Q+A at The Old Vic for ‘High Society’ (2015)

The Old Vic hosted a post-show Q+A on Monday 18 May, and it featured Kate Fleetwood (Tracy Lord), Richard Grieve (George Kittredge), Jamie Parker (Mike Connor), Annabel Scholey (Liz Imbrie) and of course Rupert (CK Dexter Haven).

Well, did you evah? What a swell cast this is!

The five cast members gathered with their inquisitor on the stage, with an audience filling just about all the regular stalls. I’ve never seen so many people stay on for a Q+A, but it was definitely worth it. As classy as the show.

Rupert kicked off proceedings by announcing that his niece had been born just at the start of the show that evening. (Such happy news for his family, and I’m sure we wish them all very well indeed!)

Kate talked about what a happy production this is, with a great team and a show all about joy. It’s one of the happiest experiences of her career.

Rupert talked about how he’d had so much fun in Company in 2011, that he’d kept going with his vocal exercises with a view to doing more of the same. Then one day as he exited his trailer on the Merlin set, one of his colleagues asked him, ‘WTF was that?’ and Rupert was too embarrassed to continue. (Boo!)

Rupert and Jamie talked about how they’d been in the same dance audition for the American Psycho play, which they seemed likewise to have found an excruciatingly embarrassing experience.

This rambling story ended up with Rupert receiving an email from his agent just as he was arriving at the Old Vic to audition for High Society … and the email was letting him know he’d just been turned down for a role because his ‘voice wasn’t strong enough’. Such laughably bad timing! Still, Rupert decided that if this audition was his last hurrah in musical theatre, then he might as well just go for it. And we all know how that turned out! Rupert added that he’d been very well received in the Old Vic audition, and how odd it was to be both criticised and praised so strongly all on the one day.

Someone – I think Annabel – mentioned that the director Maria Friedman had always said it wasn’t about the singing. (And this fits with something Stephen Sondheim apparently said, too: that acting skills always trumped singing skills when casting.) During rehearsals Maria would insist on them forgetting about the music, and just ‘say it, find the meaning in it’.

Jamie talked about the history of musicals, and how there had been a turning point with West Side Story (and another example I can’t remember). The songs became a more intrinsic part of the plot and character development. ‘You have to be in a different place at the end of the song than you were at the start.’

There was also some talk about how musical theatre isn’t well-respected or considered ‘serious’, so it felt risky to do, in career terms.

The inquisitor (and I’m sorry I didn’t catch his name at the start, but Rupert was being very distracting, stretching out his left hamstring, and why oh why did I never study physiotherapy) … The inquisitor mentioned how High Society gave Dexter his second chance, ‘a second act’. Rupert agreed, and said it had been interesting to think about the turning point in Dexter’s story. Dexter has worked on himself, but when he first turns up he doesn’t think he’ll win Tracy back. Rupert doesn’t think Dexter is being manipulative.

Rupert talked about the song Just One of Those Things, sung when Dexter is just about to walk away, having realised he’d already had his chance and lost. Rupert had originally rehearsed it as melancholy, but Maria had insisted it mustn’t be – and I think the actual delivery hits just the right philosophical note of ‘better to have loved and lost’.

(Rupert never quite said, or I didn’t understand, exactly when Dexter realises that his right and proper goal is indeed to successfully court Tracy again. However, I suspect it’s in the conversation with Dinah immediately after this song. Dexter has honestly said his farewells, but then Dinah makes him realise that it isn’t over yet.)

Rupert said his character goes on an amazing trajectory through the show.

The cast talked about playing ‘in the round’, and how there was nowhere to hide – either for them or the audience in the first row! Annabel said how they had to ‘up the bravery’ as they were more exposed. Kate talked about how acting always involves ‘sticking your head over the parapet’.

The first row of the audience were almost inevitably lit, as it is impossible to contain the lighting to the stage. Annabel said the cast were ‘very aware’ of the audience – some of whom had seemed in despair! She described one guy who obviously had not wanted to be there, and had spent half the show leaning forward with elbows on knees and his head hanging … She acted this out, and it was all very funny in the telling, but I’m sure it can be very disconcerting!

Rupert added that the reception at the end of the show has been amazing, right from the start.

When they were talking about how mad it was backstage, with little chance for the cast to compare notes, Rupert mentioned Kate’s ‘421 costume changes’. (I do like a person who exaggerates for comic effect.)

The inquisitor asked how the cast all felt about following in the footsteps of the high-powered casts of the films The Philadelphia Story (Wikipedia) and High Society (Wikipedia). Dexter was played by Cary Grant and by Bing Crosby in those films.

Rupert said he is very aware of it when he first appears in the show, and he feels that a large part of the audience are looking at him quite doubtfully. He mentally asks them, ‘Bear with me,’ and hopes to prove himself.

Jamie said they try to ignore it but they can’t, really. However, no matter what role you take these days, there’s always someone ‘important’ in the past looming over you. The only answer is to find your own truth in the role. A good story is always worth telling.

This production is helped in breaking with the past by including different songs. And Rupert asserted that while there was no denying the star power in the film High Society, some of the storytelling in the songs left something to be desired (harking back to Jamie’s point about the characters needing to transform during each song). Therefore there’s room for doing some ‘worthwhile’ work.

Annabel added that she felt the current cast are all so dissimilar from the originals; that Maria had gone for freshness. (I’m not sure everyone agreed with her, but I think it’s a fair point!)

Phew! I’ve run through my notes now – and I didn’t scribble down more than half of it, but I think those are the important Rupert-related bits. This was informative and fun, and certainly one of the better Q+As I’ve been to. By far! Thank you, the Old Vic!

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