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The First Musicals

Frank Celli as Captain MacHeath (Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera'), by Oliver Sarony, late 19th century. Museum no. S.148:356-2007

Frank Celli as Captain MacHeath (Gay's 'The Beggar's Opera'), by Oliver Sarony, late 19th century. Museum no. S.148:356-2007

Ballad operas

The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, was the forerunner of today’s musicals. It was the first musical show to mix dialogue with songs. The Beggar’s Opera opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 28th January 1728 and ran for 62 performances over the season – a record for the time.

John Rich, the manager of the theatre (who had been reluctant to stage the play), made so much money from the production that he was able to build a new theatre in Covent Garden. This was the forerunner of today’s Royal Opera House.

The popularity of The Beggar’s Opera was due both to the clever use of familiar tunes and because the main characters were ordinary people with whom the audience could identify. Gay borrowed all the music from popular songs of the time, including broadside ballads, folk tunes and well-known arias by composers like Handel. The play was a satire on politics, poverty and injustice. It also satirised Italian dramatic opera which was popular in London at that time. The central moral of the play was that corruption permeates all walks of society.

Actress Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became a big star and a substantial trade in mementoes and souvenirs grew up around her. In 1729, at the peak of her career, she ran off with the Duke of Bolton. They did not marry until after the death of his first wife 23 years later.

Madame Vestris as Don Felix (James Kennedy's 'The Alcaid'), print published by J. Cumberland, London, 1824. Museum no. S.2681-2009

Madame Vestris as Don Felix (James Kennedy's 'The Alcaid'), print published by J. Cumberland, London, 1824. Museum no. S.2681-2009


Burlesques were a popular entertainment in the Victorian era. A burlesque took a well-known play, story, opera or pantomime and satirised it in an exaggerated style with music. Burlesques also featured exaggerated costumes and often the leading actress played in breeches roles, revealing their legs to a scandalised audience. Even political and social events were ‘burlesqued’.

J R Planché and H J Byron the leading Victorian pantomime writers started out writing burlesques. Their work was stuffed with the puns and word play that the Victorians loved. The most famous burlesques are the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. As most of the humour in burlesques came from contemporary references and jokes many quickly dated and did not survive the passage of time. The audience had to know the original production in order to understand the send-up.

Burletta licence

The licencing laws were in part responsible for the development of theatrical musical entertainment. A Burletta licence allowed a play to be produced only if it was accompanied by music (with a musical score underneath the action) or if a play had five musical pieces in each act.

Eliza Vestris

Eliza Vestris, was an opera singer and actress who became the first great star of burlesque when in 1817 she played the title role in Giovanni in London, a send up of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. From 1830, she starred in a series of burlesques at her own theatre, the Olympic, opening with Olympic Revels, parodying Greek mythology. Her legs inspired many poems.

Burlesque at the Gaiety

At the Gaiety Theatre in the 1880s, Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, Edward Terry and E. W. Royce and later Fred Leslie starred in a series of take-offs of popular plays and folk tales, such as Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué (based on Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas), The Forty Thieves and Little Robin Hood.

Portrait of Sir Arthur Sullivan, London, 19th century

Portrait of Sir Arthur Sullivan, London, 19th century

Gilbert & Sullivan

The comic operas of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are some of the best loved, and most well-known works in the history of musical theatre. Between 1871 and 1896 Gilbert and Sullivan wrote 14 comic operas and although they both produced comic opera with other collaborators, none was ever as successful as those they wrote together. Despite their success, their partnership was often problematic. Both men were Londoners but their backgrounds were very different.

Gilbert’s first play, Dulcamara; or, The Little Duck and The Great Quack, a satire on the opera L’Elisir d’Amore, was produced in London in 1866, after which he wrote a stream of comedies, dramas, farces and burlesques, even appearing in some himself. During their partnership Sullivan was always the reluctant one – wanting to compose more ‘serious music’. Nevertheless, he composed music for two comic operas, 'Cox and Box' and The Contrabandista, before John Hollingshead asked him to write one with Gilbert.

Their first collaboration Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, was performed at the Gaiety Theatre in December 1871, and although it ran for a month, it was not a great success. Both men continued with their separate careers, and would probably never have worked together again without a London theatre manager called Richard D’Oyly Carte.

D’Oyly Carte collaboration

In 1875 Richard D’Oyly Carte, manager of the Royalty Theatre, owner of a thriving operatic, lecture and concert agency, and himself a composer of operetta, needed a new piece for his theatre. By luck, Gilbert came to see him with an idea for a short operetta based on a broken-hearted fiancée suing her husband for ‘breach of promise of marriage’. By then Gilbert had become a successful playwright and Sullivan was writing choral music.

Gilbert needed someone to compose the music and D’Oyly Carte, remembering Thespis, suggested Sullivan. Gilbert was surprised when Sullivan agreed, but he did, and Trial by Jury opened as an ‘after-piece’ to Offenbach’s La Perichole at the Royalty Theatre in March 1875.

'Trial by Jury' was a success, due to its clever words, tuneful music and skilful direction by Gilbert. Gilbert insisted on his actors knowing their lines and obeying his direction, something quite new to many actors of the day, and something that had been the downfall of Thespis. Trial by Jury was even ‘pirated’ in America and also staged there in an authorised version in November that year.

English comic opera

Encouraged by the reception of Trial by Jury, D’Oyly Carte leased another London theatre, to make it the home of English comic opera. In 1876 he founded the Comedy Opera Company, for which Gilbert and Sullivan agreed to write a full-length opera. The Sorcerer opened at the Opera Comique in November 1877 and was followed the next year by H.M.S. Pinafore - another work soon staged in America in unauthorised versions. Gilbert was so incensed by this, that piracy inspired the theme of his next libretto, The Pirates of Penzance. To attempt some hold on copyright, D’Oyly Carte even had two companies opening it on the same day in December 1879, in England and New York.

The Savoy Theatre, pencil and watercolour by Charles John Phipps, London, 1881. Museum no. HRB f.14-3

The Savoy Theatre, pencil and watercolour by Charles John Phipps, London, 1881. Museum no. HRB f.14-3

The Savoy Theatre

Their next opera, Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, opened in April 1881, by which time the Comedy Opera Company had been dissolved and Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte had become partners. Gilbert and Sullivan operas were now so popular that D’Oyly Carte built the Savoy Theatre especially to house them. 'Patience' transferred there in October and audiences were amazed by the new electric light that had been installed.

Over the next 15 years people flocked to the Savoy Theatre to see new operas by Gilbert and Sullivan – Iolanthe, Princess Ida, The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke. But the authors were often at loggerheads with each other and it was generally D’Oyly Carte’s tact and persuasiveness, and Sullivan’s need for money to support his lifestyle, that got them back together again.

To appease Sullivan’s desire to write music for grand opera as well as comic ones, D’Oyly Carte even built a theatre to house his work, The Royal English Opera House. Sullivan’s first grand opera, Ivanhoe, with a libretto by Julian Sturgis, opened in January 1891 but the public never showed the same enthusiasm for Ivanhoe as they had for the witty and tuneful works by Gilbert and Sullivan.

George Edwardes, pencil drawing by Louis Gunnis, London, 1896

George Edwardes, pencil drawing by Louis Gunnis, London, 1896

Musical comedy

Musical comedy was invented by George Edwardes, manager of the Gaiety Theatre and later Daly’s Theatre in the 1890s and early 1900s. From it developed the musicals that we know today. Edwardes’ musical comedies introduced new and formulaic stories. He dressed his characters in the height of fashion and accompanied the performance with tuneful undemanding music, romantic lyrics and pretty dancing.

The musical plays included lots of ‘girl’ titles: The Shop Girl, The Circus Girl, The Girl in the Taxi, The Runaway Girl, The Cherry Girl, The Girl behind the Counter and The Pearl Girl. The heroines were independent and often earned their own livings. The stories followed a familiar plot line: a chorus girl breaks into high society, a shop girl makes a good marriage. There was always a misunderstanding during Act I and an engagement at the end. In the words of a contemporary review Edwardes’ musicals were ‘Light, bright and enjoyable’. But the real attraction of Edwardes’ musicals were the Gaiety Girls.

On first nights, he sat in his box, turned his back to the stage and watched the audience. This attention to what people liked paid off. Over the years, nine of his shows ran for more than 500 performances, very long runs for the time.

Other managements seeing Edwardes’ success began presenting musicals like the hit Floradora with its song Tell me Pretty Maiden. Today, the best-remembered of the musical comedies are probably The Merry Widow and The Arcadians.

Great musical comedy performers included Ellaline Terriss and her husband Seymour Hicks, Marie Tempest, Gertie Millar, Phyllis Dare, Ada Reeve and C Hayden Coffin.

The Gaiety Girls

The main attraction of Edwardes’ musical comedies at the Gaiety and Daly’s Theatres were the Gaiety Girls who formed the chorus. They were fashionable, elegant, young ladies and not at all like the corseted actresses from the burlesques. Gaiety girls were polite, beautifully dressed and well-behaved young women, who were much sought after by the ‘stage door johnnies’ of the 1890s. They became a huge draw and a symbol of ‘ideal’ womanhood.

Being able to sing was not the main talent needed to be a Gaiety Girl and Edwardes used a chorus of people from local church choirs hidden behind the scenery to swell the music.

Gaiety Girls were seen dining in public at all the best restaurants, at Ascot and Henley and other such society occasions. Some made good marriages – a significant number into the aristocracy, including Gertie Millar who became Countess of Dudley and Rosie Boote, who became Marchioness of Headfort.

'Chu Chin Chow'

World War I (1914 - 18) brought a demand for escapist entertainment. The big hits on the London stage were Chu Chin Chow, The Maid of the Mountains and The Bing Boys are Here, starring George Robey and Violet Loraine who sang the smash hit If You were the Only Girl in the World. The spectacular musical Chu Chin Chow became the stage’s longest-running show with 2,235 performances at His Majesty’s Theatre in London opening on 31 August 1916.

Chu Chin Chow was based on the Arabian Nights tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. It was a big budget spectacular costing £5300 with over a dozen scene changes, fantastic sets, big dance routines and exotic costumes. The design for the show had been inspired by the fashion for all things Eastern, which had originated with Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Scheherazade. This had starred Nijinsky and the costumes had been designed by Leon Bakst.

The big hits of Chu Chin Chow included Any Time’s Kissing Time and The Cobbler’s Song.

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