Saturday, April 25, 2015

The London Desert Song 50 years on

The Desert Song & Susan

Janette Heffernan

This week I was reminded of those far of days when I worked in West End Musicals as my wonderful leading lady Trish Michael came to visit me in Auckland.

In 1967 John Hanson brought The Desert Song by Sigmund Romberg to the Palace Theatre in the heart of London's West End. It was an unbelieveable hit!
Surprisingly of all the characters I have played Susan in The Desert Song has been quite my favourite. She was the most like the real life 'Janette Miller'. Susan was fun, attractive if not beautiful, sexy, bright and under valued. When I got to know 'Susan' I felt I really understood where she was coming from. Susan had 'IT' in more ways than one.
Susan was a part I did not want. I did not want to be in The Desert Song. This old war horse had taken London by storm in 1967. Starring John Hanson as The Red Shadow himself it was a theatrical joke. I mean who would want to be in The Desert Song? I for one.

The Palace Theatre

And yet a part had come up for the comedy lead. I had just finished my intimate classy revue and my agent just forced me to go to the audition at The Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Ave. I went reluctantly. I was not over pleased when the stage door manager,Charles, took one look and said 'You'll get the job!'.
I did not try! I sang a couple of bars and was told to come back tomorrow. 'Oh God' I thought. 'I had better go and see it!' The theatre was sold out so it really cost me. With actual trepidation I watched the curtain rise and I was 'hooked'. The Desert Song has that unbelievable 'magic'. The way it was done, a la 1927, with the old painted scenery, magnificent cast of singers and dancers, tatty costumes, and donkey added to the charm but I was still not convinced that I should be in This. However I could see what had taken London by storm. So sharp and so unusual. Brilliant.
My spirits did not rise when I saw what my part was, a dowdy secretary in love with her stupid reporter boss,Benny who just did love back and I could see why and the first scene was played in front of a backcloth with a real live donkey! Quel Horror!
Margot the leading lady was totally out of this world, striding in, in a French Foreign Legion uniform with a blisteringly good top 'C'. Patricia Michael's was a star. John Hanson was John Hanson.
Then it happened. The IT number! Clara Bow the IT girl was all the rage in 1927 and this was a number dedicated to her! Susan was the 'IT' girl of The Desert Song. Sigmund Romberg had pulled out all the stops for this number and it was the show stopper. Susan had IT. The moment I saw that number I knew I had to have that job. Here were all my Xmases rolled into one. The moment every young actress dreams of and in London too.
At the next audition I tried. The stage was slippery, I was up against a colleague with more of a track record than me from the revue but I looked cute and I had a fabulous figure, the sort men die for and after a grim session where money or lack of it was discussed I got the job.
Why I got the job became clear the morning of my first rehearsal. The leading man had been attracted to the current Susan. Wife found out and ultimatum given. Present Susan out or good family man reputation out of the window. John Hanson did have a thing about leading ladies,. He always seemed to fall in love with them. I knew all about this from the grape vine so I knew what to expect. Four days was all I had to 'Take over'. John Hanson's behavior would never have been allowed today. I had to develop a fiancee quick as I was next on the list. This scheme, I thought was the easiest way to escape his clutches and the sack. I loved my job. He went on doing this all his career. I felt sorry for his wife. Sexual harassment was part of the job.
I am a fast study. You have to be with intimate revue but the rest of the cast had had six weeks rehearsal and four days seemed a bit of an ask. It was a big part!


The company manager whom I knew from a tour of The Student Prince where I had played Kathie,.told me how to play Susan and for his advice I shall be forever grateful.
He told me that the audience must like Susan. That was the key! So I played Susan so that not only did the audience like Susan but they sided with her to make the oaf that she loved, Benny look even more stupid than he was. For me it was a gift.
This attractive, pretty, intelligent, slightly naive girl, fresh out of secretarial college on her first job, madly in love with her boss in romantic Morocco, obviously a 'sexy little piece' make wonderful lover, wife, companion and the silly man could not see it. The audience could see it, Susan herself could see it but Benny'couldn't. When the chips were down it is not Benny that The Red Shadow turns to but Susan with her wit to bring about a happy ending for all. Susan had IT! Wow what a girl! The sort of woman we in the 21st Century should be proud of. A girl who by rights should have had Benny's' job! Every woman in the audience could relate to Susan and every man wanted to go to bed with her.
I did not have to look or play dowdy. I did not have to don spectacles to look unattractive all I had to do was to play me which I did. My partner the comic, who I fed, I said the line and he got the laugh.  Tony Hughes made the most of an impossible part and script. One had to like him too.
In the first Act I just looked a cute little thing and bought the house down with the 'IT' number. I was a fabulous dancer, could easily turn 32 fouettes if asked, but never was, so the dance was a piece of cake. No singing, only one line so I could not show off in that area. Slippy stage though and dangerous. The show was only supposed to last 6 weeks max so cheap flooring was installed.
In Act II I was abducted to The Red Shadow's' Harem and dressed as a concubine! I do have the most fabulous figure, and the costume glittered with hundreds of rhinestones and you could hear the gasps of approval from the audience as I walked on in it. I looked just so sexy and kittenish. You could hear them say It’s Susan. The costume had two well placed tassels which played a big part when I changed costumes with Benny but then again I looked stunning in a white jelaba with an enormous and now very politically incorrect red star and crescent saying that I had lost IT. Susan and Benny are sent out into the desert to die but of course they arrive home after a night in the sands. So a very tussled Benny with equally disheveled Susan arrives back seated on the donkey and everyone can imagine what happened or did not happen. Again a theatrical gift of the Gods. I could not put one foot wrong.

