From The Collection Archive

Follies – the jewel in Sondheim’s crown – ahead of the NT revival

The National Theatre is about to present its version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – one of the most awaited theatrical events of the year.  To some, Follies is one of the most assessable Sondheim scores being one that is part a tribute of the great American composers that have gone before him.  It is not difficult to find the Irving Berlin influence or the Gershwin or the Romberg.  You are meant to recognise them, it makes you, the audience, become part of the celebration of the past.  But Sondheim’s score, perhaps his best, is far more than a set of pastiche numbers, it goes far further than that, it presents some of the best theatre songs ever written.  

The premise of the show is simple, a reunion in 1971 of cast members of Ziegfeld like revues some 30 or so years after the last was presented.  In fact it was inspired by an actual Ziegfeld Follies reunion that had been reported on in the New Yorker.  The theatre where the party is being held is being demolished but before it is, it is time to revisit the ghosts that inhabit the place and the ghosts that still inhabit those who were in the revues together with the dreams of youth and the reality of age. 

The core of Follies is rather intimate.  Two couples, the wives ex chorus girls and their husbands, youthful friends who had wooed the girls and had since gone their own ways in very different life styles.  The problem being that one of the girls always loved the other boy.  After years apart the desperation of the situation comes into the open at the night of the reunion in a mix of truth and fantasy.

This intimate story, fashioned by James Goldman, became in the hands of Harold Prince, who directed and was involved in its conception, a physically large show glorifying the past and mixing fact and fiction.  Remember this was in the days in the early seventies when theatrical dreams could become reality and originality was a joy, a time before the accountant and multi producers were needed to produce a show.  However, Follies took its time in getting to the stage.  Its first conception was as called The Girls Upstairs which was to have been a mystery musical but gradually the themes expanded to become the Follies we know today.

Follies opened on Broadway on 4 April 1971 and ran for 522 performances.  Not quite the hit it should have been.  Virtually all the original cast took off to Los Angeles where it played the Shubert Theatre (and where I first saw it).  It went nowhere else.  It was a show that could boast a wonderful score, sets of perfection by Boris Aronson and stunning costumes by Florence Klotz.  Prince’s direction was enhanced by the choreography of Michael Bennett which mingled vaudeville and Broadway – has there ever been a more perfectly staged number than the Mirror dance?  The problem was that Follies is not a comfortable show, it is adult, it has leading characters that are not easy to warm to and it ends in what is close to a nightmare.  James Goldman’s book was blamed for the show’s relative failure – totally unfair when you get close to the intimate core of the show.

When Follies eventually arrived in London under the Cameron Macintosh banner.  Macintosh ordered a revisit to the plot and a new song appeared.  The changes were not radical but tried to make the couples more in tune with the audience.  It made little difference in the long run and now revivals go back to the original.  The London run was longer than the Broadway one but it was not a show to put on the road and it has now only reappeared mainly in Concert form.  There was a successful brave production on the small South London’s Landor stage which allowed Goldman’s book to shine and make the characters more accessible. 

What the National Theatre production has to offer we await to see.  What itself is a revisit to the past and the uncomfortable reality of the present has become a precious piece itself and that is being revisited – welcome to the reunion.  

Rexton S Bunnett                                                     Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Sixty years ago it was Simply Heaven on Broadway

Simply Heavenly opened Off-Broadway on 21 May 1957 at the 85th Playhouse.  However, after 44 performances, the theatre was closed by the New York Fire Department who condemned the building as being a fire hazard.  A new home had to be found and a downtown Broadway house was chosen.  This was the Playhouse Theatre (the theatre name is a co-incidence, it was on West 48th Street opposite where the Cort Theatre is now) on 20 August 1957 with a programme that high-lighted the New York Fire Commissioner’s Fire Notice showing this was a safe venue. 

It achieved 62 performances after which it re-opened, yet again, Off-Broadway on 8 November at the Renata Theatre where it ran a further 63 performances.  Simply Heavenly’s total New York run was 169 performances.  In 1959 it was seen on American television’s Play of the Week series in an adaptation that featured most of the original cast.

Simply Heavenly crossed the Atlantic and on 15 April 1958, the European premiers took place at the Manchester Palace where it played for two weeks.  The original British production brought over two of the American stars, Melvin Stewart as Simple and John Bouie as Melon.  It also starred Bertice Reading who eventually made her home in Britain.

On 20 May 1958 Simply Heavenly opened in London at the Adelphi Theatre as ‘a new all-Negro Musical’ and not the norm ‘a new musical comedy’ as it had been billed in New York.  There was just one cast change – the policewoman originally played in Manchester by Neville Crabbe was replaced in London by Harry Baird. 

It ran just 16 performances under the production hat of Laurence Harvey and Jack Hylton.  Laurence Harvey was, at the time, one Britain’s hottest stars and was trying his hand at directing.  Harvey, having been taken with the show, persuaded Jack Hylton to let him direct the English production of Simply Heavenly.  Six years later Harvey was to star in Jack Hylton’s production of Camelot.

Simply Heavenly was successfully revived in March 2003 at the Young Vic and was seen again in the West End in October 2004 at the Trafalgar Theatre where it played through to February 2005.

Simply Heavenly is based on Simple takes a Wife and other ‘Simple’ stories by the great black author and poet Langston Hughes.  Hughes’ previous musical theatre credits included two Broadway operas: Street Scene (1947) with music by Kurt Weill and the far less successful The Barrier, which played 4 performances on Broadway in 1950.  It was Hughes’ idea to turn his Simple stories into a musical and not only did he provide the book but also the lyrics to the show which he kept firmly based in Harlem and in particular, Paddy’s Bar, where Jess Simple is a frequent customer.  Simple is an honest easy-going married man but he is not in love with his wife and is saving up for a divorce so he can marry his new love Joyce Lane.  And that is the simple back-ground of the story.

The original recording on Long Play was also released in Britain and since it has been remastered and issued twice on CD.  Firstly by Sepia in London and more recently Sony’s Masterworks Broadway series.               

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Ahead of London’s revival we look back at the original Salad Days

During the early fifties Bristol’s Theatre Royal repertory company was in vibrant mood, a number of their excellent productions having had successful transfers to London.  The company had been built by director Denis Carey and included Julian Slade, a young university graduate.  Slade became the resident musical director and composer of incidental music for their plays which included a well-received production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.  He had also written the score for a musical version of Sheridan’s The Duenna with a cast that included Patricia Routledge and Joan Plowright, and which opened at the Westminster theatre on 28 July 1954, where it was a success.  Julian had previously collaborated with Dorothy Reynolds, one of the actresses in the company, on two original Christmas shows.

The success of the Christmas shows led Denis Carey to present a light summer production to run for a three week season in Bristol between two rather heavyweight plays.  The team of Slade and Reynolds thought ‘summer’ and worked up a light-hearted romp in revuesical style, suitable for the season, and built around the talents of the company, not all of whom were good or even trained singers.  The result was Salad Days, named after a Shakespeare quote.

