Phillip Silvers’ Triple Threat

Triple Threat is a regular feature in which we interview a musical theatre artist and ask them to recall which musicals left indelible impressions on them. Plus, we’ll throw in a couple of extra questions every interview to see what kind of musicals make their inner theatre geek sing.

Phillip Silver is a set, lighting and costume designer for theatre and opera whose work has been seen in some 300 productions on major Canadian stages from coast to coast. His designs have earned him a Sterling Award (Aspects of Love), three Dora Awards (Aspects of Love, Pal Joey and Democracy) and a Queen’s Jubilee Silver Medal for his contributions to arts and culture. Phillip’s investment in the emotional affects of design have led to new approaches in set, costume and lighting.

What musical will you always remember for its choreography/dancing?

In 1960, I travelled through Toronto to visit Stratford for the first time. A touring production of West Side Story was playing at the (then) O’Keefe Centre. I delayed my return to Edmonton by one day so that I could see that production, the music of which had been “hit parade” material at the time. This was my first opportunity (age 17) to see a Broadway musical in anything other than a good Edmonton amateur production. As you might imagine, I was impressed by every aspect of the show but it is the spectacular Jerome Robbins’ choreography that still lives in my memory – the complexity, the energy, the grace. And as a lighting designer-to-be, I was struck by the way lighting designer Jean Rosenthal used mixed colours and shadows (as much as light) to sculpt those actor/dancer bodies. Cool. Real cool.

What musical will you always remember for its music?

That’s toss-up between two very different shows which opened within a year of each other – My Fair Lady (1956) and the above-mentioned West Side Story (1957). Both scores perfectly capture the times, the places, the cultures and the emotions of the characters. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story goes between idyllic and romantic to angular, aggressive and angry. Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady perfectly expresses the world of Edwardian London, both the musical hall tradition and the elegance of higher society. Both shows are filled with music that carry me into the story and the characters.

What musical will you always remember for its book/virtuosic acting?

My undergrad degree was a BA in English, and so I have always been interested how writers choose to tell a story. I think that one of the best written shows is Sweeney Todd. Hugh Wheeler’s book, which blends seamlessly into Stephen Sondhiem’s lyrics, sets this dark story perfectly, both in plot development and in its idiomatic language. The book “sucked me in” with little clues as to where it was leading, but I still remember being hit by the horror and surprise of the ending. And all that was helped by the powerful performances by Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, and a cast all of whom gave truly virtuoso performances.

What showtune makes you drop what you’re doing and bust a groove?

For me, the words “showtunes” and “bust a groove” imply songs of great energy and spirit. Gypsy is a show that is packed full of more great showtunes than seems possible. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”,”Gotta Have A Gimmick”, “Some People”, “Rose’s Turn”, “Mr. Goldstone” – the list goes on. But for a true bust-a-groove showtune, where energy is high and increases with the emotions of the character, I’d place Tulsa’s “All I Need Is the Girl” way up there.

What movie would you love to see musicalized?

I’ve always believed that the secret of good (and hopefully great) theatre is mixing compelling (and sometimes contradictory) characters together in a particular situation and then let the plot develop as a consequence. Of the movies I’ve seen recently where characters and situation lead the story line, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has great characters set in a great place and so becomes a great story!! The various characters each have a backstory to be expressed in solos or duets. There are opportunities for numbers for the larger group. And musically, the score could range from more traditional British influenced songs to touches of Bollywood. As a designer, I always look at a musical script for its challenges of scenic flow. So if anyone who reads this has the stage rights to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a design concept is already in development. Call me.

What musical is your guiltiest pleasure?

I’ve always been a fan of Kurt Weill’s music, but it’s certainly not my wife’s taste. So if “guiltiest pleasure” means something one does when others aren’t looking, mine would be closing the door to my studio and listening to my CD of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with book and lyrics by Berthold Brecht. I’ve seen this work presented both as a mid-size theatre musical piece and as a grander opera. I think that in performance it’s better in a smaller scale presentation. But of course, when I listen to the recording behind closed doors, I can see Mahagonny in the perfect theatre of my mind!


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