The First Musicals
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.
John Gay, engraved print
As the text with this portrait shows, John Gay, who was born in 1688, is most famous for his ballad opera,The Beggar's Opera, first produced in 1728. It wasn't his first attempt at writing for the stage. He had tried satire, comedy and pastoral, including The Mohocks in 1712 and The What d'ye Call It, 1715, and had also written some poetry. However, none of this had gone down particularly well with audiences. The Beggar's Opera took the town by storm. Gay himself seems to have been a charming man, but quite shy. He presented himself to the world as a simple countryman, but the modesty hid a sharp eye and a sly sense of humour. The portrait captures these qualities, as does the epitaph he wrote for himself. He worked with, and was friends with, many of the great writers of his day such as Alexander Pope, to whom this plate is dedicated.
William Hogarth, The Beggar's Opera
This engraving by Hogarth shows a burlesque of John Gay's popular ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. The engraving shows the actors in the middle of one of the songs, sending up the characters by using animal masks. Gay's show, first produced in 1728, 'was acted for 63 days uninterrupted and renewed the next season with equal applause', in the words of fellow writer Alexander Pope. He goes on, 'The vast success of it was unprecedented and almost incredible'. It was popular in all the great towns of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and as far afield as Minorca and Jamaica. It is not surprising that such a successful show inspired imitations of all kinds. Gay himself wrote a sequel, Polly. As the engraving shows, not every version was a friendly one. Hogarth hated the producer John Rich, who put on The Beggar's Opera, so the target may have been him rather than Gay or his show.
Claud Lovat Fraser's set design for The Beggar's Opera
This design by Claud Lovat Fraser was made for a revival of the 18th-century hit The Beggar’s Opera staged at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1920. Fraser had only produced designs for one large scale production before, but The Beggar’s Opera with its bright colours and stylised scenery immediately won him fame as a designer. The huge success of the production meant that the actors wearing Fraser’s costumes were in numerous magazines, songsheets and souvenir booklets over the next few months. Tragically, Fraser died in 1921 aged 31, before The Beggar’s Opera had even finished its run.
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.
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, 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.
Music sheet cover of piano music to Pas de Quatre dance
Meyer Lutz, the composer, was the musical director at London's Gaiety Theatre where Faust Up to Date was first performed in 1888. The Gaiety was the home of burlesque under John Hollingshead and his successor George Edwardes, and it later became famous for musical comedy. Faust Up To Date was one of a series of burlesques on popular plays and operas of the day, including Carmen Up to Date (a skit on the opera Carmen), and Cinder-Ellen Up to Date (a skit on the pantomime Cinderella). Faust Up to Date was a skit on Gounod's opera Faust which had first been performed in London in 1864. The dance was performed by Lillan Price, Florence Levy, Eva Greville and Maud Wilmot and this illustration shows the short skirts which allowed them to dance freely, and would have been very popular with the men in the audience.
Gaiety Theatre souvenir brochure
This is the colourful hardback cover of a souvenir programme issued for Christmas at the Gaiety Theatre in 1889. Inside, the audience found beautiful cards showing full length colour portraits of members of the cast - the very popular Miss Nellie Farren (whose head is popping through the paper hoop on the cover), Mr Fred Storey, and Miss Letty Lind. They are wearing costumes designed by Percy Anderson. He knew exactly what a burlesque audience liked… plenty of ladies showing off their legs in tights. The burlesque was the Gaiety’s main attraction - a kind of musical, mixing operetta, music hall and revue (then known as ‘Extravaganza’). Ruy Blas made fun of the play by Victor Hugo (who also wrote the book, Les Miserables). The full title of the burlesque was a pun Ruy Blas or the Blasé Roué. The more terrible the pun the more Victorian audiences were amused. One review says that audiences loved the show, laughing with ‘an hysterical Ho! Ho!’ or even a ‘rapturous, long-drawn Ha! Ha!’.
Print with Madame Vestris and Mr Liston
In 1826, Eliza Vestris, dressed as a Dutch Girl, had a great hit with the song Buy a Broom, for which Alexander Lee set new words to an old German air. At her benefit later that year, Vestris teamed up with John Liston and, dressed in similar costumes, they sang the ballad as a duet. Liston was acknowledged as one of the funniest performers of his generation, and the combination of the bizarre and nonsensical comedian with the exquisite Vestris proved irresistible. The impression that the duet made was so great that Ingrey and Madeley found it profitable to issue this commemorative lithograph. Lithography was introduced at the beginning of the 19th century and was the first important mass printing technique for illustrations. At this time, colour was still applied by hand. You can see in the background of the image that Ingrey and Madeley took every opportunity to advertise themselves and their new technology!
