Val Wiseman: The Bronte Legacy

Val Wiseman 1

Val Wiseman appears in her tribute to the Bronte family and the novels at St James Studio.



Val Wiseman 2

Val Wiseman, jazz singer of many years and perhaps best known for her Billie Holiday show Lady Sings the Blues has created with composer Brian Dee a musical tribute to the Brontë family.

The show opens with spoken introduction in the character of a well- to-do woman describing the effects the latest Brontë novel is having upon her and the stir they caused when first published. Immediately, there is a sense of fun and playfulness, and Wiseman’s charming child-like whisper conveying the words the Brontë sisters used extends into her singing.

She has a pleasing voice with clear diction, and her experience on stage renders her unflappable when things don’t go quite to plan, such as when she loses her place temporarily or the sound cue does not come when expected. Throughout the show she tells us of the course of each of their lives and puts the book characters in context.

The songs are modern in style and lyric, more like pop folk songs than anything period or jazz, and serve as an illustration of the story of their lives and the extreme emotions of key characters in the books. Some express the thoughts of the family member or character discussed, such as “Where are They?” from the God-fearing father Patrick, who had difficulty understanding the imaginings of his children. Others are either a commentary on them or an exhortation to keep the faith, such as “You’ve Got to Believe in Yourself” sung to the unfortunate brother Bramwell.

For me, the standout song of the night was “Mademoiselle Henri” about Charlotte’s unrequited love for her married tutor when studying in Bruxelles. Interestingly, some of the songs work well as stand-alone numbers and could serve as good material in a simple concert with a different theme altogether.

There is a CD which I was unable to hear, but I suspect that a full production recording would serve the work well, placing Wiseman’s voice into sharp relief against a darker orchestral sound, giving weight to the lyrics.

There is hope of taking the work into production on a larger scale, perhaps turning it into a musical theatre piece. Depending on the treatment envisaged, a point of development to consider could be a stronger narrative line in the songs themselves, rather than simply illustration or commentary. A new concept could also benefit from greater change of pace.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing idea, with the potential to do well both artistically and commercially. Inevitably in a collection like this, some of the songs work better than others, but with a good creative team and cast it would be nice to see how the work develops.

Fiona-Jane Weston



About Fiona Jane Weston

I am Fiona-Jane Weston and as well as being a performer myself (see website), I write reviews of and features on shows, mainly on the London cabaret and theatre scene. I have worked in theatre for many years, but decided to embark on a new direction in cabaret in 2009, when I produced 20th Century Woman: The Compact Cabaret. Not wanting to neglect my love of spoken word, particularly drama and verse, I made the conscious decision to include these elements in the programme, as well as wonderful songs, to tell the story of women's changing status and preoccupations throughout the 20th Century and up to now. I was invited to audition for the renowned Cabaret Conference at Yale, run by the late legendary Erv Raible, and that was thrilled to be one of only 26 accepted that year, where I was taught by the masters of the genre. Amanda McBroom (composer of the Bette Middler hit "The Rose" and the poignant "Errol Flynn"), Laurel Massé, original member of Manhattan Transfer, Sally Mayes, Tony Award nominees Sharon McNight and Tovah Feldshuh, and New York cabaret veteran Julie Wilson were all on the faculty. We were also treated to the musical direction of Alex Rybeck, Hubert Tex Arnold and the now late Paul Trueblood. With the benefit of their insightful teaching and great encouragement, I took my show to The Duplex in New York, where I was delighted with the response. Since then, I have produced Loving London: The Capital Cabaret, using the same format of songs, poetry and drama, in various London venues, including Leicester Square Theatre and The Crazy Coqs. 2014, the centenary of World War 1, saw the launch of Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret to a sellout house at St. James Theatre, London, garnering great notices, including from The Times and Musical Theatre Review. I have since been touring the show to Belgium and throughout the UK. I hope these reviews and interviews entertain and educate at the same time, and if please do leave comments in the box. It's great to engage in a conversation about the Arts. Fiona-Jane Weston
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