From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer 2008 issue of On Stage written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Australian musical Lola Montez. This article has now been brought up to date by Peter and includes by way of illustration some newly revealed costume designs by Hermia Boyd.
When Lola Montez opened on 19 February 1958, a breath of fresh air blew across the Australian musical theatre landscape. Here, at last, was a show the critics thought could hold its own against the American and British imports of the day. The composer, lyricist and writer were young and unknown, but the quality of their work promised a bright future for all three. The show and its score have since been recognized as the landmark that they were, and fifty years later Lola is still kicking up her heels on Australian stages.
Peter Stannard (b. 1931) composer, Peter Benjamin (b. 1930) lyricist, and Alan Burke (1923-2007) book writer, met in 1951 at the Intervarsity Drama Festival, Sydney. They all shared an interest in musicals, and talk revolved around them writing one together. The subject of Lola Montez and her four-day visit to the Ballarat goldfields in 1856 was a story the trio thought had potential.
The colourful Lola was working-class Irish who improved her station by marrying an army officer. When he was posted to India, she walked out on him, later dancing her provocative ‘spider dance’ for the crowned heads of Europe. For a time she was mistress to Ludwig I of Bavaria (and others), but eventually she fled to America. Gold-rich Australia soon beckoned. She gave performances in Sydney and Melbourne and, of course, Ballarat – where she infamously publicly horsewhipped the editor of the Ballarat Times for daring to give her a bad review.
Stannard began writing music in his teens, sending his efforts to such radio programs as Search for a Song. Later, while studying Arts at Sydney University, he produced, scripted and appeared in student revues. During a stint working for an advertising agency in Brisbane in 1956, he produced, directed, wrote and performed in the revue Heaven’s Above – The Sky’s The Limit (14 March 1956), which was mostly recycled material that he’d written for the Sydney University Revue of 1954. Benjamin also studied Arts at Sydney University, where he majored in Maths. During his time there his clever facility with words found him also contributing to the annual student revues.
Burke, who graduated from Melbourne University, began his career working with Brett Randall at the Little Theatre in South Yarra. In 1952, he was appointed administrator of Canberra Repertory. He followed that with a three-year London stint, working with BBC television courtesy of a UNESCO fellowship. On his return to Australia in 1956 he spent two years working with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, before joining ABC TV.
Correspondence about a Lola musical continued between the trio throughout 1953 and 1954. Eventually they gathered under one roof and between Boxing Day 1956 and New Year’s Day 1957, they completed the first draft of the book, music and lyrics.
The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust agreed to fund a tryout production of the work by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now MTC), at the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne. John Sumner was to have directed the show, but during rehearsals he fell ill, so Alan Burke took over. It wasn’t the last time he would direct Lola. The show was cast from the then current group of repertory players, many of whom later went to local and international fame; Frank Gatliff, Hugh McDermott, Patricia Conolly, Neil Fitzpatrick, Robin Ramsay, Monica Maughan, Alan Hopgood, and George Ogilvy. Justine Rettick, an operetta comedienne, was recruited to play Lola. Glen Balmford, also cast from outside the ranks, played the young love interest, Jane Oliver.
The musical’s story centred around Lola’s four-day visit to the Ballarat goldfields, where the miners in appreciation of her performance threw gold nuggets to her on the stage, and her subsequent infamous Editor horsewhipping episode. A sub-plot was a sweet little love story that had an Irishman travelling halfway around the world to find the girl who nursed him in the Crimean War. As for the score, the opening song, ‘Southerly Buster’, was a hearty and memorable men’s chorus, and ‘Let Me Sing! Let Me Dance’ was an appropriate and effective big number for the lead. ‘Partner, Name Your Poison’ and ‘Maria, Dolores, Eliza, Rosanna’, were clever duets for Lola and her manager Sam Vanderburg, and there were two ballads that stood out, ‘I Alone’ and the pretty waltz that had hit potential, ‘Saturday Girl’.
