Bugle Boy – Theatre Review
Bugle Boy is a play based on the life and music of Jazz musician Glenn Miller written by British playwright Den Stevenson.
Admired by Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra and famously covered by the Andrews Sisters, Glenn Miller (1904-1944) was already an American war hero and legend when Anthony Mann decided to capture his life story on screen. In The Glenn Miller Story (1954) James Stewart was the obvious choice to play Miller – perhaps America’s most popular movie star of all time – perfectly cast as the man who only manages to fulfil half his life’s ambition and who knows how little of his actual musical potential before passing at the early age of 40.
The play shows Miller’s early career big break when he was invited to join the Ben Pollock band as trombonist-arranger. Over the next ten years Miller went on to work with many other notable bands before striking out on his own, only to return home broke and dejected. His wife Helen’s family took out a second mortgage to enable Glen to form another band, and this time, with the help of a lead clarinet and adding a fifth sax the Glenn Miller sound was born. With some much needed radio exposure, Miller became an overnight hit – with one in three coins inserted into a jukebox estimated to play a Miller record.
Glenn Miller was 37 in 1941, the year America was thrust into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and under no obligation to join up. However, Miller felt it was simply not enough to entertain the troops on air and became the Director of Bands Training, recruiting some of the finest musicians to keep up morale. On 15th December 1944, on his way to entertain U.S troops in France, Glenn Miller was presumed dead when his plane went missing during bad weather over the English Channel. No trace of the aircrew or plane were ever found.
Den Stevenson was inspired to commit Miller’s life to the stage after meeting Glenn Miller’s younger brother Herb and becoming ‘booker’ to the Herb Miller Orchestra. Herb enlightened Den as to the true story behind his brother’s quest to find that unique sound, far removed from the Hollywood film version. Stevenson is the first person ever to be granted permission to use Miller’s music in a stage production. Over 60 years since Miller’s disappearance, audiences around the world still appreciate the great gift Miller was to music. With a live 16-piece orchestra and classics such as Chattanooga Choo Choo and In the Mood it is impossible to sit through Bugle Boy without the odd involuntary toe-tapping or head bopping.
Ian Knauer does a sterling job of playing Glenn Miller in this production, and looks surprisingly like James Stewart. Bugle Boy is already a huge success with fans of the music and is introducing a younger generation to the era of swing. I am the third generation Miller fan in my family; this is the music my grandparents danced to during their courtship, and my mother grew up listening to June who Allyson played Miller’s wife Helen in the film. Maddie Cole deserves special mention for her beautiful voice and David Wilder, who played Glenn’s best friend Don Haynes, did a great job of meeting and greeting the audience in the foyer before and after the show, in costume.
Bugle Boy continues its second extensive UK tour and it would be exciting to see the play command a West End run, and with better lighting and staging I can’t see why this isn’t more than possible.