THE FIRST MUSICAL PLAY IN THE WORLD ABOUT HARRY NILSSON
WHYI was enthralled by Harry's voice, lyrics, humor and irony when I first heard him sing in the late sixties. The fact that he never performed live, that he had said that he'd make 21 albums and stopped at number 20, his biggest hits were not his own, his non-relationship with a live audience and the fact that the Beatles dubbed him best singer and band intrigued me. Instead of making a tribute album I thought that his material had such theatrical substance that I decided to make a musical play about him. My intentions are to reveal his genius to a new, young audience.
With the help of Jeroen van den Berg, Brigit Odett, producer, Endemol Entertainment Inc. and a brilliant cast, a long lived dream of mine has come true.
STORYIn this one and a half hour musical play we see the last two seconds of Harry's life. The audience travels along in Harry's hallucinating mind.
1994 - Harry's dilemma with his record company (Anthology) makes him doubt whether he should have performed live in the past. Then a young audience would know who he is. John Lennon appears and tells Harry that "new work" performed live is the way of the future. John takes Harry back to 1974 (Lost Weekend, Pussycats, Diane and Una). There, Harry can change his fate, but fate is inevitable. The Lost Weekend becomes a nightmare for Harry, a sinking ship. John pushes Harry into a live performance (synonymous for death), but Harry can't take it anymore and calls out for Una, who's always there for him. Harry dies, at peace with his fate, in her arms.
WHO's WHO?Bill van Dijk (Harry)
Bill has starred in numerous musicals around the world from "Hair" to "Les Mis". He created the role of Cyrano at the Neil Simon theater on Broadway in 1993-94. Played in four feature films and represented the Netherlands at the Eurovision Song Contest. As a songwriter singer he's written a number of hits for others and recently made a solo album of his own songs (Songlines) with Jan Akkerman (guitarplayer from the legendary band Focus). After Nilsson, Bill will play "The Engineer" in Miss Saigon and record a new solo CD.Marjolein Keuning (Una)
Played in the musicals "Cats","Les Mis" and "Closer than Ever". She played a leading role in the television series, "Women's Wing" (Vrouwenvleugel) which is situated in a women's ward in prison. Currently, she hosts Netherlands number one T.V. show "That lovin' feeling.." (Het gevoel vanů.), which has broken all Dutch viewing records.Jim de Groot (Lennon)
Played in the feature film, Vincent and Theo. This is Jim's theatre debut. Jim, (who looks exactly like John Lennon) is the son of legendary Dutch popstar Boudewijn de Groot. He has his own band, Babyface Armstrong, and will be releasing a new C.D. in the near future.Lottie Hellingman (Diane/Joy)
Won the Danny Kaye children's award. At the age of 19 she received rave reviews for her first leading role in the musical play, "Far Out" (Eindeloos), and recently played the part of Elen in Miss Saigon. She has been touted as the Netherlands' brightest young talent of the future.Jeroen van den berg (writer)
Has written and directed numerous plays for different Rep.companies. He has his own theatre company, "Oranjehotel".Brigit Odett (director)
Started as assistant director on Les Mis. Now directs numerous plays and musical plays such as Sweeny Todd, Ghost Train, Jane Eyre, Les Mis (Germany and Belgium) and teaches at the Theatreschool in Brussels
THE SONGS (in following order)Salmon Falls (Harry)
Diane warns Harry that he has to play live. Harry says he never performs live.Mr. Richland's Favourite Song (Band)
Intro to Harry's live performance.Jump Into The Fire (Harry)
Harry performs live and has a heart attack.Remember reprise (John)
Harry hears strange voices.Here's Why I Didn't Go To Work Today (Joy)
Harry enters Bar where he used to hang out in the seventies - where Joy works.One (Una)
Una sits at home watching television.Lifeline (Harry)
Harry sees John Lennon appear who tells him that they should create new work instead of "the best of".Will She Miss Me (Harry/Una)
Harry and John travel back to the seventies. Una thinks of Harry.What's Your Sign? (Harry/John)
Harry and John go out on the town.Early in the Morning/Jealous Guy (John)
John tries to call Yoko, but gets no reply.You're Breaking My Heart (Diane)
Diane leaves Harry.One/Without You/Lifeline (Harry/Diane)
Harry wants to change history but realizes that fate has taken hold of him.What's Your Sign (reprise) (Harry/John)
Harry and John go from bar to bar.Lean On Me (Una)
Una, as a young woman, meets Harry - Harry doesn't want to know.Together (Harry/John)
Both men are lost and need each other's help.Many Rivers to Cross (Harry/John)
Harry and John decide to make an album.Jump Into the Fire (John)
John convinces Harry that they should perform live.Down (Harry)
Coughs up blood in his attempt to perform live.I'll Never Leave You (Harry/Una.)
