From The Collection 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

Ten Musicals that Overtures would like to see Revived

Our look at shows that have not yet crossed the Atlantic but deserve a British showing last week brought to mind shows that deserve a revival in Town.  We have just seen Half a Sixpence but few other shows are revived, with the exception, of course, of the ever popular Lloyd Webber, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim shows.

Our suggestions are mainly home grown shows from a century of Musical Theatre.  The order is not one of preference.

The Arcadians is more than a century old but the themes of finding Utopia still resonate.  It could look simply wonderful on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage. 

Valmouth – Sandy Wilson’s clever and extremely funny musical adaptation of Ronald Firbank’s book was seen in revival in Chichester in 1995 but never transferred to London.

Zip Goes a Million – with a delicate touching up of the book as was brilliantly done for Me and My Girl this very British musical comedy boasts a great score by George Posford and Eric Maschwitz.  Originally conceived as a vehicle for George Robey, star changes proved it to be a vehicle for any talented comic singing actor.   

The Dancing Years – Ivor Novello’s most endearing show has a strong story line as well as a terrific score and two major star roles.  A touch of operetta may be a welcome change in London and it could do well touring.  

Lock Up Your Daughters – Lionel Bart before Oliver!   It was written with Laurie Johnson and is based on Henry Fielding’s comedy Rape Upon Rape.  A success at the Mermaid and again in a revival at Her Majesty’s, but that was half a century ago.  A good tuneful bawdy evening – just ask ‘When does the ravishing begin?’.

Irma La Douce – this was revived in the seventies but it was not a good production and flopped – scarring Charles Dance away from musical theatre for ever.  The score is a delight and the book has charm.

Bless the Bride – This Vivian Ellis hit of the forties had a revivals at the Kings Head and at Sadler’s Wells decades ago.  The score is perhaps Ellis’s best and the A P Herbert book is fun and rather British.

Bitter Sweet – Noel Coward’s masterpiece had a successful revival at Sadler’s Wells but deserves another revisit – this is another show that would look good on the National’s Lyttelton stage.

Oliver! – Yes this has been revived and revived but in a blown up ‘sparkling new’ productions.  What a joy it would be to see Lionel Bart’s world-wide hit it in its glorious imaginative original set with the original direction and perhaps back at the Noel Coward Theatre (once the New and the Albery) where it’s success started.               

                     

And So to Bed – one to be treated with love and understanding.  The story of Pepys and his famous diary, the musical, again by Vivian Ellis, was a comic hit.  There is no doubt the book would need work as it was basically a play with songs added.  A comic tour-de-force (does Tom Hollander sing?) with an always popular tale.

Perhaps you have some ideas too!!!

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                   Illustrated from the Overtures Archive

Memories from the Vivian Ellis section of our British collection

Today we tend to think that Noel Coward and Ivor Novello hugged the limelight and were the major composers of the period between the two World Wars.  But there were others who were just as successful.  Vivian Ellis was one who was riding high and his career continued after the Second World War.  He was born in 1903 destined for a career as a concert pianist.  But his talent as a composer and some-time lyricist was recognised at an early age and at 22 he had songs in the revues By the Way and Still Dancing as well as an interpolation in the American import Mercenary Mary.

It was success at an early age but it followed an apprenticeship in Tip Pan Alley where he rose from a song demonstrator to that of house composer.  This had happened after a planned career in the City was abandoned by mutual family agreement.  He knew instinctively the types of songs the public wanted and his ability to write a memorable melody line held him in good stead.  His first major success for which he wrote the entire score was Mr Cinders in 1929. 

When we interviewed him back in 1979 (when he was 75) he had strong feelings about the musical.  When asked about a future golden age he replied” The last ‘golden age’ disappeared with the departure of the great theatrical Impresario.  They had a policy of continuity.  Some may remember George Edwards’ string of musical Comedies at Daly’s and the Gaiety Theatres, and the Cochran revues at the London Pavilion.  Composers like Lionel Monkton and Paul Rubens were in constant demand.  Others will recall the Cochran-Coward partnership, the Herbert-Ellis collaborations and the Ruritania of Ivor Novello.  Today (and this comment was made almost forty years ago) with colossal costs, the expenses of a provincial try-out and every home with its own television stage – things a far more difficult.”