The show opened on 1 June 1954 and was such a critical success and crowd pleaser that London producers were invited to Bristol.  And, two agreed it should come to town together with those cast members who were able to do the transfer.  So, two months after it had premiered in Bristol and after a brief try-out in Brighton, Salad Days opened on 5 August 1954 at the Vaudeville Theatre in London wher it remained until 1960 when it closed after a run of 2283 performances.

Salad Days is, on the face of it, a piece of fluff but its simplicity hides an extremely well formed musical show with infectious songs that are easy to sing.  The accompaniment was provided by just two pianos, one played for much of the run by Slade himself.

The show is built around the tale of a magic piano, one that can make people dance.  Timothy and Jane have just left university and are having to find their way in the world with the help (or hindrance) of their respective families.  They decide to marry secretly for they are fond of each other and plan to fall in love later.  Their lack of income is miraculously solved for the summer when a tramp offers them £7 a week to look after Minnie, his piano, a task in which they are aided by Troppo, a mute with amusing charm, who also appears on the scene.

And then the problems start.  Tim’s parents are hoping to get him a good job through one of his four uncles (there are five actually but the last is never mentioned) and then the couple manage to lose the piano that has set London dancing, and is now wanted by the police.  Tim and Jane end up on a flying saucer (yes, one of the uncles has a flying saucer, who of course turns out to be the unmentioned uncle!) returning with the piano to reclaim it.

Eleanor Drew, one of the few trained singers in the cast, played Jane and Timothy was John Warner.  Co-writer Dorothy Reynolds played, as many of the cast did, a number of roles including Asphinxia, a cabaret artist and seductress who was introduced by Eric Port as the night club manager.

Salad Days has never really disappeared, having been revived regularly – four of which had West end showings.  Its place in musical history is assured, not only because of its long run, but the fact that this was the first show seen by a young Cameron Mackintosh and which sparked off his lifelong interest in the form.

There was a brief New York showing but, not surprisingly, it was ‘not their cup of tea’.  However, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa took it to their hearts.

A revival can be seen at the Union Theatre until 9 September.

RSB                                                                                                                        Illustrations from the Overtures Archive 

Tim Rice and the world after Evita on Broadway

A Tim Rice musical is never very far away but one of the lesser known is now on at the Union Theatre.  It is Blondel, the first show he wrote after his split from Andrew Lloyd Webber.  A few years ago we revisited an interview that Tim Rice gave us back in 1980 which was just after Evita had opened in the United States (to see that interview simply go to http://overtures.org.uk/?p=2154 ) it is an interesting article as it shows his own independent view on the state of the musical at that time.

Tim Rice’s career after Evita is an intriguing insight to one of the most successful of modern day lyric writers in the world.  As he said in the early interview: a lyricist has to wait for a project to come along, you cannot write lyrics in the hope that they may be able to be used in the future as, for instance, a composer can.

The collaboration with Lloyd Webber had ended with Jeeves, a show that had taken Rice’s interest to start with as a lover of Wodehouse but after a time left him with the view (at that stage correctly) that it was impossible to do.  Andrew Lloyd Webber replaced him with Alan Aykbourn.  The show he moved on to was Blondel, a retelling of the royal battle between Richard the Lion Heart and his brother John at the time of the third crusade, told with the help of a court minstrel – a pop star of the day.  While a royal romp Rice’s book (he wrote both book and lyrics) does look at the politics of the day.  His musical collaborator was Stephen Oliver.  It re-opened the Old Vic after its extensive refit in 1983 with the then Queen Mother attending the opening night.  It ran for almost two years but has seldom been revived, although there was a re-write for an American showing a few years ago under the title Lute. 

The next year came Chess in a collaboration again close to Tim Rice’s pop instincts and love.  It was the ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus who worked on another politically centred piece built around the game of Chess.  It opened in 1984 and was a major hit in London even after the terrible setback of the original director Michael Bennett having to give up the role because of his Aids associated illness (although at the time this was not mentioned).  Broadway received a much changed and inferior version and it was a flop.  However, Chess never seems to have died and various productions and concert versions are often seen.  In many respects the original version was Tim Rice’s best work.

There was a short re-unite with Lloyd Webber to write a half hour one act fun piece called Cricket – again built on a favourite (if not the favourite) game of Sir Tim.  It was written for the Queen’s Jubilee and has only been seen by her and her invited quests and at Lords Cricket Club, again with a very strictly invited audience.

The impact of Les Miserables was great and immediately anything written by French concert or theatre writers was looked at for possible English language working.  The French musical Starmania by composer Michel Berger, a major hit across France, with several recording issued, was given new lyrics by Tim Rice and the show retitled Tycoon.  It was released on CD and had a brief American showing and one in Paris but otherwise has disappeared.

In 1991 Tim Rice began his ongoing association with Hollywood and Disney when asked to write the lyrics for The Lion King.  Under his suggestion Elton John was chosen as composer.  The film was released in 1994, the same year he was commissioned to write nine new songs for the stage version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  The original movie score had been written by Alan Menken whose lyricist Howard Ashman had died.  The show was a hit around the world and its success brought a realisation to the Disney Organisation that there was a huge potential in their vast catalogue of animated movies as musical theatre pieces.  Because of Howard Ashman’s death he also finished off the film score of Aladdin and more recently additional material for the stage version.

The Lion King had been one of Disney’s biggest grossing films and it was the next to be chosen for a remake.  Additional songs were added and a whole new theatrical concept was brought by director Julie Taymor.  It has, since its 1997 stage debut, become the most financially successful Stage / Movie property – even beating Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. 

Sir Tim’s collaboration with Alan Menken also brought King David, a stage show produced by Disney in concert form in 1997.  Disney’s next direct to stage piece was Aida which re-united Rice and Elton John that was successful on Broadway in 2000.  Strangely this never crossed the Atlantic. 

Rice and John continued to collaborate for the Dreamwork’s film The Road to Eldorado.

Away from the world of film he worked on the Cliff Richard vehicle Heathcliffe with composer John Farrar.  He wrote additional songs for The Wizard of Oz with Lloyd Webber and saw his first collaboration with him, The Likes of Us, at last produced, albeit for a radio production and for the Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival.

With all this success as well as three Tony Awards and three Oscars his last stage show was not a runaway hit and ran just over six months.  That was From Here to Eternity based on the James Jones book which had already been made into a successful film.  The film version had toned down much of the sexuality of the original which the stage version was able to restore.  From Here to Eternity opened in 2013.  It has music by Stuart Brayson.  A DVD was issued on the show and it is reported than Tim Rice is planning an American production.

Sir Tim Rice is well known on radio and television.  He still keeps his Guinness Book of Pop Singles up-to-date and remains a man close to pop as well as theatre and film.  A rampant heterosexual he seems happiest playing the upper class Englishman watching a game of cricket.

Rexton S Bunnett

Welcome to the exclusive world of Dames – June Whitfield

June Whitfield is indeed a National Treasure and she has deservedly been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s.  Dame June was born on 11 November 1925 in Streatham, London and was trained for the stage at the (RADA) Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  She joined the chorus lines of many shows including Ace of Clubs and South Pacific and soon made her name on radio and in revue.  Her later Carry On and television career is well documented so we want to delve into that early part of her career when she was building a stage career.

June left RADA in 1944 and went straight on the stage in repertory and out-of-town tours both in acting and behind the scene roles.  She took over from Dora Bryan in the play The Cure for Love which was starring Wilfred Pickles, a big radio star at the time.  She credits him for the first instructions on comic timing, something all the great comedy roles have been built on.  With Pickles she had her first involvement with radio, the entertainment medium that set her career moving.

But, prior to that she auditioned for and got a small part in Noel Coward’s Ace of Clubs as Sunny Claire, one of the show girls and as understudy to Jean Carson.  It was not a huge success but she had been seen on the West End stage.  It was still the era of intimate revue although it was fast approaching its end. 

 

The great revue producer Laurier Lister had had great success with Tuppence Coloured and he followed it with Penny Plain starring Joyce Grenfell, Elisabeth Welch and Max Adrian.  Jean joined the cast, understudying Miss Welch, though she never had to go one for her.  This too was not wonderfully successful and indeed lost money but June was learning her trade.

In 1951 she took a chorus role in South Pacific and as third understudy to Mary Martin.  That was a huge success and while still playing in it she did late night revue at the Watergate in Sandy Wilson’s See You Later.  A trip to Broadway with the play Women in Twilight was another short lived piece but June was able to see the Broadway shows of the time and, through knowing Hugh Martin, won a role in London’s Love from Judy.   

This was a major hit in which she eventually took over from Jeanne Carson, the star.  It led to the radio programme Take it from Here to replace Joy Nichols.  That was 1953 and she became Eth, Ron Glum’s long term fiancée and a star was born.

She made a trip back to revue in 1955 for From Here to There in which she had star billing with Betty Marsden.  It was a show of mixed British and American material and performers that played at the Royal Court – the last production before being taken over by the English Stage Company and no other revues were mounted there.

From Here to There was a Laurier Lister production with an eye on the fact there were an increasing number of American tourists to London.  Laurier had visited New York earlier in the year and made arrangements with Michael Abbott, who was described as Broadway’s youngest manager, to present and stage the American portion – later he was credited with presentation only.  Jack Gray, the American artist who had appeared in the revue Airs on a Shoestring and had supplied material to that show, was to write with another American, Jerry de Bono, the lyrics and sketches; music was to be by Dolores Claman.  When first announced the English writing team was made up of Paul Dehn and Charlotte Mitchell but by the time the show opened the contributors had multiplied. 

It would last barely two months with many changes both in material and cast.  In a last attempt to make it a success the great revue star Max Adrian was brought on board (he just happened to be Laurier Lister’s other half!).

June Whitfield, who now is most likely best known for Absolutely Fabulous, has had a career that has spanned seven decades and has virtually covered all aspects and mediums of the world of entertainment.

The poster to From Here and There has just been purchased for the archive.

RSB                                                               Illustrations from the Overtures Archives

A Mission in Life: Re-Discovering Early Musical Theatre Recordings

A gentleman farmer with a love of Edwardian and early Twentieth Century music has created a home industry of preserving early Musical and Revue scores as recorded on 78 and cylinder, the latter of which he is certainly a specialist.  It is an impressive list of shows that Dominic Combe has digitalised and issued on Compact Disc.  Not only is it the recordings but the lovingly created books that attach.

Early theatre recordings abound in Great Britain, more so than in the United States where it took them some time to start recording original cast material.  And so, many early scores are available to be heard.  But what Dominic discovered when he started assembling these scores was that often latter day British 78 and cylinder record collectors turned their noses up on recordings of dance music or covers and ‘best of’ or ‘gems’ making them hard to find.  And, it is those recordings which can often contain songs not otherwise recorded.  He has built strong connections with other collectors willing to lend material to make each issue as complete as possible.

Modern equipment and an aptitude for perfection have helped Dominic ‘clean up’ old 78 and cylinder records to deliver a sound quality that can be stunning.  The booklets are produced with as much care by using original theatre programmes or magazines such as Play Pictorial and Music for All so that the listener can get a good idea of how the show looked as well as to see the unique art work used to advertise the show back then.

Dominic has issued over fifty of these gems and still has titles either being completed or awaiting to be started on.  The label is called Palaeophonic and while there is no web site Dominic can be contacted at: d.combe@btinternet.com  

We show here a selection of those he has issued.

Rexton S Bunnett

The Merry Widow debuts in English at London’s Dalys Theatre

Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) was first heard in the English language in June 1907 at the Daly’s Theatre in London.  It was a tremendous hit and remains one of the most popular operettas still mounted around the world.  It has, over the years, received many revisits by librettists and lyricists but the most popular version remains the original one heard in London.

The piece is based on L’Attache d’ambassade the 1861 French comedy by Henri Meilhac, a man with a rather good pedigree having written librettos for Offenbach and Bizet.  The play had not proved that popular in France but translated into German it was often produced there and in Vienna.  Viennese librettist Leo Stein thought it a perfect plot for a new operetta for composer Richard Heuberger.  Stein worked successfully with Viktor Leon on the libretto but Heuberger was not delivering musically.  Franz Lehar, who at that time was not that well known, came to the rescue. 

The Merry Widow libretto made a number of changes to the original play which had been set between Paris and a German province, the latter became a more operetta style Balkan State.  Also the Parisian side was made more glamorous with a visit to the famous Maxims as well as the setting at the Parisian Embassy of the Balkan State of Pontevedro.  Both retained as their core a wealthy Widow whose fortune was imperative to the economics of the smaller state making it essential to find the right man (that is a Pontevedro citizen) for her to marry.

The original 1905 production played the Vienna’s Theater an der Wien where it opened on 30 December.  Not a great deal was spent on the show utilising old sets and costumes.  The producers tried to get Lehar replaced for they had little confidence in it.  But the leading members of the cast had more faith in it and are rumoured to have paid for their own costumes.  Once in production, word of mouth became positive and some good reviews were received.  It gradually became a major hit running 483 performances.

The 1907 London production had an English adaptation by Basil Hood (with the possible help of Edward Morton) with English lyrics by Adrian Ross.  They played with character names and titles.  Lehar wrote two new numbers.  It opened on 8 June starring Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne with W H Berry, George Graves and Robert Evett in lead roles.  Much to the producer’s (George Edwardes) surprise it was an immediate hit and ran for 778 performances with endless tours crossing the country.  

It was quickly imported to Broadway and opened on 21 October 1907 at the New Amsterdam Theatre using the London adaptation.    It ran for 416 performances with many touring companies across the United States.  Australia saw it in 1908 and also fell for its charms.