Ceramic figurine of Eliza Vestris
This ceramic figurine is of Eliza Vestris, also known as Madame Vestris. She was famous in the 1820s for playing male roles which revealed her shapely legs. A court case of the time shows just how excited people got about her legs. Mr Papera, an Italian plaster worker, made casts of Eliza's legs for one of her many wealthy gentleman-admirers. These were 'to a little above the knee, and including the foot'. One of his apprentices stole some to sell for a profit, but was arrested. At his trial, Mr Papera told the court 'such a leg was always certain to fetch a high price in the market and besides, the legs of this lady were in very great demand'. Since most people couldn't get hold of a model of Vestris's legs, they made do with a print or a ceramic figure like this one. These figurines are quite valuable to collectors today. However, in their time they were made fairly cheaply and sold at reasonable prices to middle-class buyers.
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
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.
Music sheet cover for The Princess Ida Quadrille
Every new Gilbert and Sullivan opera was eagerly awaited and the vocal score was always ready to be sold at the theatre on the first night. The following day, versions of the tunes could be heard everywhere, on street organs and at ballad concerts. Medleys of dance music based on the tunes were also published soon after the first nights, few of them arranged by Sullivan himself. (As you can see, this quadrille arrangement is by P. Bucalossi.) They appeared in various forms, the most popular being the waltz, the quadrille, the lancers and the polka. Each of these was arranged for piano solo, piano duet, septet or octet, full orchestra and even military band but only the piano solo versions had illustrated covers. Until 1881 they were produced in several colours but after 1881 the colour was reduced, to save money. The images on the music sheet covers are all realistic representations of the scenery and the costumes, since artists were sent to the theatre to sketch them. Here we see Castle Adamant, Princess Ida in her chain-mail costume, Hilarion, and the crotchety old King Gama.
Design for Robin Oakapple's costume in Ruddigore
A swatch of fabric is pinned to the design as a sample for the costumier and handwritten notes on the design include those on the front: 'Robin 1st Dress', and 'large lay down collar', and one on the back saying that the gaiters should have seven buttons! Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas became famous for their superb costumes and sets. On Gilbert’s advice, D'Oyly Carte commissioned the very best designers, and if Gilbert liked working with them, they were used again. Every design had to be approved by Gilbert, and if Gilbert didn't like a design, he would sometimes sketch it himself and return it to the designer for reference. The look of a play or an opera was always an integral part of Gilbert's concern from the moment he started writing. He was a talented artist himself sketches of his characters often feature in the margins of his plot books, and he designed costumes for some of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas himself.
Cartoon caricature of W. S. Gilbert
Alfred Bryant, cartoon caricature of W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) as The Ironmaster at the Savoy Theatre, from The Entracte Annual, London, 1885
Spy (Leslie Ward), cartoon of Richard D'Oyly Carte
Spy (Leslie Ward), cartoon of Richard D'Oyly Carte, reproduced in Vanity Fair, 1891, pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, given by Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte
Programme cover for Iolanthe
This programme was for Iolanthe, or, the Prince and the Peri, Gilbert and Sullivan's seventh comic opera. By November 1882 when it opened, the Savoy Theatre boasted electric light, which features as a motif on this programme. At the finale, there was another novel effect when the fairies switched on electric lights on their foreheads, wired to batteries strapped on their backs. This was an example of Gilbert’s sure instinct for a really theatrical moment. Operas by Gilbert and Sullivan were so popular by 1882 that unauthorised versions were produced in America, based on information leaked during rehearsals. Trying to foil piracy, Gilbert rehearsed Iolanthe as Perola and the cast was not told its real name until the final rehearsal. When they voiced their doubts about remembering the new name, Sullivan replied that it didn’t matter, as long as they sang the right music! It was given premieres in New York and London on the same day, in an attempt to copyright the authentic version on both sides of the Atlantic.
