Charles Zwar: A maestro and master of revue (Part 1)

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As PETER PINNE discovers, Charles Zwar began his career in intimate revue in Melbourne and mastered it in London. During the heyday of the genre in the forties and fifties Zwar’s material, mostly written with Alan Melville, appeared in over twenty West End revues including the hugely successful Sweeter and Lower and Sweetest and Lowest which both starred the brilliant eccentric comedienne Hermione Gingold.

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CHARLES ZWAR, THE YOUNGEST SON of Mr and Mrs Charles Zwar of Broadford, Victoria, Australia, was born on 10 April 1911. He was educated in the Melbourne suburb of Williamstown, where he attended North Williamstown State Primary and Williamstown High School. He got his nickname A.G. from his elder brother Adolphus Gordon, who with his older brother Richard, remained farmers on the family farm at Broadford, affectionately called ‘The Ranch’.

Zwar developed a passion for music and became a student of Mr G.W. McKeown where he studied piano and violin. After completing his education at Williamstown High he undertook a degree in Law and Arts at the University of Melbourne, becoming a resident at Trinity College from 1928 to 1932. During this period he began writing topical songs and mixing the latest jazz tunes with classical music. He also contributed to the student productions at the College and University both as a performer and musical director.

His first show credit was Stude Prunes (4p), a university revue that opened at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 17 May 1933, which the Age thought was ‘Delightfully amusing’. The cast included Zwar who appeared on stage and also as musical director. His ‘crooning’ of his own song ‘You’re My One Wild Oat’ was claimed by the Herald as ‘the most appreciated item’.

In 1933 Zwar made his first appearance on radio being part of a 3AR program of dance music that was interspersed with singing by Ella Riddell and comedy by Johnny Marks. Zwar was billed as a ‘novelty entertainer’ and continued his radio gigs for the next few months. Later in the year he was called in as a show doctor writing the interpolated ‘They’re In Love’ for George Wallace (Dandy Dick) and Phyllis Baker (Sally) to sing in F.W. Thring’s commercial production of Varney Monk’s musical Collits’ Inn (122p Melbourne /71p Sydney) which opened at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, 23 December 1933.

The next year, 1934, saw Zwar back at the Comedy Theatre (18 April 1934) in another university revue, Swot Next (4p). Again he wrote music and lyrics and was musical director. This time the Argus called his music ‘sophisticated’ and his lyrics once again ‘amusing’. Sketches included a send-up of the recent spate of Efftee film productions in Melbourne called, ‘On the Lot at Enbeegee Film Productions’, and a one-act comic opera, ‘Il Tanto Eruptio’, which featured Paul Fiddian and John Clements. Fiddian later appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan for J.C. Williamson’s, whilst Clements opened a record shop which became a Melbourne institution.

The year 1934 also saw Zwar composing and writing the first of four musicals Blue Mountain Melody (48p Sydney /54p Melbourne). Collaborating with J.C. Bancks (creator of the comic strip Ginger Meggs), who devised the book, with direction by Frederick Blackman, choreography by Ruby Morris, and musical direction by Andrew McCunn, the musical starred two of Australia’s most beloved performers, Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard. It was the first Australian musical produced by J.C. Williamson’s who staged it with their considerable resources and used a revolving stage for the first time in one of their productions.

Bancks’ original story was a love-triangle between a young painter and pugilist Jimmy Brady (Frank Leighton), an Australian squatter Peter Harley (Cyril Ritchard), and the object of their affection, song-and-dance girl Judy Trent (Madge Elliott). Zwar’s score was contemporary and akin to what the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans were writing for Broadway. As the two principals were first and foremost dancers, the score was heavy on rhythm. Critics liked Elliott’s ‘I Can See a Picture’ with its twin violin accompaniment, and called the boxing ballet (‘Hard Knocks’) and shadow dance, (‘Shadows’) original. Not all of the score was new. Zwar recycled ‘Let’s Relax’ from Swot Next.

The following year saw Zwar back at the Comedy Theatre in another university revue, Hot Swots (4p) which opened on 1 May 1935 during a week of festivities celebrating King George V’s Silver Jubilee in London. The Age called it ‘excellent entertainment’, whilst the Argus thought it ‘novel and fresh’. With a cast of 130 the barbs ranged far and wide: a Grand Opera Season in 20 minutes to the strains of Orpheus, Carmen, La Traviata, Il Trovatore and others performed by the 70-member University Opera Society, and a pantomime burlesque ‘Citronella’ which featured Zwar in drag as Mrs Hotbothom.

