The bare-bones production of Melvin Bragg and Howard Goodall’s “The Hired Man,” playing for a fortnight at 59E59, can be viewed as a blueprint for what might be a remarkable musical. The advertisements call it “arguably the finest new British musical of the last 30 years.” This U.K. touring production, imported as part of the Brits Off Broadway series, provides New York audiences with an exhilarating introduction to this little-known but worthy piece of musical theater.
Imagine “Les Miserables” performed by a cast of eight on a bare platform with two keyboards; that’s pretty much what New Perspectives, a touring group based in Nottingham, England, has brought to Gotham. Thanks to the efforts of all involved, this makes for an intelligent and highly theatrical event on its own terms.
Even so, this is presumably not the form the authors had in mind when they adapted this work (apparently under the influence of “Les Miz” and “Blood Brothers”) from Bragg’s novel. To begin with, the melodic heights of what seems to be a rousing score can only be hinted at here. It also appears that in addition to the true glories of the music, this treatment obscures other flaws in the material, notably a plot that ranges over too much territory.
Nonetheless, director Daniel Buckroyd has worked theatrical magic, with a keen assist from lighting designer Mark Dymock. The desolate farmland, the coal mines, the trenches of WWI, a mining collapse and more — are all presented on a small, raised platform.
The score sounds as wonderful as a two-keyboard version can. Musical director Richard Reeday gets quite a workout at the onstage piano, with an unseen colleague offstage; two of the actors supplement the musical accompaniment by periodically picking up cornet and violin.
If Goodall’s score is missing instrumental textures, however, he has a hidden weapon: the vocal arrangements, which positively soar as performed by the hard-working troupe.
The scaled-down approach likely would not work without a top-rate cast. Richard Colvin as hired man John, and Claire Sundin as his wife Emily, both give impressive performances with strong singing, despite being prevented from aging properly over the decades by poor wigs and makeup.
Katie Howell and Lee Foster do well as their children while doubling in adult roles. Most effective is Simon Pontin as Jackson, the third part of the triangle that intrudes on the proceedings. Pontin has an especially powerful voice and knows how to use it; he may well have a future worth watching.
The show itself has a checkered history. Novelist Bragg wrote “The Hired Man” in 1969, inspired by the life of his grandfather, a Cumbrian farmer-turned-miner whose life was interrupted by the Great War. Goodall, a television composer in his early 20s associated with Rowan Atkinson, enlisted Bragg to write his own libretto. Their show played a successful tryout in Southampton in summer 1984, followed by a West End transfer produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“The Hired Man” won the Ivor Novello Award for musical but lost out in the Oliviers to “42nd Street” and closed after a mere four months. (An all-but-forgotten 1988 Off Broadway production lasted a few weeks.) The show has retained its fans, however, and the success of the New Perspectives tour — with a CD release imminent — seems likely to help restore its fortunes.