Memo from London: Making Music with Christine Andreas & Martin Silvestri

 

Edith Piaf Photo - 01                   Christine - 01

Edith Piaf (1915 – 1963) was born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris.

Christine Andreas (it’s not polite to share a lady’s age when she’s still with us) was born in Camden, New Jersey.

Last week, at the legendary Angel Recording Studios in the Islington section of London, these two phenomenal women converged as Andreas recorded fourteen of Piaf’s most famous songs. Because of our longstanding friendship with Christine and her multi-talented husband, composer-arranger-musical director Martin Silvestri, AAC CPA and I were invited to attend the recording sessions.

We were literally seeing art created before our very eyes.

This recording follows the premiere of Christine’s sensational Piaf No Regrets, her 90-minute show performed at New York’s 54 Below last summer. She recalls “I wanted to present her to newer generations, while reminding older generations of the humanity in her. She came from nothing, she was just singing songs about the working class, as any good anti-bourgeoisie singer would do, she was a punk rocker. Someone called her Patti Smith with a French accent.”

With Marty as her musical director and arranger at the keyboard (and, occasionally, on the accordion), this initial engagement played for only four sold-out performances. However, the response caused such an uproar that she was immediately signed by Columbia Artists and plans are now underway for a national tour of the show beginning this fall. Rather than playing in intimate venues, such as 54 Below, Piaf No Regrets will play bigger venues so as to maximize Christine’s and Piaf’s exposure to much larger audiences.

15 - Marty and Christine
Christine and Marty

Once Christine and Marty agreed to take their act on the road, the next logical step was to record the songs from the show as a kind of calling card. This time, however, in place of Marty’s accompaniment, there would be a 35-piece orchestra backing Christine. Marty reached out to one of the most sought after conductors and orchestrators, Larry Blank, and, together, they created the arrangements for each song and Larry then set down the orchestrations. Their aim was to create a lush, historically authentic and yet modern sound that would be faithful both to Piaf and to Andreas.

Larry Blank
Orchestrator/Conductor Larry Blank

Having recorded at Angel Recording Studios several times over the past 20 years, including the West End original cast album of Marty’s and Joel Higgins’ The Fields of Ambrosia, and Christine’s Love Is Good and Here’s to the Ladies, Marty wanted to make the recording there. In fact, Marty’s recording engineer of choice, Gary Thomas, would come out of retirement to supervise the recording solely because he wanted to work again with Christine and Marty. Marty and Larry also requested certain orchestra members with whom they had worked previously and who, if available, would be part of the team.

01 - Gary in Control Booth
Recording engineer Gary Thomas at the controls

This recording would be a prestige project.

It is interesting to note that the building which houses Angel Recording Studios opened as the Islington Chapel in 1888, which itself replaced an earlier chapel built in 1815 and redesigned in 1847. The chapel closed in 1979, at which time the building was acquired by De Wolfe Music. Major renovations were undertaken and recording began in 1982.

Amongst the many artists who have recorded there are Adele, Placido Domingo, Liza Minnelli, and Kylie Minogue. Film soundtracks have also been recorded there, including GoldenEye, Jackie, Moulin Rouge!, Nine, Romeo + Juliet, The Crying Game, and The English Patient. Television scores recorded there include Downton Abbey.

Angel Studios - Exterior - Professional
Angel Studios in the Islington section of London

Studio 1 - Organ
The organ on the upper level of Studio 1 – a remnant of its prior existence as a chapel

And so, on a sunny Thursday morning in London, 3 dozen musicians, 1 conductor/orchestrator, 1 sound engineer and his assistant, 1 producer (Marty) and 1 chanteuse walked into Angel Recording Studios to get to work. Oh, yeah, AAC CPA and I were there as flies on the wall.

06 - AAC at entrance to Angel Studios
AAC CPA arrives at Angel Recording Studios to see the magic happen

The process went something like this:

The sequencing of the songs was based on the number of orchestra members needed for each arrangement. The recording schedule allowed 2 days to lay down all of the orchestral tracks for the 14 songs. For most of Thursday, the entire orchestra was required. On Friday, the number of players was reduced by half. By the end of the day, there were only about 4 or 5 players remaining.

12b - Larry with the Orchestra - Christine in Foreground
Larry with the orchestra, Christine in foreground

14 - Harpist.jpg
Legendary harpist, Skaila Kanga, awaiting her entrance

The layout of the studio had a large space for the entire orchestra. Each player or section had his/her/their own microphone(s) which enables the sound engineer to create a mix that features certain sections (more strings or horns or percussion) as needed. (Wires were everywhere – you had to be very careful where you stepped.) Just off of this main room was a soundproofed booth where Christine would record her songs. Video cameras were recording everything so that Larry and Christine could see each other at all times. Larry’s video would be preserved for later retakes and refinements that would be recorded by Christine after the orchestra had finished their work.

09 - Empty Isolation Booth
The isolation booth where Christine would lay down her tracks

04a - Christine in Isolation Booth
Christine, with headsets to hear the orchestra, in recording mode

10 - Christine Relaxes in Isolation Booth
Relaxing between takes

07 - Christine & Marty in Isolation Booth
Marty guest stars (and channels Bing Crosby) in a duet of “Poor People of Paris”, recorded in one perfect take!

Adjacent to both of these spaces was the control room. It was here where Marty would follow the proceedings with a full vocal/orchestral score and Gary would oversee the recording process. AAC CPA and I were seated at the enormous control panel, but out of the way.

05a Marty & Sylvia in Control Booth
Marty with “fixer” (orchestra contractor) Sylvia Addison

The recording of each song would begin with a run-through with Christine and the orchestra. What I found most interesting was that Larry and Christine each had a metronome app that they would consult before each take. Well before coming into the recording studio, Christine chose the tempo for each song that would complement her unique style and interpretation. It’s preparation like that and attention to every detail that saves time (and money) in the recording studio.

04 - Larry & Christine Rehearse in Studio 1Larry Blank and Christine rehearse

Following the run-through, Christine would step into her recording booth and a take would be made. Barring any kerfuffles (mostly due to ensemble issues or missed entrances), the entire song would be recorded. At that point, another take would immediately be recorded, or the principals would traipse into the control room for a listen.

08c - Larry, AAC, Christine, Marty & Gary in Control Booth
Larry, AAC CPA, Christine, Marty and engineer Gary Thomas listen to a take

In most cases, no more than 2 or 3 takes would be made before moving on to the next song.

Here’s the really impressive thing:

We were in the midst of absolute and complete artists who were there to get the job done. Singer, conductor, orchestra, producer and engineer worked together as a well-oiled machine, no muss, no fuss, no fits, no feuds and no egos. Amigos: they were totally concentrated on doing their best work and creating the best possible performance of each and every song. This must be the meaning of “professional”.

On Thursday and Friday, the two days when we had the orchestra with us, there were some interesting challenges.

In one instance, an accordion accompaniment to – what else? – “L’Accordéoniste”, was not quite what Christine, Larry and Marty had envisioned. When Marty had played the accordion for Christine at 54 Below, he had delivered exactly the emotion that the song demanded. The accordion chart that Larry had created was only the beginning – it needed some imagination and improvisation to convey accurately what the song was about which, by the way, was very challenging to achieve on the first or even second attempt. And so, at the end of the day and after the rest of the orchestra had been released, Mark, the accordionist, remained behind to rerecord his accompaniment. After thinking it through, he got into the groove and hit it out of the park. And now he, as well as Christine, Marty and Larry, were very pleased with the results.

Likewise, the final track of the recording, a reprise of “Milord”, which has a sort of curtain call or end credits feel, was missing a certain something from the clarinetist. The chorus is played three times and, for the 2nd and 3rd repeats, the clarinet needs to get a bit wacky and wild, again not something that had been orchestrated but relied, instead, on the imagination of the player. After 3 or 4 attempts, the clarinetist nailed it and then he, too, was done.

The really cool way that these patches are recorded is for the player to wear headphones, enabling him to hear the entire orchestra, and to follow the conductor. In the control room we’d hear both the prerecorded orchestra and what the player was now performing. Once everyone was happy with the patch, the new version would replace the original performance. Voila!

After a well-deserved day off, Christine, Marty, Larry and Gary returned to a smaller studio (no orchestra this time) to rerecord certain sections of those songs that required some refinements. In most cases, it was a matter of interpretation; in others it might be to perfect the pronunciation of a lyric, or it might just be that Christine wanted another go at a song.

01a - Gary & Marty in Control Room
Sunday morning – Gary and Marty in our smaller digs, Studio 2

Generally speaking, Christine would go into the recording booth and hear the orchestra through her headphones while watching video of Larry conducting the orchestra to assist her with entrances and exits. For the most part it was a fairly easy process, because she had originally recorded her tracks from the isolation booth in Studio 1 and, therefore, it was easy to separate her voice from the orchestra tracks.

03 - Gary & Christine - Studio 2
Gary adjusts the equipment before Christine records her first take of the day

Except for one song: “If You Love Me”. The initial take was recorded with Christine in the studio with the orchestra. There are tremendous advantages in having the soloist and orchestra in the same space – the synergy that is created makes for a heightened performance and the connection that Christine had with the orchestra enabled her to give a deeper reading of this particular song.

03c - Larry & Christine in Studio
Friday morning: first take of “If You Love Me” – Christine in studio with full orchestra

On Sunday, Christine wanted to rerecord a couple of passages, which presented an additional challenge. Gary, the recording engineer, told Christine that – in order to achieve a perfect edit – her phrasing would have to match precisely what she had originally recorded. Otherwise, there could be either a pre- or post-echo of the original take. It was absolutely riveting to observe Christine’s professionalism and concentration in order to get the desired result. A lot of it was technical, but most of it was her artistry. I also have to credit Gary, who worked closely with Christine to achieve a successful outcome. Once she and Marty were satisfied with what she had recorded and it was then edited into the original performance, it was completely seamless and did full justice to the material.

To heighten the experience, I had been taking photographs of the previous recording sessions from the safety of the control room. Marty suggested that, while Christine was reworking a few passages, I go into the recording booth to photograph her as she sang. Let me just say, for the record, that I was a total wreck that I’d make a noise and ruin the take. I have to hand it to Christine: she just went about her work as if I wasn’t there and I got some great photos.

