Some people’s lives are guided by Buddhism, some by cock eyed optimism and others by Debrett. I have always been convinced that the answer to life’s most profound questions can be found in musical theatre. Broke? Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. Lost either spiritually or geographically? You’ll Never Walk Alone. Lovestruck? Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered. There aren’t many personal or professional defeats that can’t be beaten by eight bars of I Am My Own Best Friend.
Singing has always been a secret pleasure of mine though I suspect the neighbours at Bloomsbury Towers don’t share that rosy glow of wellbeing after I’ve crucified Cabaret having drunk enough to float Fire Island. I recall when writing The Perfect Gentleman that I resorted to Prosecco and rousing anthems on far too many occasions. In fact, I wrote to the boys downstairs to apologise after a particularly gruelling writing session that ended with my performing Liza Minnelli’s Carnegie Hall concert in its entirety (two CDs no less) with all the windows open.
The chaps had the grace to say they’d found it most entertaining when they realised that someone on the upper floors wasn’t being brutally slain with a garrotte. As you know I celebrated my 35th birthday for the eighth time last week. In youth one looks forward to birthdays like a second Christmas morning. By the time one gets to, ahem, 35 one views birthdays with the same horrified expression as Pearl White tied to the railroad tracks.
Rather than raise a maudlin glass with Father Time I decided it was high time to Challenge Anneka and try something new to put a smile on my face that was neither illegal, immoral or makes one fat. Hence I found myself trudging up a crooked staircase to a rehearsal room off Marylebone Lane for a singing lesson with a charming lady called Ida. Having climbed a few scales with all the tenacity of Sherpa Tensing I was relieved to hear that I could hit the notes. But it did come as something of a shock to realise that though I might sound fabulous warbling along to Anything Goes, the voice was woefully exposed without John Barrowman’s able assistance.
Thus I was inducted into the art of breathing – who knew I hadn’t got the hang of it after 43 years? – exercises making hideous nasal sounds resembling a wasp being slowly crushed to death and lip rolls. Lip rolls involve making the sound ‘brrrrrr’ while singing notes behind the vibrating kisser and trying not to shower the rehearsal room mirror with spittle. Imagine being asked to imitate an infant gurgling The Flight of the Bumblebee and you have the gist. It has taken three lessons to realise that any shred of dignity has to be left on the doorstep.
There was me thinking I’d lean on the baby grand with a scotch and a Lucky Strike and just croon numbers from the American Songbook. Finding a voice takes an enormous amount of graft and practice. This I have persevered with having established that even the simplest songs such as Summertime and The Way You Look Tonight sound excruciating if the voice isn’t warmed up. Ida has been incredibly patient despite watching me yo-yo between enthusiasm and abject humiliation not being able to burble my lips or hit a high note without vibrato you could drive a JCB through.
But I have to say singing has brought much pleasure. When I got frustrated by The Way You Look Ida indulged me with a belter: Maybe This Time. I do love belting but as Lee kindly told me at the theatre ‘She doesn’t want to hear a bad Liza Minnelli impersonation every week’. With this in mind I’ve been given Muse’s Unintended as homework. It’s a lovely song with key changes as sharp as the coast road on the French Riviera. What I’m trying to establish is how I’d like to sing. I’d like to belt but don’t have the equipment to sing taps, teeth and tits numbers yet and always go to the Noël Coward at the Desert Inn default setting.
Of course trying to sing at my stage of life is no different from horse riding or ice skating. One is so much more fearless as a child. But that’s the beauty of it and the challenge. I rather enjoyed hanging out in Chappell of Bond Street’s basement (which is in Soho as it happens) choosing sheet music and audition CDs. Talk about running before one can walk, I did buy a Sondheim compendium. Suffice to say I don’t think Mandy Patinkin and Patti Lupone will be losing any sleep though my neighbours probably have.
My respect for professional singers is now beyond. Hitting all the notes in key, in tune and on the beat is a mammoth task. Performing and making a standard your own is pure magic. I was front row centre at the Savoy Theatre last week at Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and was absolutely blown away by Katherine Kingsley. The physicality of her performance is so demanding and yet every note is gold. She belts, she soars, she scores and all totally in character with ease and grace. I’d trade a million votes for one of those notes.