From The Collection Archive

Meredith Willson brought The Music Man to Broadway 60 years ago

Sixty years ago a breath of fresh air came to Broadway.  It was brought by a show called The Music Man written by a man of music but one who had no theatre background.  It broke a few theatrical rules and invented new ones and it went on to win the Tony Award for the season’s Best Musical.

The man of music was Meredith Willson whose career had been originally classical based before making his name on radio as an orchestra leader.  He was famous enough to have written an autobiography (or as called a Memento) of his early years growing up in small town Iowa USA.  It was fun, touching and showed insight on ordinary America.  There had been interest from hit show writer Frank Loesser in the book as he saw it had musical possibilities.  Loesser introduced Willson to the producers of his last two shows, Feyer and Martin.  They also saw the possibilities and encouraged Willson to turn it into a musical for which they would have first option to produce.  The book was published in 1948 and it would take nine years to bring to the stage and then with different producers.

Willson’s knowledge of writing specifically for the theatre was non-existent though he certainly knew how to construct a song.  After a few attempts at creating a story line he sought help from Franklin Lacey, a playwright and screen writer, and their collaboration eventually succeeded.  At first they had considered a television version but the stage won.

The central character became Harold Hill, a con man set to make money from selling musical instruments and uniforms for a town band perceived by the brain washed towns folk to be needed to keep their young on the straight and narrow.  A con man may not be the accepted view of a Broadway male lead – indeed the opening number (in lieu of an overture) would leave the audience in no doubt about his morals (or lack of).  What the book cleverly did was to give him a heart that would, we hope, lead him to salvation and a happy ending for everyone concerned.  This was helped by the introduction of Marion, the town’s librarian and a piano teacher who saw through Hill’s plan but eventually saw the positive change in the hopes of the young and the more positive side of her ‘white knight’.

There was no overture and no ballet (a must since Oklahoma!)  but there was a terrific story with all the hope, warmth together with an important insight to American small town life a generation or so before.  There was also the fact that it was perfectly cast. 

Harold Hill was played by Robert Preston, a minor Hollywood leading man known mainly for his cowboy pictures.  He had limited vocal skills but, as see the previous year with Rex Harrison, acting skills could overcome many vocal problems.  Marion, on the other hand, was played by one of the most beautifully sounding voices of all time, that of Barbara Cook. 

The Music Man opened on Broadway on 19 December 1957. 

It was an immediate hit winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical and nods to both Preston and Cook.  The show would run for 1375 performances.  The cast album won the Grammy Award for best Musical theatre Album of the year and went on to become one of the largest original cast selling albums.  All this in the season that also introduced West Side Story, New Girl in Town, Jamaica and Oh, Captain!

 

London saw it with Val Johnson playing Harold Hill and again it was a hit – but only while he remained with the show.  It was not considered suitable to tour the UK. 

There was a successful film version which stayed close to the original show starring Robert Preston but not Barbara Cook – her part was played by Shirley Jones.  It has remained a firm American favourite with successful revivals and a television adaptation. A recent revival at Chichester featured Brian Conley as Harold Hill but didn’t make it to the West End.

The Meredith Willson archive is now available on line via the Great American Songbook web site.  His book on the making of The Musical Man called “But he didn’t know the territory” is out of print.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures archive

Whatever Happened To The Four Musketeers from 1967

This week’s Musical Theatre Melodies features the 1967 show “The Four Musketeers” (Details of the broadcast on 5th December can be found at the bottom of this article) which is celebrated in its golden anniversary year by Overtures.

On paper the Delfont production of  “The Four Musketeers” should have been the total flop in the way Twang!! had been two years previously.  But the show had an ingredient that was golden – its star was Harry Secombe.  Secombe was what we would now call a super-star, a British national treasure loved both as a comedian and as a home trained tenor of operatic strength – to most he could do no wrong. 

“The Four Musketeers” was a vehicle for Secombe that had been suggested by the impresario Bernard Delfont, who had co-produced the previous Secombe vehicle Pickwick.  Pickwick had been a resounding hit, although it was a downright flop on Broadway – Harry Secombe was a home grown phenomenon, but not an international one.

Harry Secombe played D’Artagnan in an almost unrecognisable version of the famed story.  He was the loveable one, the other three musketeers were a drunken set of rogues.  The book for the show was written by Michael Pertwee, the successful television and film writer known mainly for his comedy work.  He was the elder brother of actor Jon Pertwee (Dr Who and the film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and uncle to Bill Pertwee, another actor remembered mainly for Dad’s Army.