Harry can't take it any more and calls out for Una.Turn On Your Radio (Harry)
Harry dies In Una's arms.Perfect Day (Una/Diane/John/Band)
Epilogue. John has organized a surprise party in heaven. They've bought Harry a coffin.
A small (300 seats) (off Broadway) theater where new plays and musical plays preview and try out to see whether these productions have the possibility to play in bigger theaters and longer runs.
WHENFrom February 15th 1998 until April 29th 1998
CRITICS!"The songs, performed in English, are beautiful and sensitive." "Lottie Hellingman's performance gives you the goosebumps"
"Lennon, convincingly brought to life by Jim de Groot."
"Once the last note has resounded, one wants to do what Nilsson asks, "Turn on your radio and listen to my song."
"Beautiful, clean setting atmospheric slides."
"Not a bad word about this small tasteful production."
"The excellent script, by Jeroen van den Berg, has it all: humor, tragedy, suspense."
"Bill van Dijk is the perfect Harry Nilsson."
"Slick four-piece band which plays at popconcert loudness."
"The soakers duet is one of the highlights of the show."
"Van Dijk and de Groot are worthy followers of Nilson and Lennon - two giant talents whom we painfully see fall into decay."
"Bill van Dijk's farewell song, 'Turn on your radio,' is a gem."
"Surprisingly well acted by pop musician Jim de Groot."
"Lennon-Nilsson dialogues are so sharply written and are played with such zeal that these excerpts are enough to tell a rounded story." "Singing. movement. acting. Lottie Hellingman has it all."
"Bill van Dijk is clearly in his element."
"This production makes you want to find the unreleased tapes of Harry Nilsson."
MORE?There are negotiations for a live CD. A "bootleg" video for private viewing will be made. The possibility for a reprise in 1999 is under negotiation.
-- Bill van Dijk
It's been more than a month now, since I first saw the posters for the Dutch Nilsson play here in Amsterdam. I don't see them anymore so I must describe these by memory. And no I'm not one to peel those posters of or steal them from the theatre and take them home. These things are yellow and a bit smallish. They are the smallest size of posters. I don't know the correct term for this, one-sheet, two-sheet, etc., but they are the one size smaller than your normal film poster.
On it is a drawing of a beard and sunglasses and a text proclaiming "Bill van Dijk is Nilsson - muziektheater over poplegende Harry Nilsson" which is just about the same in English. The beard and sunglasses are from the familiar photo of Harry with the beard and sunglasses, that was also used in Roger's web pages. The big question is how many would recognise the beard and sunglasses or the name Nilsson. It's a good idea though, bluffing this thing into recognition. The designer or advertising agency thinks maybe that people wonder something like this:"Hey, if I don't know this Nilsson character and it says there he is a legend, maybe I should check it out".
This past month I was warned by several people, who know of my sorry state as a Harryhead, that there was a play about him. And because they also know that I don't have a television, they reported back to me whenever there was a related sighting on television. So far as was reported to me this Bill van Dijk character and company made two television appearances. One on local television and one on national television. When questioned which songs Van Dijk sang in promoting his play, they couldn't say. They didn't have a clue, even as I fired of a list of likely titles. So much for labeling Harry a pop legend. They can't even remember simple song titles. And these people know Everybody's Talkin', because they know about film, or they are about my age and danced at school parties to Without You.
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
If you think, like I did, there is anything to be found on the Dutch Web about this Nilsson play, you'd be disappointed. The theatre doesn't have a site, the play isn't mentioned anywhere, even this Bill van Dijk guy appears to have no fan page. And the Dutch newspapers present on the Web are a sorry sight compared to their US counterparts. In most cases just a small number of headline articles. A friend of mine gave me a print interview with Bill van Dijk and a print review of the play, not on the Web site of this newspaper. I'll try to translate these two in the coming week(s), when I have time. Another article in another newspaper is promised to be given to me.
