cast headed by Kelly Hunter and Elizabeth Counsell playing the younger and older Seberg.  It closed with no original cast recording or transfer and has never been seen since.  Amongst the cast was a young Bill Deamer who is now back at the National as choreographer for Follies.

 

Sir Peter’s last attempt at directing a musical was at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1990 in a collaboration between the theatre and his Peter Hall Company.  The piece was Born Again based on the play Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco which had been fairly successful especially in New York some years before.

It was obviously another attempt to produce a Broadway hit.  The stars were American Mandy Patinkin and Jose Ferrer.  Described as a ‘daring modern musical’ it was set in a Californian shopping mall where rhinoceros roam.  The librettos was written by Julian Barry (of Jean Seberg fame) and Peter Hall with music by Jason Carr.

The vivid memory of Many Patinkin’s escape from the stage in a Mary Poppin’s style umbrella in the sky maneuver over the audience was, next to the life like animals on stage, all that remains in the memory.  There was no original cast recording.  Peter Hall refused from that day to tackle another musical.

British Theatre owes a lot to Sir Peter Hall and his moments with the Musical should not be forgotten.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive