William Russell hymns the treasury of forgotten British musicals.
That major theatre producers play safe when it comes to reviving musicals is fair enough. They are extremely costly to stage, and the tendency is to stick to the tested, tried – and tired – of Broadway. This year there have been productions of The Sound of Music in Regent’s Park, which won glowing reviews but is hardly unfamiliar to audiences; perhaps a little more risky, and put on at Chichester in a tent, Barnum, and carbon copy re-stagings of A Chorus Line and West Side Story, both crying out for a rethink.
But one wonders why more directors and managements on the London fringe are not looking elsewhere. Southwark Playhouse has breathed life in Maury Yeston’s Titanic, largely because the director, Tom Southerland, is good at giving that kiss of life to old shows, and Sasha Regan did her best at the Union with Pipe Dream, a Rogers and Hammerstein flop when first staged on Broadway which understandably had not been seen here before.
But these are American shows, as were Parade, Victor Victoria, The Color Purple and the assorted Sondheim shows people keep trotting out, that everyone pretends are masterpieces of the genre, sometimes against the evidence on stage.
The thing is, there is a wealth of British musicals in the pre-Lloyd Webber era just waiting to be rediscovered. The Finborough Theatre had a minor success with Gay’s the Word, the 1951 vehicle Ivor Novello wrote for Cicely Courtneidge and Lizbeth Webb, but for the rest on the fringe the magic word Broadway is what seems to count as much as in the West End.
West End revivals are almost certainly going to be of shows which the musical audience, conservative to its soul, knows it will like and to which they can take the kids or grandma safe in the knowledge that all will have a good time.
But the fringe, where the cast often comes more or less straight from drama school, is another matter. Like everybody else these theatres need to get an audience in, but they are staging for a more discriminating audience than the one attending the Goliaths of the West End. Often a fringe audience is there for the show, warts and all.
So what are these shows that might just come up trumps and not be one more unnecessary rehash of favourite things? There is The Water Gypsies (1955), about bargee life, which has a book by AP Herbert and a sparkling Vivian Ellis score – Dora Bryan scored a huge success in it. There are two other Ellis shows, Big Ben (1946) and Tough at the Top (1949), with books by Herbert, which enjoyed decent runs when staged and have tuneful scores.
Their plots may present a problem, but problems can be fixed. Alan Melville’s book for Gay’s The Word was very much of its time, although the limitations of the Finborough stage did not help, but his lyrics were a delight. Then there is Julian Slade – far more than just Mr Salad Days. Trelawney (1972) was a West End failure – after Sadler’s Wells, where it opened, the show ended up in the Prince of Wales theatre whose spectacularly brutal auditorium simply swallowed the thing whole.
Melville also wrote a very sweet one called Marigold with composer Charles Zwar, which opened at the Savoy in 1959 to good reviews. But the theatre had something else it wanted, and they transferred it to the Saville (roughly where the Odeon Covent Garden now stands on Shaftesbury Avenue) in, Melville records, such conditions of secrecy that not even the box-office knew” and it flopped.
Also it was perhaps too sweet for the time. But it is set in Edinburgh, the play was a pre war hit, and it screams out to be a fringe production – Highland dancing, a terrific song called ‘Princes Street’ and parts for redoubtable Scottish actresses – the tourists trade would love it.
Maybe Arthur Pinero’s Victorian stage story Trelawney of the Wells does not need songs, although neither, if that is the case, does Pygmalion, but the musical has a fine score, and, while some of Slade’s collaborations with Dorothy Reynolds may seem twee today, they seemed twee then. Wildest Dreams (1961) Follow That Girl (1960) and Free as Air (1957) could all repay a second look.
Peter Greenwell is another British composer now pretty well forgotten. His musicals include The Crooked Mile (1959), about Soho low life, The Mitford Girls (1981), about the girls who were the Middletons of their day, and Twenty Minutes South (1955), all about commuters. Like Slade, Sandy Wilson is more than The Boyfriend, and < i>His Monkey Wife (1971) is hilariously off the wall, has some of his best tunes and a plot about a man marrying a monkey who lives happily ever after, to stretch the boundaries of good taste.
Valmouth (1958), possibly his most ambitious show based on the Ronald Firbank book, is splendidly camp – for once he was not composing pastiche melodies – and The Buccaneer (1953), about a magazine for children, is – on disc at least – a delight. Donald Swann wrote one musical, a charmer called Wild Thyme (1955) – it actually preceded Salad Days but arrived in the West End after it, which did the show no good. Could it stand reviving?
The Finborough, not the best fringe stage for musicals being very small, did a splendid staging of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd (1964), revealing a stunning collection of songs everybody knows when pantomime season comes round, but doesn’t know where they came from.
Bricusse has an early show called Lady At the Wheel about lady rally drivers which might bear resuscitating, and there are the two 1965 musicals about the match girls’ strike which effectively killed one another off. The first was The Match Girls with music by Tony Russell, the second Strike a Light, with music by Gordon Caleb and a starry cast led by Evelyn Laye, Jeannie Carson and John Fraser. Both had a social conscience, the second had the big names.
What about Expresso Bongo (1958) – David Heneker and Monty Norman – to go with < i>The Crooked Mile (1959) as a portrait of a possibly lost London low life? Though we are long past the world of coffee bars and strippers; or are we? The Costas and Starbucks proliferate and the strippers are still here.
Norman’s Make Me an Offer (1959), Laurie Johnson’s Lock Up Your Daughters (1959) , or Norman’s Poppy (1982) about the opium wars, a huge hit in its day for the RSC (with a script by Peter Nichols), Tony Hatch’s The Card (1973) based on Arnold Bennett’s novel about a northern chancer, Ron Grainer’s Robert and Elizabeth (1964) about the poets who eloped to Venice, or John Pritchett’s A Girl Called Jo (1955) about the Family March – Jo, Beth and Amy. If everyone loves the Von Traps they must also love the March family too.
Film stars still misbehave at film festivals so Grab me a Gondola (1956) by Julian More about goings-on on the Lido inspired by what Diana Dors got up to might just work and Harry Parr Davies’ score for Dear Miss Phoebe based on J.M. Barrie’s Quality Street is charming.
Noel Coward’s plays get revival upon revival, but his post war musicals are forgotten. Pacific 1860, which re-opened Drury Lane after the war, fell foul of the Rogers and Hammerstein invasion – and also, it would seem, problems with his star, Mary Martin, and the production. But the score is tuneful, the lyrics are witty.
His Ace of Clubs (1950), about West End club life was more modest, but again had nice songs, and After the Ball (1954), based on Terence Rattigan’s The Prince and the Show Girl – done on Broadway but never given a West End production – might just stand resuscitation.
Ivor Novello is probably a lost cause – the point about his musicals is that he was their raison d’etre and Ivor did not sing. He was a matinee idol – a breed we no longer have – who played the piano, displayed his profile and suffered nobly while the soprano and the contralto warbled his melodies and things happened. His shows relied not just on his presence and lush melodies but also on spectacular scenes – earthquakes, sinking ships, interpolated ballets, a train crash and a coronation with a cast of thousands.
Coward is another matter – a fresh look at his post war musicals is long overdue. There are riches out there waiting to be rediscovered. The ones above are but a few. Old plays get revived, old dramatists get rediscovered – look at Rattigan or J B Priestley. Old musicals, when British, do not.