London has seen many revivals, the first in 1923 ran for 239 performances.  It returned the next year and in 1932 for shorter runs.  A war time revival in 1943 was also successful running 302 performances.  New York also saw many revivals but since the end of the Second World War, The Merry Widow has mainly become the property of Opera Houses.  Memorable revivals were headed by June Bronhill and Lizbeth Webb.

The Merry Widow has received many new adaptations / translations including ones by Phil Park (better known for much lighter fare), Ronald Hammer, Nigel Douglas and Christopher Hassell (of Ivor Novello fame).  In the United States there have been more adaptations and new lyrics applied as well as a successful ballet.  Oscar Hammerstien’s daughter Alice wrote a new libretto for the Light Opera Company of Manhattan.  New lyrics were written by Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler fame) in 1977 for the New York Opera.

And, of course, there have been films including two silent versions (the cinema pianist or band or orchestra would be playing the Lehar score).  The two Hollywood versions are a black and white Ernest Lubitsch version with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in 1934 and in full Technicolor in 1952 one starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas.

Rexton S Bunnett                                          Illustrations form the Overtures archives

Don Black – from Tin Pan Alley to a world leading lyricist for musicals

There is Don Black and there is Tim Rice and then there is Herbert Klezmer but few others who are totally independent lyricist.  Each has made waves big enough to ensure the UK is internationally top notch in the art of writing lyrics.

                                                                                      Don with his wife Shirley

Don Black (born Donald Blackstone from a Jewish Russian background) is one of those wonderfully talented people who discovered a flair for lyric writing almost out of necessity in finding songs suitable for his client (he was he was personal manager to Matt Monro. He had started his career as an office boy in Tin Pan Alley developing into a song-plugger and stand-up comedian.  More importantly he had started to write the odd lyric.

Matt Monro changed Black’s life as he helped develop him into an international star.  Black was able to concentrate more on writing lyrics often to established European hits.  He formed an on and of relationship with film composer John Barry which eventually resulted in such hits as ‘Born Free’ (an Oscar) and James Bond songs including ‘Diamonds are Forever’.

But it is the Musical Theatre side of his lyric writing career that we concentrate on here.  That started rather embarrassingly with a show called Maybe That Your Problem which played the Roundhouse in 1971 for just 18 performances.  It was a show about premature ejaculation (remember this was the era of Hair and Oh Calcutta!!) written by Lionel Chetwynd who was a friend from the world of film with music by Walter Scharf another film connection.  Elaine Paige was in the cast and there was a single 45 issued, though little else remains.      

It was three years later that Don Black returned to the world of theatre and it was a very different story.  With his film writing collaborator John Barry he wrote Billy, a musical based on the novel and film Billy Liar, that was a star vehicle for Michael Crawford.  This was a resounding hit and again Miss Paige was in the cast.

It was another four years before the next show in 1978 and that was Bar Mitzvah Boy with music by Broadway’s Jule Styne (go to ‘search’ for a separate article on this show) which did not work.

Importantly he was now considered a theatre lyricist and he had been noticed by people who mattered.  One was Andrew Lloyd Webber whose ties with Tim Rice had been cut and who searched out his lyricists to suit his latest project.  He had in mind a song cycle for a single female singer and had written two melodies which he played for Black.  The lyrics Black came up with included what would become the title song for the show, ‘Tell Me on a Sunday’.  The idea developed into a hugely successful television musical for Marti Webb and eventually as half the stage show Song and Dance.  It would be ten years before they worked together again.  

During that ten years he wrote for Paris, Abbacadabra with Benny Andersson and Bjorn of Abba Fame (this did play in English at the Lyric Hammersmith with Elaine Paige).  With his friend Jack Rosenthal, who had written the book for Bar Mitzvah Boy, he wrote an agony aunt musical Dear Anyone for London in 1983, it was not a success but a show that deserves a fresh look at.

Also in 1983 Don Black was writing the lyrics for two Broadway shows.  Merlin was written around the talents of illusionist Doug Henning and Chita Rivera with Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein and it enjoyed a very respectable run.  However the Broadway venture with John Barry, The Little Prince and the Aviator starring Michael York was a quick closer.

In 1988 with composer Mort Shuman and veteran writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (they had written the original Billy Liar) he wrote a musical for Adam Faith called Budgie after a television character he had introduced.  It managed a three month run.

A much needed hit came next when he was asked to co-write lyrics with Charles Hart for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love in 1989.  Hart had written much of Phantom of the Opera but needed the mature Black hand to develop the intricate interplay of various and vastly different love themes.  He also added some lyrics to those of Richard Stilgoe for Starlight Express in 1992.  That year he had also been brought in to strengthen the score of Radio Times using the songs of Noel Gay but the show did not work.

Back with Lloyd Webber he found great personal success with Sunset Boulevard for which he shared billing with Christopher Hampton.  He and Hampton worked well together and joined up eight years later (2001) on the Fran Wildhorn musical of Dracula, a flop.  Prior to that he worked with Marvin Hamlisch on additional lyrics for the London production of Neil Simson’s The Goodbye Girl which had not been a hit on Broadway.  The original lyrics were by David Zippel.  Unfortunately it did no better in London.

A far more satisfying project was Bombay Dreams, a Lloyd Webber production with music by A R Rahman the amazingly successful Indian composer of Bollywood Movies.  It was an interesting writing period as Rahman had never worked in the theatre and was not used to writing songs.  However, they had a good working relationship and gradually the score materialised and the colourful show came to life and became a hit.

The same year (2002) brought the London version of the French hit Romeo and Juliet which simply did not work.  Nor did the long anticipated Brighton Rock musical based on Graham Greene’s novel and film in 2004.  It had brought Black back with John Barry.  He also wrote the lyrics for the National Theatre musical adaption of Debbie Wiseman’s Feather Boy in 2006.

Black and Christopher Hampton again worked together in 2013 on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward the Musical which after a disappointing first viewing in London is set to be revisited.

Don Black’s career continues to be diverse as he has the ability to work on both sides of the Atlantic.  His last West End appearance as a lyricist was for Mrs Henderson Presents, a well-received 2015 show that seems to follow the more recent West End trend of not accepting home written shows.  It has had a  production in Toronto, Canada and surely will find the success it deserves in the future.

RSB                                                                 Illustrations from the Overtures archives

It was a rocky road for 42nd Street on Broadway

The successful revival of this 1980 American musical is now playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  We thought it a good excuse to revisit the rocky ride it had in getting to Broadway in the first place.

It was Michael Stewart’s idea to make a stage show of the 1933 film musical 42nd Street.  He suggested it to Gower Champion in 1978 and for the next year Champion said ‘no’.  It came to life when David Merrick decided to return to Broadway after six years of film production.  Merrick, Stewart and Champion had all worked together on Hello, Dolly!, the success of that proved the great potential of the team.

