Swinging London was a melting pot of fashions, styles, and sounds. It was only natural that the cultural revolution and the youth movement would extend to the West End musical theatre. 1966’s On the Level was the second musical to open in London in as many years to concern itself with young adults in a school setting; the first was John Barry, Trevor Peacock, and Wolf Mankowitz’s Passion Flower Hotel a year earlier. If that show had boldfaced names in John Barry, Jeremy Clyde (of Chad and Jeremy), and Barry’s wife Jane Birkin, On the Level wasn’t wanting in that department, either. The show was spearheaded by producer Brian Epstein – yes, that Brian Epstein. The score was by composer Ron Grainer and lyricist-librettist Ronald Millar. Grainer had penned the theme to Doctor Who in 1963 and would go on to write such other memorable television themes as The Prisoner and Steptoe and Son. Screenwriter and playwright Millar had previously worked with Grainer on the 1964 West End musical Robert and Elizabeth; he would go on to write speeches for political figures such as PM Margaret Thatcher, for whom he authored the famous line “The lady’s not for turning.” On October 9, Stage Door Records will revisit On the Level with the worldwide CD premiere of its original CBS Records cast recording remastered from the original tapes.
After tryouts in Epstein’s home turf of Liverpool and in Southampton, On the Level opened at London’s Saville Theatre (today the Odeon Covent Garden movie house) on April 19, 1966. (Epstein would promote concerts at the venue before it was carved into multiple cinemas; The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye” promotional video was filmed there in November 1967 more than a year after On the Level had wrapped its 118-performance run.) The youthful musical begins with a depiction of students and parents mocking the system of exams – in particular, the G.C.E. (General Certificate of Education) – and unfolds in flashback, revealing a story of stolen exams that was inspired by a real-life scandal.
While far-removed from the earlier show’s operetta-style trappings, On the Level reunited the team behind Robert and Elizabeth, consisting of director Wendy Toye (credited as “producer”), choreographer Malcolm Clare, designer Malcolm Pride, and Epstein’s above-the-title co-producer Martin Landau (not the actor). The show starred Angela Richards (Robert and Elizabeth, Cats, the BBC’s Secret Army), Barrie Ingham (Angela Lansbury’s Gypsy, Jekyll and Hyde, Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective), Gary Bond (the first Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Phyllida Law (Rumpole of the Bailey, La Cage Aux Folles, and also Emma Thompson’s mother!), and Sheila White (Oliver!, I, Claudius, EastEnders).
Despite Epstein’s best efforts to promote the show – garnering appearances for the cast on television and even mooting the idea of a film version – it never caught on with the public. The songs were shopped to other artists; both Steve Lawrence and Sheila Southern recorded the ballad “Strangely Attractive,” and Angela Richards (who sang it in the show) released her own pop version b/w Grainer and Miller’s “I Don’t Love Him Enough.” Singer-guitarist Frank D’Rone tackled “My Girl at the Dance.” CBS had the foresight to record the musical for the cast album produced by Reginald Warburton (co-producer of Paul Simon’s first solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook). Sheila White’s cast album rendition of “Bleep Bleep” was even issued by CBS on a single b/w another tune from the show, “Where the Action Is.”
Stage Door’s first-ever CD reissue is part of the label’s Cast Album Masters series; all releases in the series are fully licensed from the rightsholders (in this case, CBS successor Sony Music). On the Level: Original London Cast Recording is a delightful and utterly tuneful curio of mid-sixties British musical theatre. It’s limited to 500 copies and is out on October 9. It’s available for pre-order directly from the label – where it will begin shipping in mid-September – or from Amazon. You’ll find the track listing and links below. Amazon links aren’t yet active, but should be very soon!
Ron Grainer and Ronald Millar, On the Level: Original London Cast Recording (CBS LP 70021, 1966 – reissued Stage Door STAGE 9076, 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada / Stage Door Records)
- Three Crazy Letters (G.C.E.) – Ensemble
- Strangely Attractive – Gary Bond and Angela Richards
- Bleep-Bleep – Sheila White
- Thermodynamically Yours – Gary Bond, Angela Richards, Barrie Ingham, and Ensemble
- Very Good Friend – Phyllida Law and Barrie Ingham
- My Girl at the Dance – Angela Richards, Gary Bond, Rod McLennan, and Sandra Michaels
- Let’s Make the Most of It Now – Company
- Where the Action Is – Rod McLennan, Sandra Michaels, Bernard Sharpe, and Ensemble
- Nostalgia – Barney Gilbraith, Irlin Hall, Robert Cawdron, and Carolyn Hudson
- Love Gets Younger Every Year – Bernard Sharpe and Sandra Michaels
- Peaceful – Gary Bond and Ensemble
- On the Level – Rod McLennan, Gary Bond, Bernard Sharpe, and Ensemble
- And Then I’ll Go – Angela Richards and Gary Bond
- Chorale (Finale) – Ensemble
- Playout (Where the Action Is) – Orchestra