Friday, 27 October 2017

The Student Prince and Janette Miller

Janette Miller in The Student Prince UK National Tour
It is strange to be dragged back into one's youth at the ripe old age of 73. This week I was reminded that I had played Kathie in the Sigmund Romberg musical of the 1920's when I was just 20. It is a period of my life that I have chosen to forget as although I was good at musicals I wanted to produce opera but life is life and one must eat so I was forced to be in them and I did enjoy the camaraderie of the theatre.

I remember getting the job to tour 14 cities in England  in the mid 1960s. In those days there was a career path and I was well on my way. I had risen from tour to London Musical in the chorus. Ruth Madoc and I had very minor roles in the ill fated but fondly remembered House of Cards produced by The Players organisation at the Phoenix and I auditioned for two roles. One was for The Admiral Crichton which I got but the company was procrastinating about when it would begin and the other was for unhappy Princess in The Student Prince which was to star Bryan Johnson who had made such a hit in the European Song contest.

With no sign of the Crichton role materialising I accepted the Princess part in the Student Prince. I knew I could make a good show of this Lady Di part. It had a nice easy to sing number and I was right for it. To get into London in a major role it would be useful to have played a role on tour. The rehearsals were just about to start, I had bought a little second hand red mini minor to drive myself around UK as I had done it by trains and said never again.

Then came the bombshell. The leading lady had had to withdraw at the last moment and I suppose the company was desperate so they offered the role to me. This of course was a huge step up professionally and an honour but I was initially wary. I knew that I was just not right for Kathie who is a Bavarian Innkeepers daughter. I am perceived as middle-class English and even in those days type casting was becoming the norm. They needed a Barbra Windsor who could sing not me. Besides that I have never had a full top C. I have a stunning B in alt but some days I cannot reach a Top C so I told the company this and I was happy to stay where I had been cast. But they were desperate so I said yes but only if they would take the duet down  a semi tone. The employers promised they would and they didn't. I was most unhappy.

So I had days to relearn my part and do the best I could. The only thing I could think of was Giselle.  I should have to play Kathie as Giselle who although  a peasant girl is so young, appealing and virginal that she attracts a genuine Royal suitor. Today royal mistresses get to marry their princes and become Queens but back in 1965 the Lady Di debacle was still to come.

I think I got away with it. Three days before we opened in Oxford the Crichton Company wanted me to break my contract and go with them. I was unhappy and should have loved to have had a year in London's West End in a decent role that suited but I couldn't do it morally so I had to see this through.

I had little direction or time to research. NO internet in those days. My hair was too short for a plat and the company refused to buy me a wig so I knew my hair was all wrong and there was nothing I could do. My make up to begin with was a disaster but Bryan Jonson had a wonderful make up artist friend who came down, sorted out my make up by virtually removing it all and I have lived with her advise successfully ever since. The top C's were a nightly problem but I have a recording of myself, the only one I have with an orchestra and in fact I sound quite acceptable, in fact I sound rather good but after that I always refused to sing Top C's.

But the experience was so valuable. 14 UK cities in a row certainly does things to your voice.  Bryan had the most enormous  Wagnerian voice and I was straight out of singing in rooms at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. There was no vocal enhancement in those days. This made me push my voice too hard and it was only in later life when I started to record using Garageband and hear myself sing that I began to like the sound of my voice.

My speaking voice was just too cultured and if I had had a director he would have stopped me and made me roughen up but then I should not have been me and as the stage is the mirror of the soul I don't think I should have been so convincing. It is emotionally draining making an audience cry their eyes out every night and at the end of 14 weeks of this one becomes cynical.

We ended in Wolverhampton. I was moving on to The Windsor Pantomime. It was the first time I had seen the last curtain come down and not think I might never see it go up again. I had played Bournemouth the week before and rehearsed Windsor! That is a feat I suggest nobody tries!

I was glad to say Goodbye to Kathie.  I did not return when the tour resumed.

Strangely I had another encounter with The Student Prince. I had made a success in The Desert Song playing the comedy lead Susan, a part that did suit me down to the ground and John Hanson asked me to play Gretchen  which again needs a young Barbara Windsor. Even though it meant a year in London I could not face it. I was wrong to begin and I had played and sung Kathie and I needed to escape the clutches of The Red Shadow. I asked if I could play The Princess, I was right for that but Hanson could not see me as a singer only as a comedian and dancer. He was wrong. I am a singer.

Now in the wake of Lady Di The Student Prince is no longer relevant and musicals and I moved on but the old 1920's musicals still have an appeal and a structure that is hard to beat. I and the world have consigned them to memory. I have fortunately never had to produce one!


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