Rehearsals started in May 1980, it was to open on Broadway in August at the Winter Garden Theatre after a five week try-out in Washington.  The publicity machine started with the beginning of rehearsals, the press were invited to the first day.  The indications then were that this would be the most expensive Broadway Show ever, though no financial details were at that stage given.  The conservative New York Times noted that there was a cast of 45 including 36 dancers, the more sensational daily news gave the cast as 53 and by the time Washington try-outs started Merrick himself said there were 55 people on stage and 28 in the orchestra, a number confirmed by the show’s programme.  A show this size had not been seen on Broadway for many decades.

After the rehearsal period in New York the cast moved to Washington where the show was to officially open on 24 June after three previews.  It took a week to set the Kennedy Theatre for the show and even then the first two previews were cancelled, but not the opening date.  On the first, and only, preview Gower Champion came on stage when the show supposed to start and told the audience that what they were to see was very much a try-out preview performance and that the curtain would be late going up as some costumes had only just arrived!  When at last the curtain did rise it revealed a non too perfect show, but it gave the audience plenty to applaud.  It was a hollow show, coldly efficient but quite mechanical, a show without a heart that seemed to be the creation of a musical comedy factory.

Billed as ‘a musical comedy’ there were problems with the book, it was more of a plot outline with underdeveloped characters.  One did not care if the chorus girl, Peggy, would become a star or whether the director, Julian, would have a hit show.  Gower Champion’s direction was seemingly uninspired, though his choreography did inject life into the proceedings.  The musical numbers were a hit with the audience right from the start and even on the first public showing they were constantly interrupting with prolonged applause.  However, Gower Champion’s choreography was all rather familiar with certain A Chorus Line under tones.

Within a week the news started to get better.  42nd Street was becoming a different show, it was discovering a point of view and there was now a playfulness in the book.  The book, or we should say script, was more of a cartoon and although it still did not make one care a great deal about the characters that wasn’t too terrible in this now shortened revue like format.  The humour of the thin story line was now coming out and the big song and dance numbers were certainly being worked on, and the production team knew where they were going.  Two weeks after its first showing 42nd Street had officially changed its description from ‘a musical comedy’ to a ‘song and dance extravaganza’ and Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble who had been credited with ‘the book’ were now billed as the writers of ‘lead ins and crossovers’.

At this point, along with script changes, came the important structure changes.  Two scenes in the first act disappeared, part of what had previously taken place on the Astor Roof was incorporated into the first scene and the big production number ‘We’re in the Money’ which was originally set in the ‘Gypsy Tea Kettle’ was moved to the final scene of the first act; this meant a new set, an art deco ‘dream’ of New York’ City’s skyline in blues and silvers with new costumes in greens and silvers – a total razzle dazzle effect.  A new number, a solo dance for our young star to be – ‘You gotta know how to dance’ – was incorporated into an early scene in the show only later being dropped and replaced with ‘Go into your dance’.  The big production number ‘Keep young and beautiful’ was also dropped, in Merrick’s own words – ‘and what I call that health-farm set’ went with it; that set was one of the most elaborate in the show, a turntable gym with silver bars on which flimsily clad girls went round and round surrounded by mirrored walls. ‘For about 30 seconds it’s diverting, but nothing else happens, it’s boring’.  The set was actually kept and was incorporated in the ‘Dames’ number which was built up, given pure show biz splendour with the boys in top hats and tails appearing doing a marvellous dance step which leads into a stunning fashion show, the colourful costumes duplicated in the mirrored backdrop.  Merrick was now admitting to the show costing $2 million and this change alone costing $100,000 – money spent to ‘protect the investment’.

The show was becoming a huge crowd pleaser, but it was still wide open for criticism.  The plot had become almost non-existent, both the stars (Tammy Grimes and Jerry Orbach) had too little to do, Wanda Richert as Peggy was showing signs that she was not blessed with the ‘star quality’ so necessary to make the slender plot work, the choreography was generally wonderful but too many numbers were cut short, they were not allowed to build.  The show had now been cut, the first act to 70 minutes and the second an unbelievable 40.  But it was already a great entertainment and all this was due to Merrick’s grand scale production and Champion’s for directing and choreographing at such a breath taking pace.

In the fourth week of its five week try-out there were more changes evident.  Most of the work still seemed to be going into the first act leaving the second short and without a real ‘socko’ dance number except the wonderful ‘42nd Street’ finale.  The opening, ‘Audition’ which had first been reminiscent of the opening of A Chorus Line which the chorus talking about how they hoped to get a part in the show, and now changed to the voices of the show’s production team talking about their show going into auditions – with this the curtain rises and on stage are 35 dancers tapping away.  New dialogue was appearing including more lines from the original film and more obvious thirties quips. Wanda Richert was improving all the time, the direction and re-writing was helping one to care about her, she was given more character.

The last and final week of the try-out was proving what a crowd puller the show was, it was breaking house records at the Kennedy Centre.  A new logo for the show appeared in the advertisements, a scantily dressed girl bearing a slight resemblance to Rudy Keeler, in a hoop over the title; this was the show curtain design for the show-within-a-show ‘Pretty Lady’.

A new number ‘Lulu’s back in Town’ made one brief appearance never to be seen again.  ‘Getting out of Town’ one of Tammy Grimes’ numbers replaced ‘Time to leave Town’.  There were many new costumes for the ‘42nd Street’ number.  One smaller cast member had been replaced but otherwise the cast stayed intact.  Act 2 has still hardly been worked on but the show was now off to the Great White Way and the news travelling ahead was that it was a certain hit.

The first preview had been announced for 2 August with an opening night set for the 11th.  David Merrick cancelled these dates and put the show back into rehearsal on the stage of the Winter Garden theatre where it was set to open.  There was mention of damage to the scenery in its move from Washington and that a new set was being built, but it was all rumour as there was a blackout on all publicity.  What was certain was that the ‘book’ was still being worked on.  The delays were costing $100,000 a week.  David Merrick ordered all concerned with the show to give no interviews.  With no interviews and no publicity more rumours started, though it was generally thought that the secrecy surrounding the show was partly a clever publicity stunt.  News had crept out of Gower Champion’s ‘virus’ leading to talk of a new Director / choreographer taking over.  It was known that Merrick and Champion, two giants of the Musical stage, and a relationship that was often ‘heated’ and it was known that Merrick had been involved with the supervising of the show more that he normally would.

The Show was not advertised and although the box-office opened on 4 August it was closed the next day.  On 10 August 42nd Street was presented for an invited audience from the Democratic National Committee.  It was a sparsely attended performance and the audience was unreceptive.  Without advertising the fact a sneak preview was planned for 12 August, 400 seats were made available at the half-price ticket booth of which about 150 were sold.  Only minutes before the curtain was due to rise it was cancelled and the audience offered their money back or future seats.  The cancellation was due to ‘technical reasons’. Though it was reported that Merrick’s explanation was ‘there was a snake loose in the Theatre’.  The snake was a free-lance writer seen in the audience, it was known that he was collecting material for a book of the making of the Musical!