The Bulletin (26 February 1958) said: ‘Lola Montez was a definite success, and looks likely to continue for some time.’ It praised Justine Rettick, ‘the most accomplished singer and an energetic actress,’ Neil Fitzpatrick for playing ‘a sufficiently naïve and Irish, Daniel Brady,’ and said ‘Frank Gatliff was an amusing and swaggering American Sam Vanderberg.’ Others to be noticed were Glen Balmford and Hugh McDermott. Although the Bulletin carped that, ‘Some of the best songs have overseas big brothers,’ the score was generally liked. Howard Palmer’s headline in The Sun (20 February 1958) called Lola Montez ‘a show to see’. He went on to say that he thought it would sell abroad. The Herald’s Harry Standish (20 February 1958) said, ‘there are good choruses and songs with world class lyrics and catchy enough tunes.’ But he thought Lola lacked fire: ‘Lola herself is the disappointment of the show. However much past her prime, she should be a dancer, with fire to stir the diggers to throw nuggets. Justine Rettick doesn’t get near it.’
The public responded positively to the notices, which resulted in the season being extended. On opening night, Hugh Hunt, executive director of the Elizabethan Trust, announced that the Trust would mount a full-scale production later in the year.
The Trust came good on its word. It scheduled its production of Lola Montez to open at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Brisbane, on 1 October 1958, to be followed by a transfer to its Elizabethan Theatre in the Sydney suburb of Newtown. Top-starred as Lola was English dancer Mary Preston, whose previous London credits included playing a ‘starlet’ in Grab Me a Gondola. Frank Wilson, who had spent some time in London appearing in Call Me Madam (1952), Paint Your Wagon (1953), and had a stint as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1954), was cast as Lola’s American manager, Sam, with Jane Martin and Michael Cole as the young lovers, Jane and Daniel. Others in the cast included John Auld, Bernard Shine, Doreen Oakshott, Ron Pinnell and Alan Hopgood, who was the only cast member retained from the tryout season in Melbourne.
Direction and choreography were in the hands of expatriate Australian George Carden, who returned from London for the assignment. His London credits included dance direction of the Arthur Askey–Julie Wilson musical Bet Your Life, which had a score by another expatriate Australian, Charles Zwar. Leo Packer was assigned as musical director, and orchestrations were by Verdon Williams. Between the Union Theatre season and Brisbane, the second act song, ‘She Was Like the Gold’ was cut and replaced with a reprise of ‘I Alone’.
In the Courier Mail (2 October 1958) Roger Covell called the show a ‘genuine home-hewn nugget,’ and went on to praise George Carden’s choreography, ‘some of the most supple and inventive dancing seen here,’ as well as the sets: ‘Hermia Boyd’s warmly coloured scenery waltzed round in spectacular fashion.’ The score also found favour; ‘Peter Stannard has thought up some excellent tunes in the current Broadway style. “Be My Saturday Girl”, “I Alone” and “I’m the Man” should find their way about without any trouble. Peter Benjamin’s lyrics alternated wit and sentiment judiciously, and probably came over best in “The Wages of Sin,” one of the hit scenes of the show.’ Covell’s criticism of the cast was reserved for Mary Preston, who ‘made us sit up and take notice,’ and Frank Wilson, ‘who clinched every scene in which he appeared – a truly masterful performance.’
But a good notice in the most important paper in town was not enough. Brisbane was unaccustomed to tryouts of any musical, let alone a local one, and with little pre-show publicity, audiences were sparse for its brief run.
By the time the Sydney season opened on 25 October 1958, Eric Thornton had replaced Michael Cole as Daniel, and Lola’s second act solo, ‘A Lady Finds Love’ had been cut. The press was again positive. L.B. in the Sydney Morning Herald (24 October 1958), thought, ‘there was still plenty of Gold in Ballarat,’ and that the Trust had ‘dug up a rich nugget of it,’ and that it had ‘zest, pace and colour.’ Stannard’s score was called ‘crisp and racy,’ and Benjamin’s lyrics ‘danced with verbal fun.’ But they did complain the show was not particularly Australian and could easily have been called, ‘Annie Get My Fair Damned Okladoon Game,’ for it was never less than a skilful synthesis of oft-proven New York tricks.’ They thought it ‘needed a bigger and more forceful personality than soubrettish little Mary Preston’ in the title role, that Eric Thornton ‘sang well,’ but ‘the finest singing came from the rugged men’s choruses, most of all in the unaccompanied little folk ballad of the second act [‘Ballad of a Tree’].’ Alan Burke’s book was said to rely too often for laughs on ‘copious bloodys and raucous insults about trollops and “dingoes” and such.’
But the writing was on the wall. Audience response was dismal and the show closed at a loss of £31,581. A few weeks later EMI, in a first for Australian theatre, released an original cast LP. It had been recorded in Sydney by Ron Wills, on 19, 23, 24, 25 September with the Brisbane cast, in between the Brisbane and Sydney seasons. It was the first stereo recording ever produced in Australia. Two songs, ‘There’s Gold in Them There Hills’ and ‘Ballad of a Tree’, were dropped from the score for the LP release. There is no doubt it is this historic recording that has kept the show alive for the past fifty years.
The following January, on Australia Day, the ABC broadcast a condensed radio version of the show with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust cast. Three years later ABC TV produced it for television. Both versions were directed by Alan Burke. The television cast featured New Zealand actress Brigid Lenihan as Lola, pop-singer Johnny Rohan as Daniel, Patsy Hemingway as Jane, Campbell Copelin as Seekamp, and two original Trust cast members, Frank Wilson as Sam and Alan Hopgood as Smith. Lenihan was ‘superb’ according to The Televiewer in the Age (3 May 1962), and they also liked Frank Wilson and Johnny Rohan. Their major criticism however was for the absence of any close-ups of the legendary whipping scene. Hopgood was the only actor to appear in all four productions, the original Union tryout, plus the Trust, radio and TV versions.
Thirty years after its first production, the show had a major revival in Canberra (3 December 1988) for the1988 bicentennial. Using a slightly revised script, it was again directed by Alan Burke, and featured Kate Peters as Lola. W.L. Hoffman in the Canberra Times (4 December 1988) said it ‘offers a pleasantly entertaining evening of music-theatre.’
At the time of the show’s major production in 1958, Chappell and Co. published a Piano Selection of the score with lyrics, which included the songs ‘Southerly Buster’, ‘A Lady Finds Love’, ‘The Wages of Sin’, ‘I Alone’, ‘I’m the Man’ and ‘He’s Mine’ and ‘Saturday Girl’. The latter two were also published as single sheets.
Apart from the EMI cast recording, which was produced in stereo and mono, there was also a medley released on LP from the Bobby Limb Sound of Music TV series. This was sung by Rosalind Keene, Bill Newman and Darryl Stewart with Bob Gibson’s orchestra. It featured the songs ‘Southerly Buster,’ ‘I’m the Man,’ ‘Saturday Girl’ and ‘I Can See a Town’. Stewart Harvey released ‘I’m The Man’ as a single in 1958, and several artists through the years have recorded ‘Saturday Girl’ – Johnny O’Connor, Tony Bonner, Philip Gould, David Campbell, and an orchestral version with Brian May and the ABC Melbourne Show Band. In 2000 the Bayview (US) CD reissue of the Original Trust Cast album restored the two songs that had been dropped from the LP. ‘There’s Gold in Them There Hills’ was taken from a radio program of the show, and the unaccompanied ‘Ballad of a Tree’ was specially recorded for the reissue.
Although Lola finished in the red, it certainly put the names of Stannard, Benjamin and Burke on the map. They were next commissioned by ATN 7, Sydney, and Shell, to write an Australian musical for family television which resulted in the trio creating Pardon Miss Westcott, which was broadcast live at 9.30pm, 12 December 1959 and repeated two weeks later on Christmas Day at 5pm. It was the most ambitious and costly project ever undertaken by ATN 7 at the time, and was the first original Australian television musical.
This time the authors again chose to work in period, and set their show in Sydney in 1809 after Governor Bligh’s departure and before Governor Macquarie’s arrival. It told the story of Elizabeth Westcott, a young woman transported from England who slyly arranges her own ticket-of-leave and opens an inn with the help of the colonel who runs the colony. It starred Wendy Blacklock in the title role, with Michael Cole, Queenie Ashton, Nigel Lovell, Chris Christensen, Nat Levison and Michael Walshe. David Cahill directed the show, which had orchestrations by Julian Lee and Tommy Tycho and musical direction by Tycho.
As with the score of Lola Montez, there were a couple of rousing male choruses, ‘Heigh Ho, You’ll Never Go Back’, and ‘Grog Song’, two feisty numbers for Wendy Blacklock, ‘Send For Me’ and ‘I’m On My Way’ and two solid ballads for Michael Cole, ‘You Walk By’, and ‘Sometimes’. One of the highlights was Queenie Ashton in her character number, ‘Our Own Bare Hands’.
The television critics enthused: ‘…an entertaining and beguiling tuneful premiere…Nine numbers in a 75-minute show is pretty fair value and the Stannard–Benjamin tunes and lyrics were fluent, neatly turned and literate.’ (SMH, 15 December 1959), ‘As a musical I liked Pardon Miss Westcott even better than Lola Montez written by the same team of Peter Stannard and Peter Benjamin’ (Sun-Herald, December 1959). ‘Diminutive Wendy Blacklock, as the Miss Westcott of the title, had difficulty in reaching some of the high notes,’ said the Sun’s TV Topics (18 December 1959), but thought, ‘Nigel Lovell as Colonel Patterson, the Acting Governor of NSW, was outstanding in the supporting cast.’
The show was recorded for LP by Peggy Mortimer, Neil Williams, Stewart Harvey, James Harris, Alan Light and the Claire Poole Singers, with Tommy Tycho conducting the ATN Concert Orchestra. Queenie Ashton was the only member of the original TV cast to repeat her performance on the disc. On the release of the album a year later, the reviewers were impressed. ‘ATN stars Peggy Mortimer and Neil Williams skip through the light Stannard and Benjamin numbers with grace and humour, and Queenie Ashton is… well, Queenie Ashton’ (Sun, 24 November 1960).
In 1965 the trio wrote their most ambitious work yet, a light opera version of Ruth Park’s much-loved, working-class novel, Harp in the South. Burke had already directed a play based on the book for BBC TV in London, and was keen to bring it to the stage. To this day the work remains unproduced. The reasons are probably cost. In 1965 no producer was prepared to gamble on a local work that required a large cast, a big orchestra, and expensive sets, but there’s no denying the piece contains some of Stannard and Benjamin’s finest work, as this excerpt from the lyric of ‘The Red Shawl’ testifies:
ROIE: (SINGS) Mumma, I wanted to touch it, hold it,
And it just had to be mine –
Silky and shiny and bright as a ruby,
So filmy and fancy and fine.
Mumma, you mustn’t be angry. Mumma?
Couldn’t you please understand?
Would you believe you could hold so much beauty
And not feel its weight in your hand?
Shimmering there in the breeze
The red flashed in my eye.
Oh, the fringes were flying
And so was I –
When there’s Irish in you,
Whether you’re faded or fair,
How can you feel like a queen in a palace
And not have a crown in your hair?
Stannard and Benjamin began working on a fourth musical, Hot X Line, an original idea that was based on a joke. In the 1960s Australia’s population was around 12 million. The premise for the show was that the country would be sold for 12 million and each member of the population would receive one million each, which they could use to move and live anywhere they wanted to in the world. The tag of course was that nobody wanted to move. The show was never completed, but one of the songs from the score, ‘Nothing’s Going to Stop Me Now’, survives on a recording by Dawn Dixon with Tommy Tycho’s Orchestra.
Hot X Line was the end of the line for the partnership. Although continuing to write music, Stannard focused his career on advertising, while Benjamin went into his family’s retail department store business. In 1995 Benjamin surfaced as the creator of the ‘Oxford Street Medley’ in Jeannie Little’s cabaret act, writing parody lyrics to three Cole Porter Tunes, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’, ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘You’re the Top’.
Stannard went on to compose some serious works, notably “Capriccietto” (1998) for flute and piano, and “The Entheon Concertino” (1999). He returned to musical theatre with Rosie in 2005. With music by Stannard and book and lyrics by Frank Hatherley, Rosie premiered at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, (6 August 2005) with Geraldine Turner in the title role, and a cast that included Angela Toohey, Rodney Dobson, Jillian O’Dowd, Hilton Bonner, Tyran Parke, Jeannie Kelso, Rohan Seinor, Nick Simpson-Deeks and Alexander Lewis.
The show was inspired by Rose Shaw, a Martin Place flower seller, who dreamt of one day becoming an opera star, but instead ended up a Sydney icon. Stannard’s score was old-fashioned, but still highly melodic. Hatherley’s lyrics, while not as felicitous and lyrical as Peter Benjamin’s, were nevertheless workmanlike. The title character had several good songs, ‘My Name is Rosie’, ‘I Came Here to Sing’, ‘You Can Take It From Rosie’, and there was one exceptional male ballad, ‘Never Wait Until Tomorrow’, but there were also some clunkers, ‘The Things You See in a Big City’ and ‘Hi There, Sydney!’
Critics called the show old-fashioned, which it was, but praised the cast. ‘Turner is convincing as the larger-than-life, warm-hearted and charismatic Rose … In “Never Wait Until Tomorrow”, Dobson touchingly renders the show’s finest song.’ Audiences were hard to come by, and the show limped along until it closed on 1 October. A theatre that was frequently dark was no help. No commercial recordings were released of the music, although a three-track promo CD of instrumental versions of ‘The Gumboot’, ‘Hi There, Sydney’ and ‘High Time’ was sold with the souvenir program. Agent David Spicer, who controls the performing rights, also included a vocal version of ‘My Name is Rosie’ sung by Jillian O’Dowd (who as young Rosie sang it in the show), on his promo CD Musical Spice 2.
Peter Stannard and Peter Benjamin are to be proud of Lola Montez. It’s not the best show in the world, but it is entertaining. Part of the problem is that the title character is not really a starring role. In the original production Lola’s entrance was 45 minutes into the first act. (The script has since been revised and now she enters 15 minutes after the show starts). She has one major number to sing, ‘Let Me Sing! Let Me Dance!’ two duets with her manager, ‘Maria, Dolores, Eliza, Rosanna’ and ‘Partner Name Your Poison’, and one comic ballet in the ‘Spider Dance’. It’s not enough. In contrast, the character of Charity, in Sweet Charity, a major singing and dancing role, has seven numbers either with chorus or solo. But the score of Lola Montez still ranks as one of the best written for an Australian musical; it was even endorsed by Broadway critic Ken Mandelbaum on the CD reissue of the EMI Cast Recording: ‘wildly tuneful with half a dozen terrific numbers.’ And it is. When it was written it might not have seemed very Australian, and it does have echoes of Broadway shows of the period, but fifty years later, as Frank Van Straten said reviewing the CD reissue, the score still ‘sparkles’.
Special thanks in the preparation of the article go to Peter Stannard, Peter Benjamin, Gay Laurance-Daniel and Frank Van Straten.
Lyrics of ‘The Red Shawl’ are used by kind permission of Peter Benjamin.
UTRC photo courtesy of Justine Rettick. AETT production photos by Fred Carew.
Hermia Boyd’s costume designs reproduced by permission of Lucina and Cassandra Boyd, and Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.
Books and newspapers sourced for this article include:
Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, 1987
Liner notes for Bayview CD reissue of the original cast recording, 2000
Sydney Morning Herald, Bulletin, Age, Courier Mail, Canberra Times, Sun, Sun-Herald.