Wildhorn: the polite purveyor of Wonderland
"There’s Wonderland in all of our lives"
Tuesday 22nd November 2016, 9.30, maybe 10pm, and Frank Wildhorn walks back out on stage at the Palace Theatre Manchester as the auditorium steadily empties, having just received a standing ovation for Frank Wildhorn & Friends – a concert of his work starring the likes of Cassidy Janson and Wendi Peters.
He isn’t after more applause, although more comes, he is simply collecting his sheet music – or whatever the equivalent is for a musician who doesn’t read music.
He hasn’t sent an assistant back out to get it for him, he isn’t sitting backstage thinking to go back out and be seen by the public for anything other than selfies and autographs isn’t the done thing. He responds to the extra cheers, humbly, appreciatively, waving quickly, before heading off again.
His demeanour here comes as no surprise given what it is throughout the show itself. At the start he shyly appears; he does not stride out to the centre of the stage, instead treading only as far as the Yamaha Grand situated stage right. Hands together in front of him, he politely bows from his shoulders, then positioning himself at the piano. Over the course of the evening he softly speaks to us before songs. It’s never for too long, not once does he bore us with self-indulgent spiel or milk for praise of his long list of compositional achievements. The words “I was lucky” exit his mouth several times; he smiles and applauds the evening’s performers when they’re done communicating his work, coming across as grateful for their time and talent; he acknowledges the skill of the Manchester Camerata orchestra, led expertly by Jason Howland whose accomplishments he also cites.
There’s a comforting informality at the Palace tonight, and much mutual respect – Wildhorn’s for all the night’s musicians and audience members and theirs, and ours, for him.
As the 20th century approached its close, Wildhorn had three musicals running simultaneously on Broadway, rendering him the first American composer in over two decades to do so. Indeed, songs from Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Civil War all find themselves part of Frank Wildhorn & Friends, and there can be no better way to kick off Act 2 than Laura Osnes, Jackie Burns, Cassidy Janson, Wendi Peters and Natalie McQueen doing Jekyll’s ‘Bring On The Men’.
However, as well as this, songs from a new musical pepper the set list. Some time ago Wildhorn made up a rather elaborate reason for the lift in the building he lived in constantly being out of order, telling his children that it actually took those who entered it down and down, further and further…to Wonderland. And there began the creation of a musical with the same name, which runs in Oxford from 20th-25th February, as part of the show’s UK and European premiere. Alice has grown up, and she’s returning to the, to quote Natalie McQueen who will portray the Mad Hatter, “bonkers” world first thought up in 1862 by Lewis Carroll, the Christ Church tutor, and depicted so famously by Disney in 1951.
Wendi Peters, who at a press conference the morning after Frank Wildhorn & Friends, down the road at Radisson Blu Edwardian, would praise the clear beginning, middle and end in a Wildhorn song, will portray the Queen of Hearts during the Wonderland tour produced by Neil Eckersley. She takes to the Palace stage for ‘Off With Their Heads’, likely to linger in yours after one listen, and deserving of the same status ‘Master Of The House’ has as a top-notch catchy, villain number.
I should confess at this point that I have never read Carroll’s Alice stories. I know, when you consider their ties with Oxford, as a journalist in this part of the world I should be ashamed – while I’m at it, I haven’t been to the Botanic Garden either and I think I’m yet to purchase a jar of Frank Cooper's, though rest assured these are all things I’m addressing. In any case, from what I knew of Alice I never associated it with poignancy, but you may well detect it should you grace the 2017 Wonderland tour with your presence, in – for example – ‘I Am My Own Invention’, wrapped in the mystical tones of Dave Willetts as the White Rabbit.
“There’s Wonderland in all of our lives,” Wildhorn says to us before introducing ‘Finding Wonderland’ sang by Jackie Burns, who demonstrates a stunning vocal coupled with impressively toned arms. “Sometimes we move too fast and we miss it.” Perhaps this resonated with me, because the day following the concert I got my deposit back from a flat I used to rent, as well as two hours free time in central Manchester with Black Friday deals aplenty. There’s Wonderland in shoe shopping – I wasn’t missing that.
Wonderland is at New Theatre Oxford from 20th-25th February.