On Friday 15 August the long awaited advertisement appeared in the New York Papers.  The show was to open on the 25th with previews from the 22nd.  That first preview took place with a less than full house, there was no Playbill, just a sheet listing the production team and cast.  The overture was 25 minutes late but from the moment the curtain rose to the tapping feet of the opening scene the audience went wild – a hit was being born.  On the day of the official opening the librettist Michael Stewart accepted an interview on national Public Radio.  He said that after the next two Broadway commitments he was giving it up – ‘I don’t love it anymore, I loved it for 20 years, I like it, I respect it, but my heart does not quicken when I hear the overture anymore’.  Was this a reaction to 42nd Street?

There were ten curtain calls on opening night, the audience had cheered their way through the show, there was no doubt it was a hit.  As the final curtain fell, David Merrick walked on stage holding his hands to his face.  He spoke to the cast and the audience – ‘It is tragic, Gower Champion had died’.  The whole theatre was stunned, people openly wept, Jerry Orbach asked for the curtain to be brought down and the theatre emptied in silence.

On 28 August an advertisement appeared announcing a special Benefit Performance for the Gower Champion Dance Fund that afternoon at 2 pm.  It would a noon memorial service.

With the lifting of the secrecy that surround the production certain facts came to light.  Gower Champion knew he had a rare blood disease.  He had checked into a local hospital when he began suffering from high fever and fatigue but he kept it from all connected with the show and told then he was just fighting a virus.  He attended rehearsals in heavy sweaters and had the air conditioning turned off.  He worked on the show in Washington, though he missed a few rehearsals. David Merrick was not told of his condition till the last day in Washington and hence the cancellation the New York opening date to give Gower Champion more time as it was evident he could not work with any pace. Gower Champion died a 1pm on 22 August.

Overtures

42nd Street reached London, opening at Theatre Royal in Drury Lane on  on 8th August 1984 and set out on a major UK tour in 1990 following a brief run at London’s Dominion Theatre. Revivals have been many, the most notable on Broadway in 2001 and Chichester in 2011 with a UK tour following in 2012.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                     Illustrated from the Overtures Archive

Had P G Wodehouse been American he would be called the father of the musical

P G Wodehouse – Pelham Grenville Wodehouse – known to his friends as ‘Plum’ – the writer of about 100 books – has many followers.  But few know about the amount of theatre work he was involved with.  Other than almost 20 plays he was either lyricist or librettist, or both, for nearly 40 shows.  And, he admitted he wrote his books as though they were musicals albeit without music.  

Wodehouse was not just another lyricist – he helped develop the art.  He was the natural successor of W. S. Gilbert who had written mainly to the confines of Arthur Sullivan, Wodehouse showed it was possible to fit clever but conversational phrasing to any melody written by a number of composers.

Wodehouse was born on 15 October 1880 to fairly affluent parents who lived and worked out of Hong Kong.  He went to Dulwich College where he edited the school magazine and joined the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.  In his spare time he kept writing and had light verse published in the Daily Chronicle.  He started to write short stories and humorous articles for minor publications earning 10/- (50p) a poem or £1 a story or article.  In 1901 he moved to the Globe newspaper in a back-up role.  His first book was published in 1902 and he moved on to take over the Globe’s important ‘By the Way’ column of light verse and humour.  He was earning £3 a week and had plenty of time to do other writing for Punch and The Strand.  By now he had given up his bank job.

His first visit to New York was in 1904 and that opened up a new market for his work, though this was small fry to start with.  Back in London he took on a new role – one that really interested him – the resident encore lyrist at the Aldwych Theatre, a role he was soon to do at the Gaiety Theatre as well.  The resident encore lyrist would add a fresh set of lyrics to hit songs, so that the stars could continue to titillate the audience when they were called back for encore chorus after encore chorus.  Occasionally a new song was required.

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In 1904 he had his first song published.  It was for the musical Sergeant Brue – the song was ‘Put me in my little cell’.   At this time Wodehouse met Jerome Kern for the first time.  Kern was working in London learning his trade and finding a wife.  They both worked on The Beauty of Bath and produced three songs – the most important being the hit ‘Oh, Mr Chamberlain’ – a political number.  The lyric is attributed to both Wodehouse and Kern.  Indeed, at the beginning of his career Kern was writing lyrics.  Kern was a protégé of Charles Frohman, the American impresario and a renowned anglophile. Frohman had put him on contract with one of London’s leading actor-come-impresario Seymour Hicks to supply songs to enhance show scores – what is known as ‘the art of interpolation’.

In 1909 Wodehouse made a second visit to New York and decided to stay.  It was a simple economic decision – he sold two short stories immediately he got there at a far greater price than he would have received in England.  He resigned from the Globe in London and eventually got a role at the Saturday Evening Post in New York.  He went back to London in 1913 and worked on his last show there – a revue called Nuts and May at the Empire.  It was early 1914 and it ran for over 100 performances.

Back in New York Wodehouse married Ethel Rowley a young widow 3 years his younger who had a daughter.  His work continued to be published and in 1915 he became the drama critic of Vanity Fair.  In that role he attended the Princess Theatre to review Very Good Eddie with music by Jerome Kern later that year.  He enjoyed the show but thought the lyrics ‘lamentable’.   By now Kern had moved on from just adding the odd song and he had worked with Guy Bolton, another Anglophile, on one previous show.  Wodehouse was obviously in touch with Jerome Kern as he had supplied lyrics for a song in Ninety in the Shade (the show Kern and Bolton had worked on together) called ‘A packet of seeds’.

Regarding Wodehouse’s visit to Very Good Eddie Guy Bolton recalled: ‘the big thing that happened that night – or – morning – was that Kern and I invited Wodehouse to join us in our next show.  We needed a lyricist, and Kern knew Wodehouse’s work, and was sure he was just the man.  What we were aiming at in our shows was charm and taste. That was what you had to aim at if you were working at the Princess, because it was such a small theatre.  It stood on Sixth Avenue at 39th Street, under the ‘L’, and I think it had only 299 seats.  The stage was too small for a full chorus line, and, if I remember correctly, the pit could accommodate only twelve musicians.  In a way these limitations were an advantage: the ‘Princess shows’, as they were called, were the first intimate musical comedies.  That was the quality we strove to get in our shows wherever they were playing, and once Wodehouse was back in the theatre, writing those delightful lyrics of his, we were well on the way to achieving our object’.

Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse did two shows at the Princess – Oh, Boy and Oh, Lady, Lady – and a half dozen other superior musicals ending with Sitting Pretty in other theatres up to 1924.  In addition – at times when Bolton was committed to other projects – Wodehouse did a few shows with Kern for which someone else provided the book.  Similarly, when Bolton, after several false starts, succeeded in putting together the show that became Sally, all the music was by Kern, but Wodehouse was just one of several lyricists involved. 

