After a year with Cats, Sarah Brightman appeared in a couple of musicals – The Pirates of Penzance and Masquerade. In the latter, she played someone named Tara Treetops. The same year, Brightman dipped her toes into perhaps the biggest role to date.
She was the titular character in Nightingale, a “children’s opera” presented in one act by Charles Strouse.
Strouse was the man behind the music of Bye Bye Birdie and the Broadway musical version of Annie. His Nightingale was a departure of sorts from his previous work, but this time he also produced the book and the lyrics to go with the music. It was all based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name.
Nightingale premiered at the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire and went on to the Lyric Hammersmith in London in December of 1982.
The original cast featured Brightman as the Nightingale, Andrew Shore as the narrator, Gordon Sandison as the Emperor, and Susannah Fellows as the maid. The tale takes place in China, despite the obvious British accents, and finds the Chinese Emperor rich but lonely. When he hears Brightman’s Nightingale sing, he asks his maid to bring the “dull-looking” bird around.
What happens next is a comical meditation on popularity and looks, something that is especially prescient today. The Nightingale becomes popular, but the Emperor nearly dies and the bird’s song brings him back around again. The two become good friends, but the Nightingale doesn’t appreciate being a captive. The Emperor gets a beautiful mechanical bird covered in jewels and basks in its glow, surprised at its “loveliness.” The Nightingale, despite having saved the fool’s life, is neglected.
When the fake bird breaks, the Emperor realizes how much he’s missed the Nightingale. The lesson is that one cannot possess what one loves.
Strouse’s “children’s opera” is amusing and fresh. Brightman fits the bill and this really is the best opportunity thus far to experience her in an operatic, theatrical venue. Her voice is crisp and crystalline, as her fans now know well, and it’s not hard to imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber taking note of the Nightingale after seeing her perform.
Oh sure, Brightman had pranced around in Cats for the composer. But it took Nightingale to really put the pieces together in his mind and separate Brightman from Jemima.
It was Brightman’s work here that enticed Webber both professionally and romantically, with her high notes and enunciation commanding something in his own mechanical bird. The two married in 1984 and Brightman would appear in a quite a few of his musicals, including the immensely popular and highly overrated Phantom of the Opera.
Nightingale is a fun “children’s opera” for its part in this process. It exposes a young, fresh Brightman with her young, fresh voice. She is amusing and sweet, seemingly a perfect wide-eyed performer for kids enamoured with her more bird-like qualities. And hell, it worked for Webber.