I hope I’m not rocking the boat, before December is upon us, to say I think it’s okay to start using the phrase: it’s the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s the time of year when days are counted in ‘sleeps’ is almost upon us, with the first of the advent calendar doors ready to be cracked open on Sunday morning, and the surest sign of all that you-know-what is on the way, the revealing of Yorkshire’s theatre’s annual festive shows.
The Leeds Playhouse was first out of the blocks this year with The Wizard of Oz opening this week and with Peter Pan at Hull Truck and Treasure Island at Stephen Joseph Theatre, plus all the region’s pantomimes just around the corner.
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The Christmas show is always a big one for any theatre, something around which much of the year, certainly financially, is built. The Sheffield Crucible show has, for several years, seemed bigger than most in the region. Perhaps it was the titles, with Oliver, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady all appearing on the stage at Christmas in recent years, or perhaps the reception, with Show Boat transferring to the West End and Anything Goes touring nationally following Sheffield premieres, but the Sheffield Crucible Christmas show is undoubtedly a big deal.
Sheffield Theatres artistic director Robert Hastie is bringing what he believes is one of the best to the stage this December. “It’s a Rolls Royce of a musical,” he says. “It’s just sublime, as a piece of work it is the very best of its kind.”
The ‘Rolls Royce’ musical is the Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows musical Guys and Dolls. I ask Hastie how things are going in the rehearsal room. A remarkably upbeat, but quiet kind of a leader, the director says: “It is going really well. I always say that and maybe one of these days I’m going to say ‘this one isn’t going to work’, but it’s definitely not going to be with this production. It really is incredibly joyous. It’s hard work, of course, but it’s the kind of work that doesn’t feel like work.”
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It feels easy for the director because, he says, a huge amount of the work has already been done in the script. “I’ve loved it for what feels like my whole life, it’s just one of those musicals that feels like I have known forever,” says Hastie.
“Often in the rehearsals I’m just marvelling at the structure. It’s from the golden age of the musical and I honestly don’t think they come any better; the score is sublime, the songs are beautiful, the script is so good, it’s no surprise that audiences love it so much.”
Guys and Dolls is so good because of the serendipity of so many things coming together at a perfect moment. Based on a short story, The Idyll of Miss Brown, Frank Loesser was commissioned by the producers to write the script a few years after he had won an Oscar for a Christmas song that I guarantee you know and that I guarantee you’ll be reading a lot about in the coming weeks, given that it is deemed pretty controversial to contemporary ears and has been re-recorded by John Legend in time for this festive season: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Loesser wrote that in 1949, the year before Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway, suggesting that he definitely knew how to write a hit. He confirmed it in 1950 when Guys and Dolls opened and the world was introduced to the songs which included Luck be a Lady, Guys and Dolls and Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.
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The book, by Swerling and Burrows, is a quintessentially New York-set story. To settle a bet, high roller Sky Masterson pursues straight-laced Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Save-A-Soul Mission, only to fall head over heels for his unlikely love.
“We’re keeping the story in the period in which it is set and really focussing on the relationships between the characters,” says Hastie.
“As we look at the characters in rehearsals, we are finding more and more complex relationships between them all. At the beginning you have the four central characters (Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide and Sky Masterson) and they have their fixed roles, or we think they do and we all know they are going to end up together, or at least we think we do and it is the journey of that that is a real joy.”
Speaking of joy, it is a word that seems to keep coming back as we discuss the big Christmas musical that has become such a tradition for the Sheffield theatre.
“The Crucible is a brilliant place to stage these big musicals,” says Hastie. “It feels like a good place for imaginative endeavour and a place for the community to come together and take part in that. The festive season is a time for people to come together and that is why musicals seem to work so well at this time of year, because musicals and particularly in this space, are all about people coming together.”
The other reason for quite a lot of joy floating around Sheffield Theatres (which includes the Lyceum and Studio) is that it has been, it’s fair to say, a pretty good year for the Steel City theatres. Life of Pi opened to enormous critical acclaim and is already off to the West End and Standing at the Sky’s Edge, the Richard Hawley musical, received an equally rapturous reception; and those are just two of the theatre’s shows from this season.
“It’s not about awards, but we did just this week win another five,” says Hastie, tongue firmly in cheek.
“The thing about things like that is that it’s a recognition of all the incredibly valuable work that all the staff and trustees do to make this place what it is.”
Which, this Christmas, is a place that’s going to be full of joy.
Guys and Dolls, runs at the Sheffield Crucible, December 7 to January 18.
For tickets and details visit details sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.