Archive for From The Collection

Musical Theatre Historian Dominic Combe looks back at The Lilac Domino

The Lilac Domino is an operetta in three acts by Emmerich von Gatti and Bela Jenbach set to music by Charles Cuvillier. The piece opened at the Stadttheater in Leipzig on 3 February 1912. Success in Leipzig was sufficient motivation for the work to be staged in Budapest at the Nepopea (a private company offering affordable access to ballet, operetta and suchlike) on 5 November 1912; however, The Lilac Domino aroused no further interest in Europe.

Two years later in New York, an English language version was written by Harry and Robert Smith with additional songs by Donavon Parsons and Howard Carr. It opened at the 44th Street Theatre on 28 October 1914, and was produced by Andrew Dippel and his Opera Comique Company. This American version was set in Palm Beach, Florida instead of Nice in France, starring Eleanor Painter as Georgine and Wilfred Douthitt as Andre. An innovative feature of this production was a coloured film of the Carnival at Nice, probably for the Carnival scene in act three. Among others of the Broadway cast were: George Curzon (Vicomte de Brissac), James Horrod (Elledon), rene dettling (Leonie d’Andorcer), John E Hazzard (prosper), Robert O’Connor (Coasimir), Jeanne Maubourg (Baroness de Villiers) and Harry Herrosen (Istvan). The production managed 110 performances.

In London, the British rights to The Lilac Domino were taken up by the energetic Joe Sacks who had produced the revue Three Cheers in 1916. Sacks retained the American lyrics, but had them adapted for the London audiences by Shafto Justin Adair Fitzgerald and interpolated a few songs by the musical director, Howard Carr and the lyricist Donovan Parsons. It opened at the Empire Theatre on 21 February 1918 where it settled in until 22 September 1919. After a short interlude, the production resumed at the Palace Theatre on 23 October 1919, finally closing in December that year after a total of 747 performances.

As such, The Lilac Domino came out of the shadows where it had lingered for six years and finally joined the ranks of the major hits of the Great War period along with Chu Chin Chow (2,235 performances), The Maid of the Mountains (1352 performances) and The Boy (801 performances). Finally if you accept the Bing Boys are Here, Bing Girls are There and Bing Boys on Broadway as a trilogy, you have another mega hit running to 1196 performances. Among the favourite songs were ‘The Lilac Domino’ (sung by Clara Butterworth, Vincent Sullivan and R Stuart Pigott), ‘What is done you can never undo’ (Clara Butterworth and Jamieson Dodds), ‘For your love I am waiting’ (Jospenine Earle) and ‘All line up in a queue’ (Frank Lalor and chorus). By the end of 1918 The Lilac Domino was on tour in the provinces.

The next obvious step was to take the show to Australia. Starting in Sydney with Jamieson Dodds from London and a local singer, Rene Maxwell, together with Ivy Shilling, Marie Lavarre, John Delacey, Hugh Steyne, William Valentine, George Gee and A B Majilton. This was followed by performances in the Theatre Royal in Melbourne and subsequently in New Zealand.

In Britain The Lilac Domino remained a favourite with amateur music and opera societies until well after the 1939-45 War and in 1953, H F Maltby gave new impetus with a revised English language book returning the action to its rightful place on the French Riviera. A film version was released in the United Kingdom in 1937 and later in the USA in 1940.

This article by Dominic Combe was first seen as part of the booklet accompanying the Palaeophonics CD issue.

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Your Own Thing and other Rock Shows


The arrival of Hair on the Broadway – and later London – stage was akin to the arrival of Bill Haley and his Comets on the world of pop music. Broadway took time in recognising that the world of pop music had changed from the days when it had provided many of the pop hits of the day and change only started when it was proven there was an audience for it in main stream theatre. Hair opened the door for musicals with music reflecting the younger set – musical that became known as rock shows.

One of the first rock musicals after Hair was also successful in New York. It was Your Own Thing – an Off-Broadway show that knew its limitations and did not venture to Broadway. It is fifty years since it opened on 13 January 1968 at the Orpheum Theatre where it played 937 performances.

