Tommy, the rock ‘n’ roller
Tommy, the rock ‘n’ roller who became Britain’s premier song and dance man
By Pat Murphy
When Tommy Steele steps onto the stage of the London Coliseum this July, it’ll be almost 60 years since he debuted there in a lavish production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. And it isn’t fanciful to regard that long ago event as the first marker on Tommy’s transition from rock ‘n’ roll idol to Britain’s premier song and dance man.
Alas, I never saw Tommy perform live in his rocker incarnation. But I’ve seen the song and dance man five times.
Half a Sixpence (Summer 1964)
The first such occasion was in 1964 when, as a university student working in London for the summer, I saw Half a Sixpence at the Cambridge Theatre.
The show had opened the previous year (March 1963) and was coming towards the end of a 678 performance run, after which it transferred to the Broadhurst Theatre in New York.
Half a Sixpence was created especially for Tommy. David Heneker wrote the music and Beverley Cross did the book, the inspiration being the 1905 H G Wells novel Kipps. As befitted a bespoke vehicle, it was tailor-made for Tommy’s talents.
Although not in the same category as the likes of Oliver, Half a Sixpence has a very appealing score. Listening to the Original Cast album all these years later, one is struck by how tuneful it is.
There’s the title song, the plaintive ballad She’s Too Far Above Me, the exuberant Money to Burn and, of course, the show stopping Flash Bang Wallop. And in an example of how fate sometimes works in fortuitous ways, legend has it that the latter was only conceived and added at the last minute.
The only (moderate) downside to my night at the Cambridge was the sound. In those days, London theatres didn’t have the degree of amplification they currently do, so my student budget seat in the gods wasn’t the greatest. While I could hear everything, there was a lack of “presence” to the audio experience. Still, that was just the way the world worked back then.
Meet me in London (June 1971)
Tommy first presented this show during a Las Vegas season at Caesar’s Palace in early 1971. Whether it really fitted with the gambling citadel’s ambience at the time is a reasonable question, but the reviews were certainly favourable. To quote The Hollywood Reporter: “He has the charm and versatility of a young Danny Kaye. He’s a marvellous one-man show.”
After Vegas, the show moved to London, beginning a twice-nightly 10-week run at the Adelphi Theatre on April 7. I caught it on the second-last night.
Looking back, the two sequences that stand out are the rendition of Feed the Birds (from Mary Poppins) and a medley of rock ‘n’ roll classics that hearkened back to his earliest days. While the latter may not have been where his true interests lay, he could still belt them out with great gusto.
The Tommy Steele Show (March 1973)
There was a period during the early 1970s when shows destined for the London Palladium played a couple of weeks in Canada en route. Artistes like Des O’Connor and Frankie Vaughan appeared in Toronto under that aegis, and 1973 was Tommy’s turn.
So I acquired tickets for the last night of his week-long stand at the 3,155- seat O’Keefe Centre. The intervening decades have scrubbed most of the performance details from my memory, but I do recall a packed house and a rapturous reception. And there was the Don Quixote routine where, suitably attired and mounted on a fake horse, he galloped round the stage in front of a filmed backdrop of English country roads. It was both clever and funny, and the audience lapped it up.
Hans Andersen (December 1977)
Based on the 1952 Danny Kaye film musical, Hans Andersen was supposed to run at the London Palladium for the 1974-75 Christmas season. However, box office reaction was enormous and it ran for almost a year, notching up 383 performances. It subsequently toured intermittently for several years and played a return 10-week Palladium engagement in 1977-78. That was the one I saw. Interestingly for such a great success, the days immediately preceding the December 17, 1974, opening were fraught with tension.
At one point, Tommy threatened to walk out unless a specific series of changes were made and there was also a tempestuous disagreement with musical director Alyn Ainsworth. But things were sorted by the night itself and a standing ovation ensued. The production preserved Frank Loesser’s original movie score, including Wonderful Copenhagen, I’m Hans Christian Andersen, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling and The King’s New Clothes. I found some of it very catchy.
Singin’ in the Rain (December 1983)
If Hans Andersen was a big success, Singin’ in the Rain managed to top it. Also based on an early 1950s Hollywood film, it opened at the London Palladium on June 30, 1983, played for 894 performances over two years and then returned in 1989. And, of course, it toured extensively.