Peter Pinne

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.

Tuesday, 01 March 2022

Flame of Desire

Once again we dip into past issues of On Stage to revive old articles and present them to a new audience. With Frank Van Straten’s recent book Hanky Panky in mind, we republish PETER PINNE’s look at Jack O’Hagan’s musical Flame of Desire which was first staged in Melbourne by Ernest C. Rolls during the 1930s. 

110. Flame Sheet MusicSheet music cover for Flame of Desire

In 1935 at the age of 37, Jack O’Hagan was at the height of his success. Already the most successful Australian songwriter with sales of over two million copies of his music, he had written the scores to six lavish revues, two pantomimes, a play with music, contributed additional songs to an English musical, and written the score for Australia’s first musical film. He was also a successful radio broadcaster and recording artist. The next step in his prolific career was to write a musical comedy.

Flame of Desire opened at the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne, on 19 October 1935, in a production by flamboyant showman, Ernest C. Rolls. (Rolls had taken over as lessee of the Palace Theatre, at the top end of Bourke Street in early 1934, and after extensive refurbishment, renamed it the Apollo. The show was billed as a ‘glorious musical romance’, with music and lyrics by Jack O’Hagan, book by Ernest C. Rolls and J.L.Gray, and a starry imported cast from the United States headed by Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal, Lester Allen, Nellie Breen, and Bert Mathews.

All five performers had impressive Broadway credits: Ethelind Terry had played the title role in McCarthy and Tierney’s Rio Rita (1927) and Romberg’s Nina Rosa (1927), William O’Neal had been in Romberg’s The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928), George White’s Scandals of 1928, and Berlin’s Shoot The Works (1931), Lester Allen had appeared in six editions of George White’s Scandals from 1919 to 1924, plus Friml’s The Three Musketeers (1928), and Kalmar and Ruby’s Top Speed (1929), Nellie Breen had been in Mercenary Mary (1925), and The Desert Song (1926), and Bert Mathews in a 1930 revival of Herbert’s Babes in Toyland.

Prominent Australian performers in the cast of 60, included William Perryman (father of Jill and Diana), Nancye Cocking, Mabel Gibson, Les King, Les Woods, Harvey Adams, Reg Hood, Harold Meade, R. Barrett-Lennard, and Rosa Pinkerton. Musical direction was in the hands of Maurice Gutteridge, choreography by Jan Kowskey, Buddy Roberts and Nellie Breen, with direction by producer Rolls.

The story was set in a Ruritanian kingdom. In the mythical country of Serovia, Captain Carl Liebenau (O’Neal) of the Royal Guards, is in love with Marietta (Terry), the Crown Princess. The country, in a financial crisis, is awaiting the arrival of foreign advisers to help them out of their predicament. Two adventurers, Adam Sweet (Mathews), and Oscar Low (Allen), descend upon the country by parachute and, mistaken for the advisers, immediately begin to promote a lottery. Later, in the palace ballroom with her maid Tina (Breen), Marietta is courted by a visiting foreign dignitary, Prince Frederick of Wittenbach (Perryman). When she accepts his hand in marriage, Carl is incensed, casts off his uniform, and leads a band of rebels in an uprising that sees him become president of the republic. Marietta and Frederick flee to Paris, but later, realising her true love is Carl, she returns to Serovia to marry him.

The plot gave plenty of opportunity for set designers, Joan Scardon and Erica Huppert, to create a host of colourful scenes: the palace courtyard, rose garden and ballroom, the civic square, the Place Vendome, Glocken cabaret, and a spectacular transformation scene as the finale of Act 2, from the interior of a Gothic cathedral, to an outdoor wedding reception. Jack O’Hagan’s score, which was more operetta than musical comedy, contained rousing marches, up-tempo dance numbers, point numbers, and several ballads.

Critical reaction was good: ‘Exquisite dance ensembles, marvellous frocking and tuneful and catchy music,’ said the Age (21.10.35), with the Argus (20.10.35) equally laudatory: ‘The Harry Grahams of the play world have not produced a more attractive ‘book’ than that contrived by Mr J.L.Gray and Mr Rolls, nor have the Irving Berlins of this amusing age composed music any sweeter than that invented by Mr Jack O’Hagan.’

