The Top 5 Most Influential Actor-Musician Shows (In our Opinion)
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
Recently at The Bohemians we’ve been asking ourselves some big questions. Why do we want to make theatre with actor-musicians? And what is the purpose of an actor-musician company in today’s world? To help us with these heady ruminations we’ve been taking a look back at the history of actor-musicianship. Slowly we’ve been figuring out how we can learn from what’s come before us and where we fit into the lineage of actor-musicianship in general. Today we’d like to share some of our research with you as we present our list of the Top 5 most Influential Actor-Musician Productions. Of course, it’s all subjective - but in our opinion these are the shows that have been instrumental (pun, honestly, intended) in shaping what we now know as actor-musicianship. So with out further ado, on with the show….
Pump Boys and Dinettes
Yea haw! Giddy up! We’re going down to the deep south for a tasty slice of muso pie. Love it, hate it or never even heard of it, but there’s no denying that Pump Boys and Dinettes was certainly unique when it first premiered at the Princess Theatre, Broadway in 1982. This infectious romp of a show is the product of an American music group of the same name.
In a 2010 interview Jim Wann - one of the bands leading members - explained how the show grew out of a casual two man act he and his bandmate Mark Hardwick use to perform at a local New York diner.
“Mark came in one night wearing a matching dark blue twill shirt and trouser outfit. By and by we had oval patches over the pockets with our names in them. Our imaginations were taking over and our Pump Boys repertoire began to grow. The Cattleman management soon grew tired of this nonsense and showed us the saloon door.”
But The Cattleman’s loss was Broadway’s gain as the show went on to be a big success with it eventually transferring to the West End in 1984. Sure, the script isn’t particularly inspired, but with song titles like ‘Menu Song’ and ’T.N.D.P.W.A.M.’ (The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine) does it really matter?
And yes it might all sound a bit silly, but it can’t be overlooked that this is one of the first examples of actor musicianship in mainstream theatre. It could even be said that the non-stop catchy tunes of Pump Boys... may have been the precursor to what we now know as the ‘juke-box musical’.
‘Pump Boys and Dinettes’ - 1982 Tony Awards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWoiNJtdP3s
Return to the Forbidden Planet
A shot from the 2018 of “Return to the Forbidden Planet” - Upstairs at the Gatehouse - Photo by Darren Bell
What do you get when you cross Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Rock ’n’ Roll and a B-movie set in space? Well, two hours of unadulterated fun of course! Yes, I’m talking about Bob Carlton’s beautifully absurd juke-box musical Return to the Forbidden Planet.
The humble origins of this muso-classic all started in a flimsy circus tent on Blackheath Common. During the 70s/80s The London Bubble were on a mission to take shows to people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre. Travelling to London’s outer boroughs the company would set up camp and stage wacky productions full of music, magic and silliness. ‘I had never seen anything like it before,’ said former Artistic Director Glen Watford to the Islington Gazette. ‘People brought their kids, their dogs, their shopping…we saw the raising of the tent as all part of the spectacle – the circus coming to town.’
And the circus certainly did come to town with their production of ...Forbidden Planet. The audience got to meet colourful characters such as Aerial the rollerblading robot and enjoy 60s bangers like ‘Gloria’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ to name a few. Not to mentioned a myriad of terrible Shakespeare puns - ’to beep or not to beep’ being my personal favourite.
The popularity of ...Forbidden Planet led to a West End transfer, an Olivier Award for Best New Musical and numerous international tours. What’s more, the show’s rock concert aesthetic dispelled the myth that theatre was for the intellectual elite - it could be for everyone, it could even be…dare I say…fun!? Suddenly, heads started turning and the idea of actor musicianship became an increasingly appealing prospect to those big shot producers. It wasn’t long before the West End saw in the success of shows like Buddy -actor musicianship was now on the map.
And all thanks to a few mad musos in
a little tent on Blackheath Common.
Above, Friend of The Bohemians Edward Hole
rocks out in the role of 'Cookie'
Photo - Darren Bell.