On public taste he commented: “Public taste is always changing. First the George Edwards’ English Musical Comedies. Which he replaced with Viennese Operetta such as The Merry Widow and The Dollar Princess, in turn ousted by the arrival of No, No, Nanette in the Twenties and the flow of American Musicals that followed ever since.  For the manager of today it is simpler, as well as safer, to reproduce a tried and tested Broadway hit.  Believe me, they too have their flops and very expensive ones too.  Yet the majority of American Musicals are ahead of ours in many ways.  Being slicker, they give the audience and critics less time to dwell on any weaknesses, yet they are old fashioned in at least one respect – most American musicals have melody.

The successes in the twenties and thirties brought a few international hit songs but his shows tended to remain home based.  During that period he more often than not had three shows, for which he wrote the score or contributed to, on at any one time.  He became closely associated with Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert and their string of hits.

He actively served in the Second World War and so his theatre career was put aside and it was not until 1946 that he joined A P Herbert to write a number of musicals (sometimes called light opera) that included the hits Bless the Bride and The Water Gipsies.  He also wrote his own lyrics several times including the hit And So to Bed and one of his favourites, Listen to the Wind.

By the time the fifties had arrived and teenagers were changing popular music he changed careers and started to write books, often with a comic slant.  He became the president of the Performing Rights Society and initiated the Vivian Ellis Award for aspiring musical theatre composers and lyricists.  It was that award given the Charles Hart that led to Hart being asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to help write the lyrics of The Phantom of the Opera.

In the eighties Dan Crawford at the King’s Head Theatre revived Mr Cinders to great acclaim and successfully transferred it to the West End.  A song from that show, ‘Spread a little happiness’ was recorded by Sting and became a hit once again.  The King’s Head also presented a revue of his songs using that song’s title and that too  transferred to the West End with, unfortunately, not a great deal of success.

Vivian Ellis was a multi-talented man taking up gardening and painting in his retirement at his Somerset home where he lived with his sister, Hermione.  He knew everyone in musical theatre, many like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein from his visits to the States in the thirties.  He quoted Rodgers as saying “One can but try to write a good theatre score.  If one gets a song hit, that is something extra”.   Hammerstein had introduced him to the young Stephen Sondheim, who he admired.  Though he commented: Some find Sondheim’s work ‘uncommercial’.  They said the same about mine and I recall Jerome kern’s advice to me – ‘go on being uncommercial.  There’s a lot of money in it!’”

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrated from the Overtures Archive

Before Hamilton there was Ben Franklin In Paris – Overtures was there

The Broadway season of 1964 / 1965 brought Fiddler on the Roof, Golden Boy, The Roar of the Greasepaint and the London import Oh! What a Lovely War plus Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! were still playing.  Yet, Ben Franklin in Paris was highly anticipated as it was bringing back to Broadway Robert Preston in his first show since The Music Man.   With so many major hits playing it never really had a chance and lasted only 215 performances.  It is a show that basically disappeared after its New York showing but it is a show that deserves to be looked at again.  Why?  Well it is a piece about American (and of course British) history – the happenings behind the 1776 Independence of America declaration – now the province of mega hit Hamilton and 1776 before that.

There is no particular musical theatre pedigree in the men behind the show.  The book and lyrics are by Sidney Michaels who had a hit play in Tchin –Tchin and another in his dramatisation of the life of Dylan Thomas called simply Dylan starring Alec Guiness.  The music is by Mark Sandrich Jr. whose claim to fame was a rich and famous Hollywood father.  Ben Franklin in Paris was to be their only show. 

There were, in that great Broadway tradition of shows on the road, problems.  The original director and choreographer left to be replaced by Michael Kidd – a scoop as great as getting Robert Preston for the title role.  The libretto was revisited and Jerry Herman brought in to do some doctoring – two of his songs survive (‘To be alone with you’ and ‘Too charming’).

The tale they told was based on the trip that founding father Benjamin Franklin took to Paris to get support for the colonies fight against the English crown.  There is, of course, a love interest which enables him to get close to the court of Louis XV1 and then it follows the successes and failures in the struggle taking place.  The happy ending is the recognition of the United States of America by the French court and Dr Franklin being named the Ambassador of the new country.

If it had not been the good advance ticket sales it may well have closed even earlier.  Luckily there is an original cast album and that has been re-issued on CD.  It proves the score to have charms and is a pleasant listen.  What is evident is that the score bends towards the operetta, something that was not popular on the Broadway of the sixties, but is less a problem now.  Also the published libretto shows the piece to have a solid traditional feel, it tells the story well.