Only in one case did a search on a Dutch newspaper site for Nilsson return the correct guy for the name. This was in Het Rotterdams Dagblad, where they two times reviewed Marianne Faithfull on tour. Luckily I managed to totally miss her appearance in this country. On december 6, 1995 it said: "The most touching rendition of the short but powerful evening was 'Don't Forget Me' written by her good friend Harry Nilsson, who free of his drink problem had to die in a dentist chair". And on november 4, 1996 the same guy writes: "She is most annoying [with explaining and generally babbling on about songs] in the endless introduction to 'Don't Forget Me', written by her 'drugspal' Harry Nilsson, which didn't sound half as impressive as last year."
To confuse things, there is a new Dutch pop/rock group called Nilsson with a web page and there is no mention of Harry or why they call themselves Nilsson. Also there is a book importer/publisher called Nilsson & Lamm, who might turn up in Dutch Web search engines.
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
Tagline readers know of Dutchmen Willem Nijholt who allegedly sang Goeie Ouwe Plee to the tune of Good Old Desk. However no one has ever heard this. What's more, in record shops there is no Willem Nijholt LP or CD to be found. Earlier I told about him, he is a bit older than Harry and after singing this Goeie Ouwe Plee he went on to win a best Dutch actor award in the eighties, to starring in musicals like Miss Saigon in the nineties and his own tribute to Cole Porter titled You're The Top.
I do remember from the early seventies, just after I became a Harryhead, a television show featuring Dutch singer (in English: chanteuse) Liesbeth List doing a faithful rendition of Coconut, dancing and smiling her way through it. And yes, you can hear this too. I searched for it in a webbased CD-library and it is on a sort of Best Of Liesbeth List 2-CD set. Along with some specially written for her Dutch ballads, French chansons and the like. I think she is about the same age as Harry.
About five years ago I was in a radio studio where Fay Lovsky performed live. She also sang a Nilsson song, but I can't remember which one. My guess is that it was an early one from PSS or AB, something like Together or Don't Leave Me. That one I can't find recorded. She is about my age, began her singing career in the late seventies, early eighties, producing her own records not through a record company, but with friends and like minded people.
Three different singers from three different fields of entertainment. Nijholt, a relative big name working in commercial entertainment, List a respected singer in a field where the song is also considered an art form and finally Lovsky coming from the alternative side of the music industry, mostly writing her own songs.
So, the next question is who is Bill van Dijk?
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
I don't know much about Bill van Dijk. It should however ring a bell to regular Broadway goers on the list. I never go to the theatre, I don't watch television. I saw him in a Dutch film from 1981 Hoge Hakken, Echte Liefde, directed by Dimitri Frenkel Frank. I immediately start thinking about Randy Newman's Short People upon hearing his name ever since. After that small role he disappeared from view to television and big time musicals. His name seemed always to be associated with what is now called Endemol.
This production company is the main supplier of television programs for the new commercial Dutch television stations. And Endemol started to produce the Andrew Lloyd Webber (and the likes) musicals for the Dutch stage, in which this Bill van Dijk sometimes sang. I know for sure some Dutchmen composed and wrote a new musical based on Cyrano de Bergerac and went to Broadway with it. Bill van Dijk played the fellow with the long nose there. I believe Endemol or some Dutchmen who started out with them are also responsible for the Broadway hit Victor, Victoria starring Julie Andrews.
In short, this Bill van Dijk is not tall, he is in the same league as Van Dyke Parks. Hm, let me rephrase that as he is no amateur. He knows what he is doing and he is backed by the most powerful theatre/television producer in Holland. But I have to say I'm thinking he would do better in playing VDP or Richard Starkey.
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
For those of you flying in to see this 'muziektheater' thingy starring Bill van Dijk, here is a short description how to get there. From Schiphol take the train to Amsterdam Centraal Station. Leave the station at the city side, you are facing south, look east=left and look for a city bus, line 22 direction Indische Buurt. Stamp your 'strippenkaart' as one zone, that is to say two 'strippen'. For those of you not familiar with a 'strippenkaart', just grab a taxi to the west=right side of the station. Say Voormalig V.O.C. Werktheater, Oostenburgergracht 75.
It doesn't matter if you go by bus or taxi, you should keep going along the waterfront to the east. Never look to the right (=south) to avoid looking at that strange light, look to your left (=north) and first you see a botel, then a floating Chinese restaurant. Next up is a green monstrosity called the NewMetropolis, a new technology museum build upon the IJ-tunnel. Then you should see a replica of a Dutch trading vessel of the seventeenth century in front of the Scheepvaartmuseum (Shippingmuseum). After a slight swerve in the road you come on the Oostenburgergracht, near the end of which is the Voormalig V.O.C. Werktheater. If you pass the windmill you know you have gone too far.