Zwar left Australia for Britain on the same ship as Australian children’s author Isobel Shead. They later married in Surrey, England, in 1938. They originally met while Shead was working for the ABC between 1933 and 1936. Both were determined to pursue careers in London and both succeeded, with Shead going on to work in a number of high-profile positions with the BBC and Zwar consolidating a career as a composer and musical director for musical theatre and revues which lasted more than three decades. Unfortunately the marriage didn’t last long with them separating in the early fifties.

Zwar’s first West End credit was playing one of the duo pianos (with Ruby Duncan) for Norman Marshall’s The Gate Revue (449p) which played the Gate Theatre Studio, 16A Villiers Street, underneath the arches close to Charing Cross Station. Seating less than 100, it was a ‘Club’ theatre which meant you had to join and become a member to see the show. The content of ‘Club’ theatres was not subjected to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain so subjects that were frequently risqué or taboo were allowed to be presented so long as it was for ‘Club’ members only.

The show starred Hermione Gingold, Michael Wilding, Joan Swinstead and Walter Crisham amongst others. It opened 19 December 1938 and three months later on the 9 March 1939 moved to the West End where it played the Ambassadors Theatre. Some of the sketches which the Censor had permitted for a ‘Club’ audience were ruled unsuitable for general public consumption and were replaced with numbers that had mostly been performed in earlier revues at the Gate. The Times (10 March 1939) said, ‘The tunes have life in them; the fooling is never dull buffoonery; the jokes are, if anything, over-rather than under-civilized, which is a fault on the right side; above all, the words can be heard and, as revue songs go, are worth hearing.’ Although the hit song of the show was the sentimental, ‘Transatlantic Lullaby’ (Geoffrey Wright/Diana Morgan/Robert MacDermot) sung by Gabrielle Brun, it was Gingold who scored the laugh honors with ‘Only a Medium Medium’, a send-up of clairvoyance written by her then husband Eric Maschwitz, Geoffrey Wright and Charles Hickman. It became one of the staples of her repertoire. Other skits included ‘The Power Of the Press’ (Gerald Bryant/Wright) a satire on modern journalism and gossip magazines like the Tatler. The Gate Revue was the first of six revues Zwar and Gingold worked on together.

The revue closed by Government Order on the outbreak of war, but resumed in a new edition on 19 October 1939 playing twice daily at 2.30pm and 8.30pm. The second edition found writer (and Joyce Grenfell’s cousin) Nicholas Phipps joining the onstage performers, with Derek Farr replacing Wilding. This time out Zwar wrote three numbers, his first for the London stage: one with Gingold, ‘The Sewing Bee’, and two with Phipps, ‘The Night Is Warm’ and ‘Miss Swinstead’s Morceau’, a send-up of a classical music performance performed by Swinstead. By the time it closed 4 May 1940 it had played 449p.

The Gate Revue’s successor Swinging the Gate (125p) opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, 22 May 1940, but was forced to close early because of German bombing raids. Hermione Gingold once again headlined the cast that also featured Peter Ustinov and the debut of Blue Mountain Melody star Madge Elliott in intimate revue. Charles Hickman directed, William Chappell arranged the dances, and Ruby Duncan and Zwar played twin pianos. The bulk of the score was by Zwar and Geoffrey Wright, with lyrics supplied by Diana Morgan, Robert MacDermot and Gerard Bryant. The Times said the ‘new Gate Revue is as gay and as decorative as were the earlier editions’, but also noted ‘ideas were no longer plentiful’. Gingold appeared as an indomitable aging ‘Queen of Song’ (Maschwitz/Jack Strachey), as a Bacchante on her way to an orgy on Streatham Common, and as a grande amoureuse recording the names of her last lovers in a leather-bound volume. ‘Miss Gingold is at the top of her form, and everyone knows how good that can be’ (Theatre World). Zwar’s ‘Salome Wouldn’t Dance’ written with Oxford St John, also scored well. His ‘La Grande Amoureuse’ had a lyric by novelist/playwright Patrick White, one of the rare instances of him writing for revue. The second to last item on the program was Robert Helpman (later Helpmann) who according to The Stage ‘brings down the house’ with his wicked impersonations of fellow performers, Olivier, Gielgud, Margaret Rawlings and Margaret Rutherford.

