You can’t say that we don’t get a wide array of music to play with here at Dancing About Architecture, on a daily basis it ranges from bedroom rappers from Chicago to globe trotting Brazilian jazz players to German post-rock studio hermits and beyond. But even with our eclectic brief a few eyebrows were raised when a musical theatre recording based on the life of one of Great Britain’s most beloved of royals popped into the inbox. But variety is indeed the condiment of existence!
The piece is from a production called Charles & Diana: The Musical, which to date has been preformed twice in New York City, and sitting here writing this within spitting distance…or at least an hours drive and spitting distance…of many of the residences that featured in her life, I wonder just how such a production would be received if it toured in her home country. Controversial is a word which springs to mind. Tar and feathers are others. But the freedom of observing events from the outside and the breadth of The Atlantic means that such productions find audiences who are more open to the peeling away of certain iconic onions, and such observation, opinion, interpretation and presentation is indeed the whole point of art. Is nothing sacred? Well…no. And nor should it be.
The premise is simple, at the tragic moment of Lady Diana Spencer’s death she encounters a mystical, all knowing guide, Vicar Bones, who like a ghost of Christmas past allows her to look back over the events and decisions in her life. This device not only allows the audience to gain a valuable insight into this iconic women’s often turbulent life but does so by through musical references which range from British music hall, The Beatles, 80’s pop and much more.
Vicar Bones’ Time Machine is set at the opening of the production where Diana agrees to revisit her life and as the eponymous spirit takes her back through her earliest years we see the upheavals that begin to shape the woman she is destined to become, but this time she is given the chance to live her life again, make better choices, change the course of history. Will she become a different person, live a different life or is destiny a fixed proposition, are our lives all in the hands of fate and woven into a grand design? That, I suppose, is the question we all have to ponder.
Amanda Ladd as Diana sounds suitably Sloane Square and Alan Ostroff as Bones is reminiscent of The Emcee, The Kit Kat Club’s flamboyant and ghoulish narrator in Cabaret. Add in a heavenly choir of angelic voices to back up and underline the action and the scene is perfectly set. Musically there is something quintessentially British…English even about the music, it takes a contemporary musical theatre heart and wraps a strange Beatle-esque cloak around it. Not the Beatles at their pop heyday or their acid soaked psychedelic trip which followed but more akin to that brief spot of avant gardening that they undertook as they tried to pour their musical creativity into film and created the baroque and surreal world that became The Magical Mystery Tour. Musical theatre is always trying to serve two masters, a blend of tight narration and musical abandon and here they are both served perfectly.
The narrative interludes alternate with kaleidoscopic, musical hall melodies, sometimes feeling deceptively whimsical or simplistic, and not out of line with the early camp flapper era melodies that Queen were partial too on their early albums. Further exception, however, reveals them to be more sophisticated and finely textured than they might first appear but always leaving enough room for the vocals to both lead the storyline and create lush harmonic backdrops.
It is odd trying to review the opening salvo of a long and intricate work, musical theatre has to cover so much ground, it is a concept album, a film, a soundtrack, a traditional performance and more besides, and as such pieces like Vicar Bone’s Time Machine isn’t designed to be a stand alone piece. But even in isolation it more than ticks all of the necessary boxes. Does it set up the story? Does it fill you with curiosity? Does it entice musically? Do you feel the urge to watch the full product? Does it feel fresh and original? Yes, to all this and then some.
If you want a taste of the full show, here are highlights of the 2005 courtesy of The Midtown International Theater Festival and the 2016 New York City production by The Morningside Players.
It is a fascinating idea, one which, as I said, might ruffle a few feathers in the beating, true blue heart of Middle England and one which takes a darker route through a story that we all think we know It is also a tale which gently knocks Diana Spencer, the woman, off her lofty pedestal and presents her as just another human being. One struggling with relationships and obligations, loves and losses, or put another way, underneath the glitz and the glamour in many ways just like you and me. See her in that light and even the staunchest republican can’t help but feel for her, like her, maybe even love her a little bit.