Michael Pertwee took the original book and set to make it into a musical comedy (which is how the show was described) in which D’artagnan’s ability to succeed in his heroic deeds was by error more than ability.  The show’s composer was Laurie Johnson who had shown great promise in Lock Up Your Daughters but he did not have Lionel Bart to inspire.  His lyricist was Herbert Kretzmer, a journalist, theatre critic and inspired satirical lyricist on the television That Was the Week That Was.  He had also written the lyrics to Our Man Crichton.

There was no out-of-town try out for The Four Musketeers.  It had a massive £150,000 budget which much went to a massive set by Sean Kenny (who had designed Pickwick) designed specifically of the Drury Lane stage – one not built to tour.

When the show went into rehearsal book changes were still taking place.  The original three (other) musketeers were Sydney Tafler, Jeremy Lloyd and John Junkin.  Tafler was one of the first to leave the (seen to be) sinking ship, he was replaced by Glyn Owen.  Jan Brinker, an American artist contracted to play the Queen Anne of France left and Sheena Marshe was replaced her.  Then, within days of opening the female lead, the Sadler’s Wells Opera star Joyce Blackman walked out and at short notice Elizabeth Larner stepped in.  The show opened with the programme still advertising Joyce Blackham.

The man at the helm of the production, the director, was Peter Coe.  He had taken that role with both Pickwick and Lock Up Your Daughters, but was still most known for Oliver!  For all his talent he was not able to bring this show to a satisfactory conclusion.  When it opened on 5th December 1967 it received almost universal bad reviews.  But the opening during the then profitable pantomime season had attract a good advance and the show was able to run on and on while the theatre longed for a replacement (that was to be Mame starring Ginger Rodgers over 14 months away).

Even after the show opened cast changes continued amongst the other three musketeers – their roles were never that satisfying.  Secombe continued in the lead not taking a holiday and even miming to his own recorded voice when he was too ill to sing.  It closed after only recouping £100,000 of the original investment and has hardly been heard of again.  But, it left an original cast recording and, surprisingly, a studio cast version boasting the Laurie Johnson’s orchestra and two strong female leads but no male lead.

 

Musical Theatre Melodies broadcast on 96.5 FM on Tuesday, 5th December will feature a 50th Anniversary tribute to Laurie Johnson and Herbert Kretzmer’s “The Four Musketeers”, (based on the characters of Alexandre Dumas), from the 1967 original London cast recording starring Harry Secombe, Elizabeth Larner, Stephanie Voss, Aubrey Woods, Glyn Owen, John Junkin, Jeremy Lloyd and Kenneth Connor. The introduction will be by London-based musical theatre historian, archivist and author, Rex Bunnett. 
The  programme will also feature selections from Laurie Johnson and Lionel Bart’s “Lock Up Your Daughters”, (based on Henry Fielding’s comedy “Rape Upon Rape”), from the 1959 original London cast recording starring Richard Wordsworth, Stephanie Voss, Terence Cooper, Hy Hazell, Frederick Jaeger, Keith Marsh, John Sharp, Brendan Barry, Madeleine Newbury and Robin Wentworth.
 
The broadcast will go “to air” between 9 – 11 p.m. EDT local Melbourne time; (= 10 a.m. – 12 noon GMT in Britain; = 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. NZDT; = 5 – 7 a.m. EST New York time; = 2 – 4 a.m. PST Los Angeles time.)
For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer2/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.

RSB                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Unions gave theatre Pins And Needles 80 years ago – (musical theatre melodies)

Political theatre has always had a place in the world.  At its extreme it is pure propaganda and gives only one view but in the free world the slant may be less severe but still one sided.  From ancient Greek through to Shakespeare and on to Stoppard it is a much valued theatrical form.  On the lighter side it can be in the form of satire as seen in shows such as Of Thee I Sing and I’d rather be Right or more direct as in The Cradle Will Rock.   But much political comment has come through the form of Revue from its germination days in France and Germany. 

Great Britain had censorship until 1968 but the United States had no censorship other than in a moralistic way in the eyes of the various States and Cities.  The thirties saw the world slowly coming out of the Great Recession and the rise in the importance of Unions looking after their member’s livelihood.  Local Unions had their lighter side in that they often acted as social clubs.  The American Musical Rags showed how important it was that Unions were formed.  One such Union from that time was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  It was strong in New York where its own newspaper called Justice was produced.  Justice’s editor in the mid-thirties was Max Danish.  He had the idea of putting on an amateur revue cast from the workers they represented.  Material was to be by various people giving a political slant towards worker’s rights.  The songs were to be written by Harold Rome.

Harold Rome had studied architecture and law at Yale and wanted to become an architect in New York.  He started writing revue songs for a Jewish summer resort.  His songs were ‘socially conscious’ and attracted the eye of Max Danish.  The show was to be called “Pins And Needles”.

The Union used the Princess Theatre, a 299 seater where Bolton, Kern and Wodehouse had helped create the Broadway musical, as their meeting hall.  They had renamed it The Labor Stage and it was where they were to present the show.  The cast were all members of the union and the accompaniment was simply two pianos.  It was rehearsed after work and on weekends and when it started of 27 November 1937 played on Friday and Saturday evenings.   However, it was obvious from the word ‘go’ that this light-hearted politically aware piece was a hit.  The cast gave up their day jobs and the show played eight times a week moving to the 849 seat Windsor Theatre.  In total it ran for 1108 performances.

During its run Eleanor Roosevelt requested a performance at the White House which she attended with her husband President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Harold Rome went on to even greater success and broke into the world of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.  He had recorded for Columbia his show I Can Get it for You Wholesale and the idea of his recording songs from the revue, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary, was born. 

It was a simple studio reconstruction with Rome and a few artist friends helping with the songs and Stan Freeman at the piano.  But Rome also invited a young lady who had a small part in Wholesale for which she had received great reviews.  The ladies name was Barbra Streisand and the rest is history.  The LP was later issued as a CD. 

In 1978 the Roundabout Theatre Company revived it Off- Broadway and it ran for 225 performances. 

London saw it in 2010 at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn.

For those who are interested, “Musical Theatre Melodies” to be broadcast on 96.5 FM on Tuesday, 28th November will feature an 80th Anniversary tribute to the Harold Rome revue “Pins and Needles”, from the 1962 U.S. studio cast recording featuring Barbra Streisand, Jack Carroll, Rose Marie Jun, Alan Sokoloff and Harold Rome. This will be preceded by an introduction from New York-based theatre critic and Internet columnist, Peter Filichia. 

The remainder of the programme will feature selections from the Harold Rome revue “Call Me Mister”, from the 1946 original Broadway cast recordings starring Betty Garrett, Lawrence Winter, Danny Scholl, Paula Bane, Jules Munshin, Chandler Cowles, Harry Clark and Bill Callaghan.

The broadcast will go “to air” between 9 – 11 p.m. EDT local Melbourne time; (= 10 a.m. – 12 noon GMT in Britain; = 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. NZDT; = 5 – 7 a.m. EST New York time; = 2 – 4 a.m. PST Los Angeles time.)

For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer2/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.

 

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Mayflower Theatre 90th Birthday Refurbishment

One of Britain’s Finest – Overtures looks back at Valmouth

Valmouth is a show that few have had the opportunity to see.  It was not a great hit when first seen in 1958 and its only major revival was presented out-of-town.  Yet, for many it is considered one of the best British musicals ever written and one awaiting to be fully discovered. 

Valmouth opened at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, West London and the programme includes a note written by Sandy Wilson which gives some incite to the production:

‘The idea of making Ronald Firbank’s Valmouth into a musical came to me when I first read it – ten years ago; but I did not pursue it until I met Bertice Reading who, it suddenly struck me, was the leading character, Mrs Vajnavalkya, to the life, just as Firbank had described her. The task of adaption seemed formidable to begin with but I found that the novel soon resolved itself into dramatic structures – except for the ending: it has none, it simply fades away.  But by a stroke of good fortune, this difficulty was also overcome.  Thanks to the executors of the Firbank estate, I was allowed access to all of Mr Firbank’s note books in one of which I found he had outlined two possible endings to the novel.  The first that the inhabitants of Valmouth were all stricken with yellow fever, seemed, while very typical, hardly suitable for a musical.  The second is the one I have used.’

Valmouth was indeed specifically written with Bertice Reading in mind.  She had appeared in Jazz Train in London and also in Requiem for a Nun, a play in which she would later win a Tony nomination on Broadway.  What Wilson does not mention is that the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, where Requiem for a Nun had played, wanted to feature her again and suggested to Sandy Wilson that he write a piece for her.  As we heard Wilson knew the show he wanted to write, one based on Valmouth, the somewhat bizarre novel by Ronald Firbank.  Firbank had created an English spa in the imaginary town of Valmouth.  The spa is blessed with waters that keep its visitors young and active, in more than one way.  The visitors are centenarians who react not just to the waters but to the massage given by the mysterious immigrant from the Caribbean, the famed Mrs Vajnavalkya, the role Wilson had envisaged for Miss Reading.

Once written Wilson presented it to the English Stage Company and they rejected it, surprisingly for that out-looking company, because of subjects it dared to mention.  Wilson refused to make changes and offered it to the young and successful producer Michael Codron who booked the Lyric, Hammersmith.  It was the third Sandy Wilson show to be seen in London.  The first, of course, had been The Boy Friend followed by The Buccaneer.  The Boy Friend was still running when Valmouth appeared – they could not be more different – one so innocent and the other so open.

