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Doctor Zhivago


John Frost, Anita Waxman/Alexis Productions, Tom Dokton, Latitude Link Inc., Power Arts, Chun-Soo Shin, Corcoran Productions, The Pelican Group and John Frost in association with Jane Bergere, Roger Coleman, Dave Copley, Tom McInerney, David Mirvish, Mindy and Bob Rich, Yandow/Papa/HIC present Anthony Warlow in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – A New Musical at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney.

It is interesting that in the title page of the program, as quoted above, all of the producers present: Anthony Warlow.

Anthony Warlow. In Doctor Zhivago – a New Musical. This then is the presentation of Anthony Warlow. And in the program notes the composer, Lucy Simon, tells us that Anthony Warlow came into her collaborator’s lives “not unlike the angel Gabriel. … Fifteen years ago, I came to Australia for the opening of the musical, THE SECRET GARDEN, which John Frost (Frosty) was producing, starring Anthony Warlow as Archibald Craven. I melted at the sound of Anthony’s voice. Could there be any voice more beautiful, and he was singing my music! At that time, creating a musical of Doctor Zhivago was only a glimmer in my mind, but the first thing I said when I went to Anthony’s dressing room after the performance was, ‘If I ever have the chance to write the musical of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, you are my Zhivago’.” Such is how some careers are made.

There is no mistaking that there is, indeed, a devoted audience, at least, here, in Australia for Anthony Warlow as well, not just the idolatrous Ms Simon. Prior to the performance I attended, stories had hit the press about a leg injury suffered by Mr Warlow, that required him to rest for some of the preview performances. Some of the audience were vociferously disappointed with the announcement of the understudy (Anton Berezin). On our night, Mr Des McAnuff, the Director , himself, appeared on stage, and along with other information about the pleasure and excitement he and his collaborators had in presenting this New Musical for us in Sydney, he announced that, Mr Warlow, was appearing tonight. Some of the audience cheered with expectation. The curtain call at the end of the performance was also greeted with a standing ovation by some of the audience for Mr Warlow, limp and all, and, indeed, this production company had presented Mr Warlow well. What of the New Musical-DOCTOR ZHIVAGO?

Recently while talking and responding to another new musical, being shown at the Darlinghurst Theatre: OPEN FOR INSPECTION – THE REAL ESTATE MUSICAL, by two young local and ambitious talents, Tim Bosanquet and Lucy Egger, I briefly alluded to the immense task that it is to develop and present new work, but particularly the long and difficult path that the Musical genre entails. OPEN FOR INSPECTION has barely, metaphorically, begun to “crawl” in its long development curve (If it ever proceeds further). DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is at least in its “walking” stage.

Mr McAnuff tells us of the history of this work so far,”We have gone through two readings in New York and London, done a workshop and staged a full production of an earlier version at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. (Mr McAnuff was the Artistic director there for many years). … John Frost, our Australian colleague who produced my first Broadway show BIG RIVER here in Australia and Lucy Simon’s SECRET GARDEN has partnered with Anita Waxman to provide what I hope will be the next vital step forward at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney where we are unveiling our latest canvas.” What might be the future aspirations after the Australian working production? Maybe another North American production that will have eyes on the prize of Broadway and the West End. Only time will tell. Already ten years in the making the toil to find the formula for success is active and alert.

Boris Pasternak was a Russian poet of immense fame. Born in 1890 and living through one of the most volatile periods of Russian history: Revolution, Civil War, World Wars, the tyranny of Stalin and the State’s crushing hand on the arts, he died in 1960. His poetry was only known in the Russian until after his death. But besides his own work he was a prolific translator of other country’s literary works.(Pasternak’s adaptation of HAMLET was used as the basis of the famous Grigori Kozinstev’s 1963 film starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky. It also has a score by Shostakovitch. The film is a personal favourite of mine.) He only wrote one novel and that was DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. It was banned in Russia but was ‘smuggled’ out of Russia and published in 1958 to great acclaim, in an English version by Max Hayward and Manya Harai. ( There have been other translations since.) The publication of this novel in the West was a great political scandal that was further compounded when in 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and was forced by his Government to decline it. The Cold War was insidious in its sideshows of power wielding and jostling, and merciless to the ‘little people’ caught in its grinding wheels and international point scoring.

