Some of my friends are embroiled in the Edinburgh experience, reminding me that it’s been fifteen years since my first triumph there. My memory, as always, is a little hazy. But the Festival – the largest performing arts festival in the world, by far – is worth describing, however inaccurately, because it’s one of the places in the world where new musicals get done, reviewed, and, most importantly, seen.
One of the most astounding things about the Festival has to do with numbers. Edinburgh, the rest of the year, is quaint, a livable city with a small town feel. Around three quarters of a million call it home. For three weeks every August, one million visitors show up. It’s hard to imagine how this happens: How many cities in the world could deal with more than doubling in size in the dead of summer? My suspicion is a great number of Edinburghers get the hell out and rent all their floor space to theatre people. Myself, I stayed on a friend’s couch. The other number to think about is 2000. There are over 2000 different performances: mostly theatre, but a lot of comedy, as well as concerts, operas, dance. It’s safe to say every visitor sees more than one show, and probably a wide variety.
So, if you’ve got a show there, you’ve stepped into an incredibly competitive publicity market. How are you going to get people to come to your show, instead of the 2000 other choices? Leafleting is a common practice. Shows print up thousands of mini-posters, and post them on every available wall space. The entry-way to every pub is plastered with hundreds of them. Sound ineffective? Well, there’s also the handout process. Leafleters crowd the Royal Mile, passing out papers to everyone passing by. As a tourist, walking from the Castle to Holyrood Park, you’ll easily pick up hundreds of these pesky sheets. (Naturally, I misread the name “Holyrood Park” every time I looked at a map, and reflexively thought there was horse-racing there.)
More fun are the shows that parade about town, doing sample numbers. I feel I saw a Youth Theatre production of The Boy Friend in its entirety, without ever entering its venue. Trying to be a good, informed theatre consumer, I talked to a lot of people about what they’d seen and enjoyed. I also tended to rely upon The Scotsman, the country’s newspaper, which helpfully utilizes a five-star rating system with every review. Shows that got the highest rating instantly sold out, because the paper was such a widely-valued source of guidance.
It could happen to you. It happened to me: Five stars from The Scotsman. The critic was so inspired by the dense Gilbertian rhyming of my Murder at the Savoy, he decided put his rave in verse:
THE Savoy comic Larry Dapple’s
last show will be in the chapel
for some cad has blown his head off
down among the props.
Now, though his denouement’s messy,
luckily the lovely Jessie’s
able to describe the scene
and to alert the cops.
Here’s Detective Peter Pulley
swift, incisive, and quite fully
cognisant of what’s occurred and who the suspects are:
Maud (tight-fisted company boss
Percy (husband – a dead loss)
Mrs Dapple’s paramour (the tenor) and a rising star.
Lastly there’s the widow Polly,
strangely lacking melancholy,
but why does the detective cry
when she breaks into song? See the show and find the truths
as they’re revealed by singing youths;
it’s fast, it’s fun, it’s quickly done
and doesn’t run for long.
The next thing we knew, every seat was sold. Which meant the production turned a profit, which is pretty rare for a large cast show with a low ticket price. The show’s reception led to four subsequent British productions, including two more trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Of course it’s a truly international gathering, and a great deal of the fun is being part of the community that’s made its way to Edinburgh from all over the world. Seeing vastly different styles of theatre, naturally, is fascinating. I remember a wordless puppet piece so vividly, the recollection of its pathos can bring a tear to my eye. And then you go to a pub and meet fellow theatre-people with a mélange of accents. I spent some time getting to know someone who’d long ago become very famous in a different field – the oldest profession, but that’s a story for another day.
Instead, I’ll recall a conversation I had with a Scottish actor in my cast. He used a phrase I often use, “Everything I know I know from musicals” and went on to point out that few in Britain are familiar with the name of the obscure American president, Gerald Ford. But, due to his familiarity with a certain Sondheim musical, he boasted, “I not only knew his name, but also the names of the two women who tried to assassinate him: Squeaky Fromme and Mary Tyler Moore.”
Our Mary? I guess it’s always the ones you least expect.