The Life


“Sending thrills, chills and shudders down one's spine”
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Michael Blakemore directed the Tony award-winning first Broadway production in 1979 of this Cy Coleman/Ira Gasman musical set amongst the hustlers, pimps and prostitutes plying their trade on 42nd street and in Time Square during this district’s 1970s heyday of sleaze. The 88-year-old is still championing this wonderful but controversial work 38 years on, and has directed this UK premiere, even contributing the bitingly witty revisions to the original book written by the composer/lyricist team with David Newman.

As well as being a leading director of straight plays and a prose writer of distinction in his books of memoir and novels, the Australian Blakemore is, for my money, the finest non-native director of American musicals in the business, as he has proved with, say, his version of Kiss Me, Kate, gong-laden on both sides of the Atlantic, and by his expert feel for the dark pastiche film noir fun of a later Cy Coleman tuner, City of Angels.

Here he's assembled a cast that capture with indelible vividness the gritty drop-dead humour and vulnerability of folk who've been round the block once too often and the violence crouching ready to spring from the seedy overlords of the underworld who treat their slaves with systematic contempt.

In Sweet Charity, his most celebrated show, Coleman focuses on a group of raunchy but sanitised dance hall hostesses; in The Life, the brutalities that keep prostitutes in their place erupt to the surface in a manner that is all the more shocking for its lethal, matter-of-fact abruptness. We meet Queen from Savannah (played with a lovely soprano that is pure and strong with a faint frost hovering on its surface by the excellent T'Shan Williams) and her pimp and lover Fleetwood (David Albury), a Vietnam vet and drug addict. There’s a reiterated pattern of women attempting to escape a terrible relationship only to wind up in the clutches of an even worse oppressor.  

The smallfry hoodlums – like hustler Jojo, performed to perfection by John Addison, always with a smile lolling on his face as if it's wondering in which disingenuous direction to turn – proceed with scams pretending to protect innocent new arrivals to the big city. But they meet their match here with Mary (Joanna Woodward), just off the bus from Minnesota, whose pose as a naïve angel turns out to be as specious as theirs. And the whole operation is masterminded by Cornell S John's magnificently menacing uber-pimp Memphis. The scene in which he takes Queen to a pervy purple bedroom and then tells her she has to pay off the price of the golden dress in which he has encased her (sending the imagination into visions of horrific humiliation when he unbuttons a shoulder and assures her that this won't take long) is surely one of the most morally scary in the musical genre. Blakemore gives the character brilliantly grotesque touches of business – pouring cocaine into her purse from a great disdainful height as if to say, Marie-Antoinette-style “Let them snort coke” – that establish the daunting scale of his inhumanity.

The incomparable Sharon D Clarke sings with a miraculously relaxed sass and a wry resilient depth as Sonja, the veteran prostitute (“I've been in seven beds tonight and haven't slept in one of them”). Sending thrills, chills and shudders down one's spine, the score is played by the 11-piece band who do magnificent justice to the way it pits sheer musical exhilaration against the sordid circumstances, as though one were to witness a knifing in the reflective surface of a spangled dress. A crime if this show does not transfer to the West End.

By Paul Taylor

“Gut-churning story of drugs and defiance”

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Twenty-seven years on from its premiere Off-Broadway, this vivid musical portrait of urban squalor finally makes it to these shores. Michael Blakemore, who’s previously directed it on a grander scale, presides over a full-blooded production that’s comparatively modest in dimensions but not in ambition.

It’s a brutal and sometimes gut-churning story of desperate individuals lurking on the fringes of New York’s Times Square. Their currencies are drugs, sleaze and defiance, and the king of their grubby world is hard-faced Memphis, played with sinister magnetism by Cornell S John.

Buzzing around him are several lesser hustlers and the women they manipulate, all jockeying for position. Those who aren’t in his thrall, at least initially, include T’Shan Williams’s high-minded Queen and her damaged, reckless lover Fleetwood (David Albury), along with apparently innocent Minnesotan newcomer Mary (Joanna Woodward), who’s far cannier than she looks.

As betrayals multiply and violence flares, an eleven-piece band exuberantly relays the mixture of jazz, funk and gospel in Cy Coleman’s surging score. At nearly three hours it’s an overlong show — some of the tunes feel overstretched and the book is bumpy. But Ira Gasman’s lyrics are often pin-sharp, and the performances pulsate with vitality. The standout is Sharon D Clarke. As Sonja, a veteran of 15,000 paid encounters, she’s vocally majestic and an expert with the acerbic one-liners. 


Author: Henry Hitchings

The Stage

“Gritty and glorious"

“New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle”

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The low-life musical has a long history that includes Guys and Dolls and Irma La Douce. But where they swathed gambling and prostitution in fairytale fables, this show, first seen on Broadway 20 years ago, aims to capture the grit and grime of New York’s 42nd Street before it was cleaned up. For all the efforts of Cy Coleman (music), Ira Gasman (lyrics) and David Newman (who co-authored the book), The Life still can’t avoid putting a gloss on an essentially tawdry milieu.

The story shows sex worker Queen attempting to escape her world with her pimp and lover, Fleetwood, a Vietnam veteran and drug addict. When he goes after a new recruit to the game and Queen falls prey to a brutal hustler, their chances of flight are seriously endangered.

However, for all the songs about dreams, nothing matches There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This from Coleman’s Sweet Charity. The best numbers here are marginal to the main action. The ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke at one point throatily informs us: “I’m getting too old for the oldest profession.” In Mr Greed, dance is used to remind us that gambling, like sex work, depends on gullible punters.

Michael Blakemore imaginatively re-creates a show he directed in New York and the performances are good. T’Shan Williams as the questing Queen, Cornell S John as a cool super-pimp and Jo Servi as a rhyming barman all impress. But the inherent exuberance of the musical form militates against Zola-esque realism and, for all its energy and verve, three hours is a long time to spend in this sleazy sub-world.


Author: Michael Billington

The Times

“Fantastic jazzy blues, with lashings of showbiz thrown in”

South London Press

“A riot of noise and colour”


A thrilling, defiant and heartfelt musical lament for New York in the 1980s.

The Life is an enthralling, compelling look at the old Times Square; a world that was home to innocents and opportunists, pimps and prostitutes, city sophisticates and midwestern dreamers. It’s a rollercoaster of excitement and emotion.

The story follows a group of New Yorkers who are just trying to survive in the city. Queen, a naive girl from Savannah, has been forced into prostitution to support the drug habit of her lover Fleetwood, a Vietnam vet. Meanwhile, Sonja’s market value as a hooker is diminishing. But then Mary, a mysterious innocent farm girl, shows up. And soon Memphis and Joio, the biggest players in town, are offering to help Queen out. Is there a lifeline out of the Square and away from this way of life?

The Life, described by the New York Times as “Broadway’s best kept secret”, features a rarely heard score by celebrated composer Cy Coleman (City of Angels, Sweet Charity, Barnum). It is based on an original idea by lyricist Ira Gasman, with a book by Coleman, Gasman and David Newman.

The original production of The Life, directed by Michael Blakemore, opened on April 26, 1997. It received 12 Tony nominations – of which it won two; and nine Drama Desk Awards – of which it won three, including Best Musical. Michael Blakemore returns to direct the work in London, for a strictly limited season from 25 March-29 April 2018. At the Southwark Playhouse, it stars stage legends Sharon D Clarke and Cornell S John.