Archive for From The Collection

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

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     

 

 

 

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.

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 http://right-click.com.au/rcPlayer2/index.php?c=innerfm or go to the Inner FM homepage at www.innerfm.org.au and follow the links from “Listen Live” on the top menu.

RSB                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

Mayflower Theatre 90th Birthday Refurbishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RSB                                                                Illustration from the Overtures Archive

 

Musical Theatre Melodies details:

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

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

Noel Gay and how he made his mark on musical theatre

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

RSB                                                                                                                     Illustrations from the Overtures Archive

The Arcadians – one of the first Great British Musicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive