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The Lucky Star, produced January 7, 1899, was the plainest attempt to capitalize on the success of musical comedy at the Savoy Theatre by manager Richard D'Oyly Carte. Not only does it involve one of musical comedy's premier composers, but many elements of the genre - a thin romance, bright tunes, comedians, pretty ladies - are there in abundance. In addition, The Lucky Star eschews satire and what the Pall Mall Gazette (January 9, 1899) terms the "verbal solemnity" of Gilbert's humour for broad comedy, both physical and verbal. Just as importantly, it was written by a multitude of men (and one woman) in typical musical comedy fashion. And it has a star.
The success of the new musical comedy invented in the 1890s and nurtured under the aegis of George Edwardes at Daly's Theatre and the Gaiety Theatre was not lost on Richard and Helen D'Oyly Carte. They began experimenting with musical comedy in a limited way, most plainly in Messager's Mirette (1894), Sullivan's The Chieftain (1894), and Mackenzie's His Majesty (1897). It was inevitable that eventually they would succumb to the lure of musical comedy and attempt to produce one themselves.
When it came time to do a full-fledged musical comedy work, they were not, it seems, prepared to embark into this unfamiliar territory with an unknown and untested work. It was to The Lucky Star's advantage that it was not original. Its merits had already been proven on the stage, both in Paris and New York. Only a slight tweaking for British audiences would be necessary (it was hoped) to repeat and surpass the previous successes, which admittedly had been more critical than commercial, especially in France. With the name of composer Ivan Caryll in the credits, not to mention a proven cast and a splendidly mounted production (inevitable at the Savoy), the piece would be sure to succeed.
Ivan Caryll was born Félix Tilkin (or Tilkins) in Liège, Belgium, in 1861. A Paris Conservatoire gold medallist and a student of Camille Saint-Saëns, he emigrated to England and changed his name before coming to public attention with his first British operetta The Lily of Léoville in 1886. For the Lyric Theatre he was hired to provide new songs and arrange some of Audran's existing music for La Cigale (1891), a service he later provided for other French works in the early 1890s. In 1893, Caryll's Little Christopher Columbus found popular favor and further marked its composer for distinction.
Caryll began his tenure at the Gaiety Theatre under George Edwardes as music director and general musical factotum, but his composing powers soon became apparent and he became a distinguished addition to the theatre's stable of composers alongside Sidney Jones, Lionel Monckton, and Paul Rubens. Caryll and Monckton collaborations include The Shop Girl (1894), The Toreador (1901), The Orchid (1903), The Spring Chicken (1905), and Our Miss Gibbs (1909), all of which ran for more than a year. Caryll's highest critical success was The Duchess of Dantzic (1903), but The Toreador and Our Miss Gibbs were more popular with the public, each playing more than 630 times. Our Miss Gibbs marked the effective end of Caryll's composing for the stage in Great Britain. After its production, he moved to the United States, where his career went a long way toward establishing the fledgling musical theatre in America. One of Caryll's works, The Pink Lady (1911), was "the Oklahoma! or South Pacific of its day" - an incredible assessment for an all-but-forgotten work (Cecil Smith: Musical Comedy in America, New York , 171).
The choice of Caryll for The Lucky Star was a good one, given his evident skill and stage experience even at such an early point in his career as 1899. Carte was always on the lookout for promising and solid talent, and Caryll fit the bill in this respect, though clearly his credentials were established in a musical sphere different from that of Sullivan or Alexander Mackenzie (His Majesty) with their backgrounds in opera and oratorio and other 'higher' musical forms. But lofty music was not what was being looked for. Caryll's music for the Gaiety Theatre was exactly the opposite of His Majesty and The Beauty Stone and exactly what was thought was needed to broaden appeal to larger audiences.
The Lucky Star has the most complicated gestation of any work produced at the Savoy. It was based on The Merry Monarch, produced in New York in 1890 with lyrics by J. Cheever Goodwin and original music by Woolson Morse as well as including songs adapted from the opera L'Étoile by Emmanuel Chabrier, who was given equal billing as composer. The Merry Monarch was actually an Americanization of L'Étoile, first produced in Paris in 1877. To prepare this hybrid for British audiences, D'Oyly Carte enlisted the two writers responsible for the Savoy's previous forays into French operetta territory: Charles H.E. Brookfield, who had newly translated the dialogue for The Grand Duchess, and Adrian Ross, the lyricist for Mirette in its second incarnation and The Grand Duchess. Brookfield and Ross held the same positions for The Lucky Star as they had for The Grand Duchess: the former took responsibility for the dialogue while the latter wrote the lyrics. Aubrey Hopwood supplied four additional lyrics and another two adapted from the American version.
But the libretto's preparation was still not complete. The resulting mass of material was apparently so complicated that Helen D'Oyly Carte herself stepped in to make alterations for a more coherent production. Her work earned her (as 'H.L.' - Lenoir being one of her professional names) a place on the libretto's title page. Despite this complexity, the three interpretations of the opera remain nearly identical in musical planning with the songs coming in much the same places.
