I was fortunate to play in an incredible production of the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel last week. It is famous for many fine reasons, but in particular it is renowned for its uplifting and redeeming nature. A good girl falls in love with a bad boy, he does bad things and bad things happen, but in the end he puts it right and it turns out OK. All accompanied by some of the most wonderful music ever written. This is the musical that gave us You’ll Never Walk Alone, adopted by Liverpool Football Club as their anthem.
This brought a variety of new experiences, some stressful, some less than pleasant but it really was a fantastic thing to be a part of. (I’ll talk about specific harp related experiences in another blog post!)
You’ll Never Walk Alone is sung just as the male lead dies (sorry to give the plot away, but it’s a well known story!). It’s an incredibly emotional moment, and the harp features prominently. In the production I’ve just done, it was completely solo for what felt like forever.
Football is a huge influence in my family. My dad’s family are from West Bromwich and I am from a long line of West Bromwich Albion supporters. Despite living many miles from Birmingham when we were children, my dad took me and my brother to many of the home games and despite watching football wherever I’ve lived, I always look for the WBA result first and text my dad when I’ve seen it.
More than that, my grandad and my great uncle were professional footballers. The pulling of legs and telling of tall tales is as normal as drinking tea in my family, so it has taken some years to believe the above, but my granny (on my dad’s side) confirmed it was all true and I am much more inclined to have faith in her than I am in my dad!
So. We aren’t Liverpool supporters but I can certainly understand the emotions that lie behind football songs and football games and all that goes with them. Bill Shankly was reported to have said the immortal words “Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that” and I just can’t imagine the Kop in full swell singing You’ll Never Walk Alone without welling up, Carousel or no Carousel.
I was ready to struggle emotionally (and had done when playing it for a football-mad groom at a wedding last summer) but this was rather more intense than I expected. I couldn’t see anything on stage but I could hear every word, and I could hear a pin drop in the audience. On our first night I could see tears rolling down several faces and this set me off too. I resolved to stash a hankie for future performances.
Nothing prepared me for the emotion of the final night though. By this time I’d done the three runs of You’ll Never Walk Alone a few times each, and managed to hold it together reasonably well. But as I’d listened to the whole show each time, and heard all the words over and over, I’d become more and more struck by Billy’s scene in Heaven – “The Highest Judge of All”.
Earlier in the musical, Billy is planning the big robbery with Jigger, his partner in crime, and they talk about how they will be judged in the next life. For poor people like them, no cherubs, no music, “not a note – all we get is justice!”.
However when Billy gets to heaven, he decides he would quite like the full judgement before the big man himself, with the full show in all its glory. He asks for harps and he gets them. Cue harpist, who has by now, after an awful lot of practice and scribbling and rubbing out, worked out the best way of swapping over her hands to get all the notes in at the right time, and can play in tempo rather better than earlier in the week.
The chords and harmonies are classic rousing musical theatre smack you in the guts ones. The harp line is beautifully written for the instrument, and moves through 5 chords in 5 bars. It really is a joy to play, giving the opportunity to (attempt to!) project a really fabulous tone and to fill the theatre with a wonderful sound – in fact it’s so good, I’m going to incorporate it into my technical warm up! I’ve since discovered that it’s not always performed in productions so I feel extra lucky to have been able to play it.
I was completely carried away by what was going on stage – namely that everything would be OK for Billy.
Combined with the music, it all became too much. My bottom lip started to go and before I knew it I was choking back really big sobs. Everything will be OK. It really will be OK. I managed to pull myself back together for the Ballet and then was fine for the rest of the show.
Afterwards, I packed the harp away and wheeled it through crowds of people standing outside. I was alone but still very much caught up in all the magic and music of the production. I went outside to make my way home. The snow was really coming down last Friday night. There was police crime tape across part of Sauchiehall Street. I walked up to the bus station and avoided a fair few very drunk football fans – Scotland had lost a match that evening. Suddenly everything felt very normal again, and yet deep down, things had changed.