They liked Ethelind Terry but carped that her voice was ‘weak’ and not up to the demands of the score, but they loved William O’Neal and thought his singing of the title tune was a highlight of the show. Nellie Breen was noted as being ‘pert, vivacious, and clever on her feet’, while Bert Mathews and Lester Allen ‘speed the comedy on with an air of reckless abandon’.

But all was not rosy. The major fault of the work was the second act. According to the Age: ‘Nearly all the musical comedy eggs have been placed in the first act basket, and Flame of Desire develops inevitably into free and easy revue. Failure to unify the story and link up the comic situations in a coherent script is apparent.’ This is easy to understand, as Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan had never written a ‘book’ musical before.

Although the show played 57 performances, Ethelind Terry only appeared in 23 of them. On Saturday, 9 November, popular Australian soprano Strella Wilson replaced Ethelind Terry as Marietta and played the role until the show closed on 7 December. It was the end of the road for this ambitious undertaking which, unlike previous Ernest C. Rolls productions, did not tour. All of the American actors returned to the US except William O’Neal and Bert Mathews who stayed on and worked in revue and musical comedy for some years, Mathews doing a string of musicals: Jill Darling (1936), Balalaika (1937), revivals of The O’Brien Girl 1936), Lady Be Good (1936) and Funny Face (1936), and O’Neal working in the revues Serenaders (1937), Coronation Revelries (1937), and the play Idiot’s Delight (1939), and both doing 1937 Variety Show (1937), the J.C. Williamson pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk (1938), and Ernest C. Rolls’ Folies d’Amour (1939). They later returned to the United States and picked up their Broadway careers, O’Neal memorably creating the character of Colonel Buffalo Bill in the original Broadway production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Mathews appearing in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1951).

Allan’s Music (who had originally hired Jack O’Hagan as a song plugger in 1922 and had published all of his previous work) published a Vocal Gems Selection which contained 12 of the songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, ‘Someday Sweetheart’, ‘Kinky Kat’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Calm is the Night’, ‘Two of the Bright Young Things’, ‘I Belong to You Dear’, ‘Tina’, ‘Song of Love’, ‘The Guard Song’, and the title tune. They also published four songs as single sheets, ‘Song of Love’, ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘The Rebel Song’, and ‘Flame of Desire’. All of them featured head shots of Ethelind Terry, William O’Neal and Lester Allen, the title of the show, with book, music, lyrics, and musical director credits. A fifth song, ‘Calm is the Night’, was also published as a single sheet, but with a non-show cover.

No commercial recordings were released of the score, although Strella Wilson recorded the duet ‘Song of Love’ with William O’Neal with piano accompaniment, for Columbia (X 107–1) in 1936, but it was never issued. Several songs turned up on radio transcription discs. An Australian Compositions Program (3DB 16-inch radio transcription disc) featured ‘Flame of Desire’ sung by Webb Tilton with chorus, and ‘Calm is the Night’ sung by Patricia Howard, with orchestra and chorus conducted by William Flynn. A Library of Australian Compositions (AWA 16-inch radio transcription) included ‘Princess Marietta’ sung by George Burns. The same song was also featured in the Humphrey Bishop Bright Horizon radio series (AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by Edward Smith, and again in the Humphrey Bishop Australia Show (AWA 16-inch transcription), sung by George Brown. The Australia Show series also featured original cast member William Perryman and male chorus singing ‘The Rebel Song,’ although Perryman did not sing it in the show.

A publican’s son, Melbourne-born O’Hagan had his first songs published in 1917 when he was still a teenager, but it wasn’t until 1921, when he wrote ‘Down Carolina Way’, that he had his first hit. He followed with several songs to accompany popular silent screen movies: ‘Anatol’ for Gloria Swanson’s The Affairs of Anatol (1921), ‘Sheba’ (1922) for the film of the same name. ‘In Dreamy Araby’, for the Valentino classic The Sheik (1922), sold a phenomenal 50 000 copies.

But he struck gold when, on the strength of the success of ‘Down Carolina Way’, Tivoli entrepreneur, Hugh D. McIntosh, suggested he write something local, and O’Hagan came up with the blatantly nostalgic ‘Along The Road to Gundagai’. It was a hit not only in Australia but overseas, and became his signature tune and calling card for the rest of his life.

