Whether you know the musical Sweet Charity or not, you do. The 1966 musical gave us ubiquitous big band numbers like Hey, Big Spender, If They Could See Me Now, Rhythm of Life and I’m a Band. Not only that, but the original Broadway run was choreographed by a then little known musical director: Bob Fosse.
The choreography was so renowned that when it came time to shoot the movie in 1969, Fosse was tapped to direct it himself: his debut film. Fosse’s casting and choreographing of Shirley Maclaine made them both icons; so while Sweet Charity – as a stage production or film – may not be on high rotation today, its impact and songs are everywhere.
So, when the Donmar announced they’d be bringing a revival to their challenging, off-West End Warehouse stage in 2019, I was intrigued. However, unlike last week’s All About Eve, I don’t have fond memories of watching the 1969 film.
Fosse’s film adaptation is a heightened, technicolor product of its age and its director’s inexperience. The somewhat disjointed narrative – following Charity from one misadventure to the next – is made more pronounced by a camera that keeps the audience at arms length. Every dance number is very staged. We’re treated to each as if through a procenium, with Maclaine and the other actors performing to us. The film has all the great numbers it’s meant to have, but it’s not involving.
And what about seeing it live on stage?
It’s a whole other beast!
First and foremost, Anne-Marie Duff as Charity barely leaves the stage for over 2 hours. Her relentless energy, optimism and thousand watt smile dim only occasionally in the face of her various disappointments.
Beat-for-beat it’s almost the same as Maclaine’s performance (50 years ago!), but watching someone power through each and every obstacle, ballad and high-energy dance number transforms the role to something really wrenching.
And this is not a paint-by-numbers imitation of the film (as All About Eve very nearly is). The choreography here by Wayne McGregor is clever, fun and flirty. There are nods to Fosse throughout, especially during If They Could See Me Now (how could there not be?), but overall they are moments of homage amidst a sea of creativity. A flock of Swinging Warhols dancing in the Pompeii Club; Big Spender (and its reprise) with ladders; Adrian Lester’s star turn as the drugged out church leader for Rhythm of Life. All these moments are surprising, intriguing and exciting in all the ways great theatre should be: they draw you in, make you wonder at where they’ll take you, and leave you just a little sad when they’re past.
And the Donmar Warehouse is a perfect venue for this subversive reimagining.
If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience a production here: try harder! At a mere 200 seats, there’s no bad seat in the house, but tickets can be tricky to come by. The thrust stage is all the stage there is, with almost no backstage at all, which forces a level of creativity on directors and set designers that more traditional spaces don’t impose, and the result is always more focussed, innovative and exciting.
[It doesn’t stop them here from having a lake, Central Park, two New York boroughs, a deluxe apartment and two clubs, all easily contained with the 20mx20m stage –– although they did have to sacrifice the second bar outside to fit the band. How’s that for use of space?]
In 1966, Sweet Charity was a musical oddity. It’s themes are more “real” than the typical Rogers & Hammerstein-esque fare, and more limited even than the opera-tragic West Side Story (which debuted 10 years earlier, but whose film production won Best Picture in 1962). And it still is odd. This is the story of a girl, and it’s quite a mundane story at that. It’s a story of hope in the face of disappointment, without any saccharine promises or pretence.
In the end, that’s what makes it universal. Who can’t relate to disappointment?
Sweet Charity is running at the Donmar Warehouse through to June 2019. Anne-Marie Duff gives a powerhouse performance which is truly unmissable; not to mention the clever staging, the knowing choreography and toe-tapping renditions of songs you thought you knew.
Josie Rourke – in her final season as the Artistic Director at the Donmar – has delivered a production of Sweet Charity that is beyond a mere revival: this is a re-invention.
Who dances? We defend ourselves to music.