There has not been a British production and only one American revival.  But with the frenzy over Hamilton it would be interesting to see a Ben Franklin in Paris revived for us to compare a more traditional musical comedy treatment of that period in our history.

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

David Heneker – The Man Whose Show Is Half A Sixpence

Of the post Second World War home grown shows one of the more successful was David Heneker’s Half a Sixpence and the Chichester revival and its West End transfer has proved successful.  David Heneker died in 2001 at the age of 94 (he was born on 31 March 1906 in Southsea, Hampshire). 

A true English gentleman, he had risen to the rank of Brigadier in a long career in the Army both in active service and in the War Office.  A career soldier, as his father had been, he studied at Sandhurst where his love of films began.  But he also had a love of music and played the piano.  His playing and song writing ran alongside his army career but really blossomed after he left the army in 1948.  Prior to that he had a song in the 1934 Merle Oberon film The Broken Melody and war-time hits: ‘The thing-ummy bob’ sung by Gracie Fields and ‘There’s a new world over the skyline’ for Vera Lynn sung in the film One Exciting Night.

David was a talented pianist and singer and he used these attributes at London’s famed Embassy Club where he became a well-known figure in the West End.  It appeared that he had found his slot in life but that changed in 1958 when playwright Wolf Mankowitz recognised his song writing talent and asked him to work on a show he was working on.  That show was Expresso Bongo for which he worked side by side Monty Norman.  It was a satire on the pop business of the day set in the seedy Soho of yesteryear.  Starring Paul Schofield and a young Millicent Martin in was a success and was made into a watered down film that introduced Cliff Richard to the screen.  

In Expresso Bongo he had written both lyrics and music but for his next venture, the Anglicisation of Marguerite Monnot’s musical Irma la Douce, he just worked on the lyrics.  A hit in London and on Broadway it put him at the top of his trade. 

His English roots led him once more to a musical with a strong London theme called Make Me an Offer which, again, was written by Wolf Mankowitz and again he joined forces with Monty Norman to write both music and lyrics.  It opened in 1959 and ran for over 200 performances, but did not travel.  Also with Norman he wrote The Art of Living, a 1960 revue.   

David caught the eye of Harold Fielding, one of the great British producers and a man with a vision of making the pop star Tommy Steele into an all-round star.  Fielding had starred Steele in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and it had been a huge success in a limited Christmas season.  The astute Fielding had watched the success of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in 1960 and had the idea of bringing H G Well’s novel of Kipps to the stage as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele.  David worked on it as sole song writer with Beverly Cross writing the book.  Half A Sixpence opened in 1963 and was a hit both in London and on Broadway, Steele became an international star and David had written a glorious score, perhaps his best.

David Heneker’s success with Fielding continued with Charlie Girl in 1965.  A simple play on the Cinderella story it brought together a mix that the time.  A pop star (this time Joe Brown), a much loved older star (Anna Neagle) and a strong comedy lead (Derek Nimmo).  This David wrote jointly with John Taylor.  It ran for over 2,000 performances and was later revived but to a far less friendly welcome.

1966 brought Jorrocks which was only mildly successful (view the full article on this show via the ‘search’ button).  By now the shows were starting to slow.  In 1969 came Phil the Fluter, another Harold Fielding show built up on aging star (Evelyn Laye), pop star (Mark Wynter) and comedian (Stanley Baxter).  It told the story of the successful song writer Percy French, using some of his songs but mainly new ones by David Heneker – it failed. 

In 1972 came Popkiss, an adaption of Ben Travers’ famed farce Rookery Nook.  It also failed and yet, the play on which it was based was to go on and have two more successful revivals.  It looked as though he was prepared to sit back on his laurels and retire.  But he was encouraged to come back to the stage in 1980 by Harold Fielding for a new show about the Hollywood and its change from the silent to sound movie.  The show, The Biograph Girl, had a book by Warner Brown who also worked on the lyrics with David.  It is a delightful show with a charming score but it could not find its audience.  There was an Off-Broadway production some years later under its original title of Flickers. 

There was one more, and sadly it was not a hit.  This was in 1984 and the show was Peg, an adaption of the ancient play Peg O’ My Heart.  It had book problems and while billed as ‘a romantic musical’ it lacked that spark to make it a hit.  It was recorded, as was The Biograph Girl, and these recordings are well worth revisiting. 

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archives

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