Programme for Trial by Jury
In 1875, when Richard D’Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre in London’s Soho, he commissioned Trial by Jury, Gilbert and Sullivan's second comic opera. They had collaborated on Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old at the Gaiety Theatre four years before, but without Carte it is doubtful that they would ever have worked together again. Carte was about to produce La Périchole, a French comic opera by Offenbach, and needed another short piece to fill the evening. Gilbert had already written the libretto, about a trial of ‘breach of promise of marriage’, but needed a composer. Carte suggested Sullivan, by this time a successful composer and conductor. Gilbert read him the libretto, Sullivan liked it, claiming later that ‘the words and music were written, and all the rehearsal completed within a space of three weeks’. This programme cover includes portraits of Offenbach (top, centre) Selina Dolaro, director of the theatre and star of La Périchole, flanked by Gilbert and Sullivan as winged cherubs.
Hawes Craven design for The Mikado
Hawes Craven (1837-1910), design for the setting of Act I of Gilbert and Sullivan's production of The Mikado, Savoy Theatre, London, 1885, watercolour and bodycolour over pencil on drawing board, given by Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte. Museum no. S.252-1999
Madame Ilka Von Palmay and Rutland Barrington in The Grand Duke
Madame Ilka Von Palmay and Rutland Barrington as Julia Jellicoe and Ludwig in Gilbert and Sullivan's production The Grand Duke, Savoy Theatre, London, 1896
Programme cover for The Pirates of Penzance
This programme for The Pirates of Penzance at the Opera Comique is illustrated with some of the characters and scenes in the opera. In the top left, one of the Major General’s daughters, Mabel, is shown with the police who she encourages to capture the pirates in the central roundel, the Major General’s daughters are seen with him in the night-wear costumes of Act II and below that is the coast of Cornwall with the Major General in military uniform standing above the pirates and his daughters. On the far right are Mabel and Frederic, while the Pirate King on the left is recognisable from his skull and crossbones hat. The Pirates of Penzance, or the Slave of Duty, was inspired by nautical melodrama, popular in Gilbert’s youth, and by the fact that Gilbert and Sullivan’s works were being ‘pirated’ in America. In an attempt to copyright the correct version on both sides of the Atlantic, two of D’Oyly Carte’s companies performed the work for the first time in America and England a day apart, in December 1879.
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.
George Grossmith as Jack Point
George Grossmith was originally a performing songwriter. He made his first dramatic appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer in 1877. He was so successful that the D’Oyly Carte company kept him on for the next eight productions. As a result, he created some of the most famous comic roles written by Gilbert and Sullivan. He was the first ever Ko Ko in The Mikado, and Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore.
This picture shows him as Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. The role required some depth as well as his usual comic brilliance. The Daily Telegraph thought he was perfect: ‘Whether giving expression to poor Jack’s professional wit, or hiding a sorry heart behind light words… Mr Grossmith was master of the part he assumed’. His son, George Grossmith junior, known as GeeGee, also became a musical actor. He was a regular at the Gaiety Theatre in the lighthearted musicals produced by George Edwardes.
Gertie Miller as Pierrot in Our Miss Gibbs
The picture shows Gertie Millar, one of the hugely popular Gaiety Girls. Our Miss Gibbs used Gertie's own Bradford background. As Mary Gibbs, she played a Yorkshire lass working at a department store called Garrods. Audiences had no trouble recognising the send up of Harrods. You see her here in the dark blue Pierrot costume she wore to sing 'Moonstruck', one of the highlights of the show. She danced like a moonbeam, and had the tiniest feet on the stage. Her voice had an infectious flirtatious giggle, which can still be heard in the recordings of the song that she made at the time. The show was written for Gertie by her husband Lionel Monckton, who wrote many of the great musical comedies for George Edwardes. In fact, it was Lionel who spotted Gertie performing in Manchester. The 40 year old bachelor was so struck by her clear, reed-like voice, strong sense of comedy and graceful dancing that he persuaded Edwardes to hire her. During her first show in London, Lionel proposed. Gertie accepted, and he wrote nearly all her numbers throughout her career. After he died in 1924, Gertie married the Earl of Dudley.
The Arcadians, Shaftesbury Theatre
The Arcadians is one of a distinguished group of musicals, including Oklahoma!, which everyone thought was heading for failure. Even one of the composers, Lionel Monckton, felt 'it hasn't a chance'. Luckily, Robert Courtneidge, presenting his first show in London, never realised this. Also, Edwardian tastes were turning against fantasy and The Arcadians was the fantasy to end them all. The nymphs and shepherds of the perfect world, Arcady, are enjoying the ideal simple life when a middle-aged businessman called Smith crashes his aeroplane amongst them. He is converted to their way of life and renamed Simplicitas. As Simplicitas he returns to England with two Arcadian damsels, to try to convert London to a simple, pure way of life. It doesn't work! Even Smith returns to normal. Courtneidge's faith was justified.