Immortality for ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was assured when it was chosen as the theme for Dad and Dave (1937), the George Edwards Players Production’s radio series based on the On Our Selection stories by Steele Rudd. It ran for 16 years. During this time O’Hagan penned many more songs associated with Gundagai and the series: ‘Where the Dog Sits on the Tuckerbox’ (1938), ‘Snake Gully Swagger’ (1939), ‘Snake Gully Home of Mine’ (1940) and ‘When a Boy From Alabama Meets a Girl From Gundagai’ (1942).

1922 was also the year ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ was interpolated into J. & N. Tait’s Christmas pantomime, The Forty Thieves (23.12.22), Kings Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast headed by Mona Magnet, Jack Cannot and Joe Brennan. It was the start of O’Hagan’s career in the theatre. Still working in pantomime, he later contributed songs to J.C. Williamson’s production of Aladdin (26.12.25), at His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, which featured Bruce Green, Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, and June Elvidge. Please Get Married (9.6.28), a Broadway farce at the Palace Theatre, Melbourne followed—with a score by O’Hagan, and a cast headed by actor—producer Frank Neil, Mary Gannon, Field Fisher, Jefferson Tate, Betty Bright, and Lily Molloy. Neil had added songs for its Australian presentation. ‘The majority of the numbers were tuneful’ said the Age (10.6.28).


O’Hagan’s next theatrical compositions were additional songs for J.C. Williamson’s London musical comedy Turned Up (26.12.29), at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, with Gus Bluett, Leo Franklin, Cecil Kellaway and Mary Lawson.

According to The Age (27.12.29) Lawson sang ‘one of the “successes” of the evening “Start the Day Off with a Smile”. Added interest was lent to the tuneful lyrics by the fact that an Australian, Mr. J. O’Hagan, had had a hand in their composition’. He followed a year later with a score for the pantomime The House That Jack Built (20.12.30) at the same theatre. The Argus (22.12.30) claimed, ‘The House That Jack Built is essentially the house that Jack O’Hagan and his fellow song-writers built … The songs are excellent.’ The show starred Roy Rene (Mo), Sadie Gale, Arthur Stigant, and Dan Agar.

Two years later saw O’Hagan’s first production with Ernest C. Rolls, when some of his material was interpolated into a short- lived (eight performances) revue, All Stars Revue (1.8.31) at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, with a cast that included Jennie Benson, Athol Tier and Stan Foley. The following year O’Hagan, Rolls, and J.L. Gray wrote book, music and lyrics for the pantomime, Dick Wittington and His Cat (24.12.32), at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Jennie Benson again headed the cast that also featured Stan Foley, Mabel Gibson, and Don Nicol.

Honi Soit (11.2.33), a spectacular Ernest C. Rolls vaudeville revue, opened in February at the same theatre with Renie Riano, Charles Norman, Byrl Walkley, Colin Crane, and O’Hagan himself. Book and lyric credits went to Rolls, Gray and O’Hagan, with O’Hagan supplying all of the music.

The show played a Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (3.6.33) before transferring to the Criterion Theatre, (3.7.33).

Rolls followed with an even more spectacular revue, Tout Paris (17.6.33), which starred Clarkson Rose, Olive Fox, Ambrose Barker, and Jack and Sylvia Kellaway, and had an impressive first act finale, ‘Birth of a Melody’. Arranged and scored by Maurice Gutteridge, it was a pseudo-concerto, built around a song of the same name by Rolls and O’Hagan, which told the story of the growth of melody from the primitive drumming of a Red Indian through to the trumpeting of the archangels. Scored for five pianos, two harps, eight violins and a full orchestra, the finale had Liszt, Bach, Chopin and Beethoven each seated and playing elevated grand pianos, looking down on Gershwin, also on piano, with the ballet swirling frantically in the foreground. The Age (19.6.33) called it ‘astounding’.

