Ian Marshall Fisher
Ever since 1989 the Lost Musicals organisation, and its founder, Ian Marshall Fisher, have researched and performed forgotten works from the world of the early twentieth century American musical. Noel Cowards Sail Away, which hit Broadway in 1961, and has now not been staged for nearly fifty years, is the latest offering from the group.
There are two reasons why musicals soon become forgotten. The first is that they were so ahead of their time that no-one originally understood them, and several works resurrected by Lost Musicals have led to further UK productions. The second, however, is that they were just downright awful to start with. Though initially I favoured the latter explanation for Sail Aways current obscurity, as I watched I also felt that it does improve with age.
To be sure, it is far from Cowards best. Written in the late 1950s, when Coward was already old hat in Britain, but still loved in America, it was composed specifically with the Broadway audience in mind. Initially planning to play the young lover himself, Coward overhauled the musical after being told it was too operetta-esque and advised to transform it into a piece of pure entertainment. In this he most definitely succeeded, with The Sun newspaper welcoming it as possibly the greatest musical of 1936.
Set almost entirely on a cruise ship, it captures the comings and goings of a group of characters on the voyage. We see spoilt children; pretentious writers; people trying to escape their lives; others searching for love, and, in particular, a developing love affair between the young Johnny Van Mier, and the mature cruise host, Mimi Paragon. Such a scenario allows Cowards wit to come to the fore, with songs such as The Customers Always Right and Why Do The Wrong People Travel? making us laugh at the ghastliness of the passengers. When it comes to characterisation, however, any suggestion that the superficial interactions we see reveal hidden depths to the characters is as ludicrous as the plot itself.
The cast generally worked well with the material although, with exceptions, they excelled more with the acting than the singing. Penny Fuller was delightful and entertaining as Mimi, bravely acting as the public face of the cruise, despite being repulsed by most of the guests. James Vaughan provided a touch of class to his role as the Purser, whilst Terence Bayler and Vivienne Martin brought the house down with their rendition of Bronxville Derby and Joan, in which they sang of how no-one had noticed that they actually hated each other!
It was shame, however, that the actors, though knowing their lines fairly well, read from scripts. Songs like Useless Useful Phrases, in which Mimi reels out phrase after phrase from her Italian book, need to be known off by heart for the humour in the words to be brought out, although Fuller still did a reasonable job. Other shortcomings in the performance, however, were not the companys fault. Budgetary constraints dictated that this should be a concerto performance with the actors sitting on chairs when off-stage and just a piano to provide the music (superbly played by musical director, Chris Walker). The choice lies between performing the lost works in this way or not at all, and I, for one, am glad for the work that Lost Musicals does in bringing little known pieces to the publics attention.
Nevertheless, when a musical is far from wonderful to start with, it doesnt help to perform it in a way that will never show it at its best. And here I felt that with full costume, orchestra, a break neck speed and sheer panache, Sail Away might just work. This is because we could now enjoy it simply as a naive musical from the past, making little distinction between 1936 and 1961. I sincerely doubt that any professional theatre will be taking the risk with it, but I also feel that a talented group of university students might be exactly the right people to pull it off, providing the necessary precision and zeal, but on a scale that wouldnt make it feel overblown. Its never easy to tell, of course, but it might just be that with such a group lies the future of Sail Away.