MUSICAL COMEDY is a title that appears to me to have been invented to describe a type of piece that generally has too little of the latter and too much of the former in its composition to make for its being a thoroughly well-balanced affair, though in spite of that it has undoubtedly increased the balances of many of its producers, while at the same time upsetting the equilibrium of many of the artists concerned in it.
Owing to these conflicting influences it is regarded by many as a hybrid which threatens grave danger to the cause of Art; they continually predict its decease, but it continues to flourish exceedingly. The great difficulty which its manufacturers have to contend with appears to be the initial one of finding a good plot, which must be strong enough to bear total elimination during rehearsal, and still leave an aroma, so to speak, powerful enough to suggest to the audience that it was in evidence at one time. This process of exhaustion has been successfully adopted by the makers for many years without always leaving their patrons in a state of bewilderment, as there is undoubtedly a large section playgoers who thoroughly enjoy a piece without any overwhelming desire to know what it is about. Owen Hall, I fancy, was the originator of this class of entertainment, and having played in most of his pieces, I had opportunities of condoling with him in the matter of his disappearing plots. One striking instance, and one which, I think justifiably, upset him immensely, was in a play of his in which the clou was the discovery of an eminent philanthropist supping with a music-hall artist, in camera, by the philanthropist's wife — not perhaps a very but always a very successful situation — the effect which was entirely destroyed by the conversion of the wife into four daughters! There were great complications between one of the Oriental Potentates I played at Daly's and his English wife, all of which disappeared in less than a fortnight after production, the wife being handed over to another husband without any appeal to the Divorce Court. Possibly the contributors who suffered least were the writers of the lyrics, such work as that furnished by Adrian Ross and Harry Greenbank retaining its place unchallenged by the exigencies of plot, the main difficulty in their case being to find some variant of the inevitable "Bird" song for the soubrette and the "Animal" duet for her and the low comedian which seemed indispensable. The music is naturally a great factor in these successes, but even that is subject to the same process of elimination; and in one case of a play which ran nearly two years, the composer told me that, with the exception of the finale to Act I, there was not a bar of his music left in. Good tunes from all sources are annexed — legally, of course — and dropped like plums into the pudding with, in some instances, most incongruous effects, such as, for example, a coon duet with moonlight effect on the square of St. Mark's, Venice, in the full blaze of day! Certain of the music-makers, I imagine, are somewhat distressed at these incongruities, and with reason when one considers the claims of such composers as Sydney Jones, Ivan Caryll, Lionel Monckton, and Leslie Stuart, to mention only a few, though on consideration I am inclined to think the first-named the more fortunate in not having had to deal with the later and still more invertebrate form of piece. Many of the most important manufacturers are to be found among the player folk who appear in these plays, some of whom write a great part of their parts, and all of whom graft their own humour, both of words and business, on the parent tree as provided by the eight or ten authors employed. Notable examples of this kind of work are G. P. Huntley, George Graves, Huntley Wright, Fred Kaye, George Barrett, Payne, Ethel Irving, and poor Willie Edouin, perhaps the best of all, and who gave us in Hoggenhieimer a performance humorous enough to rank with anything by anybody, in which he was more than ably seconded by Ethel Irving, the two personalities making largely for the success of the piece.
Paul Rubens is another prominent musical-comedy maker who, having served a novitiate in providing and inventing many delicious little entrées as one of George Edwardes's army of chefs, has now blossomed into the furnisher of entire menus. The accepted and acceptable mannerism of certain artists, while undoubtedly making much of the success of these plays, has undoubtedly its dangerous side, as with the artists in question absent from the cast the commercial side of the venture is apt to suffer.
It also has a naturally bad effect on the unfortunate understudy, who is allowed very little latitude for his or her personal intelligence or ability, and has perforce to model himself or herself on the prototype with frequently disastrous elimination of all individuality.
Producers of these plays are practically in line with authors as manufacturers, a position which they have arrogated to the extent of establishing it as customary. This is, of course, no drawback when such "producers" are George Edwardes, Curzon, Courtneidge, and men of their kind who have experience to guide them, but there is pain and grief in store in abundance for the author and composer who have the misfortune (as I have) to have placed a piece with a manager who does not know A flat from a bull's foot, and yet has the good taste to ignore suggestions from a competent person.
