Musical theatre with truthful storytelling and songs that will grab you by the heart
Michael Praed is well used to taking on big roles that come with high expectations. On television he was Robin of Sherwood in an early TV incarnation; he was last seen at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, playing Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and now he returns to the venue as Dexter Haven in the sublime musical High Society.
"In many respects, it's of great benefit to have something well known as an actor," says Michael. "The fatal mistake in The Sound of Music would be to try and do an impression of Christopher Plummer. That's sort of insane. It's not difficult to put your own stamp on it."
For this show, it would be a mistake to try to do an impression of Cary Grant who played the role in The Philadelphia Story, or Bing Crosby who was Dexter in High Society, the musical version that followed on screen in 1956.
Cole Porter's wonderful score includes True Love, You're Sensational and the unforgettable Well, Did You Evah!
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The story is of wealthy socialite Tracy Lord who is in the midst of planning a lavish summer wedding when her ex-husband Dexter Haven turns up to disrupt proceedings in an attempt to win her back. A further twist arrives in the form of the charming reporter Mike Connor who falls instantly for Tracy, and she for him. As the day of the wedding draws closer, the audience is left guessing which groom the bride will choose.
"It was a bright idea to make Philadelphia Story into a musical and to get Cole Porter to write the tunes," says Michael.
"For High Society he wrote a song for the particular vocal talents of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. What wasn't know at the time was that Frank Sinatra as a young man had idolised Bing Crosby. The first time they sang together was Did You Evah! It's a wonderful moment in the musical but bad in terms of storytelling!
"In this production the director has gone back to the original text. For instance, in the film High Society Bing Crosby was a songwriter; in Philadelphia Story Cary Grant designed yachts."
The changes may seem minor, but Michael is the kind of actor who pays attention to detail and believes that the basics are important.
"Within the business, musical theatre – in certain circles – is thought of as a second-rate art form. It's not," he says. "What's the difference between Chekhov, or a musical, or Shakespeare or a Michael Frayn comedy?
"At the right level, all these things are just about telling the story. I don't care how brilliant a score is, the most important thing is the story.
"An actor's job is really simple. It's to tell a story as truthfully as you can, full stop. When I'm singing a song, I'm singing it in context. I'm singing it in the moment. Take True Love – it's a song about two people who are no longer together. It has a delicious irony. If you sang it as a song, it would work, but it's not as effective as singing what it's really about.
"A musical play like this one is a different reality, but it must be true. High Society is a joy to perform. There are some terrible composers, and some good ones and some brilliant ones. But there are very few iconic ones, like Cole Porter or the Gershwins or Irving Berlin.
"You might have a song, a favourite song, and you carry it around with you for decades. It's the kind of song that speaks to you and grabs you by the heart. That's what we're talking about. Songs by Cole Porter still have a currency today. What I keep getting told is that people feel I'm singing to them."
High Society is at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, from February 19-23.