04 - Christine Prepares
Sunday morning: Christine awaits her cue for retakes on “If You Love Me”

04b - Christine Retakes.jpg

04c - Christine Retakes

04e - Christine Retakes

04h - Christine Retakes

04i - Christine Retakes

04l - Christine Retakes

04m - Christine Retakes
Christine, in the zone, making beautiful music

At this point, I’d like to say a few words about Christine and Marty. Whenever you’re working on a strict schedule and you know you have limited time to complete your work, it can be nerve-racking and extremely tense. At no time did we observe any negative energy on anyone’s part. Christine and Marty knew what they had to accomplish and so, taking one step (song) at a time, they kept moving forward and doing their work. Not only that, but their professionalism shone through the entire three days we were with them. Relaxed (as much as one could be under the circumstances), enthusiastic, and very good-humored, but always aware of the task at hand, they kept their cool and created beautiful art.

AAC CPA and I were privileged to be a witness to this project and I hope that you, like us, are looking forward to the release of Piaf No Regrets this coming fall.

08 - THE END
It’s a wrap

Christine and Marty will be back in London to premiere Piaf No Regrets at the Pheasantry on the Kings Road on October 11th, 12th and 13th.

If you can’t make the trip across the Pond, but happen to find yourself in New York on November 8th, 9th, or 10th, Christine and Marty will be returning to 54 Below for three encore performances of Piaf No Regrets, which may very well be the last time Christine performs the show in a small venue prior to her national tour of the show.

As Piaf herself might have said (sung): “Musique à tout va” – “Music is everything”

Christine performs at the Pheasantry in London – October 2018

Christine performs at 54 Below in New York City – November 2018

Visit Christine’s website here

Sneak Preview: Watch Christine perform “La Vie en Rose”

 

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Tuesday: LHR Layover

Good morning from an overcast and cool London. We arrived about 2 hours ago following our transatlantic flight from New York. Due to unfortunate scheduling, we have a 7 hour layover here until we can board our flight for Lisbon and, from there, to the beautiful Crystal Symphony, where we will board in about 9 hours – not a minute too soon.

Backing up 12 hours:

Our car and driver picked us up right on time and swept us out to JFK. Considering it was rush hour, Sammy made excellent time and we were checked in, whisked through security and seated in British Airways’ Concorde Room within minutes of our arrival at the airport.

concorde-aac-enters
AAC, CPA enters the Concorde Room at JFK

We are very fortunate to be able to avail ourselves of the facilities of the Concorde Room, as it has a very nice restaurant with table service. Here’s the dinner menu from last night:

concorde-dinner-menu

And the wine and cocktail list, which is on an iPad:

concorde-wine-spirit-list

concorde-aac-toast
AAC, CPA makes a bon voyage toast

We’ve dined in the Concorde Room before and the great advantage is that you can eat on the ground and then sleep on the plane (unless you’re a certain couple who have a second dinner on the plane – no names, please). And the food you get in the Concorde Room is likely to be better than the food on the plane.

concorde-beets
First up: Roasted baby beets and charred goat cheese

concorde-rack-of-lamb
Followed by a delicious rack of lamb

concorde-dessert
Our waiter insisted that we have this pumpkin mousse

By the time we had finished eating, it was almost time to board.

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AAC, CPA waits for the boarding announcement

Then, a 5-minute walk to the gate and – voila! – we board our 747 chariot bound for LHR.

ba-116-aac-01
AAC, CPA gets settled in for the night

As I mentioned, we could have had another dinner but I just wanted to put on the pajamas that were provided for us and get into bed. So, I opted for this:

ba-116-cocoa
White chocolate cookies and some hot cocoa (with a drop of Bailey’s!!)

Following my little meal, I popped some Sudafed, aspirin and an Ambien and I was off to the races for the next 4 1/2 hours. 

By the time I woke up, we were about an hour from London, so I took care of some business, made sure that AAC, CPA was awake and just relaxed.

When we had landed at LHR, we knew we had to change terminals for our flight to Lisbon. However, we had been under the assumption that we’d be able to spend most of our layover in the Concorde Room over in Terminal 5, which turned out not to be true. That’s a shame, as the Concorde Room here is perhaps even nicer than the one at JFK. Not only that, but we had requested a complimentary private “cabana” for a few hours so that we would have been able to get some more sleep. No such luck.

So we traipsed from Terminal 5 over to Terminal 3 and here we are in the first class lounge. Not bad, not great. They also have a sit-down restaurant, and we’ll probably go over for some lunch a little later.

As a friend of ours’ says, “These are champagne problems”; ie., I’ll get over it.

So here’s a little look at the Terminal 3 lounge – it’s not terrible 🙂 

ba-bar-01
One of several bars here – all complimentary, of course

ba-bar
Another bar – what, no Campari??

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It’s the champagne bar – too early in the day, perhaps?

ba-aac-breakfast
AAC, CPA chows down on a light breakfast

ba-flight-board
The departure board – see how far down the list our Lisbon flight is?

So, that’s where it’s at, kids. I’ll update you tomorrow when we’re ensconced in our digs about Symphony.

Have a good one!!

 

 

Hips and Ships

A Farce in Three Parts

Part One: AAC, CPA Goes Hippie

Hola, amigos!! Did you miss us? It’s been a really long time, I know, since TheCulturedTraveler took pen to paper (as it were) to fill you in on what’s going on with us.

Well, the answer is – in a word – PLENTY!

The intrepid star of our blog – AAC, CPA – has had an exciting few months (with an assist from yours truly). You see, he’s had this hip that’s been giving him a pain-in-the – well – hip. He has a truly excellent surgeon and support team and we knew a hip replacement was in his future. In fact, we visited the surgeon this past July to set up the procedure for this November. But, while we were there, the doc wanted to take some new film of the old hip so that he’d have a revised benchmark when it came time for the surgery.

So, we were in his office manager’s office mapping things out, schedule-wise, when said doc popped his head into the office and said: “When you’re done in here, come see me.” We didn’t particularly think anything of it, so we were a bit surprised when we were told that there was essentially no cartilage remaining in the hip and he had fast-tracked AAC, CPA for surgery 10 days later. Yes, sports fans, you read that correctly.

aac-to-hospital
AAC CPA on his way to the hospital – 5:05 AM 

In a way, it was a good thing, since AAC, CPA was really suffering with his bum hip. So, better to get it over with and put it behind us. And, in fact, he was SO READY for the operation that he was grateful not to have to wait another few months.

aac-street-scene
New York City street scene – 5:07 AM

Without going into a lot of gory details, the operation was an incredible success. After a brief hospital stay, AAC, CPA returned home with his new and improved hip and, for the first couple of weeks, had a visiting nurse and physical therapist dropping in to check on him and to put him through his paces. We are now 10+ weeks since the surgery and our AAC, CPA is good as new, perhaps even better.

aac-view
The view from AAC, CPA’s hospital room – Triborough Bridge in the distance.

aac-post-surgery
AAC, CPA the day after surgery – in a very good mood.

So, a huge debt of thanks, kudos and a shout-out to Daniel Nawabi (AAC, CPA’s surgeon), the Hospital for Special Surgery, their fantastic staff and the visiting nurses and physical therapists who got AAC, CPA back on his feet! If you ever have an orthopedic issue, HSS is the place you want to be.

Part Two: The Travel Challenge

Well, you might ask, what does a hip replacement have to do with TheCulturedTraveler? Aside from being a witness to the whole thing – and it was a very interesting experience – we were both affected travel-wise, and I’ll tell you how:

First: His surgery was on August 4th. We had been scheduled to fly to Amsterdam for Labor Day Weekend – 4 weeks later – didn’t happen.

amsterdam
Amsterdam – Nee

Note: To any of you contemplating this kind of surgery, please allow sufficient time after surgery to travel;

Second: In early October, we had planned to fly to London and then to Paris and, finally, to Lisbon to board the beautiful Crystal Symphony and sail back to the states – see below;

Third: We had planned to fly to Hong Kong for the holidays (on Cathay Pacific using American Airlines miles) – uh-uh, as you’ll see below.

hong-kong
Hong Kong – 没有

Why all the travel drama? Here’s why: AAC, CPA’s surgeon wouldn’t clear him for travel until 12 weeks following his operation which, actually, would take us to October 27th. Therefore: no London and no Paris!!! Because we had already paid our fare for the Symphony voyage (and were into the penalty cancellation period), we negotiated with the surgeon to shave 1½ weeks off of the 12 week travel embargo (which is how we lost London and Paris), and he agreed. (Whew.)

london
London – No!

paris
Paris – Non!

So why in the world did we have to cancel Hong Kong, which was certainly outside of the 12-week period? Well, when we had to cancel Amsterdam, we had to figure out a way not to forfeit our airfare to and from. We had gotten “the deal of the century” on British Airways (one of their famous “flash sales”) which, unfortunately, was non-refundable. When I contacted BA, I was told that, if we produced a letter from our surgeon that (a) AAC CPA was unable to fly on our original itinerary; but (b) would be cleared to fly after a certain date, then (c) the airline would allow us to change our itinerary without penalty. However, there might be an up-charge for the new itinerary. Are you with me so far?

Because of our travel commitments (we’re actually booked through August, 2018!!), and because the BA fare we originally paid was good only until May of next year, we had to jettison Hong Kong (Boo-Hoo) and, instead, go somewhere else for the holidays. Well, as a “consolation prize”, why not Paris? Turns out that OpenSkies, a subsidiary of BA, has non-stop flights from JFK to Paris. We’ve used them a couple of times and, while they’re not Air France, their flights are more than adequate. So, for a slight upcharge, we’ll spend Christmas week in Paris.

open-skies-airline-5-1024x576
Open Skies from JFK to Paris Orly

It’s a good thing that I’m a type-A obsessed travel person, as that little transaction somehow took over a month to complete, due to a certain amount of incompetence on the BA side. There, I said it.

The great news is that I got another “deal of the century” on digs in Paris, as the Peninsula Hotel was running an insane sale that, if you blinked, you almost missed it. (Woo-Hoo!)

peninsula-paris
Entrance to the Peninsula Hotel – Paris

So, that took care of the Amsterdam cancellation.

Then, I had to change our flight itinerary for Lisbon. Originally, we would have flown to London, then Paris and, finally, Lisbon, all on miles. Now we just needed to get to Lisbon. So, I had to contact American Airline, British Airways and Air France to make changes. We were very lucky to be able to return the miles to our accounts with very few penalties and, most especially, we able to get award flights to Lisbon – through London. We’ll be traveling in style all the way – lucky us!

lisbon
Lisbon – Sim!!!

I know you’re concerned that we aren’t able to spend the holidays in Hong Kong, a place we’ve never been. Never fear, we’ve now slotted it for December, 2018. (I TOLD you: I’m a type-A travel obsessed travel person.)

Part Three: Anchors Away!

Are you still with me? Here comes the good part.

After all of the travails of the past few months, isn’t it time for us to have some fun? Well, I think so, too.

Of course, it’s no secret that we plan our trips well in advance. How else can we be certain that we’ll get that certain flight on miles in a premium cabin or, speaking of cabins, the stateroom that we want on our next ocean voyage?

To that end, we planned (back in 2014) to be in Lisbon this coming Tuesday to board Symphony for a leisurely 13-day crossing back to the States. Fortunately, as posted above, our surgeon cleared AAC, CPA for travel so that, on Monday evening, we’ll take the redeye to London, with a connecting flight to Lisbon. If all goes well, we’ll be in time for dinner at our usual starboard midship window table. (If we’re running late, we sent an emergency e-mail to Remi, Symphony’s superb Maître ‘d to keep a plate in the oven for us.)

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Redeye to from JFK to London LHR aboard a BA 747

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7½ hour layover in the Concorde Room – LHR

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The beautiful Crystal Symphony – our home for the remainder of the month.

Life is good.

PS. Stay tuned for further tales of our adventures on the road!

 

 

 

London Recap

Greetings and Salutations. And sorry to be MIA over the past few days – it’s been a very busy time and all that.

The last time you’d heard from me, we had just attended a performance of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was a real treat. If you’re planning a trip to London in the spring (and beyond), you can get tickets to see the production, which is transferring to the Savoy Theatre in March. Ticket sales are quite brisk, I’ve been told.

CULTURE TIP: Purchase Tickets to Funny Girl

Otherwise, our trip to London last week was a raving success. We had a blast and, rather than talking about it too much, I thought I’d share some photos with you to give you the flavor of the trip – you’ll get the idea.

On our 1st full day in London, we took afternoon tea at The Georgian at Harrod’s. The place was all gussied up for the holidays, of course.

Day 2 - HarrodsWorld famous Harrods

Day 2 - Harrods GeorgianIt’s the Georgian for your afternoon tea.

Day 2 - Harrods Tea - AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his afternoon tea

Day 2 - Harrods Rose Tea
Rose Tea made with actual Roses!!

Day 2 - Harrods Tea Tray
And all of the tea goodies.

CUISINE TIP: Take Tea at Harrods

Our first show in London was Terence Ratigan’s 1948 comedy, Harlequinade, starring and co-directed (with Rob Ashford) by Kenneth Branagh, preceded by Ratigan’s 1968 one-woman monologue, All On Her Own, starring Zoë Wanamaker. This double-bill is part of an ambitious six production season that the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is presenting at the Garrick Theatre and is currently playing in rep with A Winter’s Tale, again starring Branagh alongside Judi Dench. The season culminates next summer and fall with Branagh taking on the touchstone role of Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer. Needless to say, I already have my tickets for that one!

Day 2 - Harlequinade - AAC
AAC CPA does Harlequinade at the Garrick

CULTURE TIP: Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company

Following the performance, we had supper at one of our favorite London restaurants, the venerable J. Sheekey which serves, arguably, the best fish in town.

Day 2 - J Sheekey

Day 2 - J Sheekey Fish & Chips
AAC CPA had the fish and chips – enough for many

CUISINE TIP: J. Sheekey

Next day – typically cloudy but unusually mild for December – we were walking around our hood and snapped this pic of the Shard, where the Shangri-La is located:

Day 2 - Shard from a Distance

Following the Funny Girl matinee, we had dinner at another of our favorite London establishments, Hawksmoor, which is where you go for beef and great cocktails. There are several locations and we ate at the one just off Picadilly in Air Street:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Exterior

Each Hawksmoor has its own distinct design and this one is Deco:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Deco Detail
Fab Deco Chandelier

Day 3 - Hawksmoor AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his cocktail and dinner

The grub is really good here, too. In addition to amazing beef, this Hawksmoor has lots of fish on the menu. We shared the scallop appetizer:

Day 3 - Hawksmoor Scallops
Great presentation, right?

CUISINE TIP: Hawksmoor Air Street

We took an after dinner stroll and saw some fab sights on Picadilly:

Day 3 - Picadilly

Picadilly, itself

Day 3 - Burlington Arcade

Burlington Arcade

Day 3 - Fortnum & Mason

Fortnum & Mason all tarted up for the holidays

Next day, we woke up to a brilliantly sunny day. Look at the view from our room:

Day 4 - Shard Shadow over St. Paul's
Note the shadow of the Shard to the right of St. Paul’s

After breakfast at the hotel – by the way, a great deal when booking through the AmEx FHR program, because your breakfast is included – we checked out the lobby men’s room:

Day 4 - Bathroom with a View
A (Bath)Room with a View

Day 4 - Mens Room Amenity
The Shangri-La thinks of EVERYTHING!!

