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Just Jim Dale

Shakespearean Clowns

Posted on: July 2nd, 2014 by Roundabout

 

Jim Dale’s career as an actor grew out of his success as a music hall performer and musician. He put those music hall skills as a wit, singer, musician, and physical comedian to work in performances of William Shakespeare’s many clowns and fools.

Clowns or fools appear in twenty-two of Shakespeare’s forty plays. They exist outside of the rules; they speak directly to the audience and are both part of the action on stage and commentators on the action. They also live outside of the rigid social hierarchy of Shakespeare’s time and, as a result, can speak truthfully to powerful people.

Shakespeare’s clowns evolved out of the character “Vice,” a comedic tempter in Medieval festivals and morality plays, and from the European tradition of wealthy households employing court jesters who entertained their employers with verbal wit, song, tricks, and wisdom. By the time Shakespeare was writing, there were several professional fools working in England, including Richard Tarlton, Will Kemp, and Robert Armin.

Shakespeare wrote roughly two types of clowns, though many of his characters have elements of both types. The simple-minded clowns, like the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, provoke laughter in the audience and yet often highlight the truth about what is happening on stage or in society as a whole. Wise fools, like Feste in Twelfth Night, use verbal wit and satire and often have close relationships with their high-status employers.

A Few of the Roles Jim Dale Played

AUTOLYCUS IN THE WINTER'S TALE

Dale played Autolycus at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, early in his acting career. Autolycus, whose name means Wolf, is a peddler and con man, a wandering singer of raunchy yet beautiful songs.

Painting of Autolycus, a Shakespearean clown from A Winter's Tale

BOTTOM IN A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

Dale returned to Edinburgh in 1967 to play Button in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom is a buffoon. He's the leader of the workmen who meet in the woods to rehearse their production of Pyramus and Thisbe and is transformed by Puck into the donkey-headed lover of spellbound Titania.

Jim Dale as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1966

LAUNCELOT GOBBO IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

in 1970, at the request of Laurence Olivier, Dale joined the British National Theatre as a leading actor. That year, he played Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, a chatty young servant with a love of tricks (he plays one on his own blind father) and a habit of using malapropisms.

COSTARD IN LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST

Costard is a rustic, country character and one of Shakespeare's early "wise fools." He mixes up love letters he's tasked with delivering, gives away other people's secrets, and mocks the upper classes. While mocking a schoolteacher, he uses the longest word in Shakespeare: Honorificabilitudinitatibus.

Perhaps Dale's greatest clown role was not in Shakespeare at all, but Scapino, the title character of Scapino!, an adaptation of the 1671 comedy Les Fourberies de Scapin by French playwright Molière. Dale and director Frank Dunlop collaborated on the adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 1974 to rave reviews. Dale received a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for his performance.

Scapino!, N.Y.C.

 


Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15 through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

 


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Just Jim Dale, Upstage


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British Music Hall

Posted on: June 27th, 2014 by Roundabout

 

In Just Jim Dale, the British Music Hall is featured as both a family business (Jim Dale's grandmother ran a theatrical boarding house adjoining a local music hall) and as a major influence on Dale's career. Music hall entertainment evolved out of musical performances given at local taverns. These "taproom concerts" were initially a background diversion, secondary to the eating, drinking, and debauchery common to early 19th century pubs. As the concerts gained popularity, pub owners took note, and by the mid-1830s, taverns often had entire "song and supper rooms" devoted to the entertainment. In 1843, the Theatre Regulations Act differentiated music halls from the "theatre proper" (theatres that housed ballet and opera performances). While smoking and drinking were banned in the theatre proper, they were allowed to continue in music hall entertainment, thus cementing the music hall's popularity as a hangout for working class audiences.

Several taverns, including The Borough Music Hall and The Eagle, became well-known music hall locales, but in 1852 Charles Morton became the first person to build an entirely new space dedicated to music hall entertainment: The Canterbury Hall. The space began at a 700-seat capacity, but the performances were so popular that the hall was renovated in 1856. Morton added more opulent décor and a balcony that increased the theatre's capacity to 1500 seats.

A painting of a traditional British Music Hall

The success of Canterbury Hall inspired many like-minded entrepreneurs to construct their own music halls, and by 1875 some 375 new music halls had opened across Greater London. Throughout this period of expansion, music halls gained a wider appeal, drawing middle and upper class audiences to their entertainments. However, many of the halls retained a stature of ill repute, with rowdy crowds and enterprising prostitutes continuing to be a fixture of the music hall scene.

By the end of the 19th century, the music part of the music hall finally began to take center stage. Whereas audiences were first drawn in by the atmosphere of imbibing (whether in cigarettes, food, drinks, or sex), they were now enthralled by the performances themselves. Usually a combination of song and comedy routine, the performances often drew on pedestrian problems to tap into the broadest possible appeal. Domestic squabbles and money problems were reliably rich sources of content. Music hall performers became stars at such a high demand that, in the beginning of the music hall heyday, they might perform at several venues across town in one night.

Balcony seating in a music hall

Music hall owners quickly realized that this multi-venue stardom, while great for performers' pocketbooks, wasn't the most profitable business model for those in charge. They began to contract performers on a per-week or per-month (rather than per-performance) basis. Over time, performers began to bristle at these contracts. Many of them contained an "exclusivity clause" which kept performers from doing shows in other theatres (even after their performance engagements ended). In 1907, a large group of performers, musicians, and stagehands went on strike, demanding fair payment practices and an end to the abusive contracts.

