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Production insight: behind the scenes of Sweet Charity

Mon 10 Jun 2019

This month our second-year students take musical theatre to Blackheath Halls with rock and roll inspired Bye Bye Birdie (14-15 June) and Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, and Neil Simon’s iconic Sweet Charity (21-22 June).

Ahead of the performances, we caught up with Sweet Charity director Charlie Westenra and student James Dodd, who plays lead OscarLindquist, to get the low down on the show.

Sweet Charity was first performed back in 1966. What makes it continue to be a relevant story for audiences today?

James Dodd (JD): Sweet Charity was revolutionary for how real women were portrayed on stage. With the recent rising of the #MeToo movement, the passing of abortion laws across Alabama, and the lack of equal pay - to name but a few issues that prevent our society from being truly equal across genders - our production still feels as modern and relevant as ever as it highlights the injustice that the female characters faced 50 years ago and still do today.

Charlie Westenra (CW): The story follows Charity, a young woman who very much wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s open, kind, warm, romantic and desperate to be loved, but she struggles to find love because of her past. It’s a story all of us can relate to. Today there’s still inequality between the sexes. Women are still being judged by their pasts, their sexual history, and their work in a way that men aren’t. The story will also resonate as it’s about searching to find your place in the world. All these different people are trying to make sense of the world they live in.

Tell us a little bit about your production

CW: We’re producing Sweet Charity in its entirety. The writing is too good to meddle with! 

JD: Our production is set in 1965, only a year before it was originally produced. We found that ‘65 stood out as a year of such political change in American history – the USA joined in the Vietnam War and it was the peak of Free Love and ‘Flower Power’ – and this made so much contextual sense with the script.

CW: Seeing Charity negotiate life in that time of change allows us to question how far we’ve come since. 

JD: Other than changing the actual context of the show, we haven’t changed the script, except for the genders of a couple of the characters to fit within our cast of 21. 

How has the creative process been so far?

JD: It’s been incredible. We are incredibly lucky to receive exposure to external creatives on such a regular basis. On these particular projects, we are working with Olivier Nominated Creatives, people that have worked in the West End and with the RSC. These experiences teach you so many other skills as well as singing, dancing, and acting, like professionalism in the work room, audition etiquette, deep analysis of text, movement and self. It’s been great fun and by the end of week two of rehearsals we’ve staged all dances in Act 1, learnt all the music in the show and began exploring the script on such an intellectual level that I didn’t think would be possible for myself. To say that I have been pushed in so many incredible ways would be an understatement.

CW: The students are phenomenal. They’ve wanted to get stuck in right from day one. They’ve been looking into life in the 60s, the composer, librettist and lyricist, hippy culture, the rise of feminism and civil rights in the era. They’ve also been learning incredible dance routines by our choreographer Steven Harris and practicing them every morning before we start work. I’ve been working on finding the detail, truth and rhythm in Neil Simon’s very funny libretto. The music department at Trinity Laban have commissioned a new orchestration to showcase the exceptional musicians. We have a band of 10 and it’s going to sound incredible. 

Have there been any particular challenges?

CW: We’ve double cast the show so you can come to two shows and see two different interpretations! This has been very fulfilling for me as a director as I get to see each scene in a new way depending on who I’m working with. It does make rehearsals tricky though as you have to direct two shows in the time it takes to direct one! 

JD: This is my first ever lead role. To learn so many lines in such a short period of time has been extraordinarily challenging but also so much fun. I have found that the Creatives have pushed us out of our comfort zones to try and create the best work, but have always been ready to catch us should anything fail, not that it has yet. The support that I have felt from the whole network at Trinity Laban, but especially during rehearsals for this show, has made coming into school at 8am the only thing that I could possibly be wanting to do every day!

Finally, how do you hope the audience at Blackheath Halls respond to seeing the show?

CW: Sweet charity is a classic musical and audiences will know and love the music. I hope when they hear those incredible numbers again – Rhythm of Life, Big Spender, There Must be Something Better Than This – they’ll feel like they’ve seen these numbers anew.

JD: It has a lot of heart and a very important message that I hope strikes change in the way we view women, masculinity and love. I want the audience to have fun, enjoy watching us have fun, and very much fall in love with the world that we are creating onstage.

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Tickets are on sale now at blackheathhalls.com/whats-on

Learn more about our musical theatre programmes on our Study pages