The Brill Building in New York City is probably responsible for defining the music of a generation and then some. Think back to any major song you have heard coming from the USA between 1958 and 1970 and chances are it was written and produced in 1619 Broadway. Working in the building were some amazing writers and producers who toiled night and day to feed the teenage music market. It is always intriguing to find out more about these dedicated musical types and thanks to Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Musical currently at the Waterloo East Theatre, we get the chance to do so.
Starting in 1991 when Ellie (Abi Finley) and her songwriting partner – and ex-husband – Jeff Barry (Matthew Quinn) are being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the story goes backwards to their first meeting at a Thanksgiving dinner. Ellie was still in school and Jeff was married but the two of them hit it off immediately with their shared interest in music. Fast forward and Ellie has left school and finally got to visit the Brill Building, getting past Nancy, the Queen of Reception (Emma Fraser) who greets music writers with a cheery hello and a quick rendition of their latest song. Once ensconced in an office, Ellie gets noticed by Jerry Leiber and brought on as a staff writer. The hits start to flow and she meets ups with Jeff – now also a staff writer – once more. The two form a first rate partnership both professionally and personally – culminating in their marriage in 1962. Things are going well as Greenwich and Barry’s music is known throughout the US particularly after they get introduced to Phil Spector (Perry Meadowcroft) with whom they form an amazing collaboration producing hit after hit after hit for Phil’s stable of stars (Sophia Mackay, Lottie-Daisy Francis and Melissa Park) – often moving people from group to group. Of course, all good things come to an end and eventually Ellie and Jeff’s marriage falls by the wayside – for various reasons, faults on both sides etc – leading to Ellie writing the iconic Leader of the Pack for the Shangri-La’s (Isobel Bates, Emma Fraser and Emma Jane Morton). The pair are reunited by Phil to produce one last hit and the show ends back at the induction to the Songwriter Hall of Fame with Tina Turner (Lottie-Daisy Francis) blasting out River Deep Mountain High.
With Beautiful, the Carole King Story, just up the road, you do have to question whether London needs another jukebox musical about a female writer from the Brill Building – particularly as the Waterloo East is a much smaller venue than the Aldwych Theatre. Having sat through and thoroughly enjoyed Leader of the Pack I can honestly say that the two shows can easily co-exist. The show itself is entertaining and well put together. Director Gerald Armin makes very good use of the performance space and small cast, many of whom double up as the band nicely controlled by Musical Director Bryan Hodgson.
Abi Finley brings Ellie to life beautifully, showing not only her sweet innocence mingled with a strong ouch of chutzpah – even demanding a $25 pay rise before she starts her first job – but also her total dedication to her music which, for her, was more of a vocation than a job. Abi’s pairing with Matthew Quinn’s Jeff really works well and the two of them make a really lovely couple. I was really pleased when they got together and actually upset when their marriage ended. A lovely pairing of actors that kept the story moving along nicely.
Let’s be really honest though, as with all of these types of show, the music is the most important element and on the whole Leader of the Pack hits the spot. The singing is consistent and good all the way through and does the wonderful music justice. There are sometimes issues with sound levels, particularly on the quieter songs where the band does tend to drown out the voices a bit.
However, that aside, both my companion and I thoroughly enjoyed Leader of the Pack and like the rest of the audience, we were dancing along with the fabulous ending which gave us a chance to join in with the truly awesome music of Ellie Greenwich and the amazing Brill Building.
Review by Terry Eastham
Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Musical is the true-life story of Ellie Greenwich, one of the greatest female songwriters to emerge from New York’s songwriting hit factory, The Brill Building.
We follow her life from humble beginnings to become one of the most established and well respected female songwriters and producers of the 60s music industry, an industry that was predominately a man’s world.
Working with such luminaries of the music industry as Leiber and Stoller, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector; Ellie Greenwich wrote, co-wrote and produced some of the greatest songs to emerge from the 60s era, songs that remain pop classics to this day.
Be My Baby, Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me, Do Wah Diddy Diddy I Can Hear Music, Baby I Love You, Chapel Of Love, River Deep, Mountain High and Leader of the Pack are just a few of the multi-million selling hits from Ellie’s vast catalogue of songs that feature in this celebration of the ‘girl group’ sound..
In a career filled with music, Ellie Greenwich’s songs mirrored her life from happiness to heartache; Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Musical tells that story and celebrates this phenomenal career that spanned over six decades and still continues to influence artists all over the world.
Cast: Abi Finley, Matthew Quinn, Perry Meadowcroft, John Sandberg, Isobel Bates, Emma Fraser, Emma-Jane Morton, Lottie-Daisy Francis, Sophia Mackay, Melissa Park.
Director Gerald Armin. Musical Director Bryan Hodgson. Choreographer Fran Jaynes
7th to 31st October 2015
Waterloo East Theatre
Brad Street London SE1 8TN
www.waterlooeast.co.uk Box Office 0207 928 0060
Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm Sunday at 4pm