Valmouth is far from a conventional musical.  There is no simple love story and the plot line has more lust than love and it dares to comment on religion before returning to sex.  There is even a hint of homosexuality.  And this was in 1958 ten years before theatre censorship ended.

Valmouth’s director was Vida Hope who had directed The Boy Friend.  The sets and costumes were by Tony Walton, designing his first London show – he would go on to marry Broadway’s Polly, Julie Andrews.  The show was cast with a number of respected older actresses including Doris Hare.  Somewhat surprisingly the sex-mad centenarian Lady Parvula was given to a young Fenella Fielding.

Valmouth opened at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 2 October 1958 after a try-out at the New Shakespeare Theatre in Liverpool.  It played there for 82 performances and it was not until the end of that run that an offer for a West End transfer was received.  By that time Bertice Reading had accepted a contract to take Requiem for a Nun to Broadway. 

Miss Redding’s part in Valmouth was taken by Cleo Laine.  It re-opened at the Saville Theatre on 27 January 1959 and played for only 102 performances, the lack of Miss Reading took its toll.  The show was recorded during the run, but Cleo Laine’s husband, Johnny Dankworth insisted that her songs were re-orchestrated.  However, Miss Reading did record ‘Big best shoes’ which was issued on a 45.

The following year Valmouth had an Off-Broadway showing at the York Playhouse where it opened on 6 October with Bertice Reading recreating her role. Playing Niri-Esther was Gail Jones, the daughter of Lena Horne.  It only managed a two week run.  There have been no more American productions.

A major revival was mounted at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1982 with Bertice Reading, Fenella Fielding and Marcia Ashton returning to their original roles.  Unfortunately, there was no London transfer but there was a full recording using the correct orchestrations issued on LP and later CD.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures archive

The Lion King – 20 Years – Overtures and Musical Theatre Melodies celebrate

The stage musical version of The Lion King is twenty years old and still going from strength to strength, and now heading the Broadway list of top money earning shows of all time.  Music and Lyrics are, of course, like the 1994 animated film by Elton John and Tim Rice working on what otherwise is a pure American production. 

Disney Theatrical Productions were behind the stage show.  They had found gold in bringing Beauty and the Beast to the stage and were looking at the studio’s back catalogue to give it a new life.  Their brilliance with this film was to put under contract Julie Taymor to bring it to the stage.  Taymor, the director, was the one with the vision. She brought to the show her own kind of magic replacing the animation with the very theatrical use of costumes and puppets.  The Lion King relies more on stage craft than mechanical effects and successfully reproduces an African background to this loving animal tale. 

‘Musical Theatre Melodies’  will feature a 20th Anniversary tribute to the stage musical on Tuesday, 14th November (see details below).

There are many changes in the stage show as would be expected.  The main being the change of sex of Rafiki, a male in the film, to bring something of a love interest to the stage.  There are also additional scenes to give depth to the characters and to the score to allow for this.

The Lion King was first seen in Minneapolis in July 1997 where it proved, without doubt, to have the makings of a hit.  It opened on Broadway on 13 November 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre after beginning previews on 15 October.  It transferred to the Minskoff Theatre in 2006 where it is still playing.  As well as being the highest grossing show ever it is now third in the list of long running Broadway shows.   

The London production opened at the Lyceum Theatre on 19 October 1999 and has remained there ever since.  Other productions have gone on to play all over the world including China.  It also has toured extensively both in the States and in the UK.  Las Vegas has its own special version that has been on view for over a decade.

The latest development in the successful Lion King saga is the announcement that there is to be a live action remake of the original film to be directed by Jon Favreau.  Favreau has just directed a new version of Disney’s The Jungle Book, which has live action with some animation.

It follows other successful live action film remakes of Disney classics such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.  The score will no doubt follow closely that of the stage version with its additional material by Hans Zimmer.

RSB                                                                Illustration from the Overtures Archive

 

Musical Theatre Melodies details:

The broadcast will go “to air” between 9 – 11 p.m. EDT local Melbourne time; (= 10 a.m. – 12 noon GMT in Britain; = 11 p.m. – 1 a.m. NZDT; = 5 – 7 a.m. EST New York time; = 2 – 4 a.m. PST Los Angeles time.)

For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer2/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.

Noel Gay and how he made his mark on musical theatre

Born Reginald Moxon Armitage on 15 July 1898 Armitage re-christened himself using Noel Coward’s given name and Masie Gay’s family name.  Maisie Gay was one of London’s biggest revue stars in the twenties. 

Master Armitage was a talented pianist and organ player by the age of eight.  He won a scholarship for the Royal College Music and, because of his age, he had to join the army in the First World War, albeit for a brief period.  After the War he went to Christ’s College at Cambridge University where his interest in popular music began and his talent to write catchy songs developed.  Under his original name he had been known for writing classical and religious music and this move away from this led to the new name which he felt was required when he had a song accepted for a revue.  As Noel Gay he would become one of the most successful of song writers between the two World Wars.

 

During the thirties and forties he wrote constantly for the stage and film.  His first big chance was given to him by Andre Charlot writing much of the score for his “1926 Charlot’s Revue”.  Then came the husband and wife team of Cicely Courtneige and Jack Hulbert’s “Clowns in Clover”, a terrific hit that made him one of their favourite writers.  The advent of sound in the movies brought a flux of stage stars to the cinema and Gay’s breed of happy and hopeful songs were just the thing for the brightest British stars such as Gracie Fields, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and the already mentioned Hulbert’s.

His greatest success was “Me and My Girl” which has already been mentioned in articles on this site (go to the search button to explore).  It opened in 1937 starring Lupino Lane at the Victoria Palace.  Far from a hit to start with, it took a live BBC radio broadcast to catch the public’s imagination and the song, ‘Lambeth Walk’ became a gigantic success, with the entire cross section of social standing learning the dance.  It even spread to the States as a novelty dance.  “Me and My Girl” played through much of the War having to change theatres because of bomb damage.  It closed after 1646 performances and was quickly revived in 1952, to a changing audience.

Noel Gay’s son, Richard Armitage took over his father’s publishing house, which had been formed in 1938, upon his father’s death on 4 March 1954.  Noel Gay Music controlled his entire portfolio and more.  Richard Armstrong formed the Noel Gay Organisation diverging into theatre, television and theatrical agency.  It was Richard who had the brilliant idea of reviving “Me and My Girl”.  He knew it was in need of an updated book and that it had to be handled carefully.  He chose the young Stephen Fry for the task.  With full access to Gay’s entire song catalogue Fry, careful to retain the original atmosphere of the piece, chose songs to enhance the original.  It was a major hit in 1984 running eight years in London and having a long run on Broadway.

Richard Armstrong again revisited the father’s song catalogue to produce an entirely new musical called “Radio Times”.  The songs were good, the production lavish but the book let it down.  It was seen at the Queen’s Theatre starring Tony Slattery in 1982 and more recently at the Watermill, Newbury.

Noel Gay left a vast collection of songs representing a period of hope and innocence.  Luckily many of the songs have been recorded and are still available.  He wrote little after the Second Word War finding the world so changed.  His last published song was in 1950.

RSB                                                                                                                     Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

The Arcadians – one of the first Great British Musicals

The Arcadians is the supreme Edwardian musical comedy.  Yet, prior to its opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 28 April 1909 only the producer, Robert Courtneidge had any faith in it.  His daughter Cicely commented that this was ‘the greatest gamble of his life’ – it was a gamble which he had decided to play on his own.  Fantasy was not a popular theme in musical comedy at the time – the Far East and the endless retellings of the Cinderella story under various guises was the stuff that audiences were lapping up – nor was Arcadia a novel subject for musical treatment since W S Gilbert had introduced it in Iolanthe a couple decades before.  And even earlier than that, in 1873, Gilbert, under the pseudonym of F Latour Tomline, had written a burlesque entitled The Happy Land which had a similar theme in which wiser fairies were transported to England.  However, the blend of a wonderful humorous and eventful plot, romantic interludes and a memorable score have retained its popularity to this day.  Courtneidge’s gamble had paid off – he had produced a show that had gelled to near perfection and, not surprisingly, it became a direct hit.

As well as the indirect relationship to Iolanthe there is a Gilbertian air about the piece in its satirical whimsy and cleverness.  The book was written by Mark Ambient, Alexander M Thompson and Robert Courtneidge.  Courtneidge and Thompson had collaborated on a number of previous projects ranging from pantomimes (Courtneidge was a major producer of these throughout the country) to the new musical comedies.  Ambient, whose musical comedy writing expertise was not quite so well advanced as Gilbert’s, had supplied the initial story line; Thompson was the one who developed it.  The lyricist, Arthur Wimperis, was another with Courtneidge connections, who in addition to musical comedies wrote for revue and penned popular topical songs.  Another Gilbertian connection was Wilhelm who designed the Arcadian costumes and accessories, he had been involved with a number of the Gilbert and Sullivan shows.