And, if you want a thrill, take note of how the hotel keeps its windows clean:

Day 4 - Window Cleaners
This photo was taken on the 35th floor, kids!

What trip to London would be complete without a visit to Covent Garden:

Day 4 - AAC - Covent Garden

That afternoon, we experienced our first Panto, a holiday tradition in which drag plays a prominent role and lots of audience participation is encouraged (and expected). Today’s Panto was Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Day 4 - Panto - AAC
AAC CPA does Panto!

Day 4 - Panto Show Curtain
The Panto show curtain

Following the Panto, we rushed back to the hotel to change for the evening performance of Guys and Dolls at the Savoy Theatre where, last Spring, we had seen Imelda Staunton’s star turn as Madame Rose in Gypsy.

Day 4 - Savoy Guys and Dolls - 02
Doesn’t this photo remind you of a publicity still from the film?

Day 4 - Savoy AAC
AAC CPA studies the Hot Box Cuties

Day 4 - Savoy Show Curtain
Opening image of the set

Needless to say, the show was aces. It’s such a great musical, definitely one of the 10 best of all time. Even when the show ground to a halt in the last few minutes – technical difficulties, they said – the audience was totally enthralled by the show, roaring its approval at the end.

On our way out – no pix, please, we’re British! – we noticed, sitting directly behind us, Jim Carter (Carson on Downton Abbey, and a former Big Jule himself) and his celebrated wife, the aforementioned Imelda Staunton. I couldn’t help myself and, in a very un-British-like manner, told them how much we’d enjoyed their performances and thanked them. They looked a bit startled (I guess that my outburst just isn’t done) but thanked me very graciously.

After humiliating myself, we strolled over to The Ivy, which is our favorite London haunt. As I reported when we were there earlier this year, the place had a makeover last spring and looks terrific, but the service and congeniality of the place remain unchanged.

Day 4 - The Ivy Exterior
The one and only Ivy

Day 4 - The Ivy - AAC
AAC CPA anticipates his Americano whilst perusing the menu

CUISINE TIP: The Ivy

Next day – Christmas Eve – was another double-header, starting with Jim Broadbent starring as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Noël Coward Theatre. Dickens’ story was adapted by Patrick Barlow (whose 4-actor adaptation of The 39 Steps played for years and years both in London and in New York) and was designed by Tom Pye and directed by Phelim McDermott. We initially wanted to see the show for Jim Broadbent, a fave actor of ours’ since the 1999 Mike Leigh film,  Topsy Turvy, in which Broadbent played W.S. Gilbert. As it turned out, we found the production imaginative, enchanting and surprisingly moving. I guess that Dickens knew what his was doing.

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol - Exterior
Marquee at the Noël Coward Theatre

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol - AAC
AAC CPA does Dickens

Day 5 - A Christmas Carol Show Curtain
A Christmas Carol show curtain

And, by the way, can I just put in a word about the London theatre-going audience and, in particular, the kids? We saw two matinees in which the audience was literally filled with children (as young as 4 or 5, I’d say). They were amazing! Respectful, attentive, and really into the experience. Dare I say that I prefer them to most of the audiences to be found on Broadway these day? OK, come and get me for that last remark.

Another rush back to the hotel to change for our Christmas Eve festivities. And look what we found in our room upon our return:

Day 5 - Christmas Tree
Our very own tree. AAC CPA thought it might be edible. It wasn’t.

That evening, we had a brand-new London experience, and long overdue! We attended the last performance of Carols By Candlelight at the famed Royal Albert Hall. This concert is an annual event and completely fills the 5,200 seat venue. It was a real thrill for us to be there.

Day 5 - RAH - Moon
World famous Royal Albert Hall with a full moon overhead

Day 5 - RAH - AAC
AAC CPA checks out the program pre-concert

Day 5 - RAH - Concert
The Mozart Festival Orchestra and Chorus in performance

Day 5 - RAH - Doris Day
For all you film buffs, AAC CPA has a Doris Day moment

We had a great time at the concert, although there was too much audience participation for my taste. I didn’t realize that we were expected to sing traditional carols!! Standing, no less, and I’d already had a long day. (Bah, humbug, you say?) And added to all that, most of the carols were sung to different tunes than their American counterparts. Who knew??

CULTURE TIP: Royal Albert Hall

After the concert, we had another magical view of the full moon over London:

Day 5 - Moon Over London

Merry Christmas, everyone!! Friday – our last full day in London – and did you know that the entire city shuts down?? We had thought we might go to a movie, or ride around, or something. Uh-uh!! No dice (as they’re currently saying at the Savoy Theatre). Fortunately for us, we were staying in a beautiful hotel with gorgeous views, so we didn’t mind hanging around our digs and relaxing after seeing 6 shows in the previous 4 days.

As we subsequently found out, Uber was available for getting around – whew!! We had decided to have our farewell dinner at another of our favorite London hotels, the Corinthia, and Uber got us there and back. Not only that, but Uber turned out to be cheaper than taking a cab (if we could have gotten one)!

Day 6 - Corinthia ExteriorThe gorgeous Corinthia Hotel in Whitehall Place

We started our evening at the Corinthia’s Bassoon Bar, one of our favorite watering holes in London.

