When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was in America. For the next five years he remained there, keeping a healthy distance between himself and the hostilities. Though accused by some critics for displaying unpatriotic behaviour, poor eyesight made him ineligible for military service. He therefore chose to remain in the USA to concentrate on developing his career as a writer of amusing and witty lyrics for light escapist entertainment. During this time, he also continued to write comic stories featuring ‘Psmith’ and his character of ‘Jeeves’ made his first appearance in the serial Something New.
Prior to arriving in the USA, Wodehouse had already achieved some small success as a lyricist, having written and published his first song ‘Put Me in My Little Cell’ for the musical Sergeant Brue in 1904. In 1906 Seymour Hicks invited him to contribute a song to The Beauty of Bath—and for a short time his comic song ‘Mr. Chamberlain’ achieved some notoriety (a topical number which satirised the then British Parliamentary Leader of the Opposition, Joseph Chamberlain). It also marked his first collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. The following year, also for Hicks, he wrote and published two songs for The Gay Gordons, ‘Now That My Ship’s Come Home’ and ‘You, You, You’.
From 1908 Wodehouse’s career as an author and humourist started to take off. He was a frequent visitor to the USA where he would go to sell stories to magazines such as Collier’s and Cosmopolitan.
In late 1915 a chance meeting with Guy Bolton (1883-1979) presented an opportunity to write for Broadway. Born in Britain of American parents, Bolton’s career as a playwright and librettist was just beginning. During 1914/1915 he achieved success with the play The Rule of Three and had written librettos for three Jerome Kern musicals Ninety in the Shade, Nobody Home and Very Good Eddie, as well as the George M. Cohan musical Hit-the-Trail Holiday. It was at the Broadway opening of Very Good Eddie that the two were assumed to have first met, introduced by Kern. Bolton and Plum (Wodehouse’s nickname) soon became firm friends—and over the next thirty years they collaborated on no less than fifteen musical comedies and plays. In the period 1916-1919 their output was prodigious, working on some nine show together in a three-year period. Many of these productions featured music by Jerome Kern, the most successful of which premiered at New York’s Princess and New Amsterdam Theatres, earning them the collective title of the ‘Princess musicals’.
As Michel M. Miller, writing for the Operetta Research Centre in 2016, observes:
Although they worked together as a trio on only five shows over seven years, the influence of “Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern” on the development of American musical theater was monumental. Sensing perhaps a need to fill the vacuum created by the war-induced absence of the Viennese and Hungarian operetta imports that had filled Broadway theaters since even before The Merry Widow, their shows featured not the exotic locales and the dukes and duchesses of operetta, nor the lavish spectacle of the Ziegfeld Follies, but rather the romantic and comic entanglements of everyday Americans, in current dress and modern dialogue. These shows forever changed the landscape of Broadway; Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and numerous others credited these musicals with inspiring their own development and quest for a theatrical style.
The first Broadway show that Wodehouse worked on as a lyricist was Miss Springtime, adapted from a Hungarian musical play Zsuzsi kisasszony (Miss Susie). Opening at the New Amsterdam Theatre in September 1916 (and running for 227 performances), it featured libretto by Guy Bolton and score by Emmerich Kalman and Jerome Kern. One song that did well was ‘My Castle in the Air’ which was recorded by George MacFarlane, who played the role of Jo Varady, a gypsy photographer.
In 1917, the trio of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern worked on their first original musical comedy Have a Heart. Though Have a Heart only lasted three months at New York’s Liberty Theatre, with Eileen Van Biene and Thurston Hall as the leads, it spent two years on the road with two complete companies playing as Michel M. Miller observes ‘no fewer than 36 states and five Canadian provinces’.
The same team scored a sure-fire hit with their next musical, Oh, Boy!, which opened at the Princess Theatre in February 1917, just one month after Have a Heart. Notching up 475 performances it starred Tom Powers and Marie Carroll as George Budd and Lou Ellen Carter. Wodehouse’s song ‘Till the Clouds Roll By’ was one of the show’s most popular songs. (During 1918, it also played eight weeks in Sydney and five-weeks in Melbourne, with Fred Maguire and Gracie Lavers as the leads.) With a change of title to Oh, Joy!, it played another 167 performances in London during 1919. Tom Powers revived his role of George with Dot Temple as his love interest. Supporting roles were filled by Beatrice Lillie (her stage debut) and Billy Leonard. This show represented a watershed in the development of the American musical—and as historian David A. Jasen later observed ‘established Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern as the innovators of the American musical comedy in the form it has taken today’.