The score for The Arcadians was a dual effort between Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot; Monckton’s top billing was simply the result of a toss of a coin.  Lionel Monckton, a barrister and former music critic of the Daily Telegraph, was associated with many ‘hit’ Edwardian shows and his scores for A Country Girl, Our Miss Gibbs and The Quaker Girl have all survived to this day and he should be considered Jerome Kern’s initial musical inspiration for Kern was learning his trade in London at the time.  Monckton was a great composer, as was Talbot, but Talbot was also a master orchestrator and a musical director.  Howard Talbot was of Irish descent, although American born.  He had first worked for Courtneidge on The Blue Moon and collaborated with Monckton on The Girl From Kay’s.  Other successes in which he either collaborated or wrote entirely included A Chinese Honeymoon, Belle of Britany and Courtneidge’s next project after The Arcadians, The Mousme.

Robert Courtneidge had been a successful provincial producer.  He first came to London under the banner of George Edwardes of Gaiety fame and had been in partnership with Edwardes at the Adelphi Theatre where he had directed the musical comedy The Duchess of Danzig.  He decided to go into management on his own in 1905 and in 1909 he leased the Shaftesbury Theatre and reconstructed the auditorium at the cost of twenty thousand pounds.

The Arcadians, which was billed as a ‘fantastic musical play’, reopened the theatre where it played for 805 performances.  The Arcadians became Courtneidge’s greatest money spinner.  Unfortunately, the original Shaftesbury Theatre was destroyed by bombing in 1941.

The Edwardian period was a ‘short life and a gay one’.  It was a reign that ended in spirit when the First World War commenced in 1914 even though Edward V1 had died in 1910.  If ever England had been close to being Arcadia then it was this period and as such it is not, perhaps, so surprising that The Arcadians was the most successful show of the period.  It is also a show that is timeless in spirit and one of the few that have not been effected by time.  This was shown by an excellent revival at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter in 1984.  On Broadway it played the Liberty Theatre in 1910 in a Charles Froman production that ran for a successful, at the time, 193 performances.  A silent film version was made in 1927 and the show has remained a firm favourite ever since with amateur companies.

Perhaps one day a London producer will recognise it as being worthy of a major revival.  It would look exquisite on the Lyttleton stage at the National!

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

HAIR celebrates the end of theatre censorship in Britain

The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical Hair is fifty years old.  It’s themes against war and for love still echoes in today’s politics and the show is about to be revived again in London.   The original Off-Broadway production was the premier show at the then new Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in October 1967.  It was to transfer to Broadway the next year.  The Public Theatre has been in the lead for musical theatre innovation ever since and both A Chorus Line and Hamilton were developed there.

After the Broadway production was in place the creative team set their eyes on London.  It was not as simple as one would expect.  There was a great problem with the show transferring because of its liberal use of ‘the language of the street’ and the now famed (albeit brief and darkly lit) nude scene.   For a play to be produced on the London stage the play script and stage instructions had to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to be scrutinised to ensure there was nothing to upset the sensitivities of the audience (usually considered to be entirely made up of maiden aunts).  Bad language was indeed out and the moving nude female body was out of the question – the thought of a nude male body on stage was unthinkable.

In fact plays with outrageous subjects such as homosexuality and loose morals without a suitable punishment could be seen – but the theatre presenting it would have to be designated a private club with members playing a token yearly membership subscription.  ‘Disgusting’ plays such as Tea and Sympathy and Children’s Hour were seen under such circumstances.

But the timing of Hair’s planned London showing was superb.  There was a liberal change in the air and in 1967 homosexuality ceased to be a criminal offence under limited circumstances (being a lesbian was never illegal).  Then came the Theatres Act 1968 which was to abolish stage censorship.  The Bill was passed on 26 September 1968.   

And so, Hair is historically important to the London stage when it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 27 September 1968.  It was the first non-club theatre play to open without censorship having to be considered.  It was liberating and it became an immediate hit, exceeding the run of the Broadway production with 1997 performances.  And the run could well have been much longer for the closure was brought about by the Theatre’s ceiling collapsing – luckily when the theatre was closed.  There was a mystery around this accident which has never been solved.

Almost fifty years ago a set of young unknown actors and actresses (as they were in those days) stepped on that London stage and, at the end of the first act, dutifully disrobed. Tim Curry, Paul Nicholas, Richard O’Brien, Elaine Paige, Peter Straker and Oliver Tobias among them.  Richard O’Brien was about to write The Rocky Horror Show and Tim Curry would star in it – all thanks to Hair. 

Revivals in London have not proved to be long running.  The 1993 production at the Old Vic starred John Barrowman – although he left the stage prior to the famed nude sequence.  The 2010 revival was a transfer of the Broadway hit revival of 2008, it played the Gielgud Theatre.  This production was originally seen at the Public Theatre before transferring to Broadway.  The London production ran for five months with many of the Broadway cast coming over for it.