At the top of the 20th century, a new type of theatre venue and experience began to take over England's entertainment scene: Variety Theatre. These performances might feature everything from a music hall star to a ballerina to an acrobat to a trained animal. Variety theatre owners began to leave the seedy and shocking elements of music hall behind, aiming for a large-scale, family-friendly theatrical event. The atmosphere of the theatres themselves began to reflect this change, as well. Audiences now sat in darkened rows of seats, rather than at tables, and drinks were purchased from a separate bar, rather than served in the auditorium. The proscenium-arch theatres built during this era look much like the Broadway houses we know today.

By the 1930s, movies, or "talking pictures" had begun to push out the Variety scene (with many of the theatres actually converting to movie houses). However, well-loved variety acts, their popularity bolstered by radio appearances, continued to perform in London and to tour England.

 

 


Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15 through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.

 


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Just Jim Dale, Upstage


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Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, talked to Mark York about his history with Jim Dale and his role in the creation of this production.

Ted Sod:  How did you get involved with the show Just Jim Dale?

Mark York: When I first visited NYC in 1987, the first Broadway show I saw was La Cage Aux Folles composed by Jerry Herman at the Palace Theatre. The second night I saw Me and My Girl starring Jim Dale at the Marquee Theatre. I now am Jerry Herman's music coordinator and Jim Dale's personal pianist. Jim and I formally met through Cy Coleman. Then in 2006, I got a call from the York Theatre stating that Jack Lee, the Broadway conductor, had given them my name. They were in need of a pianist who could improvise and read lead sheets for Jim Dale and Jessica Grové in an upcoming benefit concert of Busker Alley. The Musical Director, Aaron Gandy, was out of town and could not be there. It would be at Tony Walton’s home and Dick Sherman (the composer of the show) would be there. I said, “Sure!”

When I got there, Jim treated me like a long lost member of the Cy Coleman Family. I started playing the first tune and Jim picked up his seat and said, “I’m sitting next to Mark for the rest of the rehearsal.”  And we have been best friends ever since. We are both Leos. So I get him in spades.

After the sing through of the songs, they insisted that I remain on the project, but they already had a musical director. Tony Walton set up a meeting between Aaron and me. The moment the two of us met, we have been like brothers. Again, Aaron is a Leo. We both adore Jim Dale. We protect him at any cost. We know what he needs and wants. And we do whatever we can to make that happen.

One day, Aaron called me determined to do a concert starring Jim at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra. The two of us batted that around a little and then he sent me to Jim to see if he would be up for it. Jim loved the idea and the three of us set up a meeting. One thing lead to another and before we knew it, we were working on Just Jim Dale—telling stories of  Jim’s life and career from the British Music Hall to television, from the Young Vic to the "Carry On" films, Broadway and the "Harry Potter" audio books.

 

TS: What exactly do you do as co-arranger and pianist for Just Jim Dale?

MY: Aaron Gandy and I shape songs for Jim so they are tailored to his voice. And Jim always has an idea of how he wants his songs to sound. Also, we have treated this show like a musical, not a cabaret show. Therefore, the music cues are structured like they are for a musical. All of his songs go from dialogue into lyrics, just like in a traditional musical.

Pianist Mark York and actor Jim Dale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

TS: How did you work with the director, Richard Maltby, Jr.?

MY: Richard looks at every word to make sure it shapes and shades what Jim is saying. As the director, he is also the editor. He brings his expertise to the table to help guide Jim’s show in the best way possible. In fact, that is what all three of us (Aaron, Richard, and I) are doing. We bring our talents to the table shaping and guiding Jim’s stories about his life. Mutual respect goes a long way in this kind of process. And all four of us have that.

 

TS: What are the challenges of co-arranging and playing the songs in this show?

MY: I have to be ready for things to change in a split second. This show is 90 minutes of Jim Dale, wall to wall. No break. No chance to be “off” and regroup. Although Jim sticks close to the storytelling as written, he can alter things a little here and there. Personally, I love that. It’s real music hall or vaudeville. Jim thinks on his feet. He’s a master at it.

 

TS: Is there a part of the show that you especially love playing?

MY:  I love everything we are performing. You see, Jim is present in every song. There are no “floating” moments. That makes everything from a little ditty or a full song sheer fun to perform. Every moment of every song is connected and alive. It is electrifying.

Jim Dale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

TS:  Were you part of the Long Wharf production in 2012?  What changes are being made between that production and this?

MY: Yes, I was part of the Long Wharf production. Things have changed. Most of the major sections are still there, but refining, top to bottom, has taken place. Just like in any original musical.

 

TS: Do you ever get to improvise in the show or is it scripted very tightly?

MY: Jim and I know where we are going at all times. But things do happen and we just run with it. Jim is the ultimate comedian. To him, the stage is his playground. He is really at home when he is on stage. Nothing scares him there.

 

TS:  Where were you born and educated? How did you become an arranger and pianist? 

MY: I was born in Chickasha, Oklahoma. I took two and a half years of piano lessons. I started playing in my dad’s Baptist church. Played three times a week in church from age 10 until I was 28 years old. My dad’s church gave me every opportunity to learn and hone my pianist/arranging/composing talents. I wrote and arranged for every holiday possible. The church loved it and so did I. I really started arranging when I was 12. My dad and mom never told me that I couldn’t do it, so I just did it. When I would ask my dad if I could do this or that, he would say “You bet. Just do it.”  His attitude allowed me to become the artist I am today. As a side note, my dad was a great joke teller and always had his congregations roaring with laughter, every sermon. So playing for Jim Dale or playing for my dad’s church services—they really are the same to me—wonderful and life affirming. They make me glad to be alive.

 


Just Jim Dale begins previews at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Just Jim Dale


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