Any pantheon of classic Western musical comedy films would include 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” starring the legendary actor and dancer Gene Kelly. Set in late- 1920s Hollywood as it was transitioning from silent films to talkies, it depicts a romance between an established leading man named Don Lockwood (Kelly) and novice actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).
Remarkably, it was more than 30 years after that before the first full-fledged stage version of the movie appeared, when a production starring and directed by pop singer Tommy Steele ran in the West End from 1983-85.
Other stagings followed, including one that ran on Broadway from 1985-86. Then in 2004, a version featuring choreography by and starring Adam Cooper — a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet who also created the role of the Swan/Stranger in “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake” in 1995 — played a short summer season at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.
Seven years later, that was reworked — still starring Cooper, but with choreography by Andrew Wright — for the Chichester Festival Theatre in southern England, from where it transferred to the West End from 2012-13.
Talking with this writer in Tokyo recently ahead of the same show’s three-week run here in November, Cooper explained its attraction to him, saying, “For any actor in musicals, Don Lockwood is a dream role everyone wants to play, but not many can do it. Yet when I attempted it in 2004 and I was also in charge of choreography, we only had three weeks to rehearse and it wasn’t an adequate performance.
“However, this production has been a fantastic experience,” he continued, “though it’s tiring.”
As to why that was, the superfit 43-year-old Londoner explained, “If you just compare them show for show, ballet is harder, but in ballet you’d never have two performances in one day. Even with ‘Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake,’ we had a double cast and there were only performances on about five days a week, so I was able to rest a bit. In contrast, this ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ played eight times a week for 18 months — with a single cast.”
Cooper was a fan of the 1952 movie even before he began to learn ballet. “From when I was about 5, I used to watch films of musicals with my big brother, and we’d copy them,” he explained.
“We both liked Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, each for our own reasons. But there were limits to what I could do on a carpet, so before I entered elementary school I began learning tap at a small local dance school. I recall wearing a horrible red-and-white striped costume and a bowler hat, dancing to ‘One’ from ‘A Chorus Line’ in the schoolyard. But I don’t remember the details.
“I remember more about the ballet lessons I took afterwards. My mum took me to the barber for my first time and I got a strange haircut, and there were girls all around, and I wanted to run out.”
While neither his tap nor his ballet seem to have got off to a magnificent start, Cooper puts his expertise in both to excellent use in this production whose highlight is the scene of singing and dancing in a downpour created by 1 cu. meter of water, weighing 1 ton. As Cooper explained, though, that’s not all that’s real in this staging.
“In the film, and even in the West End show starring Tommy Steele, the rain scene was danced with a prerecorded soundtrack,” he said. “Now, though, this is the first production in which the singing is live along with the dancing. That’s great, but I often have to flick water away with my hand so it doesn’t fall on the mike and make a noise.
“Also, the floor of the main stage is nonslip, but the surrounding areas are not, so you could easily fall and twist something — and then it’s hard to turn on the nonslip floor, so you could hurt your ankle there, too. So I’m always aware of where I am. However, we get to kick water into the audience as well, and I’ve become able to kick it pretty far!”
When I asked this father of two if he’d ever sung joyfully in a real rainstorm, he said, “No, maybe because I’ve done it too much on stage! But whenever it rains, my children ask me, ‘Can we put up the umbrella and do ‘Singin’ in the Rain’?”
Who knows, but such immersion in the stage arts may signal careers to come for those youngsters whose mother, Sarah Wildor, is also a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet.
“Singin’ in the Rain” runs Nov. 1-24 at Tokyu Theatre Orb in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-5858 or visit singinintherain.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.