REVIEW: Katie Melua, Maria Friedman Head London’s Tribute to Lyricist Don Black

By James Inverne on Oct 07, 2013 01:15 PM EDT

This year being something of a special birthday, and more to the point, with his fourth collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber about to open in the West End (sixth actually, if you count the Tell Me on a Sunday revamp and Bombay Dreams, which Lloyd Webber produced), lyricist Don Black was celebrated last night at the Royal Festival Hall in the kind of star-studded extravaganza that suggested the watchful presence of television cameras--and indeed this was being filmed for a Christmas airing on the BBC. As Black (whose official biography I wrote) himself modestly pointed out at one point, lyricists are not usually accorded such honors. But then, not many lyricists have anything like his range of successes, in a career that has spanned television, movies (Black was the first British songwriter, alongside composer John Barry, to win an Oscar, for the song "Born Free"), musical theater and pop. And this was a concert that offered some new perspectives on old hits.

First and foremost, though, it afforded a world première glimpse at the new Lloyd Webber/Black show, Stephen Ward. About the London socialite who took the fall (unfairly, in the show's view) for the infamous Profumo sex scandal, we saw Joanna Riding as Ward's wife. The character has just been told of her husband's infidelity and declares that she will stand by him. I've learned over the years to live with Lloyd Webber songs for a while before pronouncing judgment (I scandalously under-rated Sunset Boulevard on first listen), and this strikes me as well put-together and sympathetic. Beyond that, I'll stay mum until I'm able to jump fully into its sound world and the whole show. Made me look forward to it, though.

In fact, the most telling revelations came elsewhere. One was that Michael Ball can still wallop out "Love Changes Everything" from Black and Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love like no one else (and I speak as one who heard the world première of that song, at a Lloyd Webber concert in Bournemouth many moons ago). It's the song Ball created, that in a sense created him, and he still owns it. Revelation number two was that another Black composer, David Arnold (who succeeded John Barry as tunesmith-of-choice for the James Bond films) is a wonderful vocalist, with an honest, heartfelt plangency to his full-on rendition of 007 theme tune "The World is Not Enough" that puts many professional singers in the shadows. This is the second time I've heard him sing, and I had a similar reaction first time around. Arnold has an effortless charm that is a rare commodity on stage, and that cannot be learned.

But the two turns that will surely stay with everyone present came from two leading ladies. Maria Friedman, too seldom seen on stage since her serious illness some years ago, sang two songs from Sunset Boulevard with such depth, such absolute vocal security (she knew precisely where every note would go, how every note would be colored, before drawing breath) and such determined projection of character that one longed to see her take the role of Norma Desmond on stage, and soon. She won a standing ovation, initially from just one man, but that one man was Lloyd Webber, and much of the rest of the hall followed suit.

Before Friedman brought down the house, Katie Melua had seduced it, quietly, with another Bond song, "Diamonds are Forever." But this was about as far from Shirley Bassey's classic, cat-like original as it was possible to get. Melua reinvented it for acoustic guitar, floating it somewhere between a waltz and a sonata. Her singing--with that chanteuse-like fast vibrato of hers--was introverted, pensive. In Melua's spellbinding account, one suddenly realized that this is not a devil-may-care, "greed is good" credo, or at least it doesn't have to be. Lines like, "They won't leave in the night, I've no fear that they might desert me" sang with vulnerability, with pain, with a history. There was a reason this character preferred diamonds to men.

If not all the acts were of this quality, that's always the way of these events. Surprise of the night was an unexpectedly stirring "Here's to the Heroes" (originally the theme tune to Dances with Wolves) from classical crossover boy-band Only Men Aloud. Fine playing from the BBC Concert Orchestra, way over-amplified but that, too, is the way of these events. It was however irksome to be at a show about lyrics in which one had to sometimes strain to hear the words of the songs.

If I lamented the absence of any of Black's songs, it was the sweetly comedic "I Missed the Last Rainbow" from his 1974 show (composer John Barry) Billy. I love that verse, "I missed the last rainbow / There's not one in sight / It's hard to find rainbows / At this time of night." That, and one of the finest of Black's songs for great English crooner Matt Monro, whose career the lyricist also managed for four decades, "If I Never Sing Another Song"--as in, "If I never sing another song / Or take another bow / I would get by / But I'm not sure how."

Black's unlikely to be without a public to bow to for many years yet. But he did manfully join in an encore of "Love Changes Everything," substituting for the climactic high note a more sensible, and highly amusing, "Good night and God bless."

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TagsKatie Melua, Maria Friedman, Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Only Men Aloud, BBC Concert Orchestra, Michael Ball, Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro, Royal Festival Hall, James Bond, 007, John Barry

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