Doing The Lambeth Walk: 5 Things I Learned From Producing Me And My Girl
“Doing The Lambeth Walk”...what comes next? Well, as it happens, everybody knows what comes next. In the thirty-odd years that I have been producing and licensing Me and My Girl around the world I have seen many productions, from mighty Broadway and the West End of London to village halls and community centres. From Tokyo to Budapest via fourteen other countries across the globe from Australia to Zimbabwe. And I can tell you one thing with total confidence: when someone sings the words “Doing The Lambeth Walk” the reply will come back: “Oi!”
But Me and My Girl is not just the “Lambeth Walk” Musical. It is a show with real heart and soul that has been delighting audiences since 1937, but especially since 1984 when my father, brother, and I re-launched it with a wonderful revised script by Stephen Fry. The thing that continues to astonish me is the ability of Me and My Girl to make people happy; happy to watch it again and again and happy to perform in it. In May of this year I came over to New York to see the terrific production in the 25th Anniversary Year of the Encores Series. I was thrilled that Me and My Girl had been chosen to be the first ever non-American show to be performed in a quarter of a century of this famous and prestigious annual festival of musicals. I was nervous and fascinated to see how it would go. It had a terrific, stellar cast of amazing talent led by Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly, Lisa O’Hare, Mark Evans, and Harriet Harris; to quote another musical, who could ask for anything more? I knew we were in the best possible hands with Warren Carlyle directing and Rob Berman conducting my grandfather’s score. But what I was interested to see was the audience’s reaction to this show that had not been seen on Broadway for thirty years.
From the first notes of the familiar overture and the first entrance of the actors it was clear that Me and My Girl was being welcomed back to Broadway with open arms. As the finale ended and the standing ovation went on and on refusing the actors permission to leave the stage, it was even clearer that this show still has the ability to bewitch and delight modern audiences.
So let me share with you five things I have learnt from producing Me and My Girl over many years:
1: Trust and enjoy the material. The songs are great, have stood the test of time, are still loved and recognised by audiences. The jokes are really funny and the characters appeal. The show has massive heart and integrity. When it is performed with love, performed as if it was written yesterday and the jokes as fresh as your morning milk, it will triumph.
2: Me and My Girl is very funny, but it is also very romantic. The three love stories, as well as the Duchess thawing and coming to love and respect Bill, are the beating heart of the show. Yes, Bill is a clown and a joker, but he is also a man in love and conflicted by love and Sally loves him dearly. Gerald may seem a buffoon and Jacqui seem a gold digger, but we should be happy that they end up together. Maria may be a crusty old battleship, but she has been loved by Sir John for thirty years. If we ignore or downplay the romance, the heart of this musical we lose a massive part of the joy.
3: It is very difficult to translate “ Oi!” into Japanese. The fabulous Takarazuka Revue Troupe have been performing Me and My Girl on and off for over thirty years. They use a full orchestra and a cast of over fifty, all women and all talented performers, singers, dancers, actors, and the size and brilliance of the spectacle is matched nowhere else. I have never seen such amazing costumes, especially in the finale, which is pure fantasy. Instead of Cockney Rhyming Slang they use Tokyo Dockside Slang. The audiences find it really funny and love the show, as do I. But the Japanese for Oi! has more syllables than I expected.
4: Behind the Iron Curtain, the aristocracy were depicted as drunks. When I saw the show in Budapest, Hungary in 1985 all of the upper classes in the show were shown as dipsomaniacs, and Bill being taught their ways was basically him becoming an alcoholic. It is not an interpretation that I particularly embrace. Although funnily enough, the character of Sir John is shown getting more and more tipsy in every scene he appears in. This is apparently because the actor who originally played the role in 1937 was no stranger to the bottle and drank backstage throughout the show. I don’t know if this tale is apocryphal or not, but I rather like it.
5: It is not only into Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian, Swedish, or German that translation problems arise. When we were rehearsing the Broadway production in 1986, an earnest cast member approached me with a text question, asking if the aristocracy had an intimate hygiene problem. Puzzled, I asked to which line he was referring. He told me and I then explained that “Wotcha Cocks” was nothing to do with washing anything, but a cockney greeting. We also had to change another line, as “Fag” means cigarette in Britain, and apparently something different in America. We have two great nations divided by a common language.
It has given me great pleasure writing this and stirring up old memories. It has prompted me to think that maybe it is about time Me and My Girl was back in the West End. Or even on Broadway…