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Wonderful Town - Theatre of Dreams

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Wonderful Town - the musical collaboration between Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, the Halle Orchestra and the Lowry, was officially launched on 12th January 2012. Those involved described the circumstances that had brought together the’ Big Three’ in what was described cheekily as a ‘theatre of dreams.’

The show has evolved out of a perfect storm of events. About five years ago The Lowry was looking out for a project to follow the incredibly successful version of Bernstein’s West Side Story. They were, therefore, very receptive when Sir Mark Elder, conductor of the Halle, and Braham Murray, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, made overtones about a joint development of another Bernstein production.
Murray credits Sir Mark with originating the idea of a revival of Wonderful Town. He had returned from New York where he was impressed by the version starring Brooke Shields. His enthusiasm persuaded Murray, who had never heard of the show, to read the text. Murray felt that it was a knockout – as funny as Guys and Dolls. The story tells of a pair of sisters who, in trying to make their fortune in the big city, encounter an array of colourful characters.
Once The Lowry accepted the idea, Murray’s heart sank. He regards musical theatre as hell on earth but, like childbirth, learned that you can forget the pain once you get going. The production actually seems to have been very smooth. All of the actors who Murray approached as his first choice for the 12 principal roles accepted. Over 400 dancers were auditioned for 60 parts and, as it became clear that they could act as well as dance, Murray couldn’t wait to start.
The rehearsal process took a staggering six weeks. With musicals songs have to be learnt first then dance and finally the acting. The process often involved three rooms running differing rehearsals at the same time. It was, therefore, particularly impressive that the three principals were able to perform at the launch with just a day’s rehearsal.
The unique feature of the new production is the involvement of the Halle orchestra. These days a 15-member band is considered big for a musical. The first two weeks of the show at the Lowry will feature the full 65-piece orchestra which producers Lee Menzies and Kenneth Wax claim could be the largest in any musical in the world – and certainly unlikely to been seen again for some time.
Demand for tickets is such that the Lowry has added a third week .As the Halle is booked years in advance the full orchestra is not available which will give James Burton, who played piano at the launch, the chance to conduct a 17 piece band before taking them out for an 11 date tour of the UK.

All involved in the launch expressed a hope that the collaboration could be the blueprint for future productions. Wonderful Town is a classic from the golden age of Broadway musical theatre before the genre became dominated by the West End. Murray acknowledges the limitations of the genre – musicals from this era used the storyline as a front for the musical numbers- which reduced any emotional involvement. Asked if he intended to be faithful to the original the director replied that he would be unfaithful and hoped that the result would be a show that gave a life-enhancing feeling of human possibility.
And I thought it was just a matter of some good tunes! Next week - we find out what Connie Fisher thinks of starring in Wonderful Town.
- Dave Cunningham

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