Hair will always have a place in musical theatre history – not simply for the nude scene, but the ‘modern’ score and ‘modern’ themes.  It was a musical of the time and one that has an important place in the history of the Musical.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

The 70th anniversary of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO on Broadway

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 11 had seen their first two shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel become immediate Musical Theatre classics.  No wonder their third show was joyously anticipated and was to arrive with a record breaking advance.  Sadly, at the time, it was to prove a disappointment.

Allegro opened seventy years ago on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre to mixed reviews on 10 October 1947 after trying tryouts in New Haven and Boston.  However, because of its advance the show ran for nine months.  There was a short American tour but there was no British production at the time.

Rodgers and Hammerstein had been daring in their first two shows and in Allegro they continued to explore the various ways of presenting a musical.  Their story-line was simple: a son follows in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor.  But, instead of being satisfied in the simple life his newly wed wife encourages him towards riches in the big city.  He found fame but not happiness and the show ends with his returning to his roots with a new and more sympathetic wife.  There was indeed a moral to the story.

The original idea had been to follow man’s life showing the ups and downs and the decisions that had to be taken to make the life a happy one.  There was a great deal of pain in it and there are parallels in the first act of Hammerstein own early life as he had lost his mother at the age of twelve.  Interestingly Rodger’s father had been a doctor, as was a brother.  There the similarity appears to end for Rodgers and Hammerstein were being true to themselves in writing the piece, but they had themselves both found fame, fortune and, hopefully, happiness and satisfaction.    

The production was indeed inventive using platforms and projections instead of sets but there were a great number of props and a clever use of curtains.  Another initiative was to have what was the equivalent of a Greek chorus which passed comments on the proceedings to the audience and made comments to the actors.  It is interesting to note that Stephen Sondheim, through his friendship with Oscar Hammerstein, worked as a gofer on the tryout and in New York (the word gofer is derived from the expression ‘go for’ … usually a coffee!).  He would continue in exploring ways of presenting a musical.

Agnes de Mille, who had choreographed both the previous shows, directed as well as choreographed Allegro.  It is now quite common for a choreographer to also direct, but in 1947 this was novel.  She was not used to dealing with actors and from the start there were problems.  She was used to dancers who are trained to follow their choreographer in every move.  Actors were not so pliable having already learned the words they were to speak.  It was reported that Hammerstein himself ended up by directing the actors while De Mille concentrated on the complexity of the dance movement of, what was a very large cast.

Allegro has had few professional revivals, but has been seen in cut down versions and as concerts versions both in the States (Encores) and London (Lost Musicals).  Renewed interest came with an excellent complete recording of the show in 2009 – before this there had only been the original cast album.  The new CD set showed the wonders and the complexity of the score and it renewed interest.  A full American production was seen in 2014 at the Astoria Performing Arts Centre in New York and an edited version was directed by John Doyle in 2014 by New York’s Classic Stage Company.

Allegro had its first European staged version at the Southwick Playhouse in South London in 2016.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                       Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

 

High Button Shoes opened on Broadway 70 years ago with Phil Silvers

Seventy years ago on 9 October “High Button Shoes” opened at The New Century Theatre in New York.   It was composer Jule Styne’s first Broadway musical – indeed his first of his many hits, running for 727 performances.  The show was based on a 1946 novel by Stephen Longstreet called The sisters liked them handsome, thought to be semi-autobiographical.  George Abbott had read it and had seen the possibilities of making it into a musical and Stephen Longstreet agreed as long as he wrote it.   

Jule Styne’s lyricist was Sammy Cahn with whom he had started writing in Hollywood for the likes of Frank Sinatra.  They had already written one show “Glad to See You!” which closed Broadway bound  in 1943 in Philadelphia.  Cahn would return to Broadway three times, once again with Styne, but none of those shows were as successful as “High Button Shoes”.  London born Jule Styne on the other hand would go on to write some of the most important shows of Broadway’s golden period.

“High Button Shoes” was not a show to survive the years.  There have been few revivals.  It was originally noted for its comic side and its choreography.   Its book was amusing – but slight – concentrating on the happening amongst the Longstreet family and a couple of con men in Atlantic City.  The stars were Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabrey, neither at that time Broadway names.  Silvers had started in Vaudeville but had begun to find success in Hollywood.  Fabrey was almost totally a Hollywood product but one who would successfully change course for Broadway.  Silvers played one of the con-man and Fabrey the loving wife in the Longstreet family.   