My old friend Willie Ward has, in an unobtrusive way, a good deal to do with the Daly productions, inventing much of the business for the chorus and all the dancing, which he teaches himself, besides presenting little character sketches in the various plays, all carefully thought out, and for which, in the case of foreign parts, the Museum is laid under contribution. His devil-dance in The Cingalee was a striking example of getting a big effect with little real exertion. I know this because, though he seemed to be putting in "all he knew," I had my suspicions, and taxed him with it. He replied at once, "You are quite right, it's a fake!" but it was a fake that took a Willie Ward to engineer.
There was a gallant attempt made in one piece I played in to get nearer the true form of comedy, one of the features being the absence of a chorus, but within a few weeks this invisible feature disappeared under the advent of additional sailors and waitresses, and I heard that in their next production the chorus were more in evidence than ever.
During the run of San Toy I had the very unpleasant experience of being late for my work. This has only happened to me twice in all my career; I have naturally had many narrow shaves, but only twice have I absolutely failed to arrive in time. I was coming up from Deal, being due at Daly's for San Toy about 8.15. I had played two rounds of golf before leaving Deal at 3.41, and slept peacefully in the train until I was waked at London Bridge and asked for my ticket. I handed it over, and told the collector that they should keep their clocks in better order. He replied, "That's the right time, sir, 8.45!" And it was, and I ought to have been on the stage with my six little wives. On arriving, I suggested to the stage manager that I might as well go home, but he persuaded me to play the rest of the part; so as one man had already been on for the Marquis, I alluded to myself for the rest of the evening as "we," which afforded amusement to the members of the orchestra, if to no one else. These little items are all they have to relieve the monotony of their evening, and I have personally always found the orchestra a splendid audience.
The other occasion on which I was late was during the run of Patience, and this time the South-Western was in fault. I was spending a Bank Holiday afternoon at Harry Chinnery's pretty place by Teddington Weir, and Gilbert was of the party. When I took my leave at five o'clock he suggested that I was going very early. I reminded him of what travelling was likely to be on such a day, and he agreed it was as well to have a margin. The train left Teddington all right at 5.30, but I arrived at the Savoy after nine, and yet it did not break down. Margins are no use with trains, and I shall never forget the horrible feeling of impatience, coupled with the desire to get out and push or do something, which lasted until my watch showed the hopelessness of the case, when it settled to a kind of dull despair.
San Toy was followed by The Greek Slave written by our old author Owen Hall, and containing to my mind some of the finest music that Sydney Jones has given us; notably the finale to Act I, which is as strong as anything I can remember. Here again the author's well-planned scheme suffered under the necessity for introducing a totally fresh and prominent character (for which he had naturally made no allowance), for the reason that there was an artist who, in the opinion of George Edwardes, was to create a great sensation. This proceeding was no doubt commercially sound, but it very much upset the construction of the play and absolutely necessitated a complete shuffling of the principal parts.
This was the last piece in which I had the great pleasure of being associated with Letty Lind, the possessor of that marvellous gift of personality which appeals so strongly to an audience. Her chief attraction lay, of course, in her dancing, but she had a sympathetic though very small voice, and, while thoroughly understanding how to get the full value of the points of her songs, had also the power to give a pathetic touch to an occasional line which was invaluable. I have never forgotten one such line in the Artist's Model, where she was disguised as a boy, and the students in mischief threaten to unclothe her and make her their model. They get as far as laying rough hands on her, when she confesses her sex in the simple words, "Please, I'm a little girl," and the mingled terror and shame in her voice will, I am sure, be remembered by many besides myself.
My topical effort in this play was "I Want to be Popular," and was very successful; indeed, I often hear it whistled now by strangers in the street who fancy, perhaps, they recognize the Prefect Pomponius.
Marie Tempest had a fine part in Maia, and she and Hayden Coffin were really great in the finale to which I have referred, the only mistake about which, in my opinion, was that it was really the end of the play, there being a truly dramatic moment when the girl finds her slave lover has been taken away, leaving only a statue in his place, and falls flat on the stage, dead, as I should have had it, but only fainting, in view of the second act. Marie Tempest was magnificent in this situation.
