Through the work of various artists, solo performances developed as living artists played themselves on stage. The psychologically intense confessional comedies by Spaulding Gray and Holly Hughes typify the genre. The most famous recent celebrity one person shows would have to include An Evening with Groucho (1972) with music by Marvin Hamlisch and Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2001), written by John Lahr and directed by George C. Wolfe.
Now autobiographical performance has moved from the legendary to the regular guy or gal, much as tragedy moved from kings and nobility to travelling salesmen and clerks.
How the Hell Did I Get Here ? – A Musical Autobiography is the story of Manchester born and bred actress Lesley Nicol. Her story is as delightful as the actress herself as she traces her journey from the discovery of “theater” to the glittering premiere of the Downton Abbey movie. Ms. Nicol is a charming, self-effacing, witty woman who recounts the struggles and successes, the pains and the pleasures of a career in the theater.
She is ably served by music written and played by Mark Mueller, who seems to have hit upon the exact key for Ms. Nicol’s persona. The simple songs are integrated into the story quite well to develop the action and reveal the character. The scenic and projection design by Anshuman Bharata features a two-sided enclosure constructed of grey suitcases, underlining the nomadic aspect of a contemporary actress. Upon those surfaces are projected the occasion relevant photograph or video clip.
Why should we care about this detailed account of this actress’ life? Both Aristotle and Constantin Stanislavski suggest the answer. Their answers reveal a great paradox: the more detailed the individual portrayal the more likely the universal soul of the world is revealed, as we discover that what is true for one person is true for all people.
Consequently, for Stanislavski the art of the theater became a “sacred task” whose goal is to touch the human spirit, which means the ineffable part of a human being and the best part of us, the part that connects us to God.
“The human spirit is what God breathes into the clay to make Adam; at its best, theater enables a similar spiritual communion.”[i]
Lesley Nicol has shared a life which turns out to mirror all lives to one extent or another. How the Hell Did I Get Here? is a life-affirming hymn to the human desire to overcome adversity and create. In an age of growing darkness, this little bit of light has the power of a lighthouse beacon.
[i] Isaac Butler. The Method. How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.