‘Return to the Forbidden Plant’ - Royal Variety Performance 1989 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEz4JKD4Yw4
A 2019 production of ‘Once’ at Fairfield Halls, Croydon. Photograph by Mark Senior.
Yes, an obvious choice - but mentioning Once seems unavoidable when talking about the journey of actor-musicianship. Adapted from John Carney’s low-budget indie flic, Once tells the tale of a downtrodden Dublin busker who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Czech woman. And you guessed it, feelings start to develop and the guise of friendship begins to crack yada yada yada…it’s your classic ‘guy meets gal’ scenario - in fact, our romantic leads simply go by the monikers of ‘Guy’ and ‘Girl.’ However, the sheer emotive energy of Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard’s score will shatter your cynicism within the space of a few chords.
I mean, it’s hard to see how they could have gone wrong when the creative team was essentially the theatrical equivalent of The Avengers. Edna Walsh’s tastefully minimal script makes space for the music to breathe while Steven Hoggart’s choreography offers a physical extension to the soaring spirit of each song. Bob Crowley provides the perfect playing space for a bunch of musos in motion - a dimly lit pub which features a fully functioning bar for any punters who fancy a quick pint in the interval. And of course, this was all expertly overseen by visionary director John Tiffany - someone who is constantly decluttering his trophy cabinet to make way for his next Tony.
And sure, Once saw international critical acclaim, it took home 8 Tony’s, 2 Oliviers and 1 Grammy…but what did the show add to the story of actor-musicianship? Well, for one it taught us that actor-musicianship isn’t just a penny saving shortcut, it isn’t just a tokenistic design choice that offers cool visuals, actor musicianship is something to be celebrated in and of itself. No musos were being shunted off into a little dark corner to make way for the actual event, because the music was the event! It was at the forefront of the production, it was what led the drama! Everything from the design to the movement was there to serve the music! But most importantly - in an industry where spectacle is often prioritised above anything else - Once reminded us that it’s the live energy of theatre that makes the form so exciting - and there’s nothing more live than watching a bunch of musos carve out an entire story with nothing but their bodies and instruments.
‘Once’ at the Phoenix Theatre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVf5rxUtTCY
John Doyle’s 'Sweeney Todd'
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!” A dim light fades up, a phantom ensemble slowly drift onto the stage, the chorus of 30 voices rise up with the ominous swells of the orchestra, a towering backdrop of iron scaffolding looms over them, smash, bang, blood, guts, our infamous anti-hero enters the cavernous space, the wall of sound surges to an alrighty cacophony, a cymbal smash, pyrotechnics, blackout, applause, scene.
…or at least that’s how it usually goes? But if its glitzy theatrics you’re looking for you’ll be bitterly disappointed by John Doyle’s 2004 production of Sweeney Todd. No, all you’re getting here is a bare wooden stage with a coffin in the middle and a modest cast of ten actor-musicians. If there’s an award for ‘Most Economical Sondheim’ then this production wins by a mile.
The modest aesthetic of this legendary production was undoubtedly informed by its first outing at The Watermill - a minuscule 220 seat theatre in the middle of the Berkshire countryside. However, despite the small-scale of this production it was by no means lacking in ambition. 10 musos seamlessly navigating their way through the complex minefield of a Sondheim score, while acting, singing, and moving all at the same time…well, that’s some mean feat! And a feat that certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
The 2005 Broadway production of ‘Sweeney Todd’. Photo by Sara Krulwich.
In 2005 the production saw a West End transfer to Trafalgar Studios before being moved to The Ambassadors. This was a significant as it had been a fair while since the West End had housed a full scale actor-muso production. And the success didn’t end there, after its run in London the show was jetted off to Broadway where it opened at The Eugene O’Niell Theatre. And despite all this hype, the production retained its minimalist style. They even took the risk of casting a newcomer as Mrs Lovett - some young gal by the name of Patti LuPone? Needless to say it was a big success, a Tony was won and Doyle was soon snatched up by a barrage Broadway producers. But was the production’s popularity just the product of a cool gimmick? Were audiences just wowed by the multi-tasking of some talented musos or is there more to it than that?