The most characteristic feature of The Lucky Star is language. The entire tenor of dialogue and lyrics is toward colloquialism and words and phrases described by contemporaries as "common," "everyday," or "of the street." The most up-to-date and popular phrases leap from every character's lips, with hardly a "thou" or a "thee" to be heard. In addition, Ross' and Hopwood's lyrics were typical of musicals in that they generally interrupted the action, were sometimes extremely silly and other times unimaginative, and were designed to extract a popular tune from Caryll.
The familiar patter song in the approved Sullivan style found no place. In its stead is the topical song alluding to contemporary news of the day, including the looming Boer War. There is, in addition, a coon song that is far from parody - a further concession to musical comedy audience tastes.
By most accounts, the production itself was brilliant, reflecting the extremely high standards of the Savoy. The cast with few exceptions was chosen from the theatre's approved ranks, though most members of the Savoy's well-established ensemble of the 1880s had long since gone their separate ways. All the original performers in The Lucky Star except for Sydney Paxton as Siroco and Frank Manning as Kedas would have been familiar to Savoy audiences. (Incidentally, Paxton's and Manning's performances were deemed less than adequate. The Pall Mall Gazette's reviewer didn't mince words: Paxton "was not funny" and Manning "was not amusing, he was not versatile, and he was at times irritating." Paxton was eventually fired and Manning collapsed and died after the performance on March 24.)
Ruth Vincent (Princess Laoula) was the Savoy's chief soprano since 1897, but Isabel Jay (Aloës) would replace her in that capacity before the end of 1899 by, who took over the lead from the guest soprano in The Rose of Persia a few weeks after its first performance. Vincent and Jay are mostly mentioned in passing by contemporary critics and with no more discerning descriptions of their performances than "charming," "graceful," or "sympathetic." One can be certain, however, that they delivered effective performances given their later brilliant careers. Tapioca was the first role to be created by tenor Robert Evett for D'Oyly Carte, ousting Charles Kenningham and the guest tenor of The Beauty Stone.
The part of the spicy Baron Tabasco was the first that eternal Savoyard Henry Lytton was called upon to create which displayed his full talent for comedy. He would have to wait for Walter Passmore to leave the company before ascending to the comic patter-type baritone for which he became renowned and for which he received his knighthood. In the meantime, the Savoy's true baritone roles were his property. Lytton and Passmore apparently played off each other very well in the act two fight scene. The Pall Mall Gazette gushed, "We have not for a long time seen anything so funny on the stage as the duel between these two actors [Passmore and Lytton] in the second act; this scene brought the house down in thunders of applause, which was very well deserved."
A woman played the part of the hero Lazuli in the French, American, and British productions. Emmie Owen, a member of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company from 1891 to 1900, played the character in London. Many modern critics have written her off as undistinguished, virtually interchangeable with soprano Florence Perry. She was the inheritor of the 'Jessie Bond' soubrette parts in the standard G&S repertoire, and as such she must have been as flirty and vivacious as that famous Savoyard. This energy naturally lent itself to dancing, and for the new roles at the Savoy (Mirette, The Chieftain, The Grand Duke, and later The Rose of Persia), her dancing was prominent.
It is not a reflection on Owen's abilities that Lazuli is not the central character in The Lucky Star as in L'Étoile. It was Walter Passmore for whom the show was designed (just as The Merry Monarch had been designed for Francis Wilson). Here was a show where all his talents and energy could at last be brought center stage - and kept there. In many respects, The Lucky Star provided Passmore with the best role of his Savoy career. The general gravity characteristic of the Gilbert patter-roles rarely allowed for continued boisterousness and his shenanigans in Mirette and His Majesty, though exuberant, were no more than side-line aberrations of a secondary character. Though the Savoy had no "stars," the closest it came was Passmore in The Lucky Star. The keenest endorsement of his performance probably came from Sullivan himself, who had this to say in his diary after attending The Lucky Star's premiere: "The fun of the whole piece lies in Passmore. Take him out and nothing's left. He worked splendidly and carried the opera through."
All of these elements - libretto, music, cast - were apparently not enough to ensure success. Alterations were made to The Lucky Star, but they were not enough to ensure a long run. After 143 performances, it closed on May 31, 1899 - one of the shortest runs of Caryll's career. The Lucky Star is half a musical and half a Savoy opera, sure to fully please no one. Somewhat ironically, this hybrid is fairly good as drama. The libretto makes entertaining reading and the vocal score presents very pleasant hearing. What the Savoy management ended up with was a situation quite similar to The Beauty Stone the previous year: a good play at the wrong theatre. The inevitable question is, Was there a right theatre? The conclusion (as for The Beauty Stone) is that it is doubtful. The Gaiety and the Lyric had gone further in the direction of musical comedy than the Savoy apparently wanted to go. The history of the Savoy itself made it the very bastion of comic opera, furthermore, and the failure of The Lucky Star reinforces that position.
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