Trust Me…We’ll Be Fine

The return of musicals to the West End was a welcome distraction from “doom and gloom” news reports of the live events industries we see on our television screens.

The walk from Charing Cross to Oxford Circus is a journey I have made plenty of times. Why go on the Tube when you can walk through Trafalgar Square, up Haymarket and take in Carnaby Street? But that journey felt extra special on Sunday the 11th of October.

Some background: Recently I had been keenly watching the news every time Andrew Lloyd Webber described how he was doing everything he could to open up his beloved London Palladium. Show that theatre can happen in the middle of a pandemic if the right steps are taken.  His message, at one point, the only message of hope in our business.  I thank him for it.

When it was announced that Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World would be playing an extremely limited run for one Sunday only…and the cast would include Rachel John, Rachel Tucker, Cedric Neal, David Hunter and Shem Omari Jones (all of whom, save Neal, I have seen on stage numerous times)…I booked my tickets as soon as I was able to click through to the relevant page. Thankfully, there were four seats together(ish) for the family.

Moving along and approaching the front of the theatre, I realised this theatrical experience was going to be different.  There was a military-like operation outside, steering the punters into the appropriate queue. The marquee illuminating the faces of the audience, exaggerating their looks of  anticipation was, for me, the start of the show. We made it through the ubiquitous bag check and (a first for me) the temp check.  

I have to admit, I was a little nervous at this point, although I had no reason to be. But when a green box surrounded my on-screen head (and that of my family’s), I breathed a sigh of relief.  This was actually going to happen. We were going to see live theatre.

A single ghost light illuminates the London Palladium stage

The staff at The Palladium need to be commended in every way for how they conducted operations on the night.  They were like an army of bemasked ants, making sure that everyone stayed safe, hand cleansed and face covered.  They were super quick to take your order from the seat and deliver the goods almost instantly. Now, I’m not usually in my seat with 40 minutes to spare, but as I was following the guidelines, that’s precisely what we did.  It was worth it just to see the show before the show – “The Usher’s Dance.”  It’s as if they had been practicing moving at speed throughout the theatre, shuffling around each other without ever colliding.  It was a superb effort.

Seats were marked out to ensure social distancing. Even so, not all of the family felt completely comfortable…or safe.  The question came up “Why are we even here?  It doesn’t make sense or feel right just at this moment to see so many people inside…”  It was a valid concern, made even more poignant by staring at the single ghost light on a stark stage reflecting theatre’s darkest hour for centuries.

The house lights dimmed as the last of the available seats were filled.  It is hard for me to describe what happened…something  I have never witnessed in over a quarter century in the business here in the UK…a sound erupted from the audience for nearly 2 ½ minutes.  It was an extraordinary thing. A sound that drowned out the final announcements over the speakers (no doubt telling us to turn off our phones…who knows?!).  150 incredible seconds of applause, whooping, whistling and shouting in anticipation. I’ve had less reaction from an audience at the end of a hit show while taking a bow during the Curtain Call!!!

Songs for a New World is a song cycle musical with each number taking us on a different story.  The audience lapped this musical up.  Every story was met with laughter – or tears.  Every vocal run met with shouts of delight (Neal the recipient of many of these!). Every wink and nod to the audience was appreciated and greeted with applause. It was almost as fun watching the audience take in what must have been the first show in a very long time for the lot of them.

The cast were individually and collectively incredible. The audience could easily tell that the performers were absolutely lapping up being on stage.  It was apparent. Their excitement was our excitement. Their pain was our pain. Their joy was our joy. 

Rachel John’s performance of “Christmas Lullaby” – a song that tells of a mother discovering she’s pregnant and her sense of joy, evoking the spirit of the Virgin Mary.  For me, it was the number of the night and it brought the house down.  I turned to look at my wife who had tears gently rolling down her face.  That’s why we were there. To experience that.  

The socially distanced audience awaits curtain up on “Songs for a New World”

The show, inevitably, had to come to an end.  We, as an audience, didn’t want it to end. I remember welling up when watching Rachel Tucker, as Captain Beverly Bass (in “Come From Away”) sang the line, “I’m fine, Tom. I’m fine.”  At the Palladium on Sunday night, it felt as though she was looking into everyone’s eyes directly when she sang the line “listen to the song that I sing and trust me…we’ll be fine.”  

And with that came the instant standing ovation. Instant.  Before the lights went down.  Something else I have only ever witnessed when watching Tucker on stage at The Phoenix Theatre in the West End.

Sadly, it was time to go home. Truth be told, I’m still unpacking the evening. What I can say for certain is that I miss theatre. Horribly.  It is my church.  It restores my soul and the faith in my decision to be part of this industry.

When I look back at Sunday, October 11, 2020 it will forever be with Rachel Tucker’s voice in my ears “Listen to the song that I sing and trust me.  We’ll be fine.”

I certainly hope so, Rachel. I certainly hope so.

To listen to a podcast with Songs for a New World cast member, David Hunter, click here.

John Schwab is a co-founder of Curtain Call.

Image credits: London Palladium – John Schwab