Blondel is a 1983 West End musical with book and lyrics by Tim Rice (best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber) and music composed by Stephen Oliver. It’s now been released over two discs by Stage Door.
The album is a great legacy of the achievements of Stephen Oliver, a prodigious musical talent who died far too young. The score is the most impressive aspect of the production.
Blondel is minstrel at the court of King Richard I, who happens to be a loyal monarchist. He’s desperate to write a hit song (and become a Twelfth Century pop star). Events intercede, and against the backdrop of Blondel’s narrow personal ambitions are Richard the Lionheart’s Crusades, and his brother Prince John’s attempt to usurp him from the throne of England.
The whole thing is a delightful comedy romp through the Middle Ages that injects some very Twentieth Century aspirations and humour into the proceedings. There are some great ideas in there, and the political satire (Blondel’s girlfriend Fiona believes that the monarchy is doomed and England will soon become a republic) stand up well to this day and it remains largely very funny. It’s almost like a spoof of the X-Factor before its time, or a prototype Spamalot.
The issue, as usual with Tim Rice’s work, is a very muddled telling of an overly-complex story with too many characters and far too many locations. Rice is notorious for using the ‘chorus’ technique, though the Ancient Greeks only popularised it in the first place as they hadn’t figured out how to weave exposition into plot development. This periodically involves a group of monks turning up to explain the plot to the audience in the style of Gregorian chant. There’s also the problem that there isn’t a strong protagonist. Rice has far more fun with minor characters, and the hero, Blondel, is absent from much of the proceedings.
Rice’s poor storytelling aside, there remains a lot to enjoy in Blondel, and a collection of the songs is probably a far more enjoyable experience than an evening at the theatre watching the whole thing. The music is excellent, and even the singing monks have a limited charm. There is an issue with clarity with multiple actors singing together that adds to the overall confusion about what on earth is going on, but judged by the melodies, Blondel is a fine piece of music.
One standout song is The Least of My Troubles, which is a slowie between Blondel and Fiona (Paul Nicholas, an appealing actor with a great voice, does everything he can with a thin character). A bonus track features a recording of the song with Colm Wilkinson (best-known for originating the role of Jean Valjean in the West End production of Les Miserables) as Blondel. The real showstopper is Assassin’s Song, which starts off with a nod to traditional Yiddish music and accelerates into a magnificent two-hander. David Burt is delightfully malevolent as Prince John, whilst Chris Langham matches his performance as the assassin.
It has to be said that despite these highlights, Blondel is crushed under its own weight and confusion in the second act, and there isn’t an equivalent big hit. Amongst the bonus tracks is a quite dreadful re-recording of Running Back For More which alters the music – the bit of the original production that worked the best.
It’s easy to see why Blondel wasn’t a West End smash hit: it’s a story it’s hard to get excited about, and it’s badly told at that. Yet it has some moments of brilliance, usually at the expense of the major characters, and some of the songs are excellent. On this disc, David Burt’s performance is outstanding, whilst Paul Nicholas is as rock solid as ever, and fans of these two compelling actors will find material to enjoy here.
Track List: Disc One 1. Monks’ Introduction – Cantabilé 2. Blondel and Fiona 3. The Ministry of Feudal Affairs 4. The Least Of My Troubles 5. Lionheart 6. No Rhyme for Richard 7. Trio 8. Assassin’s Song 9. Running Back for More Disc Two 1. Blondel in Europe 2. Saladin Days 3. The Inn at Salzburg / Blondel’s Search 4. The Duke of Austria’s Quarters 5. The Cell 6. Westminster Abbey 7. I’m a Monarchist (Reprise) 8. Running Back for More (Reprise) 9. Running Back for More (Bonus Track – Single Version) 10. The Least Of My Troubles (Bonus Track) 11. Running Back For More – Murray Head (Bonus Track) Record Label: Stage Door Release Date: 26th April 2017