The novel is regarded by some as one of the great novels of the last century:
“One of the great events in man’s literary and moral history”- Edmund Wilson.
“DOCTOR ZHIVAGO seems to me to be a work of genius, and its appearance a literary and moral event without parallel in our day.”- Isaiah Berlin,Sunday Times.

“… [belongs] to that small group of novels by which all others are ultimately judged.’- Frank Kermode, Spectator.

The cover description of the novel published in 1988 by Collins Harvill says “DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is one of the world’s great novels, evoking the whole experience of Russia during the first half of this century. It is a vast panorama of a country in the throes of the most radical revolution in history, seen through the life of Yuri Zhivago, physician and poet, who must come to terms both with the new world and with the man bitter experience has made him, torn between the love of two women”.

The novel, itself, is not an easy read and perhaps like Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE not always completed. It is the film by David Lean produced by Carlo Ponti for MGM in 1965 that is the reason for Zhivago being a part of the psyche of the West. It won five Academy Awards, was critically dismissed but was an enormous popular and box office success. Omar Sharif, famous for his performance in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, as Zhivago, and Julie Christie as Lara became the iconic love images of that generation. Imagined always with Lara’s theme, pop song: “Somewhere My Love”, composed by Maurice Jarré, floating in the memory ethers.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO – A New Musical, is a musical that attempts to translate, in its form, a very heightened and dramatic historically significant novel. True, this novel does tell a love story that three men have for one woman. And of two women for one man. But it is set against and immersed in one of the great apocalyptic times of the 20th century – the Russian Revolution and Civil War. The historian, Orlando Figes, describes this time as A People’s Tragedy and throughout Pasternak’s novel, the revolution is seen not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies, but as a human event made up of complicated individual tragedies. The Bulgakov plays FLIGHT (recently presented by Nida) and THE WHITE GUARD (soon to be seen at the Sydney Theatre Company, in the new adaptation by Andrew Upton) reveal this world in theatrical terms of uncompromising brutality and horror.

In contrast this Musical work reduces the source material of Pasternak to a banal love story with cartoon strokes and caricatures of history. Rumpity-tump orchestration FORWARD MARCH FOR THE CZAR has the tin soldier frailty of the comic parody instead of bloody sacrifice. In the song where Zhivago returns to his Moscow home to find it requisitioned by the Soviet, to have the two authority figures dance (Choreographer, Kelly Devine) a one legged heel-toe action is to undermine the significance of the episode. It made one think how possibly could this most bourgeois of the performing art forms tell the story of this great socialist- realist work. It does not succeed in this attempt, as yet.

Lucy Simon, the composer of the score to this work, says, “I have always have had a very personal feeling about Pasternak’s novel and a tremendous respect for the David Lean film”. Indeed, the Book for this musical by Michael Weller follows the screenplay of Robert Bolt fairly closely and is very brisk in its execution and captures the major and minor events of the narrative at such a speed that the characters barely have time to be established. The characters are mostly just named and are pencil thin or card board cut outs in their introduction and development. They are recognised by what they do, as to whether we should view them as the “goodie” or “baddie” of the piece. I use such terminology as the musical-book is almost a cartooned caricature of the source material. It was my pre-knowledge that allowed me to sort out what was happening. Others, who did not know the film, the younger generation about me, were sometimes lost and confused.

The lyrics by Michael Korrie & Amy Powers and the music were ultimately banal and lacked any real memorable moments. The general experience for me was that of what I would call Broadway bland and the lack of any sustained Russian sound either melodically or in the orchestration was a cause for wonder. The fact that, I, at home later, reading the program notes, was humming musical numbers from another musical did not report well of my experience.

The problem is either that the writing is not developed enough, or the acting was not good enough. Or both. The singing by the principal performers was strong. Undoubtedly, Mr Warlow has a fabulous voice but the acting was not at all good, neither from him or the others. Presentational and truly superficially engaged emotionally, the affect of it was : it was very difficult to stay attached to the characters and what was happening in the story. Martin Crewes as Pasha/Strelnikov, gave the most convincing work as an actor, but when having to play against others who are barely mouthing the text at any convincing level of staked emotional truth, it would be difficult to sustain. It sometimes was. The later scenes between Zhivago and Lara (Lucy Maunder) were dramatically perfunctory and almost risible from a discerning audience’s viewpoint. Empty melodrama. So, both, the writing and the acting are not good enough. The fact that Zhivago was a poet was thematically underdeveloped and was a surprise when in the last moments of the play the scrolling of poetry across the proscenium space appeared. The connection of the man to the great natural phenomena of Russia was not apparent – one of the great achievements of the Lean film.