Also in 1940 Zwar was credited with music and Gerard Bryant for lyrics for the 45 minute revue documentary Hullo Fame, one of British Films ‘Pathertone Parade’ series of religious and variety movies. It was directed by Andrew Buchanan, and featured the debut film performances of Peter Ustinov and Jean Carr (who later became Jean Kent). As well as Ustinov the film also featured another cast member from Swinging the Gate, Roberta Huby. It was thought that Ustinov performed skits he authored from Swinging the Gate.

In 1942 Zwar joined forces with Alan Melville for the first time and created his most famous revue number and one of Gingold’s favourites about an imperious grande-dame who, on being offered a small part in a touring production of Macbeth, inquires icily, ‘Which Witch?’ The show was Sky High (149p) produced by Tom Arnold and it starred both Hermiones, Gingold and Baddeley, plus Naunton Wayne, George Carden, Betty Hare, Elisabeth Welch and Walter Crisham who also directed. Harold Collins was musical director, with choreography by Lydia Sokolova. Playing a prostitute and a governess, The Times thought the two Hermione’s were at their best in ‘Park Meeting’ (Nina Warner Hooke) poignantly portraying ‘the inner sadness of a woman who has lived too gaily and a woman who has not lived gaily enough’. They also liked them as elderly ‘Mermaids’ on the look-out for naval prey calling it ‘the liveliest piece of fun’, and said ‘Elisabeth Welch succeeds brilliantly’ in ‘Broadway Slave’ which poked fun at pagan mythology.

During the Second World War Zwar served with the Royal Engineers, and later the Australian Imperial Force. In mid-1945 the AIF’s Army Cinema Section produced for the Directorate of Army Cinematography a half-hour documentary called The Australian Army at War, following the AIF’s campaigns in North Africa, Crete, Greece, Syria and New Guinea. Zwar wrote the documentary’s musical score.

On discharge from the Army he scored his first major success with Melville in Sweeter and Lower (870p), the second in a series that had begun with Sweet and Low in 1943. Produced by J.W. Pemberton and A.A. Dubens, it was directed by Charles Hickman and opened at the Ambassadors Theatre 17 February 1944 and ran for two years. Dances were arranged by George Carden and Clarry Ashton and Betty Robb were the pianists. Hermione Gingold starred alongside Henry Kendall, Christopher Hewett, Bonar Colleano, George Carden and Edna Wood. The subjects skewered according to the Times give a good cross-section of wartime London: ‘The prevalence of Spam in good restaurants, the startling disparity between the dinner and the bill, a ballet dancer’s Hamlet, the arrogance of hotel clerks, the American difficulty when confronted with the pantomime tradition, the educative experience of women omnibus conductors, and the expressiveness of Mr Lunt’s back.’ ‘Miss Gingold’s Advice to the Players’ (Zwar/Melville) sent up Robert Helpmann’s Hamlet, ‘Cello Solo’ (Zwar/Leslie Julian Jones) was Gingold playing a frustrated old cellist (‘a twang here-a twang there’) grateful for any instrument between her legs, ‘Low Down on Wittington’ (Melville) had Kendall in drag as a Duchess taking a U.S. soldier (Colleano) to his first pantomime, whilst ‘Vienna Lingers On’ (Zwar/Melville) was a parody of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years, with Gingold as Mitzi, the toast of Vienna. The Christian Science Monitor thought ‘Poison Ivy’ (Dennis Waldock) was ‘the best item in the show’, which saw Gingold and Kendall sitting at a table in London’s most talked of theatrical restaurant waspishly gossiping on all things theatrical. ‘Look,’ exclaims Mr Kendall, ‘there’s Florence Desmond doing her imitation of John Gielgud.’ Then he looks again and adds in surprised tones, ‘No, it is John Gielgud.’ The sketch had previously been seen in Sweet and Low. Also repeated from Sweet and Low was the Gingold classic ‘The Bogias are Having an Orgy’ (John Jowett/Robert Gordon) called in the program ‘Borgia Orgy’. Sweeter and Lower became the longest running intimate revue in London at the time of closing on 16 March 1946. Whilst it was still playing at the Ambassadors, George Lacy and Phyllis Monkman opened a touring version in Edinburgh in July 1945.