Anyway, this is way out of the city centre (relative of course because Amsterdam is a village) in an area what used to be the harbour. It's not near any other theatre or other entertainment and to my knowledge it is a new venue. The letters V.O.C. stand for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, which means United East Indian Company, which was the company in the seventeenth century trading with all the Indies in the East and Japan. Voormalig means former, so my guess is that it is a converted warehouse or some such.
What I'm trying to make clear here, also to those of you not flying in, this is not done in an established theatre, where they would be risking lots of money every evening it is not sold out. They are trying something new here and it looks like a labour of love.
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
The Voormalig V.O.C. Werktheater building is not easy to describe. It is difficult to guess how old is and what it used to be. It could have been a shipping office, but I don't know when. It is clear however that the theatre function is totally new. It is hardly recognisable as such from the outside, and once inside it is not much different. In a large entrance room there is a makeshift box office, where sometimes the tickets have to be hand-written if the computer malfunctions. This entrance hall is, with the exception of the box-office with hand-written signs on the table, empty. There is an impressive staircase to the first floor beginning on the left and right side, coming together in the middle and continuing up.
On the first floor you come in a sort of canteen. It is all very sparse looking with whitish walls and equally harsh lighting. Here is another staircase, but the theatre itself is on this floor. The doors open at the official starting time and you enter into the play. Coming in you hear Count Down and Merlin talking on the sound system. On a couch on the stage Bill van Dijk in pyjamas is watching television. There is no curtain. The wooden chairs look like those commonly found in cafs, and can easily be moved about. I am always terrible at guessing how many people there are, and this is no exception. So, maybe on this night there are thirty to forty, definitely under fifty. Capacity I guess would be at something like 150. In the back of this room and on a small balcony there are some technicians fiddling with knobs, lights and what have you.
Bill on the couch is situated on the right front of the stage, which is slightly raised above the auditorium. One firm step and you're on or off this stage, which Bill at one point during the play will do (and with two steps would have reached me in row 4, and I was in the back of the audience). In the centre of the front of the stage are a small, dollhouse like chair and a teddy bear. The back of the stage is again slightly raised, which requires only a small step to get there. That is the largest part of the stage. On the left back side there is a bar, which we later shall learn is the Paradise Bar. On a stool there is a thin rail of a man, dressed in black with a cap, his back turned to us. This is Jim de Groot, eerily convincing as John Lennon. Behind the bar Lottie Hellingman is serving drinks as Joy. Joy in this play is not one girl, but all the girls Harry and John once knew. Lottie Hellingman will go off and come back on again donning a simple wild wig, which transforms her into Diane, Harry's first wife. Not on stage when you enter is Una, played by Marjolein Keuning. Planted in the right back of the stage is the four-man band, consisting of keyboards, drums, guitar and bass guitar. Above, behind and on the right side of them, during the play there will be projected a series of slides of Harry, John, general pictures of the sixties and seventies, but also youth pictures of Bill van Dijk.
The story so far, nothing has happened yet. The play is about to begin. When everyone is seated, the soundtrack of Son of Dracula is silenced, the lights dim, and the band starts to play Salmon Falls. Light comes up again, with only the band visible. On first hearing this is not a good start, keyboards can hardly replace the orchestra. And suddenly there is a guitar solo, with a spotlight on the guitarist. I thought one LP was called Spotlight on Nilsson. However, upon further reflection, this is just a theatrical trick to raise the curtain. For a moment we forget about Bill van Dijk, lazily watching television on his couch, right in front of us. That is of course, until he belts out the first words of Salmon Falls, the lyrics projected on the back and right wall, thereby overshadowing the band.
It is hard to categorise this Nilsson. It isn't a play with music, nor is it a pop concert, nor a musical, where music is specially written for the book, like Paul Simon's Broadway flop Capeman. Here they have to deal with existing songs and want to try to tell a whole life of somebody in just under 90 minutes. So, the solution they have chosen is to take the most dramatic element of this person and put it on stage. Which means that we are witnessing the dying moments of Harry and as he sees his whole life flashing by, we see that too. Well, of course not his whole life, again to dramatise and keep it simple they concentrate on that Lost Weekend with John Lennon. After Salmon Falls, Una enters the stage asking the sickly Harry how he feels. Meanwhile John in the Paradise Bar uses his cellular phone and tries to reach his old pal to ask him to join him. He has arranged a live performance for his friend, which should help Harry inject his musical career with new life. On walks Diane who, alone in the centre of the stage, sings Remember. Only Harry and we can hear it, Una talks right through it. Well to make a long story shorter, Harry splits. Or he starts to wander between his couch and the Paradise Bar, between 1994 and 1974, always wondering what year it is and what he could or should have done differently with his life and career.
