The musical Grand Hotel which has just opened at The Southwark Playhouse to great, and fully deserved, acclaim didn’t have a particularly straightforward birth.
The novel about the lives of various people staying in a swanky Berlin hotel on which the show is ultimately based – Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel) – by Austrian writer Vicki Baum was published in 1929.
Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg (after whom a prize at The Academy Awards is still named) bought the rights for £13,000 dollars and employed William A Drake to adapt the book for the Broadway stage where it opened in 1930 and ran for 459 performances.
This success propelled Grand Hotel on to Hollywood where Thalberg helmed it to be one of the most successful films of the 1930’s, starring John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo – giving the world her immortal line as the fading ballerina Grusinskaya ‘I want to be alone’.
Scroll forward to the 1950’s and the successful team of Luther Davis (book) and George Forrest & Robert Wright (Music and Lyrics) responsible for The Song of Norway and Kismet adapted the book and film, changing both the location and the occupation of some of the characters, to become At The Grand, however the show wasn’t a success and closed out of town before hitting Broadway.
Another three decades later the creative team decided to revisit their show and employed Tommy Tune to direct and choreograph. However it still didn’t work so he in turn brought onboard Maury Yeston to revise the music and lyrics (he would eventually end up re-writing almost half the lyrics in the show, and adding six new songs, cutting others) and re-shape the plot to be more broadly in line with the film.
This revised version, although it managed just four months in the West End in 1992, ran for over 1000 performances on Broadway, and with the exception of a small scale revival at The Domnar in 2004 this is the first time since then that it’s been properly seen in London.
Was it worth the wait? You bet! The production might best be described as sparse but opulent, with the marble floor and glittering chandelier of the titular hostelry, but very little else – a few chairs, the occasional dressing or breakfast table – to suggest the magnificence of the surroundings we’re in.
The traverse staging inevitably means that the players form a cavalcade passing back and forth in front of us and thankfully Lee Newby’s costumes of ballet dancers, aristocrats, bankers, scullery maids and front of house staff largely make us forget the need for anything more solid against which they could play. Add to that there must be a significant amount of doubling of roles and the cast of seventeen seems easily double that.
That the whole thing flows like snake oil highlights the close collaborative relationship of Director Thom Southerland and Choreographer Lee Proud who also pull from their cast performances of exceptional power and emotion. I can’t remember how long ago it was that I last cried in the theatre, but I cried at the high point of the story between fading ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Christine Grimandi making a welcome if long overdue UK theatre debut) and the n’er do well Baron Felix Von Gaigern (Scott Garnham with high notes that genuinely gave me goose bumps).
That isn’t to say that the production dwells only on the positive aspects of the guests’ lives. The darkest point of the relationship between the businessman-turned-bad Hermann Preysing (Jacob Chapman in mercurial form) and the aspirational typist Flaemmchen (Victoria Serra, appearing at times to be out-Chicago-ing Renee Zellweger) is genuinely distressing, as is the open anti-semitism shown against the dying Jewish bookkeeper Otto Krigelein (a wonderfully put-upon George Rae) though the friendship afforded him by both the spendthrift Baron, and the war-wounded Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag (David Delve, in a performance of pained humanity) bring a possibly misplaced hope that things in Germany aren’t going the way we know they inevitably are.
In fact, so sure is the directorial touch elsewhere, and so clear the vision, that it’s a genuine surprise that the last minute or minute and a half of the production seemed to me so badly to misfire. There’s still time for a re-think, and I would. Falling chandeliers are best left to Phantom, especially when their falling happens as it does here.