The First Night

I had had hardly any rehearsal as most of the time was spent getting shoes and costumes to fit. To say I was petrified is no understatement. I was literally thrown on. I spent the afternoon watching The Sound of Music which I had resisted seeing but as I needed total escape this seemed the perfect choice. It was!
My performance felt awful. I just wanted to get to the end and then I had. The curtain came down and the whole cast stood and applauded. I could not believe it. It was absolutely genuine. It seemed I was a hit much to my surprise. The cast appreciated the position into which I had been put. In fact it seems I stole the show and continued to steal it every night for the rest of the long run I am told.
One fan wrote to say he had seen The Desert Song on a regular basis since 1927 and never had he seen Susan played better. Well there was nothing secret about how I played it. It was so obvious.
With all roles you have to get to the crux of the matter. Once this is discovered and it may not be obvious at first you are away. Flora in The Turn of the Screw, another difficult character is the same. Flora is so complex that most directors leave her out. Thanks to Benjamin Britten I found out how to play her. It was my greatest role but one that I did not enjoy as the pressure on me was too great.

Dressing Room, Dresser and Stage Door.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed my two years in the West End. It was such a thrill to see my name Janette Miller being written on the bills in front of the Palace Theatre even though it was nearly misspelt yet again. Jeanette Millar! Fortunately I caught the sign writer, but I should not have cared. It was there, photo too. I felt I had arrived and fulfilled my mother's ambition to star in a West End Musical!
My cup of happiness overflowed when I discovered I had My OWN Dressing room just for me, Bliss! and my own dresser, not so good as I found out I had to pay her myself. All theatrical clothes are done up with hooks and eyes for safety, no zips, but one cannot do this oneself you need help. Mrs Marsh (Marshee) and friend, ruled the roost on my floor. They looked after the chorus singers and me! Mrs. Mash is worthy of her own page in my blog for she was the mother of Jean Marsh who wrote and starred in Upstairs Downstairs  and had based Rose the ladies maid on her mothe. I had a  real Rose for a year. I loved it.
Actually I only had my OWN dressing room because of the liaison between the former inhabitant and The Red Shadow but it could not be taken away without loss of face. Ill winds and all that.

The Queen's visit

Two weeks after I joined we were told to prepare for a Royal performance. The Queen Mother had been to The Desert Song at Drury Lane on the night of her engagement to then Duke of York, later King George VI. The whole family came including Princess Margaret as a treat for The Queen Mum's 64th birthday.
What a night! I remember all the men and most of the cast got an attack of nerves. Pat and I both had nervous partners to carry. The girl who gave me my first line forgot it completely and my partner dropped me at the end. I thought then poor Queen if everyone is like this when they perform for her.
Usually one cannot see one's audience as the spotlight is in your eyes but on that night I could see the diamonds glittering from the Royal Box. One cannot look at them but I did glance as they played 'God Save the Queen' at the curtain calls. When the Queen is there the full version is played twice, before and after. Other Royals get only half at the end!
I did see the infamous Ken Russell sitting in the front row. I cringed when I saw him. I admire him so much as a director and would have loved to have been cast in one of his films.
I thought just my luck to perform for the Head of State and Ken Russell in a less than perfect tatty dress and in The Desert Song. Why not when I was at Aldeburgh but on that occasion Princess Alexandra had a headache and excused herself.

The Long Run.

I can honestly say I enjoyed every second of The Desert Song at the Palace. I did not enjoy the experience at the Cambridge where we were transferred. My dressing room was up 72 steps with no lift and I reckoned I did the Post Office Tower twice a day on matinees days. I was exhausted. I also did not want to be in The Student Prince, the next show as Gretchen. I had played Kathie and hated it and I just cannot abide the plot. As it mirrors the Tale of Princess Diana this show must now be off limits as it is too close for comfort. Un hindsight I don't think any producer would do The Desert Song either for rather obvious reasons.
Ends of shows are always horrible. Theatrical lives are little lives and little deaths some of the cast were retained but I chose to leave. John Hanson had written me a number but even that did not tempt me. I had had enough of The Red Shadow and wanted to move on away from acting and into production. This type of Musical Theatre is very shallow and uninspiring. Fun to do once and there is no saying that a part like this would ever come up again. I am so pleased that my time in London Musicals came to an end and I was able return to serious opera and ballet.
But I know how it feels to be a sort of star in the West End even if only a minor star. Later I met Shirley Russell, Ken's wife and she told me that 'Ken had thought I was the best thing in London'. She may have exaggerated but when I saw Russell's version of 'Salome' by Oscar Wilde 'The Seven Veils' . His 'Salome' looked a lot like me!

If you can bare to listen to it here is my dance off the Tanoy. The London arrangement is terrific. I got one line but wow what a dance. You may have to wait a minute or two for it to load.

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