So, when “High Button Shoes” went into rehearsals there was little or no Broadway experience with the show writers or stars.  However, the director George Abbott had already spent decades on Broadway and he brought in others who were tried and tested.  As his choreographer he chose Jerome Robbins whose work in ballet and on shows such as On the Town was modern and exciting.  Also the designers Oliver Smith and Miles White had the necessary experience.

Stephen Longstreet’s script was, it appears, almost totally unworkable.  He was a talented and successful author and had already worked in the film industry.  But, he had no stage experience and it showed.  Phil Silvers was in particular horrified as he knew comedic stage craft and began to work especially on his role.  Soon George Abbott stepped in, but only after getting from the producers additional rights, allowing Longstreet to get full billing.  The book that materialised was recognised as workable but not remarkable.

What brought the show hit status was the choreography by Jerome Robbins together with the stars’ performances and no doubt Abbott’s direction.  Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabrey proved themselves stars and would have other hits on Broadway.  Robbin’s choreography won him that year’s Tony Award.  His masterpiece being ‘The Bathing Beauty Ballet’ early in the second act, set on Atlantic City’s boardwalk.  He used the music for ‘On a Sunday by the Sea’ but had added sections of Offenbach’s Can-Can and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody to create a slapstick silent film style piece much in the Mack Sennett tradition set on the boardwalk and amongst the changing huts.

“High Button Shoes” was presented in London on 22 December 1948 and ran for 291 performances at the London Hippodrome.  However, its place in London Theatre history is more because in the chorus was Audrey Hepburn.  Lew Parker played the Silvers’ part.  It was described as the ‘new song & dandy show’ and played twice nightly.

While no revivals have occurred in the UK it was revived at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1982 and in 2007. There was also an American television production on NBC that was broadcast live on 24 November 1956.       

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

WEST SIDE STORY – THE 60TH BIRTHDAY REMEMBERED BY OVERTURES

It is a decade since the superb 50th Anniversary production of  “West Side Story” was seen and sixty years since the show was first produced on Broadway.  It has become one of the most successful shows of all time so it is surprising to find its success was not all plain sailing and may not have survived so long if it had not been for the London production and the film version.  

The cry for help of an actor friend trying to understand the character of Romeo in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set director / choreographer Jerome Robbins’ thinking about the play in the terms of a contemporary love story.  It was the kind of idea which excites a Broadway creative talent and he was soon discussing an outline with similar minded talents in the form of composer Leonard Bernstein and book writer Arthur Laurents.  The show was to be set in the then present day New York with the rival fractions being the Jews and the Catholics, it was to be called East Side Story.  And there the idea ran out of steam as other projects attracted those involved.

It was some six years later when the idea cropped up again. The New York gang wars of the mid-fifties were hot news and all three of the original thinkers realized they fitted perfectly the original Robbins’ concept.  The action moved to Upper New York’s west side and the feuding parties became the immigrant Puerto Ricans and more entrenched second and third generation white Americans.  The project started up again – this time with the added help of Stephen Sondheim who recently had seen his first Broadway bound show (Saturday Night) fail to get produced.  However, his score had been heard by Arthur Laurents who recognized his talent and he was asked to co-write the lyrics with Bernstein.  As the project continued young Mr. Sondheim took over most of the lyric writing until the point when there was little of Bernstein’s work in evidence – a factor that Bernstein acknowledged once the show was set by giving him full lyrical billing.  But, the original contract stood and Sondheim only received part royalties.

West Side Story arrived on Broadway following a tryout in Philadelphia, as a brash new musical, vastly different in musical form and dance from the recent other big hits: My Fair Lady and The Music Man. 

It had a satisfactory run of 732 performances and was taken on tour and brought back again to Broadway in the hope that interest had intensified and it settled down for another 249 performances.  London, however, took to it far more fervently and its run (1039 performances) exceeded that of Broadway’s even adding their two runs together. 

West Side Story was nominated for six Tony Awards but received only two, that for choreography and scenic design.  The big winner that season was The Music Man which surprises some now.  But at the time The Music Man was the something rather different and it broke away from some of the conventions of the time.  West Side Story for all its glorious score and riveting dance is a rather conventional show following the conventions such as a second act ballet.  Even the closing death scene was not so original.

When Hollywood took interest all changed.  The studio set out to popularize the score by encouraging songs to be recorded by popular singers and then given air time on both radio and television to get them widely known.  At last, the songs of West Side Story were being recognized and soon the score produced many hits.  The film went on to win a remarkable 10 Oscars as well as an honorary award for Jerome Robbins.  It helped lift the show to its present position of deserved celebrity.  Revivals in London and New York have been hugely successful as its timeless theme (after all it was Shakespeare’s) and exciting staging keeps it as new as it was on its opening night on Broadway in 1957.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive