Nine years in the making, Julian Woolford (Head of MA Musical Theatre at GSA) and Richard John’s rock musical Comrade Rockstar finally received its world premiere this week at Guildford School of Acting’s Ivy Arts Centre at the University of Surrey as part of the University School of Arts' programme of events. For one-night-only the concert performance featured a fifteen-strong ensemble of GSA’s MA Graduates plus thirteen principal roles performed by an impressive line of top guest West End stars, GSA alumni and professional staff.
Although described by its writers as “neither biography, fact or fiction,” the musical does tell the extraordinary story of American singer, songwriter, actor and director, Dean Reed. Who?! You might say – and with just cause. Virtually unknown in the West, Dean Reed was had superstar status in South America and especially throughout the Eastern Bloc in the 60s, 70s and 80s until his suicide in 1986.
As a singer in the late 1950s Reed was unable to break into the American music scene, but instead found an unlikely fame in South America, particularly Argentina, where they loved him – so there he stayed for several years, making albums, movies and touring extensively. His growing political opinions and views eventually saw him deported, however, his next move to Europe (where he eventually settled in East Germany) saw him enjoy an almost God-like status across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.
Woolford and John’s new musical portrays Reed in 1986 as something of an ambitious and egotistical maniac frustratingly obsessed with his lack of success back home in the United States. CBS’s influential TV show 60 Minutes is in touch with the little-known self-confessed 'superstar' and is considering making him the subject of one of its documentaries. Comrade Rockstar is presented as a series of flashbacks as Reed recalls his success story to TV executive, Pheme, in an attempt to convince CBS to make the programme. (Pheme also being the Greek Goddess of ‘fame and gossip’ confirms the writers’ intention to convey Reed’s ego and desperation.)
While Reed, who threw away three marriages and several family relationships in pursuit of success, sees the 60 Minutes opportunity as his long-awaited big break. But when the documentary aired, entitled The Defector, many American viewers were angered by Reed’s political views highlighted in the show. Six weeks later, he committed suicide near his home in East Berlin.
Presenting a concert version as the world premiere makes it rather difficult to get a feel of how a full-scale production might come across. The problem is compounded when your stand-in leading man only came into the title role five short days before the performance – so much judgement will have to be deferred. In the circumstances, Tim Howar gave an incredible performance hardly leaving the stage – even though, hardly surprisingly, it resulted in Dean Reed being somewhat glued to his script throughout.
Strong performances on the night from some of the most experienced West End performers provided Howar with plenty of welcomed support. Notably, the talents of Kim Ismay as one of Reed’s early conquests, Countess Nyta Dover, provided a triumphant larger-than-life and full-bodied South American diva; and in contrast Caroline Sheen’s beautifully underplayed Patti, came across well as Reed’s first wife. Katherine Kingsley’s striking figure as Pheme also went some way to justifying her own ‘goddess’ status. GSA’s ensemble provided a reliably powerful backing with many of the chorus also enjoying the odd and well-deserved (although fleeting) moment in the spotlight.
I fear that when the musical (hopefully) enjoys full production values the narrative may be criticised for possibly lacking a little detail and depth. The dramatic path, in general, largely focuses on skimming through Reed's marriages and relationships rather than giving the magnitude and details of his extraordinary career success equal footing. But we’ll happily wait to review a full-scale production as and when it happens - and when the leading actor has had a fair amount of rehearsals.
This first outing was mainly about how the music came across in style and outlining Reed’s story. It’s a shame that Woolford and John haven’t used any of Reed’s own hits (which might suggest why it can’t be labelled a true biography) but, at the same time, their own score doesn’t disappoint. From the signature rock numbers Driving Ambition and the titular Comrade Rockstar, to their versions of Reed’s cheesy first hits, My First Love and Wonderful Girls, GSA's audience lapped it up.
Let's hope there's a further announcement soon regarding this new nine-year-old musical's fascinating journey.