Songs for Nobodies
a play by Joanna Murray-Smith
Ali Harper (actor/singer)
Trio – Daniel Hayles (piano)/Johnny Lawrence (double bass)/Lance Philip (drums)
Director – Ross Gumbley
Circa Theatre, Wellington
Sunday, July 8th, 2018
Having previously enjoyed Ali Harper’s one-woman shows Legendary Divas and A Doris Day Special, I was eagerly looking forward to my “latest” theatrical outing in her presence, which I imagined would be her “take” on the singers mentioned in the pre-show publicity. Apart from Maria Callas, the famous names listed were ones I actually knew very little about, so as well as being entertained, I was expecting to be informed via a kind of mini-theatrical biopic of each of them. I did recall the publicity mentioning “encounters between five everyday women whose lives had been touched in some ways by five legendary divas”, but still expected that the singers would be the ones ultimately in centre-stage.
I was surprised, therefore, to encounter a distinctly muted and downbeat series of scenarios featuring in each case a young woman who had at some or other time encountered one of these legendary artists, and who was telling the story of the interaction from her own viewpoint. Here was Ali Harper, presented in a manner far removed from the glittering glamour and self-possession normally associated with famous performers, taking on the personas of a series of “nobodies” – a cloakroom attendant, an usher, a young English/French girl, a junior reporter, and a nanny. It was through these ordinary young women that the “Songs For Nobodies” playwright Joanne Murray-Smith allowed us tantalising glimpses of the stars. All ten characters, the singers and their admirers, were played (and their songs sung) by Ali Harper, moving both fluently and distinctively between personas via their different accents and attitudes with considerable skill and focus.
The music accompaniments were discreetly and ably provided by a trio of musicians, performing behind an opaque screen, both part of and distanced from the world conjured up by the single, immediate figure of Harper, like silhouettes who were animated by the music, evoking the smoky interiors of bars and club venues – pianist Daniel Hayles, double bassist Johnny Lawrence and percussionist Lance Philip.
Each scene was set with directness and simplicity, doing without any distraction in the form of colourful costuming or detailed sets (a chair was the only stage-prop needed). All served to focus us on Harper, as she conjured up a stark feeling of each of the places and times, as well as of the characters, ordinary and extraordinary, that she portrayed. Her spoken delivery was strong and consistent with the voices of nearly all the “stars”, though in a few places sounding a tad under pressure during the more tremulous or agitated utterances from the “nobodies”, the rapid pace clouding a detail every now and then.
We were taken firstly to the Plaza Athene, in New York City, in 1961. Bee Appleton, a cloakroom attendant, was depicted in turmoil at her recent breakup with her husband, reflecting whimsically on the meaning of happiness, and whether “you know when you have it” and what happens to you when it is gone. She found herself of a sudden in the presence of the show’s star performer, Judy Garland, and was able to perform a simple service to her by fixing a hem on her costume. They talked and a rapport sprang up between them, a feeling which communicated a fresh sense of worth and of being whole again to the young woman, a feeling that was then crystallised by Harper’s incredibly intense performance of Garland’s song “Come rain, come shine”, leaving us stunned with its impact as darkness ended the scene.
Next up was the character of Pearl Abelone a theatre usher in Kansas City in 1963, where country-and-western star Patsy Cline was performing. An aspiring performer herself, Pearl contrived to sing the song “Amazing Grace” to Cline before the star went on stage to perform her own scheduled number. The exchanges between Pearl and her idol led to the philosophical, with Cline observing that “applause doesn’t help you when you’re lying in bed at night”. Here, the music worked its simple but powerful spell of unquestioning faith, with Pearl’s strength of utterance also persuading the singer to choose the girl to back her in one of her vocal numbers on the stage – a touching moment. And tragedy was evoked, too, at the moment when Pearl related how the singer decided to fly back home to see her family, and died when the plane crashed – her devastating comment was “I never brought Patsy any luck, but she brought me plenty”.