The last in the series Sweetest and Lowest (791p) opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, 9 May 1946. It was just as successful as the previous edition and consolidated the names of Zwar and Melville as the West End’s foremost revue writers. Everyone was back for another bite of the cherry with Pemberton and Dubens producing, Melville on scripts, Zwar composing music, Hickman directing, Carden arranging the dances, and Clarrie Ashton sharing the twin pianos with Winifred Taylor. On stage Gingold led the return which also included Kendall, Hewitt, and Wood. The Times thought Gingold was ‘still stinging like a nettle’. She appeared as Picasso might have painted her with extra limbs (‘Self-Portrait’ Zwar/Melville), told of the legendary war-time services, public and secret, of Noel Coward (‘Noel, Noel’ Zwar/Melville), and lectured authoritatively on ‘Mother India’ (Gingold) after only spending a weekend in Bombay. Kendall got to repeat his drag turn as the Duchess introducing a U.S. serviceman to the pantomime (‘Pantomime—Return Visit’). Melville was particularly pleased with the reception of ‘Noel, Noel’ which he wrote trying to emulate the rhyming pattern of Cowards ‘Nina’.

A selection of material from the Sweet and Low series called Sweetest and Lowest—A Revue in Time, was produced at the Minerva Theatre, Sydney, 5 December 1947, with Max Oldaker, Fifi Banvard, Minnie Love, Wee Georgie Wood, Dolly Harmer and Gordon Chater making his first appearance in revue. The Catholic Weekly was brutally dismissive of it ‘weary, flat, unprofitable and stale’. ‘Sweetest and Lowest has been running in London for seven years. The Sydney version is scarcely crawling after three days.’ But the audience reaction to the show was enough to convince Scotsman William (Bill) Orr and his partner Eric Duckworth that Sydney could sustain a permanent revue company which led to the creation of the Phillip Street Theatre in 1953.

The same year (1947) Zwar was called in as a ‘show-doctor’ once again on a revival of The Dubarry (55p), writing with Melville the song ‘When You’re a Star’. Opening on 8 August 1947, at Princes Theatre, London, the operetta was produced by Arthur Lane, directed by Hugh Hiller, choreographed by Beatrice Appleyard, with musical direction by Walford Hyden. The cast was headed by Irene Manning with Frank Leighton, Ada Reeve, John Le Mesurier and Jerry Verno. The plot (loosely based on fact) of a young eighteenth century Parisian milliner who becomes King Louis XV mistress had music by Carl Millocker, a libretto by Paul Knepler and J. Willeminsky, and had originally played London in 1932 amassing a highly successful run of 397 performances. The revival did not fare as well running a mere six weeks. The Times review said, ‘The first night audience appeared well pleased with it all, but such revivals compare sadly enough with the vigorous new musical pieces imported from America.’ The reference was to the recently opened Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun.

Oklahoma! and Annie were mercilessly sent-up in the opening number of the Binnie and Sonny Hale revue One, Two, Three (205p), which opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 10 September 1947. Produced by Hale Plays, direction was by W. Hastings Mann, choreography by Philip and Betty Buchel, with Van Phillips as musical director. Although the program credited Mischa Spoliansky with music and lyrics, and Loftus Wigram with book and additional lyrics, Zwar and Melville wrote the title song, ‘One, Two, Three, Go!’ which attacked the Americanisation of British Theatre. There had been much speculation about brother and sister, Sonnie and Binnie Hale appearing together in revue for the first time, but the material was tailored to their respective talents. It included a satire on the BBC and a conversation between the statues of Nelson and Liberty, plus a selection of songs associated with their solo careers. The Times called it ‘pleasing entertainment but [with] no hint of originality’, whilst the Stage claimed ‘with the best will in the world one looks in vain throughout the show for signs of inspiration that lift a good, competent job out of the rut and makes it really notable.’ The cast also included Charles Heslop, Anthony Hayes, Gail Kendall, Jimmy Cameron, Michael Lindon and Marie Sellar.

Four, Five, Six (323p) was a second edition of One, Two, Three and was supposed to open 4 March 1948 but Sonnie Hale collapsed the night before opening and was taken to hospital for an emergency operation. The opening took place one week later (12 March 1948) with Bobby Howes replacing Hale. Binnie Hale was still top starred but she was joined by Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Gingold and Vida Hope. Music and Lyrics were credited to Mischa Spoliansky and Norman Hackforth and once again direction was by W. Hastings Mann, choreography by Philip and Betty Buchel, and musical direction by Van Phillips. It was produced by R. Marleigh-Ludlow for the British Musical Guild in association with Frederick Piffard and Patrick Ide. Howes scored in a sketch about a fiery orator at Hyde Park Corner returning to his hen-packed suburban home (‘The Orator’ Zwar/Melville), and as a tipsy butler in ‘Dinner For One’ (Lauri Wylie) with Hale as the grande dame. Hale also did a well-received impression of Mistinguett, and together with Howes played a couple of public convenience cleaners about to unionise in the classic ‘They Also Serve’ (Melville). The Times said, ‘the burlesques of Miss Joyce Grenfell and Miss Hermione Gingold are, if not new, as fresh as ever’, and ‘the chorus dances always exhilaratingly, and at least once with true romantic charm’.