Your Own Thing was loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It had a charming soft rock score and imaginative staging using back projection in place of sets. The music and lyrics were by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar who also starred in the show. During its run many actors who were to become ‘names’ appeared such as Marcia Rodd, Raul Julia, Leland Palmer and Sandy Duncan.

The London transfer went the way of most Off-Broadway transfers in not being successful. It opened on 6 February 1968 with Palmer, Apolinar and Rodd recreating their New York roles but ran for only 42 performances.

The Beatles brought the centre stage of the pop industry to Britain and it was here that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were experimenting in their revolutionary change in the sound of musical theatre. It is not surprising that Jesus Christ Superstar was at first a concept album and not then even considered as a stage show. It was the American live concerts and then the Broadway production that brought that. Their Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat had been written for children but when recorded with adult actors the album found another audience and the show itself developed again in a modern (rock) mode.

In the States, the take on the Bible was Godspell and that was a deserved hit, again with a score of the day. Both this and Jesus Christ Superstar are still very much with us having made quite an impact on the musical stage. Two others were purely American successes, Salvation in 1969 and Soon in 1971 – both have disappeared.







But why has Two Gentlemen of Verona not been revived? This show was successful in New York and London and boasted a score by Hair’s Galt MacDermot and it won the Tony for Best Musical. Another Shakespeare spin-off, it was an inventive, tuneful and had a charm that crept over the stage.

By the early seventies there was an acceptance of popular music on the world stage. Hit shows that could boast of modernity such as Pippin, Promises, Promises and Grease in the States and endlessly popular Rocky Horror Show emerging from London’s fringe. Also shows like the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and I Love My Wife would open up to the new sound as well as the changing sexual attitudes in the world of popular musical theatre. Naturally there would be major failures like Rock Carmen and Catch My Soul.

Musicals of today generally bow to the sounds of today and we have also got used to the juke-box musicals actually cashing in on the musical successes of our time. The revolution has happened and there is doubt that it is here to stay.

A listen to the CD’s of Your Own Thing and Two Gentlemen of Verona is a fond way to remember the start of this musical theatre revolution.

RSB                                                       Illustrations from the Overtures Archive


Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! onto Broadway Seventy Years Ago

Seventy years ago on 28 January 1948 at the Adelphi Theatre on Broadway a new musical comedy called “Look Ma, I’m Dancin’!” opened. It received rather mixed reviews and only managed a run of 188 performances and has hardly been seen or thought of since. But it is well worth re-visiting when considering the people involved with it. The great George Abbott produced and directed it and the choreographer was Jerome Robbins who also ‘conceived’ it. Add to this a book by Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence, a score by Hugh Martin and a cast that included Nancy Walker and Harold Lang.

Jerome Robbins had come from the world of ballet to Broadway mainly due to his Fancy Free ballet that became the inspiration for the Broadway hit On the Town. He had gone on to win a Tony for his work on Best Foot Forward and to be involved with a flop (Billion Dollar Baby). The idea of a musical with a ballet background had been with him for many years and he had started to work on the idea with Arthur Laurents but that earlier planned production fell through.

George Abbott was originally contracted as the director but when the show came back to life he became the producer as well. Robbins was behind the signing up of Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence who, at that stage had no Broadway schooling (they were to go to be very successful playwrights and it was they who brought Jerry Herman’s Mame to the musical stage).

Jerome Robbins wanted to show the cut throat world of International Ballet and to explore again ballet on the Broadway stage. The show was to be about a mixed nationality ballet company on the road and it was to be almost biographical in that the lead dancer would have much of the young Robbins about him. The book that brought this together invented a young lady – a remarkably rich young lady – who so wanted to be a ballet star that she was willing (with her Father’s money) to pay for the cross-country tour.

The young lady was Lilly Molloy from Milwaukee played by comedienne Nancy Walker. Walker had been in the original company of On the Town. The main dancer and choreographer who sees in Lilly a way of funding his ballet innovations (think Robbins) is the brash Eddie Winkler played by Harold Lang. Lang was himself from the world of ballet and he was beginning to build a Broadway career. What had been the surprise was that fact he could sing – his previous shows had mainly shown his dancing skills. Lang would soon revive Pal Joey, another story about a not too pleasant a character, with huge success.

