Taking Flight

James Tobin, ‘First to Fly’

I don’t ‘do’ musicals. The music is usually appalling, being nothing more than an attempt to fill the awkward silences between clunky dialogue and the acting, well, what would the actors be doing for a ‘day job’ otherwise? Waiting on tables?

However, since I was a boy, I’ve loved not only the very idea of flying but have read quite a bit about the discovery of flight or rather, humans flying like birds in heavier-than-air vehicles (ballooning doesn’t count though applying physics could never be called ‘cheating’). Wilbur Wright, the actual inventor of powered flight, and more importantly, the discoverer of the principles governing how to make wings actually work using a technique called ‘wing warping’, defined true flight as ‘soaring’, essentially the ability of an airplane to face into the wind and hover above the ground just as any bird can. If an aircraft can’t glide, it isn’t flying (though if you read between all the funky formulae you realise that ‘flying’ is actually controlled ‘falling’ even when you’re going up).

So… my birthday present from Katie was a trip to see a new musical being premièred in London at The Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, called ‘Take Flight’. Now if you read a review of the show published in ‘The Independent’ newspaper, you’d know that Charles Lindbergh was Swedish. With such diligent research from someone who was obviously at the show and heard the song where Charles Lindbergh describes how it is to leave home in the American Mid-West, I think it safe-to-say that this bad review can be ignored. I did. However, upon reading a positive review posted on ClassicalSource.com I did begin to wonder if there were any journalists prepared to do background research.

I shouldn’t have worried. The show’s creators missed a few points too. Guys, for the record, Orville played the ukulele and Wilbur played the harmonica. Also, for dramatic impact (and purposes of historical truth), it would have been far more effective to have the role of Otto Lillienthal in the musical as being that of Charles Langley. Prof Langley actually had government funding to push forward the research he’d made with model aircraft and crucially, for that period of invention in US history, the support of Alexander Graham Bell. How do I know? Well, this being a website about books…

First to Fly‘ by James Tobin is quite simply an exhilarating account of just how the genius of one bicycle maker (Orville joined-in a couple of years later) used his own curiosity – and just as importantly, discipline – to perfect his own learning. At first sight, Wilbur would be the man least likely to succeed because due to his own illness and then having to care for his dying mother, he’d missed university and had been at home through his twenties, the age when most people are making their mark on the world (Orville was at the same time, inventing a new printing press out of scrap parts that was the envy of newspaper corporations across the mid-West). Told in chronological order, we follow the bumbling – though nonetheless heroic – Charles Langley whose approach to solving the puzzle cost him dearly. He believed that a heavier-than-air ‘aeroplane’ (the old-fashioned name used by early fliers) would need lots of horsepower from it’s engines. Wilbur’s observations of birds showed him that the principles of flight as laid down by people like Otto Lillienthal were simply wrong. Unfortunately, this book is now out of print (in the UK), another victim of Hodder’s takeover of John Murray.

Another book I sourced from Worthing Library was Doris L Rich’s biography of Amelia Earhart. Fascinating stuff. Amelia Earhart was determined and a feminist long before the word was commonly used. She was one of those rare people who was both artistic and scientific, fascinated by machines (she loved cars too) for both how they looked and moved and how they actually worked. This biography gives a fascinating insight someone who really deserved to be a celebrity in her own lifetime, from childhood until her untimely death near Hawaii in 1942.

When ‘Take Flight’ gets to Broadway, it’s well worth going along for the night. Most plays – and musicals – are pretty ‘mushy’, being about emotionally-challenged spectacles, appearing to be no more than the stage equivalent of ‘chick-lit’. If that’s your thing, fine but here’s a musical that is about the romance of life and facing up to challenges and better than this, tells a good historical story without the need for a straight face. One thing I really enjoyed about the night was when Clive Carter (playing Otto Lillienthal) improvised a song that told a critic in no uncertain terms to get her rude self ‘to the back of the class’. Though he no doubt risked a bad review of the show, the crone did return after the interval but how many theatre critics get to be the star of the show? The whole cast were great.