Á La Carte (244p) opened 15 January 1949, at the Savoy Theatre. Produced by Firth Shephard and directed by Norman Marshall (The Gate Revue), with music by Zwar, book and lyrics by Melville, it had décor, dresses and dances by William Chappell, and musical direction by Peter Yorke. Hermione Badderley and Henry Kendall headed a cast that featured Michael Anthony, Gordon Bell, Irlin Hall, Dick Henderson Jr, Joy O’Neill amongst others who included French singer Marcel Le Bon and dancers Capella and Patricia. Badderley and Kendall were Hamlet and Gertrude in a funny Hamlet skit ‘The Play’s the Thing,’ a riot as Lady Wanton Malpractice and Sir Solemnity Sourpuss in one of Melville’s cleverest sketches ‘Restoration Piece’ which was played ‘as originally written in 18th century style’ (where all the ‘s’ letters appeared as ‘f’), and they also had fun in a send-up of the play Edward, My Son. Kendall sang ‘I Remember Romano’s’ one of Zwar’s ‘best numbers’ according to the Times, whilst Badderley’s ‘Old Girls’ was highly praised; ‘her solitary performance as the three old school girls having their annual tea-party is the best thing of the evening, satirical burlesque, warm, genial, and accomplished.’

 

To be concluded in the next issue

 

Newspapers and magazines

The Age (Melbourne), The Argus (Melbourne), The Catholic Weekly (Sydney), The Herald (Melbourne), Billboard (New York), Christian Science Monitor (London), Daily Mirror (London), Plays and Players (London), Punch (London), The Stage (London), The Sunday Times (London), The Times (London), Theatre World (London)

Books

Gerald Boardman & Richard Norton, American Musical Theatre: a chronicle, Oxford University Press, 4th edn, 2010

Peter Pinne & Peter Wyllie Johnston, The Australian Musical: from the beginning, Allen & Unwin, 2019

Kurt Ganzl, British Musical Theatre, volume 2, 1915-1984, Oxford University Press, 1987

Robert Seeley & Rex Bunnett, London Musical Shows on Record 1889-1989, Gramophone, 1989

 

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Peter Pinne

Peter Pinne's musical theatre career reached a peak in 1995 when his and his longtime collaborator, Don Battye's musical Prisoner – Cell Block H The Musical opened a season at the Queen's Theatre, London and became a cult hit subsequently touring the UK in '96 and '97.

Prior to that he and Battye had written many musicals produced in Australia that included CarolineA Bunch of Ratbags, Red White & Boogie, and Sweet Fanny Adams. Their musicals for children, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Tin Soldier, The Shoemaker & The Elves, Jack & The Beanstalk, Beauty & The Beast, Rumpelstiltskin and Billabong Bill have become a staple of the children's theatre scene since they were originally produced at the Alexander Theatre, Melbourne.

Peter Pinne's other musical collaborations include; A Bit O' Petticoat with Ray Kolle, Pyjamas In Paradise with John-Michael Howson, and Mavis Bramston – Reloaded and Suddenly Single with Paul Dellit.

He has also had a high profile career in television where he worked for the Grundy Organization on such iconic shows as Neighbours, Prisoner, Sons and Daughters, The Restless Years, The Young Doctors, and Secret Valley amongst others. He has also worked in the U.S., Latin America and Indonesia producing television drama, game shows and sitcoms for Pearson Television and Fremantlemedia.

From 1999 until the end of 2007 Mr Pinne was the owner and president of Bayview Recording Company, Los Angeles, USA, a boutique label who newly recorded and reissued CDs aimed at the show music market. These included over twenty recordings from New York Town Hall's concert series Broadway By The Year.

Apart from scripting television drama, he also wrote, with Battye, the theme song for the series Sons and Daughters. Other music credits include the score for the award winning movie A City's Child. He is the author of the discography Australian Performers, Australian Performances, and currently writes for On Stage and Stage Whispers.

In late 2019 he released The Australian Musical: from the beginning, a definitive history of Australian musical theatre, co-authored with Peter Wyllie Johnston, and published by Allen & Unwin in association with the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.