In the plot Eddie is able to extend his ballet company to none classical works of his choice including a bedroom farce ballet ‘Mademoiselle Marie’ that, because of her money, would star Molloy. The ballet is a surprise hit but Eddie has made himself so unpopular that he loses his girlfriend. It is Molloy who steps in and manages to get him to see sense.

Nancy Walker was to receive excellent reviews for her comic ballet stints and as an all-round comic actress. So too was the choreographic element of the show – again Robbins had shown his talent. What was a disappointment was the score – a fact that Hugh Martin recognises. While the numbers for Nancy Walker work others do not ignite. Martin blames himself for being lazy and Abbott was disappointed as he so wanted a song to match ‘The Trolley Song’ (a past Martin hit for Judy Garland).

Songs from the score were recorded prior to the show starting its out-of-town try-out because of the strike planned by the Musicians Union. So the original 10” 78 box set and later the 10” LP are not quite the show that Broadway saw in content or deliverance. But it still worth listening to for the comic attributes of Miss Walker and to hear a young Harold Lang.

There is a later recording issued by Original Cast Records of a rare revival by the Musicals Tonight! Company in 2000.

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50 Years Ago Darling Of The Day opened on Broadway with Patricia Routledge set to win a Tony

Having recently celebrated the musical career of Patricia Routledge and the world of flops on this site it seems fitting to concentrate on a show that starred the great lady and was, unfortunately, to become a Broadway flop. Co-incidentally the show “Darling Of The Day” opened just half a century ago on 27 January 1968 at the George Abbott Theatre.

Arnold Bennett’s class conscious novel Buried Alive was the inspiration for this musical. It was rather a good idea and the novel had previously been made into a play and a film. The plot is very theatrical: a successful painter fed up with the falseness of the art world decides to change places with his butler (who happens to have died) and follow through a relationship his butler had started by letter with a widow. The problem is – he can’t stop painting and eventually gets caught out – but by the time the curtain falls and he has found love and happiness.

Initially the book was allotted to Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (they would write the book for another Bennett novel turned musical – The Card). While Waterhouse and Hall would go on to write other musicals, at this point they had little or no musical theatre back-ground. The score, however, was to be by Jule Styne and E.Y. (Yip) Harburg. Peter Wood (another Englishman) was to direct.

According to Ken Mandelbaum in his knowledgeable and highly readable book on Broadway flops ‘Not since Carrie’ the original team did not get on and, in particular, Yip Harburg was not happy – so they disbanded. The new book writer was to be S N Behrman and the new director Albert Marre. They did not last long either and then Nunnally Johnson came on board with director Steven Vinaver. By this time the show had been cast and an out-of-town pre-Broadway tour had commenced.

The stars of “Darling of the Day” were Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge (in the part originally cast with Geraldine Page). Price had made his name in the movies and had last appeared on Broadway in 1954 – but he was well known and could be considered a box office draw. The original cast recording shows him to be a quite adequate singer of the material he is given. Patricia Routledge had the reputation of being able to turn iron into gold which she did here but the gold stayed with her more than covering the entire show.

What Price and Routledge, and indeed the rest of the cast, did to keep their sanity during the out-of-town try-out is not documented but they had to deal with the changing of directors and constant re-writes. When the show did arrive in New York there was no billing for the book – the many who had worked on it had run for cover.

No show can survive an inadequate book and a rudderless production. Darling of the Day was no exception. There had also been a title change – in Boston it had been called Married Alive! Yet it did get some critical praise upon its Broadway opening – although the all-powerful New York Times sent its second stringer who did not like it. When their number one critic, Clive Barnes, saw it he was positive but that review was in his ballet column and was too late to save the show. The television and radio reviews were not good although all were ecstatic about Patricia Routledge. It ran for just 31 performances and Miss Routledge was to receive a Tony Award for her performance.