All kinds of wild rumours were rife concerning the authorship of the play to follow The Greek Slave, and eventually I believe at least two people established their claims to certain rights in The Country Girl, one of them by the aid of a lawsuit; but the only author we ever saw at rehearsal was Tanner, whose work for the stage speaks for itself and is quite capable of standing alone.
Huntley Wright's part was a great effort to break away from the Chinamen to which he had seemed to be condemned for so long, and it was certainly a relief to see him as a dapper little officer's servant, displaying the usual familiarity and intimacy with his master which is so marked a peculiarity of the stage sailor, as witness another part of the same kind in The Dairy Maids where an able seaman seems to be escorted everywhere by an officer for whom he appears to have little respect and less terror. Hayden Coffin always lent himself very kindly to this situation, and it was a common thing at rehearsal to see him in a corner with Huntley Wright, who would illustrate certain bits of business he wished to put in, and which they would perfect thus in private. The second act scene was rather overwhelming, consisting chiefly of an enormous staircase coming down in two sweeps either side of the stage, almost to the prompt entrance, and Fred Kaye, gazing at it when first set up, said, "This piece ought to be called 'Act I — Our Farm,' 'Act II — Our Stairs.'" They appeared to be put there mainly for Huntley Wright to run up and down, and had nothing to do with the plot, though what the plot was it was impossible to tell after the piece had been going about a fortnight. I know that on the first night I, as Mr. Raikes, a supposedly "lost-years-ago" Englishman, turned up, having in some mysterious manner landed from a ship in Devonshire on a visit to my native land, bringing with me a little Princess whom, as Rajah of Bhong, I was very anxious to marry, but hesitated about owing to a fear of meeting the first (and genuine) Mrs. Raikes. Of course she was a guest at a house in the neighbourhood, and we met and complications ensued, but in less than a fortnight she ceased to be Mrs. Raikes and reappeared as Lady Anchester, and a great part of the plot vanished with her; but this never seemed to make any difference to the Daly plays.
As a general rule I have a strong objection seeing men in women's clothes on the stage, but in this play I was much amused by Huntley Wright disguised as an old scandal-monger, who sang a capital song about "Mrs. Brown," written by Paul Rubens. This is one of the few occasions I have seen this disguise adopted without any feeling of offence being engendered. He also had the good fortune of being closely associated in his comic scenes with Ethel Irving, and the two were extremely funny in a sketching scene in the first act. Maggie May was a great attraction in the piece, her song, "Under the Deodar," being perhaps the most popular number of all, though closely run by "Coo," which was sung by poor Lilian Eldee, who died not very long since.
Maggie May was another artist who possessed the gift of a personality appealing to the audience, and the fullness and resonance of her voice were a constant surprise, coming from so small a person, but she doubtless derived this from her Welsh ancestors. She did not remain in the cast for very long, and there was a succession of Princesses, more or less effective, but none who quite replaced her. Evie Greene also left us during the run, and her place was taken by Olive Morrell, who made a very striking figure in the ballroom scene, but was a little lacking in the vivacity which is so strongly marked with Evie Greene. "Peace in the Valley of Bhong" was the title of my now inevitable topical song, and I should be afraid to say how many verses I wrote for it. There was a cause célèbre in the Divorce Court just then, which afforded me an excellent opportunity for a verse which even pleased me — a rather rare occurrence; and it was very amusing to find both parties to the suit, and others involved, making frequent appearances in the boxes and stalls to hear it. I also had a verse which was none too complimentary to Russia, at the time when there were certain complications threatened over the North Sea fishing-fleet affair, and on several occasions I had a whisper from a little bird that "the Russian Ambassador is in front." When the cue came for my song, I would notice him preparing to give great attention to this verse when it came, but, oddly enough, I invariably forgot to sing it when he was present. I have once or twice had a request from the Lord Chamberlain's office to relinquish singing a certain verse, but these have invariably been for a political reason, I am glad to say, and not because they were errors of taste. I used to get the most impossible kind of verses sent me by strangers, written mostly with an utter disregard of the air, and more often than not with too many feet in one line and not enough in the next. Owing to the elasticity of George Edwardes's contracts with his authors and composers he was able to introduce songs by other people, and being anxious to secure a number for Maggie May, I suggested to him a duet of my own on the old lines of Pierrette and Pierrot; the music was " arranged by some one from my own tune, and the number used to go very well in fact, so well, that it was very shortly cut. Someone did not like it.
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