From MusicalCriticism.com, 2009: As part of the celebrations for Johnny Mercer’s centenary, the BBC Concert Orchestra mounted two semi-staged performances of his final stage musical, The Good Companions, at the Watford Colosseum in Hertfordshire. Conductor John Wilson—who led the phenomenally popular MGM Prom this August, as well as a fantastic concert performance of My Fair Lady in Gateshead in July—came together with an experienced cast that included Liz Robertson, Ian Talbot and Annalene Beechey to perform the show, which was first staged in London in 1974. The results could not have been more entertaining.
Above Inigo, Susie Dean and Miss Trant: Judi Dench, from the 1974 West End production, sings “Darkest Before Dawn”.
The Good Companions is based on JB Priestley’s most popular novel—indeed the work that solidified his reputation. It tells the tale of an upper-middle class woman who—quite against the advice of her relatives—decides to use her newfound wealth to fund a group of strolling players whose director has run off with all the money; escape is a strong theme of the show. One can see why the backstage musical flavour of the novel must have appealed to the book and song writers.
The libretto for the West End show was adapted by Ronald Harwood, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Pianist. Composer Andre Previn, former Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote the music for the Gene Kelly film It’s Always Fair Weather and conducted the films Gigi and My Fair Lady. Lyricist Mercer received nineteen Academy Award nominations and was the lyricist of dozens of American standards including “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses”.
In short, the piece is an underrated little gem (the original cast album starring Judi Dench, John Mills and Marti Webb was briefly available but is now a rarity), and in conductor John Wilson’s taut performance all the nuances came through. It seems the project has been a labour of love for him: the original full orchestral score was lost after being simplified for amateur productions, and although some of the original performing parts were eventually discovered by Caroline Underwood of the Warner/Chappell music publishers, Wilson has had to restore parts of the score for which no material survived. He has rendered the work of Angela Morley and Herb Spencer, the orchestrators of the original production, extremely sympathetically, and led the performance with verve.
With the Maida Vale Singers covering a range of smaller roles and raising the roof in the ensemble numbers, and the BBC Concert Orchestra playing at their exquisite best, this was a superb evening. One hopes the same team will explore more classic musicals in the future, but in the meantime the Radio 3 broadcast on 16 November at 7pm is not to be missed. ~Dominic McHugh
- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”