Day 6 - Corinthia Bassoon AAC
AAC CPA chooses his cocktail from the iPad menu

We moved from the Bassoon to the Northall for our dinner. It’s a beautiful room and the food was delicious.

Day 6 - Corinthia Northall
My starter: Beef Tartare and it was yummy!

Day 6 - Corinthia Lobby
AAC CPA strolls through the Corinthia lobby after dinner

Ubering our way back to the Shangri-La from the Corinthia and look at what we saw:

Day 6 - Uber View of London Eye

By the way, did I mention that we ate on the early side so that we could get back to the hotel in time for – wait for it – the series finale of Downton Abbey? Yes, gentle readers, we had already seen all of season 6, save for the final holiday episode. How lucky are we? No spoilers here. Just know that we’ve seen it all, and mum’s the word.

Day 6 - Downton Finale
Opening Downton Abbey credits – for the very last time

All good things must come to an end and, on Saturday morning, we got into a taxi and made our way to Heathrow, where our BA flight was waiting to return us back home (and to reality).

Day 7 - BA Concorde Room - AAC
AAC CPA hanging out in the Concorde Room prior to boarding our flight

Day 7 - BA 177 - AAC
And settling in for the 8-hour flight home (with Mimosa)

Here’s our lunch menu:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Lunch Menu

I opted for the fillet of veal, which was pretty good:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Entree

And then, several hours later, it was time for afternoon tea, British-style:

Day 7 - BA 177 - Tea

Post-script: The flight landed a few minutes early but, due to some unexplained issue involving attaching the jetway to the plane, we were delayed for about 40 minutes!!

An imperfect end to a just-about-perfect trip.

Happy New Year, everyone!!

PS. Next week, we’re off to Buenos Aires and then, via Crystal Symphony, we’re sailing to Antarctica. More to follow!

From London: Funny Girl at the Chocolate Factory

Good evening, sports fans and greetings from an extremely windy London town.

We’ve just come from a matinee performance of the completely sold-out run of Funny Girl, starring Sheridan Smith, at the Menier Chocolate Factory. You may recall that I was able to obtain a pair of seats the day before the box office opened to the general public. Good thing I did, as the entire run sold out in something like two hours!

Funny Girl - 04

Before this production even started previews, a transfer to the Savoy Theatre on the West End was announced, and now tickets are available at least through the summer. (I was at the Savoy box office yesterday to pick up my tickets for tomorrow evening’s performance of Guys & Dolls and, apparently, tickets to Funny Girl are few and far between until next July!)

So, what did we think? Funny Girl hasn’t been seen onstage in London since Barbra Streisand brought the original production here in the mid-60’s. Since then, there’s been no first-class production either here or in the states. Part of the problem is that the iconic Streisand performance has been memorialized on film and it’s very difficult to compete with that. Also, the show had a very troubled gestation period and, only due to Jerry Robbins’ out-of-town doctoring – particularly working to get a performance out of Streisand – did the show succeed once it opened in New York. It is a flawed show with a great score. And it requires a star in the title role to make it work or even to contemplate a new production.

Funny Girl - 01
Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice

As it turns out, Sheridan Smith is that star. While no one will mistake her vocals for those of Streisand on stage or on film, one could say that, Smith is “the greatest star” in London at the moment. Diminutive in size, she is an oversized personality who brings her considerable skills to creating Fanny Brice. She is quirky, cute, gritty, and utterly believable, particularly in the early scenes of the play, when Fanny is on the ascent.

Funny Girl - 02
Don’t rain on her parade!

Our one reservation about this production was that it was being presented in a teeny-tiny theatre and Funny Girl is an exemplar of the big-scale Broadway musical. The original production boasted a huge cast, lavish sets and costumes and a full orchestra. None of that is possible in this incarnation. However, Michael Mayer’s production presents the material in a way that almost makes you forget that you’re seeing no more than 20 people on stage, accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra (with skillful new orchestrations) that makes the most from the least.

The show is very well cast. Fanny’s obsession with Nick Arnstein is no surprise, thanks to Darius Campbell’s performance. Towering over Fanny, he is both suave leading man and lost soul. And he gives the best vocal performance of the role of anyone I’ve seen or heard. In fact, a number that may have been cut from the original production (or was it written for and subsequently cut from the movie) – “Temporary Arrangement” – has been reinstated for Campbell. The supporting cast delivers the goods.

Funny Girl - 03
Darius Campbell and Sheridan Smith

It will be interesting to revisit the production when it lands at the Savoy to see if it is rethought on a much larger stage in a much larger theater. 

Finally, Funny Girl is a prime example of one of the last musicals of Broadway’s “golden age”. While not close to perfect, it boasts a great Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score and, in Sheridan Smith’s sensational performance, a case has been made for a new production of this almost lost musical.

 

 

Greetings from London – Part 1

Happy holidays, everyone! We made it safely to London. Left on a jet plane Sunday morning and a mere 8 hours later were checking into our digs at the Shangri-La at the Shard, just a stone’s throw away from London Bridge.

We love London, what can we say. As I type this missive to you, night is falling over the City – look at this dramatic view from our room atop the Shard as afternoon turns into night and you’ll see what I mean:

007

See what I mean?

Because I’m on a tight timeline – off to theatre and supper afterwards – here are a few images of our adventures so far:

001

Packed and leaving for the airport (too much luggage for only 6 days?)