In August 1917 the trio scored a modest success with Leave It to Jane. Not an original libretto this time but one based on the George Ade comedy The College Widow. With Edith Hallor as Jane, it achieved only 167 performances at the Longacre Theatre. The songs ‘The Crickets Are Calling’ and ‘The Siren’s Song’ were well liked, but the show did not reach the level of Oh, Boy!
For their next offering however, Bolton and Wodehouse teamed with Rudolf Friml for Kitty Darlin’. Based on the David Belasco play Sweet Kitty Bellairs, it should have fared well, but it did not. With opera star Alice Nielson in the title role, it opened and closed at the Teck Theatre in Buffalo in September 1917.
Kern was back in the mix for The Riviera Girl, but he shared the score with Emmerich Kalman. This opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York in September, with Wilda Bennett as Sylva Bareska, a vaudeville singer, but only managed 78 performances.
With their next show, Miss 1917, a Dillingham-Ziegfeld revue at the Century Theatre (November 1917), the claim by Wodehouse that he had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway was not without exaggeration. (See show listing from New York Times, 11 November 1917.) Though unfortunately, despite the lavishness of the production, including magnificent scenery by Joseph Urban, Miss 1917 was a monumental ‘flop’, closing after only 48 performances.
For the new year, opening in February 1918, the team produced a worthy success to Oh, Boy!, when Oh, Lady! Lady!! took its place at the Princess Theatre. Evening Mail critic Burns Mantle called it ‘another hit … Practically every one of the songs was an encore number, and not one of them is without distinction in the matter of lyrics.’ With Vivienne Segal as Molly Farringdon, the show played a respectable 219 performances.
The next musical, See You Later, saw Bolton and Wodehouse team with Jean Schwartz and William F. Peters on the score. Though this show never made it past out-of-town tryouts (opening at the Academy of Music in Baltimore in April), it furnished them with an amusing storyline based on a popular French farce Loute (1902) by Pierre Veber. In an earlier adaptation by Paul M. Potter, this play had enjoyed success in American and Australia as The Girl from Rector’s.
Which brings us to The Girl Behind the Gun (aka Kissing Time). For this musical Bolton and Wodehouse had been approached by composer Ivan Caryll (1861-1921) to turn Madame et son filleul, a 1916 Palais-Royal farce by Maurice Hennequin and Pierre Veber, into a new patriotic musical for producers Marc Klaw and Abraham L. Erlanger.
The Belgian-born Caryll (né Felix Tilkin) was a very successful composer of musicals for the British stage. By 1918 he had composed 29 musicals, five of which had notched up over 500 performances. During the early nineteen hundreds he scored success on both sides of the Atlantic—and in Australia—with A Runaway Girl, The Messenger Boy and The Spring Chicken among many others. And more recently, following his relocation to America, The Pink Lady and Oh! Oh!! Delphine!!! had added to his reputation as a leading composer of musical comedies.
The Girl Behind the Gun played Atlantic City and Philadelphia in August/September 1918 and following extensive rewrites, it was ready to be launched on Broadway. Reports suggested that the original book was not patriot enough, and that George M. Cohan (of ‘Yankee Doodle’ fame) had been employed to make some improvements. One such ‘improvement’ may have been a change to the second act finale which saw ‘Hark to the Drums of France’ replaced by the more rousing ‘Flags of Allies’.
During 1918, Wodehouse also contributed some songs to the Harry B. Smith/Ivan Caryll musical The Canary, which opened at the Globe Theatre, 4 November (152 performances). The same year, with Bolton, he wrote the book for Oh, My Dear! (music by Louis A. Hirsch), opening at the Princess Theatre on 27 May (189 performances). The duo also worked on The Rose of China (music by Armand Veesey), opening at the Lyric Theatre, 25 November 1919 (47 performances). And finally in 1920, Wodehouse contributed several songs to the hugely successful Bolton/Kern musical Sally, which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 21 December (570 performances). His song ‘Bill’ (previously dropped from Oh, Lady! Lady!!) was also rejected by Sally star Marilyn Miller. It would however go on to be one of the big hits of Show Boat in 1927.
The remarkable story of how Annie got her gun and ascended into musical comedy heaven had an unlikely beginning—when a drunken World War Two soldier proudly showed the bemused patrons of a New York bar the worthless prizes he’d won in the shooting booths at Coney Island.
Fortuitously, the story was relayed to the legendary lyricist Dorothy Fields. ‘As if out of the sky,’ she recalled, ‘comes this idea: Annie Oakley—the sharpshooter! With Ethel Merman to play her!’
Miss Fields’ timing was perfect. The real Annie Oakley was reasonably fresh in people’s minds. She had died in 1926 and her beloved Frank Butler had followed her nineteen days later, and in 1935 Barbara Stanwyck had portrayed her in a well-received film biography. And the portrayal of a strong woman—with or without a gun—had a special resonance during the war.
Dorothy, of course, imagined that she and her brother, Herbert, a librettist, would create the show; all they needed was a composer and, first, a producer. After Mike Todd scoffed at the idea (‘Who’s gonna care about a gal that knows nuthin’ but guns?’, he snorted), Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II agreed to steer the production. Revelling in the success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel, they were already at work on their third, Allegro, but they liked the prospect of producing a show created by someone else. They, in turn, approached Ethel Merman. La Merm was sceptical, but her doubts were dispelled by a salary of $4500 a week (this was really big money in 1946), plus 10 per cent of the gross. She also relished the chance to create a multi-dimensional character, in contrast to what she called the ‘invulnerable bimbos’ that she was usually asked to play.
To compose the score the team selected the celebrated Jerome Kern. He’d worked with Herbert and Dorothy Fields on the film Swing Time, and with Hammerstein on several hit musicals of the 1920s and 30s, including Show Boat. After the failure of his 1939 Broadway show Very Warm for May, Kern had kept busy in Hollywood, but his Broadway comeback was not to be—he died of a stroke before he had written a single note.
It was Rodgers who suggested Irving Berlin. He was not an obvious replacement for Kern, because he was known for revues, not ‘book’ musicals. Further, he always wrote the music and the words—and if he came on board, Dorothy Fields would have to take a back seat, and a reduced financial interest.
Miss Fields graciously agreed and, almost reluctantly, Berlin signed on. He soon came to regard the project as a personal challenge: it would allow him to demonstrate that his genius for creating popular songs still had relevance in the new world of modern musicals that Rodgers and Hammerstein had pioneered. He was saying, in effect, ‘Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better’. Within a week he came up with half a dozen brilliant songs, and he also gave the show its title. Annie Get Your Gun was a neat reminder of the first line of George M. Cohan’s still-familiar World War One hit ‘Over There’: ‘Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun …’
Joshua Logan, who had worked on Berlin’s This Is the Army, joined the team as director. Rehearsals went well. The show ‘tried out’ successfully in New Haven and Boston, but the New York opening was delayed for several weeks after part of the Imperial Theatre’s stage flying system collapsed. Annie eventually hit Broadway on 16 May 1946.
Audiences were ecstatic. The reviewers were generally pleased, though some complained that the score was a world away from the quasi-operatic offerings of Rodgers and Hammerstein and ‘merely an assorted succession of hits’. Berlin agreed: ‘Yes,’ he smiled, ‘Nothing but hits, good old-fashioned hits.’ And he was right. No other show, before or since, has contained as many hits. Mr Berlin had every reason to be happy. His share of the gross netted him $2500 a week, while his publishing company sold $500,000 worth of sheet music and the cast album returned him $100,000. And there was more to come from tours, international productions and revivals, plus the film rights, which eventually went to MGM for a record $650,000.
Annie Get Your Gun was the first musical after Oklahoma! to achieve more than 1000 performances and it became one of the four longest running musicals of Broadway’s golden era. It was Merman’s greatest triumph. Seemingly indestructible, she had two brief holidays and missed only two performances through the 1147-performance run. To stand in for Merman during one of her breaks, the producers hired Judy Garland, hoping she could use the experience to ‘warm-up’ for the movie version and create some publicity for it but, ominously, she withdrew at the last minute. Merman’s regular understudy, Mary Jane Walsh, stepped in, but disappointed patrons demanded refunds and business dropped by $10,000 a week. The cast took a wage cut to keep the show going until La Merm returned.