The show was one of the most expensive to be produced on Broadway at the time. The budget was $500k of which $150 came from the record sale to RCA. Luckily, that recording went ahead for it does reveal a score that has many joys.

There have been few revivals and London’s only staged version was at the Union Theatre in 2013 with Katy Secombe stepping into Miss Routledge’s shows. Previously it was seen as a Lost Musical.

RSB                     Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

The Story Behind Rothschild And Sons

Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock had the knack of writing shows that have a long, wonderful international life, the two strongest being “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler on the Roof”. However, their second Broadway show with a Jewish back-ground, “The Rothschilds” that played Broadway in 1970, has only just managed to get to London some 47 years later in a somewhat changed version with a new title.

Listen below to an interview by Rob Morrison with Sheldon Harnick

The story of the Rothschilds, the German Jewish banking family, had been written about in Frederick Morton’s successful biography. It followed Mayer Rothschild’s building of an international financial empire with his five sons. It was a tale that producer Hillard (Hilly) Elkins saw as the basis of a stage musical. He obtained the rights and had British playwright Wolf Mankowitz to write a draft book for the show. Elkins took that to Bock and Harnick in 1963 but they were not impressed and chose to continue working on a show called Tevya which was to become Fiddler on the Roof.

Hilly Elkins, who was married to Claire Bloom at the time, went on to produce two other shows, “Golden Boy” starring Sammy Davis Jr and “Oh! Calcutta!” before returning to The Rothschilds. During this period he had approached screen and theatre writer Sherman Yellen to write the libretto and again took this to Bock and Harnick now living high on the success of Fiddler and having just seen their “The Apple Tree” open. They had also helped on “Baker Street” and had a few songs in the fateful “Her First Roman”. Elkin’s new libretto was now considered to be ‘workable’ and they agreed – a decision which would eventually end their partnership.

It was a bumpy ride from then on. Elkins was unable to capitalise the show (thought to be between $750,000 and a million) and so joined forces with Lester Osterman who brought in more than his partner and so earned the unusual billing of ‘Lester Osterman presents the Hillard Elkins production of’.

The original director was Derek Goldby with Grover Dale being considered as choreographer. Dale was passed over in preference to Eliot Feld who was from the world of ballet. Goldby was British as were the set and costume designer John Bury and lighting man Richard Pilbrow (Elkins was an anglophile and even spoke, at times, with an English accent).

After casting and rehearsals in New York the company set out for Detroit where every aspect of the show appeared to have problems. The original libretto had a theme of auctions going through it that was not clear to audiences. Elkin blamed much of the problems on the director and Derek Goldby was sacked to be replaced by Michael Kidd (he would later also take over the role of choreographer). They then moved to Philadelphia while the book and score were still being worked on, indeed much of the score was rewritten.

“The Rothschilds” finally opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 19 October 1970. It received nine Tony Award nominations but won just two – both to actors. It would run for 505 performances and San Francisco hosted it soon after. There was a successful revival at the American Jewish Theatre in 1990 where it ran for 435 performances.

It was revised for the York Theatre in New York under the title of “Rothschild & Sons” and it is this production that now makes its London debut at the Park Theatre.

As mentioned “The Rothchilds” caused the split of Bock and Harnick and Jerry Bock died in 2010. However, both Sheldon Harnick and Sherman Yellen are still active and together re-visited the piece changing the book to concentrate more on the father and his five sons and reducing the opulent staging. The new more intimate production continues to play at the Park theatre until 17 February.

RSB                       Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Celebrating one of Britain’s Great Dames – Patricia Routledge

Patricia Routledge has recently become a Dame for her work in the Theatre and for charity. Her theatrical career has spanned seventy years however, she is now best known as the terrible snob Mrs Bucket (pronounced BU KAY) in the successful television series Keeping up Appearances.

But here we remember Dame Patricia’s Musical Theatre career for that is where she originally made her name and made her a star both in the UK and the United States. Blessed with perfect comic timing and a golden voice her career has brought many awards including a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.

