REVIEW: Blondel - Original London Cast
Tim Rice’s 1983 musical Blondel is a fascinating show. Not everything in it works, but throughout Rice’s career there’s been an obvious, yawning chasm between the two different sides of his personality as a lyricist: the downbeat, somewhat self-absorbed small-R romanticism of Chess and Aida, and the slightly glib, rather archly anachronistic prep-school humour that underpins Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and much of his work on The Lion King. The original London production in 1983 was a modest success, but the cast recording has long been out of print. It’s now being reissued by the invaluable Stage Door Records, and it’s well worth a listen: you may well form the impression from it that the show is an unworkable mess, and the writing badly short-changes the two leads, but it also contains some of Rice’s funniest work, and some of the late Stephen Oliver’s music is glorious.
As is often the case with shows with this kind of history, though, you have to wade through a fair quantity of material that doesn’t work at all to get to the good bits. Like Joseph… Blondel is an historical romp, or at least an attempt at one; the somewhat convoluted plot involves a minstrel in the court of King Richard (the first – it’s set in 1189, or rather in an 1189 where quite a lot of things self-consciously parallel Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s), his left-wing girlfriend Fiona, a plot by the King’s brother to steal the throne while the King is away on a Crusade, and an assassin who keeps getting his targets mixed up. Wacky hijinks ensue, obviously; at the end of the show, order is restored, and Blondel leads the company in a rousing rendition of his latest song, a paean to royalty entitled I’m a Monarchist. There’s an excellent synopsis included in this reissue; if you don’t want to be hopelessly confused, read it before you press ‘play’.
The album’s great highlights belong to the supporting characters. No Rhyme for Richard, the treacherous Prince John’s attempt to get Blondel on-side by persuading him to write songs dedicated to him instead of the King, is a comic tour-de-force, and perhaps the funniest (I mean, intentionally funny) thing Rice has ever written, and it’s sung to the hilt in a sensational, barnstorming performance by the wonderful David Burt. The Assassin’s Song is packed so full of groaners that you can’t help but laugh, and Burt (again) and Chris Langham mine the jokes for everything they’re worth. Saladin Days, King Richard’s big number, is sweetly, tartly acerbic and tremendous fun, and Stephen Tate is terrific. Narration throughout is provided by a quartet of monks – the vocal group Cantabile – who offer a running commentary on the action in perfectly-timed plainsong, which is a lot funnier than it sounds.
Unfortunately the score stumbles badly when it starts to deal with the romantic relationship at the center of the plot. You may, in 2017, raise your eyebrows at a central female character who defines herself almost exclusively in relation to her man: Fiona, unfortunately, is more or less summed up by the title of her big number, Running Back For More, because the show's central love story is basically an on-again off-again romance between a rampaging egomaniac and a codependent masochist. As presented in the body of the show, the two main love songs – Running Back for More and Blondel’s The Least of My Troubles – are simply bland, and they sit very uneasily against the comic diversions elsewhere in the show’s quasi-picaresque plot. It doesn’t help, either, that Paul Nicholas and Sharon Lee-Hill are not a particularly appealing pair of leads, although he’s less insufferable here than he is on television and she’s nowhere near as flat as she sounds on the London cast recording of The Baker’s Wife. Those two big love songs come across much better in their pop single versions, which are helpfully included as bonus tracks on the album’s second disc. There are two versions of Running Back For More – one sung by Ms. Lee-Hill and the other by, of all people, Murray Head, and they both have a lot more spark than the version used in the show; the single version of The Least Of My Troubles is sung by Colm Wilkinson, and again it has a warmth that is entirely absent from Nicholas’s performance.
The extended musical ensemble scenes – the show is more or less sung through – are also less than completely successful, although it’s fun trying to spot a couple of distinctively-voiced singers who went on to much bigger things – Maria Friedman and Simon Bowman – among the chorus. Throughout, from a distance of more than three decades away, John Cameron’s so-early-80s-it-hurts orchestrations don’t now seem to serve the score particularly well – particularly in the climactic fight scene towards the end of the second half, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as the kind of music you’d have expected to hear underscoring a slapstick sequence on ITV’s Tiswas.
Having said all that, it’s great to have this album back again after more than two decades out of print. True, some of it falls flat, some of it is merely pleasant, and if you aren’t a fan of Rice to begin with this material isn’t going to convert you - but some of it is superb, and the good stuff is good enough that if you like Rice at all you’ll need to own this album.
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Blondel - 1983 Original London Cast The Baker's Wife - 1990 Original London Cast Blondel Aida The Lion King Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Chess Simon Bowman John Cameron Chris Langham Stephen Oliver Colm Wilkinson Stephen Tate Tim Rice Paul Nicholas Sharon Lee Hill Murray Head David Burt Maria Friedman I'm a Monarchist Saladin Days Running Back for More (4) No Rhyme for Richard The Least of My Troubles (2) Stage Door Records (2-CD) Toggle Additional (22)