Considering the names of the authors on the title page, Jane Annie should be as familiar to modern readers as Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes. The opera's failure was the Savoy Theatre's first real disaster. Its 50-performance run relegated it to the dustbin of operatic history, forgotten among the more famous creations of two of late 19th century Britain's best remembered literary figures.
The genesis of Jane Annie belongs with James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937), several years away from the creation of his most enduring character, Peter Pan. Barrie was at the very beginning of his playwriting career. His background was in journalism and he had several novels to his credit already. He had only recently scored success as a dramatist the year before Jane Annie with the production of his first hit, Walker, London. This was apparently enough to bring him to Richard D'Oyly Carte's attention, who proposed him to Arthur Sullivan as a collaborator. Sullivan, dissatisfied with Barrie's draft, suggested Ernest Ford, a former pupil and colleague of his. One hopes that Sullivan's recommendation of Ford was meant as complimentary.
Ford (1858-1919) was the composer of a handful of operettas, including the one-act Mr. Jericho which had played at the Savoy in March and April 1893 as a forepiece to Haddon Hall. Sullivan described his music for Jane Annie as "very pretty," and it certainly seems serviceable. Opportunities for dramatic music are denied by the libretto, but the conclusion to act one in which the good conduct prize is presented was praised for its sly allusions to other such solemn occasions in opera, especially Die Meistersinger.
During the course of the libretto's preparation, Barrie suffered the first of what was to be a series of nervous breakdowns. In desperation, he called on his friend Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) for help. At the time, Doyle was perhaps the hottest literary property in England, his series of Sherlock Holmes mysteries being as popular then as they continue to be. He agreed to help Barrie but met with almost immediate trouble. Struggling with what was indeed an intractable scenario and hampered by the libretto's predestined shape as designed by Barrie, Doyle did his best. No one had confidence in the result -- not the authors and certainly not the public, who insultingly refused to call the collaborators at the opening night final curtain.
The libretto is a curious mixture of knockabout farce, the new theatrical form of musical comedy, and university amateur-night frolic. It is not entirely devoid of entertainment value, however, and at a distance of a century is quite amusing in various sections. The cross-dressing, the grandfather clock disguise, the hypnotism, the business with the boa, a certain amount of naive energy, and the silly situations meant to be taken as sincere are somewhat endearing.
The authors' inability to control their material is distressing, however. An instance of a character "running away" with its authors is Caddie, who began as a mere factotum and ends as perhaps the central character of act two. Barrie was so taken by his creation that he wrote marginal notes meant to be Caddie's thoughts and comments on the stage action. However amusing are these notes, their humor was lost on those who didn't purchase a libretto.
The failure of Jane Annie was apparent at the first night. Barrie and Doyle made revisions, but nothing could save the show. After a six-week run and a brief tour, Jane Annie disappeared.
Old Savoy stalwarts Rutland Barrington and Rosina Brandram appeared as the elderly couple similar to their roles in The Vicar of Bray and those they would create later in 1893 in Utopia Limited. The title role was created by Dorothy Vane, who had played the secondary soprano role in Haddon Hall. Bab was played by Decima Moore, who had debuted as Casilda in The Gondoliers. Minor characters were played by Emmie Owen and Florence Perry, both of whom had long careers with D'Oyly Carte. Charles Kenningham, the second tenor in Haddon Hall, here has the tenor lead (Tom). Walter Passmore, later to be the Savoy's leading comedian, created his first Savoy role as Greg. Scott Fishe (Jack) and Lawrence Gridley (Sim) would appear in Utopia Limited.
For a more complete discussion of Jane Annie, see Selwyn Tillett's article in the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society booklet celebrating the centenary of Utopia Limited published in 1993.