Patricia Routledge was born 17 February 1929 in Birkenhead, the famed town overlooking Liverpool across the water. Her early career was in repertory – first in Liverpool and then the Bristol Old Vic during the time that Julian Slade was writing incidental music for plays and beginning to write full length pieces. Her early career was very much built on Julian’s work. She was in the cast of his version of The Duenna in which she made her London debut in 1954. She also appeared in his adaptation of A Comedy of Errors (1956). Upon leaving Bristol she played Aunt Mabel in Zuleika and Henrietta in the Love Doctor – both shows were outstanding flops.

Julian Slade’s adaptation of his own Christmas in King Street, retitled Follow That Girl for London had her perfectly cast in the comic role of the girl’s mother (she tended to play older characters than her actual age). This was modestly successful and led to her winning the title starring role in the off-Broadway import of Little Mary Sunshine – which like the way of virtually all Off-Broadway transfers to London was another flop. But it had her noticed and she was on her way to stardom.

Dame Patricia was equally at ease in the legitimate theatre as she was on the musical stage. Her television success came late in her life and the big screen had offered little to remember. But as a loyal member of the Royal Shakespeare Company she proved her worth and successfully build a powerful stage career.

The British musicals and revues she starred in were Virtue in Danger, A Nightingale Sang and Cowardy Custard. Her remarkable vocal range earned her the title role in La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein and the old lady in Candide for which she won the Olivier Award in 1988. In 1993 she played Nettie Fowler in the National’s production of Carousel.

However, it was in the States that the most interesting roles appeared. She first appeared on Broadway in 1966 in the comedy How’s the World Treating You? which had opened at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, before a brief outing in London’s West End ahead of its Broadway transfer.

It led to her being offered the co-lead in Darling of the Day with Vincent Price. It was a short lived flop but it earned her the Tony.

The Broadway heading Love Match (a Queen Victoria musical) managed an out-of-town tour and then closed. In 1976 Leonard Bernstein chose her to play the American First Ladies in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Although it managed to get to Broadway it was not to become the expected hit. There was a hit however with Joseph Papp’s Central Park production of Pirates of Penzance. The show transferred to Broadway but she chose not to go with it her replacement being Estelle Parsons. It was filmed in the Park and so she can be seen in that role on DVD.

The reason she did not transfer was because she had been offered the star role of Mary Colle Chace in the musicalisation of the play (and film) Harvey retitled Say Hello to Harvey. It closed in Toronto (1981).

Patricia Routledge returned to the UK and built a solid television career with the odd return to the theatre. She performed her one woman show at the Playhouse in London and has recently been seen around the country talking about her career.

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What Makes A Flop? Overtures Takes A Look

What makes a show a flop?’ is basically the same question as ‘what makes a show successful?’ If we knew the answer there would only be shows making money and that, of course, is impossible. Mel Brook’s “The Producers” was a wise film and musical for it lampooned the concept of the making of a flop. No sane person in the world of theatre goes half-heartedly into producing a show – at the beginning there is an idea which appeals to a team of collaborators – a new piece of theatre that they hope will succeed in its appeal to the theatre going public.

What is difficult is how to define a flop. Any show not recouping its investment is a financial failure – a simple law of economics. But those shows sometimes run for over a year. If they do not re-appear then they are a true flop. But the economics of the theatre is such that a London flop could be a success on the road. A true flop is a show that closes quickly because it cannot sell tickets and then totally disappears.

When discussing a show that has not found its audience then it is all too easy to blame:

  • The subject matter
  • The book
  • The score
  • The director / choreographer
  • The cold / hot / wet weather
  • The cast
  • The title
  • The theatre

In truth it is generally a mixture of a number of reasons. The making of a musical is a collaborative thing that affects all the above except perhaps the weather. It’s like making a cocktail with too much or too little of one or all of the ingredients – it goes wrong. The making of a musical is a delicate thing and, unfortunately, one that relies on simple humans.

Imported shows that flop puzzle many. In New York it is a genuine hit so what goes wrong? Off-Broadway shows have a very bad record in this category. Perhaps it is simply that our West End has a Fringe and not a second tier of generally smaller theatres producing smaller budget pieces. But that does not cover shows like She Loves Me, Carnival, The Drowsy Chaperon and Fiorello! – surely it is not simply that they are too American (think Oklahoma!).