We talked to playwright Ray Rackham who voiced his opinion on the show.
“Prior to this production, the West End and Broadway had actors playing instruments (Buddy, or Pump Boys and Dinettes, for example, in the previous two decades), but the actors tended to be aware that they were playing: i.e. the act of playing the instrument was part of the narrative. John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd changed that in the minds of the wider theatre community; and firmly established the musicianship as part of the story telling, rooting itself in commentary and theme; and at many points as an extension of character.”
Doyle went on to explore this approach even further with his muso revivals of Company and Assassins - giving actor musicianship a well earned seat at the table of 'legit MT'.
‘Sweeney Todd’ - 2006 Tony Awards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7UOTuntLMk
‘Electrolyte’ by Wildcard Theatre. Photo: Joey Dawson
Gig Theatre seems to be a bit of a buzz word at the moment, but what does it mean? Well it kind of does what it says on the tin really. A hybrid of the two live art forms, the usual focus on storytelling that one would expect from a conventional theatre show, but with all the buzz and informalities you might get at a gig. And no show exemplifies Gig Theatre better than Wildcard’s production of Electrolyte.
Electrolyte made waves at Edinburgh Fringe 2018 and has gone on to win numerous awards. The show tells the story of a young twenty-something called Jessie who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father who committed suicide. She leaves her native Leeds for the hustle and bustle of the Big Smoke, here she experiences new highs and lows as she embarks on the perilous road to recovery.
This might all sound pretty heavy, and well - it is, but from entering the auditorium you know you're in safe hands. The actors talk casually to the audience as they soundcheck their instruments - taking a moment to make sure everyone’s together and ready for the ride. And what a ride it is, blistering beats and high octane dance numbers, folk ballads and rock dirges - they’ve got the lot. And it’s so refreshing to hear! To hear to music that you would’t necessarily expect to be bouncing off the walls of a theatre. Music that immediately connects us to the real world, the world of bad nights out, strange house parties and drunken mistakes (something I’m sure most of us can relate to?).
And unlike the other shows on our list Electrolyte is wholly original. None of the show’s songs pre-existed before the piece was conceived, no cult film or concept album was used as a stimulus. Electrolyte truly is a piece of New Writing made by actor-musicians. I think this is really important to remember when our definition of what actor-musicianship is can so often be informed by big commercial hits such as Buddy or Once. Electrolyte taught us that actor-musicianship doesn’t just have to be a performative embellishment of what’s already there, but it can also be an integral part of the writing process. Instruments can affect the musicality of the text, the dynamic of an ensemble can be sculpted by the simple act of playing music together. As a company, these are all ideas that we are excited to explore in our future projects.
Trailer for Wildcard’s ‘Electrolyte': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhbRX3x-H34
So there you have it, our list of the top 5 most influential actor-musician shows! What do you think? Were there any gems we missed? Did any of our picks make your eyes roll or your blood boil? Don’t hesitate to get in touch, we’d love to hear your thoughts!
Also, down below you can check out our list of ‘honourable mentions’ - these are other actor-musician shows that we love, but didn’t quite feel right for this list.
Anyhow, that’s all for now. Be sure to check out our ‘Busk It’ Podcast and sign up for our Newsletter if you haven’t done so already.
Until next time…
LA VIE BOHEME!!!
‘Ragtime’ at the Charring Cross Theatre (2016)
‘Ghost Quartet’ by Dave Malloy
‘Natasha Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812’ by Dave Malloy
‘Preludes’ by Dave Malloy
'Amelie’ at The Watermill/The Other Palace
‘The Band’s Visit’
John Doyle’s ‘Company’
The work of ‘Song of the Goat’
Kneehigh’s ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase (And other love songs)’
'Islander’ Southwark Playhouse
‘The Hired Man’ at The Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
'Hadestown’ (Sort of?)