002

Our BA 747 Chariot awaits to whisk us off to London

004

AAC CPA buckles up – fasten your seat belts!!

003

Our final approach into Heathrow

005

AAC CPA under the tree and ready to eat

006

The view from our room last night just before bedtime

I’ll have more to report as the days go by. Tomorrow we’ll be seeing Funny Girl at the Chocolate Factory – a very, very hot ticket. Your faithful correspondent will let you know what we thought. (As it that matters at all, it’s already announced a transfer to the West End and tickets are very, very scarce!)

In the meantime, tally-ho!

Countdown to London

“As a foreigner in London, I like that there are so many other foreigners.”
David Sedaris

How lucky are AAC CPA and I?

For the 3rd time this year, we’re on our way to London. This trip came about thanks to a blog entry by The Points Guy a few months ago giving us the skivvy that fares were being slashed to Europe over the holidays. If you happened to be an AARP member (reminder: you don’t need to be 50 to join AARP, just sayin’) and, for instance, went through the AARP website to a dedicated British Airways link, you automatically got a $400 per person discount. Added to that, we cashed in some Avios miles to save even more money.

How could we not go?

TRAVEL TIP: The Points Guy

In the event, we’re leaving early Sunday morning, will arrive early evening local time, Heathrow Express our way into central London and be at the Shangri-La at the Shard in time for a late supper with our friends A & K, who will have arrived the day before. As I said, how lucky are we?

We also got lucky with a special promotion through the AmEx FHR program. Although we’d already booked a return visit to the Shangri-La, it turns out that, thanks to AmEx, you can pay for 2 nights and get the 3rd for free. Our awesome AmEx travel agent, Veronica, was happy to rebook the reservation so that we could take advantage of this offer. The only fly in the ointment is that we’re planning to be in London for 6 nights, and the hotel refused to let us use the promotion twice on this visit. Other hotels do it all the time but not the Shangri-La. Good thing it’s a really nice hotel or we’d be very miffed. (Well, maybe we are, just a wee bit.)

Shangri-LaTime for a return visit to the Shangri-La

TRAVEL TIP: AmEx FHR Program

TRAVEL TIP: Once you’ve booked your hotel reservation(s), go back every so often either to the hotel’s website or the AmEx FHR website and check for better deals. I’d say that there’s an excellent chance that you’ll find a lower rate or, even, a promotion like the one we’re taking advantage of next week. If you have the forbearance (and the time, of course), you may end up saving significantly on your hotel bill.

“In London they don’t like you if you’re still alive.”
Harvey Fierstein

Before we pulled the trigger on the airfare deal, I checked to see if we could score tickets to, arguably, the biggest theatre deal in London this fall: the revival of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory. At the time, I went to the theatre’s website to check on availability and found that tickets didn’t go on sale to the general public until the following day. Call it my cultural sixth sense, but I decided that I had to get tickets right then so, for a modest donation to the Chocolate Factory, I was able to select prime seats (well, in a 188-seat theatre, I guess that ALL seats are prime), for a little more than tuppence. Having taken care of that task, we went ahead and booked the air tickets. Thank you, AARP; thank you, British Airways; thank you, Avios miles. (And thank you, Chocolate Factory!)

And, wouldn’t you know, when general public seating opened the following day, the entire engagement sold out within 2 hours!! The Chocolate Factory had never seen anything like it. Ever!!

So even if you can’t obtain tickets at the Chocolate Factory to see the show, don’t despair – before it even started previews, a transfer to the West End was announced! And, if you’ve never been to the Chocolate Factory, you really should pay a call. It’s a great space and some amazing productions have started there.

Chocolate Factory

CULTURE TIP: Menier Chocolate Factory

CULTURE TIP: Funny Girl at the Savoy

“London is too full of fogs and serious people. Whether the fogs produce the serious people, or whether the serious people produce the fogs, I don’t know.”
Oscar Wilde

As usual with our visits to London – I believe that this will be our 14th time there – we tend to book up heavily on the cultural side of things. This visit is no exception: 3 shows on the West End, the aforementioned FG at the Chocolate Factory, our first ever Panto (Cinderella at the Hammersmith), and another venue new to us: a Candlelight Christmas Eve Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (AAC CPA has promised not to scream at the climactic part of the concert a la Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Doris Day
Doris Day or AAC CPA? You be the judge.

Albert Hall
The Royal Albert Hall

“London is a roost for every bird.”
Benjamin Disraeli

In between all the culture, there’s the eating. We’ve booked some fun meals at some of our old haunts, and I’ll be reporting on them as merrily we roll along. We’ve also been invited to join A & K for a holiday dinner with A’s family, as they reside in Merry Olde. We’re very flattered to be part of their family for that special evening.

The other fun thing is that, on Christmas Night in London, the very final episode of Downton Abbey will be telecast and we’ll be there to see it. (Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve already seen the final season and it’s GOOD! Shhhhhhhh!) We’re a bit sorry to see the series go, but it seems to be ending on a high note.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
What would Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham say?

I’ll try to post a couple of entries while we’re across the pond to let you know how it’s going.

In the meantime, I hope that all of you are enjoying a happy and healthy holiday season.

Cheers!