The old tried and trusted way of taking a show on the road before its London debut was a far better way of playing with the ingredients and making adjustments – a month of previews in London does not make up for this. It was also a way an astute producer could see that the mix was wrong and that planned London opening would not happen. Do you have flops on the road?

In revisiting a show that ‘flopped’ we have that wonderful thing called hindsight. It is all too easy to begin with the assumption that it was a bad idea to start with. I doubt if there is such a thing as a bad idea – only good ideas that go wrong. The problem is that the original idea has to be turned into a book (or libretto) that, at best, enhances the idea. The score must do the same. Then come the other ingredients: the actors, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and the director who has his or her view on how that original idea can be again enhanced. It’s more a case of what went wrong, not what went right.

Sometimes flops require a little more respect than we give them. One recent factor is the changing face of the London audience. With theatre prices outrageously high the traditional theatregoer from London and its hinterland has reduced and has been replaced by more and more tourists. Among recent ‘should have done better’ are a number of shows that will be hits on the road touring the vibrant provincial theatres – perhaps we are about to see a major change in direction in that we Londoners have to travel out of town to see a hit show that, if it first played London may well have been given that sad title of a flop.

RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Christmas is not just about pantomime there are musicals too

Musicals specifically written for the stage with Christmas celebrations a major ingredient are fairly rare and those that exist tend to be based on successful and loved Christmas movies.  Try to image a television Christmas without Miracle on 34th Street, A Wonderful Life or White Christmas.  All have found their way onto the stage.  And, not surprisingly Dickens comes into the plot both on television and stage.  His novel A Christmas Carol has been the base for a number of stage and television plays and musical shows, the most successful being Scrooge.

Scrooge started off as a film starring Albert Finney in the title role.  Leslie Bricusse adapted Dicken’s story and wrote the lyrics and music for eleven songs.  It was a starry production boasting cameo parts by Dame Edith Evans, Sir Alec Guinness and Kenneth More.  It nearly didn’t happen as just weeks before shooting started its leading man, Richard Burton was taken ill and had to withdraw and the second choice Richard Harris not being needed had taken a stage role in London’s West End. It was literally the day before shooting started that Albert Finney was contracted.  It was released in 1970 and Bricusse was nominated for an Academy Award for his score.

Scrooge – the musical appeared in 1992 as a vehicle for Bricusse’s once partner and still close friend Anthony Newley.  It played the Christmas season at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham and, still with Newley heading the cast, in 1996 it played the London Dominion for the Christmas season.  There was a touring company playing throughout the British Isles often headed by Tommy Steele.  He brought it to the London Palladium for the 2012 Christmas season.   More recently it was seen at the Curve, Leicester.

The film Miracle on 34th Street became a Broadway show with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson retitled Here’s Love.  It opened in 1963 and ran for 334 performances.  There have been few revivals and there was a small scale touring version in the UK a few years ago.

A Wonderful Life is a screen classic and there have been two attempts to make it into a stage musical.  The first, by Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo, was produced in 1986 at the University of Michigan and has been revived periodically since then.  The second version was by Bruce Greer and Keith Ferguson for the Majestic Theatre in Dallas where it was the annual Christmas show for five years – it has also been produced all over the United States.

Then there is White Christmas, a film that was already a spin-off of Holiday Inn.  The famed Irving Berlin score has led to stage productions both in the States and in the UK, where again it is treated as a holiday production. The UK producers had success with a number of other seasonal musicals including Peter Pan and two based on the Dudley Moore vehicle Santa Claus – The Movie.

Elf! Is a more recent contender appearing on Broadway (2010 and 2012) and in the UK provinces before a London Christmas season in 2015.  Again based on a film it seems set to be a regular especially on the American touring circuit.


And, there are two new British Christmas musical shows in Nativity – the Musical, based on a hugely successful British movie about the putting on of a nativity play by children and The Christmasaurus based on the number one selling book of the same name which plays over Christmas at Hammersmith Apollo, while Nativity is touring the United Kingdom and has played a week at the Hammersmith Apollo where it is set for the Christmas season in 2018.