Wodehouse also provided lyrics for a number of other composers who wrote for the theatre, among them Rudolf Friml, Emmerich Kalman, Felix (Ivan) Caryll, Ivor Novello and George Gershwin, but he was unquestionably most at home working in trio with Kern and Bolton with whom he wrote the three big hit songs which he is associated – ‘The siren’s song’ from Leave it to Jane, ‘Till the clouds roll by’ from Sally, and ‘Bill’ from Oh, Lady, Lady.  ‘Bill’ was dropped from that show – supposedly because it was not suited to the voice of the leading lady, Vivienne Segal – and it almost went into Sally but Marilynn Miller decided it did not suit her voice.  But when Kern was working on Show Boat and needing a strong ballad for Helen Morgan he remember it and it was interpolated. 

There is no doubt that Wodehouse loved writing lyrics and maybe considered it as a form of recreation, but, for all that, doing a Broadway show took time and trouble for men whose standards were high.  ‘Wodehouse and I worked together very closely’, Guy Bolton commented.  ‘Most people have somehow picked up the idea that integrating the story and lyrics of a musical comedy began with Oklahoma!  I don’t know how that notion got started, for I can assure you that Wodehouse, Kern and I made a conscious effort to fuse all the elements of our shows.  It was my job to write the book, but I always discussed the story line and the characters in great detail with Wodehouse and got his ideas.  Then, when things were beginning to take shape, we’d decide where, say, to stop the dialogue and put the end of a scene into a lyric – things like that.  When I finished the first draft of a scene, or a series of scenes, I’d send it round to Wodehouse with a note telling him that if he saw something that could be improved he should go ahead and tickle it up.  Quite often, at this stage of the game, we might revise our first thoughts about the placement of a song, or even the kind of song it should be.  It was a very careful collaboration, and a most congenial one.’

In those days, the composer customarily received 3 % of the show’s net receipts, the writer of the book 2% and the lyricist 1 %.  It was Wodehouse’s and Bolton’s practice to take 1 ½ % each, and Wodehouse would recompense Bolton for the extra ½ % by giving him 50 % of the royalties from the songs.  Wodehouse also enjoyed an unusually amicable relationship with Kern.  The composer and his lyricist worked two ways – sometimes Wodehouse wrote the words to fit Kern’s music, and sometimes Kern wrote the music to fit Wodehouse’s words.   As a rule, if it was an upbeat or comedy song the lyric came first, and if it was a romantic of reflective song the music did.  ‘Everyone remembers Jerry Kern for his lovely melodies, but his talent went far beyond that’,  a Wodehouse comment in the seventies.  ‘People have no idea what a skillful showman he was.  Jerry could set anything you wrote to music, easily and effectively.’

Wodehouse was most adept at fitting his words to Kern’s music, and he felt that his approach led to some of his best work.  In his words:  ‘If a lyric writer does the words first, he has a tendency to fall into certain set metrical patterns.  I know that I found it very stimulating when Jerry did the melody first and went sailing off in some new direction.  Then I had to follow.  Another reason I think you frequently end up with a good lyric when the music is written first, is that you know where the high spots of the melody come, and you try to match the high spots of your lyric to them’. 

Have a Heart was the second collaboration that Wodehouse worked on but the first that was solely Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse.  The first had been Miss Springtime which played the New Amsterdam in September 1916.  For that Bolton had written the book but Kern shared the composing duties with Emmerich Kalman and Wodehouse the lyrics with Herbert Reynolds. 

Have a Heart, which was billed as ‘the up-to-the-minute musical comedy’, opened on 11 January 1917 at the Liberty Theatre and ran for 76 performances – which may appear short but it ran for years on the road.  The Liberty Theatre was up on 42nd Street and a larger house than the Princess for which it was first envisaged, about 1,000 seats.  But the settings were a modern departmental store and a modern hotel with a cabaret facility already giving the feel of what a Princess Shows would be like. 

1917 was a busy year for Wodehouse for he was involved with six shows (five on Broadway and Kitty Darlin’ (with music by Rudolf Friml) on 10 September in Buffalo).  He also published two novels as well a number of short stories.  The Kern, Wodehouse and Bolton’s third show Oh, Boy! arrived at the Princess Theatre just 5 weeks after the opening of Have a Heart on 20 February 1917 and would run for 463 performances, their most successful show.  It transferred to London as Oh Joy! (go to ‘search’ and see a separate article).  Leave it to Jane opened on 28 August, The Riviera Girl (music by Kern and Emmerich Kalman) on 24 September and Miss 1917 (music by Kern and Victor Herbert) on 5 November.  The following year brought Oh, Lady! Lady!! on 1 February.

So almost one hundred years ago in 1918 Wodehouse had five shows running on Broadway: Oh, Boy!, Leave it to Jane, The Riviera Girl, Miss 1917 and Oh, Lady! Lady!!   This year we celebrate Andrew Lloyd Webber’s four shows running on Broadway!

Wodehouse’s other musicals were See You Later (Baltimore 1918), The Girl Behind the Gun (music by Ivan Caryll in 1918) which became Kissing Time in London where it was a major hit.  Also in 1918 he supplied some lyrics to The Canary and a complete set for Oh, My Dear! (music by Louis A Hirsch) at the Princess.  1919 brought The Rose of China (music by Armand Vecsey) and in 1920 the already mentioned Sally.  He wrote the lyrics to Ivor Novello’s music for the London show The Golden Moth in 1921 and also for London The Cabaret Girl in 1922 and The Beauty Prize in 1923, both with Jerome Kern.   Sitting Pretty, the last of the Bolton, Kern, Wodehouse shows opened on 8 April 1924 and had a disappointing 95 performance run.

For Oh, Kay! (music by George Gershwin) in 1926 he and Bolton wrote the book only, though for The Nightingale (music by Armand Vecsey) in 1927 he wrote the lyrics.  Wodehouse joined Ira Gershwin to write lyrics for Rosalie (music by George Gershwin) and with Clifford Grey The Three Musketeers (music by Rudolf Friml) in 1928.  From then on he worked on more plays and, of course, his books.  His last outing into the musical was with Guy Bolton writing the books for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in 1934.                                                                                                     

There does not appear to have been a conscious decision for Wodehouse to stop writing for the stage.  He had moved to live in France in the thirties and as he remained in situ when the Germans took over in 1939 under house and prison arrest.  So he missed those vital years that were to lead to the Broadway Golden Period.  And, of course Kern had died during that period.  Nevertheless, he did remain interested in theatre and when he and his wife moved back to the States, he lived close to Guy Bolton. 

P G Wodehouse was knighted in the New Year’s honour’s list of 1975.  Just a few weeks later on 14th February 1975 he died.