The Arcadians opened in 1909 and ran for over two years in London. The Times thought it was 'unusual and well above the common level of musical pieces'. Companies toured all over the world, even as far as Bombay. Some of the music, like the song 'The Pipes of Pan' is still played today. Courtneidge proved that George Edwardes wasn't the only producer of successful musicals.
Lily Elsie as Sonia in The Merry Widow
This picture postcard shows Lily Elsie as Sonia in Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow. This was the part that made her a star and one of the most famous postcard beauties of the Edwardian era. At first, however, she felt her voice wasn't good enough for the part, and begged to be released from her contract. However, producer George Edwardes was convinced she was perfect for the role. He was right. The reviews were amazing.
Lily Elsie, 1900
The Merry Widow the English version of Franz Lehar's Viennese operetta Die Lustige Witwe, took London by storm in 1907, making a star of Lily Elsie. In Vienna, Sonia had originally been performed by a mature, quite stout performer and, as one of the authors remarked, 'She looks more like ze Merry Widow's daughter zan ze Merry Widow'. Lily herself felt her voice wasn't good enough, and begged to be released from her contract. However, producer George Edwardes was convinced she was perfect for the role. He was right. The reviews were amazing
Printed songsheet for She Was a Clergyman's Daughter
Ada Reeve gave her first performance at the age of four years old in the pantomime Red Riding Hood on Boxing Day 1878 at the Pavilion Theatre in London's Whitechapel. She went on to make her name in George Edwardes' musical comedies at the Gaiety Theatre in the 1890s when she appeared in The Shop Girl opposite Seymour Hicks. She continued to perform as a leading lady in successful shows including Floradora at the Lyric Theatre.
‘She Was a Clergyman’s Daughter’ was a risqué but seemingly innocent music hall song about a clergyman's daughter who wasn't quite as naïve or charitable as she made out. It was the type of song that Marie Lloyd sang so well with knowing winks and gestures. As we see from the photograph on the sheet music, Ada Reeve sang this in a demure costume of a beaded and flounced dress and bonnet. Ada Reeve’s career spanned over 70 years. She performed in comedy and vaudeville in South Africa, the USA and Australia. In 1935 she settled again in England appearing in cabaret, revue, theatre, and later on, film and television. She was a much admired performer well into her 70s and died in 1966 at the age of 92.
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.
Page from The Gaiety Girls' souvenir programme
The 1894 production of The Shop Girl started a catchphrase. There had always been girls in the shows at the Gaiety Theatre, but the plot of this musical needed lots of them. New names such as Constance Collier and Fannie Ward (who would both go on to be famous) joined current favourites Violet Monckton and Topsy Sinden. The grand total came to more than 15 beautiful young actresses in the cast. You can see many of them in the pages of the souvenir programme here. It's no surprise that they caught the eye of fashionable London. There had been a successful musical at the Prince of Wales' Theatre the year before called A Gaiety Girl. As The Shop Girl was at the Gaiety, it was a short step to all of London talking about The Gaiety Girls. The Shop Girl ran for 546 performances into 1895, when this souvenir programme was produced.
Postcard bookmark showing Constance Collier
Constance Collier could truly be said to be one of the original Gaiety Girls. She arrived at the stage door aged 15, in 1894, desperate for work. George Edwardes, the manager of the Gaiety Theatre, refused to take her on until she had permission from her mother, who was also an actress. He then ‘groomed’ her with an intensive course of lessons in elocution, singing, dancing and fencing. She was in both A Gaiety Girl and The Shop Girl, the two shows which made the Gaiety Girls famous. Constance was one of the ‘Big Eight’ amongst the Gaiety Girls. Edwardes chose the most glamorous girls to share a special dressing room. Constance became a popular actress and souvenirs like this postcard in the form of a bookmark were eagerly collected by her fans. After leaving the Gaiety, she became a leading Shakespearean actress and eventually went to Hollywood.
Gaiety Girls in The Geisha
This picture shows some of the famous Gaiety Girls playing English ladies visiting Japan in the hit musical comedy The Geisha in 1896. The show gave ample opportunity for spectacular dresses, whether Japanese in style or up-to-the minute fashion. The fashion correspondent of The Sketch was bowled over by the first scene, set in the sunlit garden of a Japanese tea-house with charming Geisha girls, a 'scene of fairy-like loveliness… broken into by the advent of some lady visitors, who are clothed in accordance with the very latest and most extreme modes of the moment and the result is a piquantly striking contrast, as you may imagine'. Percy Anderson designed the Japanese costumes with advice from Arthur Diòsy of the Japan society. The non-Japanese characters were dressed by leading fashion houses. By the 1890s many of the best-known London couturiers were dressing stage productions. As the illustrated periodicals fell over themselves to publish photographs of all the actresses in the latest stage hits, the theatre became an excellent way of publicising the latest fashions.
Contact sheets showing scenes from The Quaker Girl
From these contact sheets the audience members could choose which images they wanted enlarged for their own collections. They give a very good idea of what the production looked like, as they were taken on stage with the full cast, whereas most publicity pictures showed the stars or small groups, taken in the studio. The Quaker Girl was George Edwardes' first production at the Adelphi. His theory was that having the Adelphi as well as Daly's and the Gaiety would help to spread the enormous financial risks involved in the production of musical shows.
He spent £20,000 (about £750,000 today) on modernising and redecorating the Adelphi, so his economising didn't get off to a good start. The Quaker Girl and the theatre were a great success. The music was written by Lionel Monckton and the star was his wife, Gertie Millar. She played Prudence, the Quaker girl of the title, who gets caught up in a whirl of fashion and romance when a French dressmaker decides that her plain Quaker clothes will be the next 'big thing' and whisks her off to Paris.
'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.
Chu Chin Chow costumes, Tatler magazine
These are some of the costumes for the hugely successful musical Chu Chin Chow which opened in 1916 and ran for nearly five years. Chu Chin Chow was based on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and was full of melodrama and murder. It cashed in on the craze for Orientalism popularised by the Diaghilev Ballet in Scheherazade and Le Dieu Bleu and the fantastic costumes were unashamedly in the style of their designer, Leon Bakst.
Lily Brayton as Zahrat Al-Kulub in Chu Chin Chow
Lily Brayton in her role as Zahrat Al-Kulub, in the box office smash hit based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was widely thought that Lily helped her husband Oscar Asche to write the script for Chu Chin Chow. She certainly played a major role in the action. The Robber Chieftain Abu Hasan forces his captive, the beautiful Zahrat Al-Kulub, to spy for him by holding her lover hostage. She is nearly found out several times. Finally, on the eve of an attack on Ali Baba’s family, planned by Abu Hasan, she disposes of the forty thieves using the traditional boiling oil, stabs Abu Hasan and generally saves the day. Lily was already a well known actress and one of the great postcard beauties of the Edwardian era. She and Asche had played Shakespeare and had many other successes together. The role of Zahrat Al-Kulub was a non-singing role, so must have been written around Lily’s strengths, which lay in her acting, not her singing.
Oscar Asche as Abu Hasan in the musical Chu Chin Chow
Oscar Asche based his musical Chu Chin Chow on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However, Ali Baba got left in the background. Oscar himself played the strongly dramatic role of Abu Hasan, the robber chieftain. His wife Lily Brayton played his equally forceful captive, Zahrat Al-Kulub. Asche’s deal with Henry Dana, manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, was that he would take a small percentage fee, which would go up if the show took £50,000 (nearly £1million today) in the first 20 weeks. Because of the war, Dana was confident it wouldn’t even run that long. Sadly for him, Chu Chin Chow opened on 31 August 1916, and ran for nearly five years, smashing all box office records. Everyone involved made a fortune, especially Oscar Asche. The £50,000 was reached in just 17 weeks so, for the rest of the run, he got a 20% cut of all profits. By 1924 the show had earned him £120,000 (over £2 million today). He also had a second hit on his hands with his production The Maid of the Mountains. But Asche was an inveterate gambler and by 1926 he was bankrupt.
Chu Chin Chow pot
This pot is one of hundreds made during the run of Chu Chin Chow. Every night, a potter from the famous firm of Wedgwood made a pot as part of the ‘atmosphere’ in the market scene. The show opened in 1916, and smashed all box office records of the time by running for five years. The pot is signed by the show’s creators, husband and wife Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton. This husband and wife team had had a big success with Kismet in earlier years. Asche wrote Chu Chin Chow along similar lines, basing it on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was a tale of melodrama and murder, comedy and colour in 15 extravagant scenes. Full stage oriental sets and extravagant, sculptural costumes combined in a fabulous visual pageant.