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.
George Grossmith as Jack Point in Gilbert and Sullivan's opera The Yeoman of the Guard, late 19th century, sepia tone photograph
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, 1902, sepia tone photograph. Museum no. TM 1973/A/119
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, London, 1909, black and white photograph
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 Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow, early 20th century, sepia tone photograph
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, sepia tone photograph
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 the music hall song She Was a Clergyman's Daughter, written and composed by Austin Rudd, sung by Ada Reeve, printed by Francis, Day & Hunter, around 1910
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.