Rexton S Bunnett                                             Illustrations from the Overtures archives

We mark the 60th anniversary of Julian Slade’s Free As Air

Julian Slade had two shows open in London within a week of each other in 1954, The Duenna and Salad Days.  Whilst the first was a success it was the latter that really made Julian’s name.  He and Sandy Wilson (The Boy Friend) were the young hopes for the then future of the British Musical.  Salad Days had been written with Dorothy Reynolds who had also appeared in it.  They continued their collaboration with Free as Air, again an original story and one set on the mythical island of Terhou, in the Channel Islands.

Originally Julian and Dorothy worked on the show while performing in Salad Days.  Once they had agreed upon the plot and characters they took time off and went to Sark, an actual Channel Island but not the one they were to base their Island on.  That was Jethou which sits between Guernsey and Sark and is a far smaller place that was privately leased and not open to visitors.  But it was the Channel Island atmosphere they were to soak up during their working holiday.  Dorothy stayed for only one week and left Julian to complete the piece.  The only piano on the Island was commandeered from the main hotel from where it was taken to their cottage.  The only problem was that it was too big to get through the door and it got soaked in a heavy rain storm that took place as the door surrounds were being dismantled.  It took two days to dry the piano out in order to allow Julian to compose the score.

Salad Days had been a flimsy, revue like show running from idea to idea; Free as Air was a true book musical.  It was composed for an orchestra (Salad Days had just two pianos and percussion).  It opened at the Hippodrome in Bristol in April 1957 and before moving into the West End had a press opening at Opera House Manchester where it was received in rapture.  It then went straight into the Savoy Theatre, almost opposite the Vaudeville where Salad Days was still playing.  It opened on 6 June 1957 and played for 417 performances.  Its reception was not as great as it had been out of town but its 417 performances was not to be sneezed at and was successful on tour both in the UK and abroad finding favour in the then colonies and Holland.  Its charm indeed captivated audiences and it is a show that has continued to be produced, though mainly by amateur groups.  It was last seen at the Finbrough Theatre, London just four years ago.

The plot is slight.  It is set at the time of their Independence Day celebrations but there is no Queen to be crowned.  The parliament is made up of just three citizens who simply cannot decide what to do.  There is one boat visit per month and on this day, other than the usual cargo it brings Geraldine, a young lady escaping the paparazzi and an unwelcome suitor on the main land.  She makes the local girl Molly uneasy and she wished for some handsome stranger to enter her life.  Geraldine is persuaded to become Queen.

 

Unfortunately Geraldine’s suitor (Jack) and a lady of the press (Ivy) have discovered where she is and have come to the island with the help of Lord Paul who has not been successful in wooing Miss Catamole.  Geraldine tells Jack she is not going to marry him and she has rather fallen for Albert from the Island.  Jack, however, is the centre of interest for the girls of the Island and Lord Paul has met Ivy and she is trying to make the Islanders turn it into a tourist resort but the resist and imprison her.  With her location known Geraldine goes to Jersey to meet the press so that Terhou can remain its quiet self.  She invents the story that she has given her money away to her relations, played by the Island folk and the press are no longer interested and she is able to go back to Terhou and Albert.  Lord Paul gets Ivy and Miss Catamole her ardent admirer for years, Mr Potter.  Molly decides the Island is still the place for her and Jack returns to the mainland with his tail between his legs.

The London production’s cast included Dorothy Reynolds playing the part of Miss Catomole.  The heroine Geraldine was played by Gillian Lewis, Jack by Gerald Harper, Albert by John Trevor, Lord Paul by Michael Aldridge and Ivy by Josephine Tewson.  Playing one of the reporters was Len Rossiter.

 

Eileen celebrates her centennial year, opening on Broadway in 1917

Victor Herbert was one of the most versatile composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and arguably the most romantic.  He wrote over fifty shows with Naughty Marietta, Sweethearts and The Red Mill still remembered today.  He was Irish having been born in Dublin in 1859, the grandson of Samuel Lover who had dabbled in musical theatre in his day.  Herbert’s father died while he was a young child and his mother re-married to a German and they moved to Stuttgart, Germany where Herbert went to school and learnt to play the piano, flute and piccolo. However, it was the cello that he eventually chose and he became a member of Stuttgart’s Court Orchestra where he learnt composition.  He married Therese, an Austrian singer who, later, was offered a contract at the New York Metropolitan.  Herbert followed her to the States and gradually became part of the theatrical community.

Herbert was proud of his Irish birth and his grandfather and actively supported the Irish independence movement that made him hostile to Great Britain.  In 1916 he decided to write a show that supported his feelings and chose his grandfather’s 1835 novel Rory O’More to suggest – and that is all – the plot.  Henry Blossom wrote both the book and lyrics.

Eileen is set in 1798 during the rebellion.  Its hero is Barry O’Day who returns from exile to fight the English with the help of the French fleet.  The English put a price on O’Day’s head and he has to go into hiding finding the love of Eileen, the niece of his benefactor.  The French are not much help and a new English government grant a general amnesty to the rebels.  And so Barry and Eileen are united and can live happily ever after.

The original producers, Klaw and Erlander, had announced his new ‘romantic opera’ early in 1916 but later that year Jo Weber took over the rights and contracts were exchanged in November.  The first title of the show was Hearts of Erin and it opened as that on 1 January 1917 in Cleveland, Ohio to good reviews.  It ran there for a week and started a tour of America’s eastern cities.  It ran several weeks in Boston where its name changed to Eileen, to make it sound more like a musical.  On the road the show had improved and a great deal of work had been put into it by Herbert wanting it to be his greatest piece.  Although not originally destined for an immediate Broadway showing, Weber, thrilled with its reception, was able to book the Shubert Theatre where it opened on 19 March 1917, just two days after St Patrick’s Day.

On the first night Victor Herbert gave a curtain speech: ‘I have lived in America for many years; for a long time I have been a citizen of this country, and I believe I am a good American citizen.  But I was born in Dublin and I have always wanted to write an Irish comic opera which would add to Ireland’s wealth of beautiful music and would be worthy of the traditions of the race.’

As one critic pointed out; ‘Eileen is more than an opera – it is a bit of propaganda’.  Herbert’s score is one of his best and Blossom’s libretto is above the likes of most of that period.  But New York did not take to it, perhaps because at the time they were at War with England, their Allies, and it closed after 64 performances.  Jo Weber continued to have faith in it and planned a two year tour which started but ended abruptly in Dayton where a mystery fire destroyed everything involved with the show.

Eileen, not surprisingly was not shown in London although the libretto was sent to the Lord Chamberlain and it was passed for showing.  It was not until 1982 that New York revisited the show when given a concert performance at the Town Hall.   Ohio Light Opera produced a full scale revival in 1997 and in 2012 there was a small scale production by the Light Opera of New York.

Few recordings of Eileen existed for many years, although the hit song ‘Thine alone’ was recorded by a number of people.  Al Goodman recorded eight songs on 78 which later made up one side of an LP.  However, Ohio Light Opera recorded and released a complete recording.  In 2012 New World Records issued a complete recording using the Orchestra of Ireland.

Rexton S Bunnett                                           Illustrations from the Overtures Trust Archive