One sunny summer afternoon in 1949 Broadway producer Howard Lindsay stumbled on a magazine article about Perle Mesta and her appointment by President Harry S. Truman to the unlikely position of United States ambassador to the tiny European Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Miss Mesta was the daughter of one millionaire and the widow of another. She was indeed a Washington monument—a slightly out-of-place socialite and a thrower of legendary parties. She was in fact the city’s ‘Hostess with the Mostes’. She was, figured Lindsay, the ideal subject on whom to base a cheeky, up-to-date, all-American Broadway musical extravaganza.
‘Who’s Perle Mesta?’ grunted Ethel Merman when Lindsay suggested she would be perfect in the leading role. She had worked with Lindsay in Anything Goes and Red, Hot and Blue! and she was soon persuaded. So was Irving Berlin. The legendary songsmith was still smarting from the failure of his most recent show, Miss Liberty. At sixty-two he was worried that people thought he was out of touch with modern audiences. He wanted to do one last show, a show with a contemporary setting that would prove that he could still deliver the goods. Not only would the proposed production let him leave Broadway in style, it would also re-unite him with Merman, who had starred so meteorically in his Annie Get Your Gun in 1946.
New York Public Library, New York
With Miss Mesta’s bemused blessing, Lindsay and Russel Crouse set to work on the book, leaving the music and lyrics to Berlin. There was even a memorable dinner party for Miss Mesta to meet Miss Merman. Lindsay, Crouse and Berlin were there, with Margaret Truman, Ray Bolger and Ezio Pinza for good measure. As Berlin sat at the piano accompanying Perle’s singing of his old hit ‘Remember’, Merman stage-whispered to Margaret Truman, ‘If this dame's going into my racket, I'm going to ask your dad for a job in the diplomatic service.’
To finance the show, producer Leland Hayward negotiated an extraordinary deal with RCA. The recording giant agreed to underwrite the entire production cost, $250,000; in return, the producers and principals agreed to take a 20% reduction in royalties until RCA had recouped its investment from sales of the show’s cast album. The arrangement was all the more bizarre because Miss Merman was firmly contracted to Decca, who refused to ‘lend’ her to RCA. Eventually there were two albums: Dinah Shore—a strange choice—substituted for Merman on RCA, while Merman was joined by Dick Haymes and a studio cast on the Decca release. To RCA’s chagrin the Decca disc stayed on Billboard’s ‘Best Selling Popular Album’ chart for thirty-six weeks and reached number two position, while RCA had to be content with a thirteen-week run and a peak at number six.
Call Me Madam was Ethel Merman’s eleventh Broadway musical. As a major star she could demand ten per cent of a show’s box office gross, but for Call Me Madam she sagely settled for eight percent—plus a ten percent stake in the property itself. This meant that she had a financial interest in this and every subsequent production.
Co-starring with Merman were Paul Lukas as Cosmo Constantine, Lichtenburg’s Prime Minister; newcomer Russell Nype as Sally Adams’ egghead aide, Kenneth Gibson; and Galina Talva as Princess Maria of Lichtenburg. Raoul Péne du Bois designed the sets and costumes—for everyone except Miss Merman. Her wardrobe was sensationally extravagant. ‘Under those wonderful gowns,’ she quipped, ‘I was a kind of sexy Tugboat Annie gussied up by Mainbocher’. Mainbocher (Main Rousseau Bocher), the legendary French-born society couturier, excelled himself with a series of stunning creations that were almost capable of stopping the show by themselves.
Under the experienced guidance of director George Abbott and choreographer Jerome Robbins, rehearsals began in New York in August 1950. All went well until the first try-out in New Haven. The second act was slow and dull. Two songs created the problem. One was an anthem to democracy called ‘Free’; the other was ‘Mr. Monotony’, an old Berlin song that had already been dropped from two previous shows. Out it went again, along with ‘Free’. To replace them Berlin speedily created a bright number called ‘Something to Dance About’ and one of his famous counterpoint duets for Merman and Nype, it was ‘You're Just In Love’. When she heard it, Merman predicted, ‘We’ll never get off stage.’ Ever the thrifty recycler, Berlin later rewrote ‘Free’ as ‘Snow’ for the 1954 film White Christmas.
There were more changes and refinements—then refinements of refinements. Eventually Merman rebelled. ‘Boys,’ she said, ‘as of right now, I am Miss Birdseye of 1950. I am frozen. Not even a new comma.’
Despite public concern about the progress of the war raging in Korea, interest in the new show was enormous. The Imperial Theatre announced a Broadway record box office advance sale of approximately $1 million, and tickets for the gala first night—12 October 1950—changed hands for $200—instead of the official $7.20! Call Me Madam’s premiere was the most glittering of the season. Autograph hunters jammed West Forty-fifth Street to see the celebrities arrive. Among them was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, reportedly there to check out the show’s ‘They Like Ike’ production number. He must have approved; later, retitled ‘I Like Ike’, it became his presidential campaign song.
The first night patrons chuckled at two tongue-in-cheek disclaimers in the program: ‘The play is laid in two mythical countries. One is called Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America’ and ‘Neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams, nor Miss Ethel Merman, resembles any other person alive or dead.’ Seconds before Jay Blackton led the orchestra into the overture, Russel Crouse asked Merman if she were nervous. ‘Nervous?’ she drawled. ‘No. The audience has paid their money. They’re the ones that should be nervous.’
If they were nervous, there was no need. Call Me Madam was an instant hit. ‘You're Just In Love’ was encored seven times. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said, ‘It throws a little Stardust around the theatre and sets the audience to roaring.’ Atkinson commended the show as ‘genuine comedy because the leading character grows and develops in the course of the play, and because Merman puts into it good will as well as swaggering self-confidence.’ Newsweek called it ‘A rowdy delight’. The Herald Tribune was succinct: ‘The Berlin songs and a superb production make Call Me Madam the gala it promised to be.’ Even Perle Mesta enjoyed herself. She told reporters, ‘l only hope that someday I become as great a diplomat as Ethel Merman is an actress.’ Now, that’s diplomatic!
After just nineteen weeks, Call Me Madam chalked up its first million dollars at the box office. It went on to garner two Tony Awards—Best Actress in a Musical for Miss Merman (her only Tony) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Mr. Nype. Guys and Dolls, which opened a few weeks later, won Best Musical and several other Tonys. It was probably the competition provided by Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and, later, The King and I, that limited the Broadway tenure of Call Me Madam to 644 performances—not in the same league as Annie Get Your Gun’s 1147, but very a satisfactory run just the same.
The Ballets Russes is an immense subject celebrated in literally hundreds of books, theses and articles over the years since its birth in 1909, when the Premiere of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was held at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. But here is neither the time nor place to do more than concentrate on a few brief, but exhilarating, moments.
THE YEAR IS 1940, the place is very likely Brisbane’s His Majesty’s Theatre, the occasion—performances by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company, also known as the Original Ballets Russes.
J.C. Williamson’s Lighting Director, Les Thorp, has captured a few moments of the ballets Le Beau Danube and Graduation Ball. Obviously he was shooting on 8-mill film, from the stage’s flies, and we have an exceptional view of several series of fouettés—that fabulous, famous ‘party trick’ beloved of particular choreographers. Thorp, a man of many skills, was with The Firm for more than three decades, and his grandson Paul Worsnop, a ‘live-aboard cruising yachtsman and freelance actor’, permitted us to view reel after reel of his grandfather’s ‘home movies’, and to incorporate them within our digital gallery of material.
Le Beau Danube was abridged both in title and length from the 1924 ballet Soirees de Paris, to the one-scene ballet first performed by the revived Ballets de Monte Carlo, in Monte Carlo, in 1933. The music is by Johann Strauss, the sets by Vladimir and Elizabeth Polunin—after Constantin Guys, costumes by Count Etienne de Beaumont and choreography and book by the Moscow-born Leonide Massine.
The story is simple, one of encounter and rivalry, set in a public garden in Vienna in the 1860s, between an innocent young girl (the Daughter), an ex-mistress, a not-so-innocent Street Dancer, and the young girl’s fiancé the dashing Hussar.
Le Beau Danube was included in the first and third Ballets Russes’ tours to Australia—to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide—over the years 1936-1940. In Monte Carlo, back in 1933, the main roles were danced by Massine himself as the Hussar, Alexandra Danilova the Street Dancer, Tatiana Riabouchinska the Daughter, David Lichine the King of the Dandies and Irina Baronova the First Hand. Usually the spirit, if not the details, of the Polunins’ Guys’ backcloth depicting an elegant hansom cab bowling through a park, and the subtle colours of the majority of the costumes, have been retained.
In this 1940 film segment it is also possible that both Tatiana Riabouchinska and David Lichine are included in the cast. Edouard Borovansky, a Czechoslovakian dancer who had partnered Anna Pavlova and who had first visited Australia in 1929, stayed in Australia at the conclusion of the Ballets Russes tours, and went on to form his own ballet school and company. He performed the role of the Athlete, or Strong Man, and here in Les Thorp’s film it is highly likely that it is Borovansky we see, and on the 30th of June 1945, his company first performed this ballet in His Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne, Borovansky reprising his role as the Strong Man. Tamara Tchinarova and Peggy Sager shared the role of the Street Dancer, Paul Grinwis the Hussar and Strelsa Heckelman the First Hand. The daughter, unfortunately unconfirmed, Laurel Martyn, Edna Busse or Dorothy Stevenson.
The ballet continued within the company’s repertoire until November 1960. The original scenery was recreated under the direction of William Constable and painted by Rupert Browne. The costumes were made by JCW Modes, ‘Henry’, Misses Little and Jock Miller.
As we see in Les Thorp’s footage a chandelier is lowered and Graduation Ball takes to the stage. The premiere of this one-act ballet took place in March 1940, in Sydney’s Theatre Royal. The scenario and choreography were by Russian-born David Lichine, the music—one again—Johann Strauss, arranged and conducted by Antal Dorati. Alexandre Benois was responsible for the scenery and costumes.
The cadets of a military school are invited to a dance at a fashionable girls’ school in 1840s Vienna. There are a series of divertissements and episodes, including a flirtation between the Old General and the Headmistress (always played by a man), a fouetté competition, a romantic pas de deux, a cheeky young girl who performs an impromptu solo and a brilliant variation for the Drummer Cadet. From the moment the girls and the cadets catch onto the singular behavior of both the Old General and the Headmistress, decorum is abandoned, and the Ball is transformed into a ‘gay revel’. The evening ends, but not before one of the cadets returns for a secret rendezvous with his lovely partner, only to be surprised by the appearance of the Headmistress who brings about an abrupt ending to their little tryst.
In the 1940 premiere Borislav Runanine played the Headmistress and Igor Schwezoff the Old General. The Junior Cadet was David Lichine himself, the lovely young pupil Tatiana Riabouchinska. The premiere in Sydney was an unprecedented success—there was curtain call after curtain call—shouts of ‘Lichine! Lichine!’. Graduation Ball was a godsend as far as the Sydney season was concerned—and also for J.C. Williamson’s management!
In Mr. Thorp’s film, now mid-1940, we see the two competition dancers, the Old General, the Headmistress, the cheeky girl, plus the cadets and students.
In February 1954, fourteen years after its premiere, the Borovansky Ballet Company introduced Graduation Ball into its repertoire, with David Lichine personally restaging the work. The Headmistress was Paul Grinwis, the Old General John Auld, the Junior Girl Claudie Algeranova and the Junior cadet Vassilie Trunoff or Raoul Celada. Pamela Proud was a delight as the cheeky young student. Under scenic director William Constable, J. Alan Kenyon and Cecil Newman created the sets, and the costume team was that of the earlier ballet, Le Beau Danube.
But almost exactly two years before Borovansky’s production, the National Theatre Ballet Company in Melbourne presented their Graduation Ball at the Princess Theatre. Kira Bousloff (née Abricossova) reproduced Lichine’s choreography. She and her husband Serge had danced in one of the Ballets Russes tours. The scenery, after a design by O. Pedersen of Copenhagen, was painted by Dresford Hardingham. The Headmistress was Leon Kellaway (aka Jan Kowsky, and brother to Cecil Kellaway), the Old General Ronald Reay. Marie Cumisky had a lot of fun with the Junior Girl, or Pigtails, and Raymond Trickett was an exemplary Drummer, or Drum Major.
Graduation Ball was performed by the Borovansky Company almost right up until its demise in early 1961—its last performance in late November 1960, and since then most notably in early 1980, when the Australian Ballet Company presented a ‘Tribute to Borovansky’, and this time the ballet was reproduced by a founding member of the Borovansky Company, the Melbourne-born Vassilie Trunoff (although not surprisingly, of Russian parentage). This tribute was a resounding success—Graduation Ball proved to be, once again, undeniably the ‘hit’ of the night. On the opening night Ken Whitmore was the Headmistress, Joseph Janusaitis the Old General, Lynette Mann the Junior Girl, Sheree da Costa a delightfully provocative Pigtails, the Leading Cadet was David Burch, and Dale Baker, the Drummer Boy. Designs, after Benois, were by Geoffrey Guy and the scenery painted by Melbourne’s Scenic Studios.
There were further performances over the next ten years, when the Australian Ballet Company took the ballet, along with several others, further afield—to countries including Russia, China, and America.
What a joy to be able to access these very special moments in Australia’s dance history: little did Paul’s grandfather imagine, as he stood aloft with his trusty 8-mill camera, that his contribution to Australia’s theatre heritage was to be viewed and enjoyed by so many of us, eighty years on.
Cole Porter’s 1941 musical Let’s Face It! had the distinction of being the only new musical to be staged in Australia by J.C. Williamson’s during the war years of 1940–45.
Although JCW continued to stage new American and British plays, plus locally-produced musical revues and pantomimes, its contribution to Musical Theatre in the early ’40s consisted (almost) entirely of revivals for which The Firm already held the Australasian performing rights, ranging from the evergreen Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas (which toured from 1940 to late 1942 and late 1943 to early 1945); the Gladys Moncrieff star vehicles The Maid of the Mountains, The Merry Widow, Katinka, Viktoria and Her Hussar and Rio Rita, plus perennially popular musical comedies and operettas of the 1920s and early ’30s (including, perhaps ironically, the German operetta White House Inn, albeit with its Austrian setting).
The reason for this was two-fold; firstly the war in Europe halted the availability of both new British musicals and Anglicised European operettas (the wartime London stage also survived mainly on revivals of popular past favourites, plus cheaply staged musical revues, with barely twenty new British musicals produced during the whole of the war’s duration.) American musicals (for which the financial outlay was considerably greater than for a stage play) were generally not produced in Australia until they had proven themselves capable of attracting an audience to the London stage beforehand, thereby demonstrating their universal appeal beyond the borders of the United States to the ever cautious Managing Directors of J.C. Williamson’s at this period—the Tait Brothers. (Of the 28 new Broadway musicals staged by JCW Ltd. under the Tait’s management between July of 1920 to 1938, two had premiered in Australia prior to their production in London and a further four were not produced in the West End at all. During the tenure of Ernest C. Rolls as co-managing director of the-then JCW off-shoot, Australian and New Zealand Theatres Ltd., the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical I Married An Angel was bought directly from Broadway in 1938 at his instigation, and had failed to attract a substantial local audience, resulting in a large financial loss for the company.) Secondly, wartime Government restrictions limited the transfer of large sums of money to overseas countries, which would also encompass rights and royalty payments due to foreign composers, lyricists and librettists.
Wartime rationing, too, limited the available resources needed to mount new productions, and so it proved easier for JCW to open up its well-stocked scenic stores and costume wardrobes to remount popular shows from past years. (The last home-grown Australian musical comedy to be staged by the company was Blue Mountain Melody in 1934 as a star vehicle for the popular team of Madge Elliott and Cyril Ritchard, who had since married and made their home base in Britain, and JCW was evidently not going to risk spending money on any further untried ‘local product’ without the built-in box office appeal of such performers to attract an audience.)
Let’s Face It!, however, had two points in its favour with regard to its staging by JCW—it had also been slated for production on the London stage (where it premiered at the Hippodrome on 19 November 1942, amongst only a handful of new American musical shows to play the West End during the war years, which included Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie, Dubarry Was a Lady and Something For the Boys and the Irving Berlin revue This is the Army with its original US all-military cast) plus it had a topical plot that dealt with American army personnel. With the entry of the United States into the war following the Japanese bombing of its naval base at Pearl Harbour on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on 7 December 1941, followed by the formal alliance of Australia (under Prime Minister, John Curtin) with America to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, US servicemen had become a familiar sight on the streets of the Eastern capitals of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, where they had established military bases and training camps.
SIGN UP for our newsletter and get more great content like this delivered to your inbox. It's FREE!