As you can conclude from the songlist, this play and the songs mainly deal with life, death and love. None of the joke songs made it. Very serious stuff and Harry is always questioning himself, his love(s) and whether he should perform live. What I was missing during the play was the fun that Harry must have had during his life. That fun is only to be found in the final Perfect Day number, the death scene, where John with a coffin at the ready is waiting for his friend and starting a big party. When Harry finally decides that yes, he will perform before his fans, that means he dies. Translated to Woody Allen terms this is more Bergman than Marx Brothers. This moralistic attitude is typical Dutch Calvinistic, unknowingly written into the play, it can't be helped and I consider it one of the best traits of us Dutch. When you don't understand Dutch, nothing is lost, because the dialogue isn't that funny or witty at all. It helps things along nicely, but as the name of this theatre group is Work In Progress, it is rather workmanlike.
Now for the singing. Bill van Dijk wisely doesn't try scat or whistling. After a while and with the help of sunglasses and a cap you get used to the idea that he is supposed to be Harry. As mentioned before this Jim de Groot fellow is very convincing as John Lennon. Both their singing voices don't resemble the originals, but that doesn't matter, because they don't try to. Marjolein Keuning is good as Una, although she doesn't get anything special to do. I was most satisfied with the clarity and strength of the singing voice of Lottie Hellingman as the various Joys/Diane. The band, after the first solo curtain riser, stays mainly in the background, doing nothing special to familiar arrangements.
The trouble with this kind of thing is to keep it going while songs are sung and this is best acted out in the What's Your Sign? number. Harry and John enter quite intoxicated into the bar, where Joy is sitting on a stool. They begin singing, parading their way across and Joy turns out to be Diane. Musically very good was the resulting battling duet between Harry and Diane. Diane opening with the lines of You're Breaking My Heart, Harry answering with One (not in the program songlist), and resolving in Without You. Most satisfying was that all four actors/singers and the four musicians were visibly having fun singing and playing these songs. To conclude this flying saucer impression, I was very touched by this playthingy, not perfect, but as they themselves claim a Work In Progress. Which means by the time you get there, the whole performance may have changed.
Piet van de Merwe (Piet@vandemerwe.demon.nl)
Alright NILSSON. There is a lot of attention in the press: papers, radio, television, magazines. The first reactions are positive. But let me go back to Amsterdam. The performance started with the long intro of "SALMON FALLS" ... the lights were subdued ... from the right side appeared NILSSON, dressed in a pajamas and a robe, wearing a beard and singing with a litle bit of rough and broken voice. In the background you could read the words on a screen. In a moment UNA appeared also dressed in pajamas and sat down on the bench. UNA was worried about his restless behaviour (the dialogues were in Dutch). It all took place in his last hours. Continually he heard music from the past, heard John Lennon and Diane, his wife before UNA, who said that everything is ready to perform. John said continually they had to perform together, to write new songs, etc. And when Harry protested always by saying nobody knows who NILSSON is, John said, it was better to die earlier, so he did got, maybe, the same fame as his friend Lennon. (The starting point is the Lost Weekend-year 1974 maybe you understand) But you saw Harry hesitate ... So only Harry saw continually the past (and the people who were watching!) It was a mix of past and present, with about 30 songs, mostly from Harry. They were sung by everyone" (together or alone). For instance UNA sang "ONE," Lennon sang "EARLY IN THE MORNING", and DIANE sang ... eh .. eh .. Yeh! I've to see it again! (sadly there was no information available at this try-out). But other songs were also performed - for instance TOGETHER, MANY RIVERS TO CROSS, WITHOUT YOU, DON'T LEAVE ME, BREAKING MY HEART, EVERYBODY'S TALKIN', JUMP INTO THE FIRE, LEAN ON ME, LIVING WITHOUT YOU, REMEMBER, ME AND MY ARROW, ETC. At the end of the show he died in the arms of Una. Curtain! After a moment the lights went on, and everyone sang Happy Birthday to Harry. They gave him a present hidden behind a big cloth. A little bit of shy he pulled away the cloth ... a coffin covered with velvet! That's for me? he asked. Yes, Harry! they all said. A litlle hesitating he fitted it himself and when he was in, he ended with the words: That's all folks!
Okay we were very impressed of all: the story, the singers, the musicians, the songs, etc.
Greetings, jack de vries