There are many songs about Christmas that appear in so many musicals – to name just a few: We need a little Christmas (Mame), Twelve days of Christmas (She Loves Me), Be a Santa (Subways are for sleeping), Lovers on Christmas Eve (I Love My Wife), Hard candy Christmas (Best little Whorehouse), Christmas lullady (Songs for a new world), Turkey, turkey time (Promises, Promises), Have yourself a merry little Christmas (Meet me in St Louis), Christmas child (Irma La Douce),  Christmas is my favourite time of the year (Catch me if you can), I don’t remember Christmas (Starting Here Starting Now), A Greenwillow Christmas (Greenwillow), Christmas at Hampton Court (Rex).

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Overtures Lifts The Skirt On Pantomime To Find Out What’s Underneath

The Palladium is producing its second pantomime in two years after a very long period of its parting from a great London tradition.  And throughout the land the majority of our theatres will have pantomimes, or at least shows with a seasonal bearing over the weeks of Christmas and New Year.

Cinderella, Aladdin, Babes in the Wood, Dick Whittington and Mother Goose – somewhere there will be a production based on these great pantomime titles.  The shows are cast with, more often than not, television names or lesser pop stars – or, as they seemed to be called these days, a celebrity.  This is nothing new – pantomime has always had it eye on the modernity.  In the 19th century you could hear comment on the day both in dialogue and in song.  As musical tastes changed so would the song content in pantomime change as well. 

Faced with the major change in musical taste in the sixties pantomime bit the bullet and invited the pop singers to star in the Christmas fare.  Cliff Richard (with the Shadows writing the pantomime songs), Tommy Steele, Frank Ifield were to be seen at the London Palladium – and – with a traditional Dame in place.

One great tradition of pantomime is cross dressing.  The leading man being played by a glamorous female star and his/her mother (The Dame) by a man.  The slapping of a well-shaped thigh at the sight of a beautiful young girl (played by a girl) was never given a second thought, though in today’s climate of transgender it may well disappear.  The grand Dames of the past gave portrayals of grotesque women – but it was a case of laughing with and not at.  

Pantomime has remained a mystery to those not brought up with it – there is no close relation in American theatre.  When, during the Second World War, America joined the fray and American servicemen were often in London.  They flocked to the theatre and were attracted by Musicals and Intimate Revue – especially the Sweet and Low series starring Hermione Gingold.  In the first of these there was a sketch called ‘Low-down on Whittington’ in which, as a Duchess dressed to the nines, Henry Kendall explained, or attempted to explain, the mysteries of English pantomime to an American GI played by Bonar Colleano.  No wonder the Duchess was not too successful when her reply to ‘say, Duchess, who’s the dame?’ was ‘That’s not the dame, that’s the principal boy’.

That sketch proved so popular that it was revised and revived in the last of the series as ‘Pantomime – return visit’ with Kendall once again resplendent as the stately Duchess explaining to the bewildered U.S. sailor, played by George Carden, simple pantomime traditions.  The soldier was now a sailor but the bewilderment remained.


In earlier times a pantomime would run from Christmas to Easter with most artists going into seaside summer shows, thus working much of the year.  Now the pantomimes play for just three or four weeks and the tradition of the summer shows has all but disappeared.

In such a changing world it is still rather wonderful to have a Christmas tradition that can be enjoyed by the entire family.  Walt Disney may have discovered a gold mine in the production of family friendly shows based on his movies but he has not been able to replicate the joy of children entirely involved with the outrageous happening on the stage.  Not to mention the parents picking up on the naughtier comments that (hopefully) go above their children’s heads.

Go to a pantomime this Christmas!!

RSB                                                     Illustrations from the Overtures archive     




Whatever Happened To The Four Musketeers from 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

RSB                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those listening in via the Internet on 96.5 Inner FM’s website the webpage link for the Inner FM Web Radio player is or go to the Inner FM homepage at and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.


Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Mayflower Theatre 90th Birthday Refurbishment