Each one of the scenes deserved comment by dint of its individuality and varied response on Harper’s part, the third being an almost surreal tale involving French songstress Edith Piaf, the “Little Sparrow” – we met Edie Delamore in West Bridgeford, Nottingham, a librarian of half-English, half French descent, whose Father was in the French resistance. Edie related how he was saved from certain incarceration in the infamous Dachau, after Piaf contrived to smuggle him out as one of the supporting musicians she had when performing in the German prison camps. Harper re-evoked the girl’s love for her father and admiration for his bravery at only nineteen years of age as a member of the Resistance. She interspersing the girl’s wonderment at the “falling from the skies” feeling about her life with verses of a gutsy Piaf-like rendition of verses of the song “Non Je ne regrette rien”.
Following the fastidious spoken delivery of the English/French girl’s epic tale, we met the contrastingly racy American tones of a young journalist, Too Junior Jones, desperate to prove herself with “real people”assignments. She persuaded her boss (Harper brought off a gem of a cigar-sucking executive cameo, here!) to give her the job of an 800-word profile of singer Billie Holiday. Here, the outpourings were fast and furious, too much for absolute clarity at all times, but conveying the youngster’s confidence and energy in spadefuls. By contrast, the singer’s persona came across as thoroughly dissolute and miserable, refusing at first to answer any questions, but then breaking into the dark, disturbing tones of the horrifying song, Strange Fruits, a kind of discourse on the US white South’s history of racist violence towards black people. Harper’s tones here tellingly penetrated and realised something of that unique timbre of Holiday’s “thick blue ink” voice.
Eventually Holiday told some of her story, reflecting that her life had been “one big problem”, that of “doin’ everythin’ too soon”. She had no musical training, but still became the first black woman to sing with a white band (Artie Shaw and his Orchestra) in the United States. Sadly, promoters created problems for Shaw and his band over Holiday because of her race and her unique vocal style, and Holiday had to eventually leave Shaw to go out on her own. Though experiencing occasional success and maintaining her reputation as a leading jazz singer, she developed addictions to both opium and heroin which eventually led to her death in 1959. Her funeral was reportedly attended by 3,000 people.
I thought the last evocation, that of a connection between opera singer Maria Callas and Orla McDonagh, the Irish Nanny of Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis’s children, the most tenuous. The encounter highlighted a pivotal moment in Maria Callas’s life, her wooing by Onassis after she and her husband, Meneghini, had been invited on a cruise on his yacht, the Christina. The observations of Orla, the Nanny, indicated that all was not well with Callas’s marriage, and Orla’s own less-than-salubrious interactions with Onassis himself underlined the man’s inveterate womanising which, of course, was to eventually leave the unfortunate Callas abandoned as she had done her own husband. Interesting and absorbing as it all was, it seemed less “involved” as an encounter compared with the others, a quality which I thought was unfortunately intensified by Harper’s brave, but at the aria’s climax, somewhat strained rendition of Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” from the opera “Tosca”, one of Callas’s most famous roles. Coming at the end of the demanding programme, I felt it overtaxed Harper unfairly, in view of what she had already achieved – perhaps a less operatic approach (which the trio’s skilful accompaniment initially suggested, and which worked well) might have better served those taxing ”dramatic soprano” moments. Even so, the Callas episode seemed relatively “removed” to me, compared to the visceral encounters with greatness experienced by the other “nobodies”.
Despite this, the whole was a fantastic performance from Harper, equally convincing across a range of vignettes, from the vulnerable but hopeful young women touched by their encounters with greatness, to the stars themselves, somewhat bruised and battered by their popularity, but all showing aspects of the magnificence that earned them their fame. As I’ve said, the pace of the delivery was, in places, fast and furious, in moments too much for the meaning of the words, so that I missed the full impact of certain of Harper’s renditions of the homespun philosophies and observations. Still, one was left in certain knowledge of the transforming effects that stars could have in the lives of everyday people, the resonances of their songs and the inspiration that they provided. It all earned Ali Harper justly-deserved acclaim for her memorable and richly-wrought performance.