This is a working production and the design elements for such a massive landscape of sites for the story telling have been simply created by Michael Scott-Mitchell with two perspective, architectural frame works in which to sit furniture (fairly casual in their design look) or an abstract moving platform (representing the trains). The first act has a frame with balanced rows of columns on either side of the stage. They move in and out to the sides. The second act has brick wall frames and white arches. They are pragmatic and simple solutions for what looks like a limited budget for such an ambitious work. The most intriguing and promising element of the design was the video and image projections. When used, the affect seemed to provide aesthetically supportive solutions to the problematics of the vast scale and locations of the scene settings. The images were powerful and easily communicated the status of the war and the affects of it.

The costumes (Teresa Negroponte) are generally more interesting for the female cast; the men’s costumes don’t appear to have the attention that they need. The wigs are not very attractive, Mr Warlow looking decidedly dodgy and hardly the romantic figure the work needs.

This is a company of 30 players who are extremely busy in the character and ensemble work demanded of them. Their commitment and discipline exemplary. What Mr McAnuff has achieved is an efficient staging of the work but he does not appear to have been able to direct the work as closely as it needs. Dramatically it is very superficial. The acting needs more attention. It undermines all the ambition. Famously, Trevor Nunn in the production of the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great novel LES MISERABLES, spent immense efforts in directing, minutely, all of the chorus/ensemble players as well as the principals. The scale that DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is created on requires the same meticulousness in the theatre, to have the impactful credence that is desired. Time, the great tyrant of creativity, I guess.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is a great novel. Maybe the musical theatre is the wrong form/genre for the telling of this story. Maybe it is an opera. WAR AND PEACE is an opera by Sergei Prokofiev. That work and form matches the source material. Some one remarked to me, if you are going to adapt a novel for the music theatre choose a less famous or literary one. Ms Simon’s last success was The Secret Garden from a relatively minor children’s novel. It apparently worked: 700 odd performances on Broadway and productions around the world.

We live in interesting times. This week the Royal Opera House premiered a commissioned work on the life of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith by Mark-Anthony Turnage. It has received accolades from the critics. My prejudices would have thought the musical theatre was a better choice for the life of Anna Nicole Smith. (LEGALLY BLONDE, 2?) So what do I know? And maybe I am just a literary snob?

As Mr McAnuff says in his final paragraph in the program: “The most important step of all is yet to be taken and that step belongs to you. Without an audience all of our work would be for naught…” Despite my response, I am only one. Who knows there may be many who are swept away with this new musical and all this work will be properly rewarded.

1 replies to “Doctor Zhivago”

  1. I found your article interesting. Your last paragraph states, "Who knows there may be many who are swept away with this new musical and all this work will be properly rewarded."

    I for one was absolutely mesmerised by this wonderful production – a stirring score, haunting lyrics and a brilliant cast told a fragile and tragic love story, set against the backdrop of brutal portions of Russian history.

    So enamoured was I by this superb production that I returned over and over – four times in three weeks during the Brisbane season – and I know of scores of others who did the same. There was even one fan who flew out from England just to see the show over one weekend, and her words were full of praise.

    Anthony Warlow and Lucy Maunder's rendition of these beautiful melodies was superb – the blending of their voices just exquisite and brought tears to my eyes every time – and the passion and diction of the ensemble was second-to-none.

    Yuri and Lara's story has always been my favourite love story – one that grabbed my heart and never let go from the moment I first read the novel and saw the movie in the early 70s. To be engulfed by that storyline set to music has brought it to life with a more intense passion and poignancy than any of the other genres.

    The subtleties and clever repetitions interwoven throughout the lyrics and script captured my heart and I would see this work in its exact replica over and over again. Such a shame that a DVD wasn't made available to its countless fans, or at least an Original Australian Cast Recording.

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