Around the World (22.12.34), was an Ernest C. Rolls Youth Revue (the cast was all boys between the ages of seven and 14), with a score by O’Hagan and Rolls, and some special material by J.C. Bancks (creator of Ginger Meggs). It opened at the Criterion Theatre, Sydney, before transferring to the Apollo Theatre, Melbourne (12.1.35). The cast featured Billy [Bill] Kerr, George Nichols, Ian Burgis, Conway Searle, and Colin Croft who was noticed: ‘His Mae West impression brought the house down’ (Age 13.1.35). Following the Melbourne season, the show did a world tour starting in South Africa.

This was followed at the same theatre by Rhapsodies of 1935 (2.2.35), and Vogues of 1935 (1.6.35), both Ernest C. Rolls revues and both with scores by O’Hagan. Rhapsodies featured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson, William Perryman, and Renie Riano, while Vogues’ cast was headed by Jennie Benson, Gus Bluett, Thea Phillips, Octave Dua and William Perryman. Rhapsodies played an Adelaide season at Wests Theatre (16.8.35), followed by a season of Vogues (31.8.35), and Tout Paris (3.9.35). For the Adelaide season Vogues featured Roy Rene (Mo), Strella Wilson and Jennie Benson.

In 1931 Jack O’Hagan penned the songs for Australia’s first musical film, Showgirl’s Luck. Directed by the legendary Norman Dawn, and starring Susan Denis, Arthur Tauchert, Arthur Clarke and Fred Bluett, it premièred at the Lawson Theatre, Redfern, Sydney, and followed with a week’s run at the Arcadia Theatre (later Esquire and Town) in Pitt Street, Sydney. Critical response was poor, which was mirrored when it was released in England in 1933 by Universal.

Apart from Flame of Desire, O’Hagan wrote another four full-length musicals: Goodnight Ladies, Passion Flower, Night Night Mitzi, and The Romany Road. None was produced, but The Romany Road did turn up as a mini-musical, ‘A Romance of Romany’, as the first act closer of It's Foolish but It’s Fun (9.10.44) at the Tivoli Theatre Melbourne, and later at the Sydney Tivoli (26.12.44). The Melbourne season featured Dick Bentley, Rebla, Desmond Tanner, Clem Dawe and Eric Edgley, while Sydney starred Roy Rene (Mo), Mike Connors, Celestine Connors, Nick Morton and Bentley.

Except for another Ernest C. Rolls revue in 1939, Folies d’Amour, which played seasons in Adelaide (Theatre Royal, 18.3.39) and Melbourne (King’s Theatre, 8.4.39) with a cast that included William O’Neal and Bert Mathews O’Hagan virtually turned his back on theatre after Flame of Desire.

Royalties were pouring in from his series of Aussie heroes songs: ‘Kingsford Smith (Aussie’s Proud Of You)’ (1928), ‘A Lone Girl Flyer (Amy Johnson)’ (1930), and ‘Our Don Bradman’ (1930), and with the success of the Dad and Dave radio series, ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ had been embedded in the psyche of the nation.

But Jack O’Hagan’s reign of popularity was coming to an end. Although he continued to write songs throughout the ’40s, they were lean times. ‘Red Cross Nurse’ (1942) and ‘Ginger Meggs’ (1948), made a brief impression—his biggest hit during this period was ‘When a Boy from Alabama Meets a Girl from Gundagai’ (1942)—but little else captured the public’s attention.

He joined the Melbourne advertising agency O’Brien Publicity in 1951 where his gift for melody saw him create over the following 14 years some memorable radio and television jingles: Gilbey’s Gin, Lipton’s Tea, Tuckerbox Dog Food, Biddy Peas and Vynex upholstery fabric.

Using ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ as his blueprint, O’Hagan, throughout his three-decades career, wrote many more place names and bush songs: ‘Blue Mountains’ (1921), ‘By the Great Big Billabong’ (1931), ‘Down By the Murray’ (1923), I Gotta See a Man About a Dog’ (1961), ‘I’m an Aussie Through and Through’ (1924), I’m Gonna Hump My Bluey’ (1926), I’m Off to Woop-Woop’ (1925), ‘Let’s Take a Trip to Melbourne’ (1934), ‘There’s a Part of My Heart in Wonthaggi’ (1934), ‘Things is Crook in Tallarook’ (1952), and ‘We’re All Cobbers Together’ (1940). He even had one last try at a hero song in 1952 with ‘Our Marjorie’ which was dedicated to Olympic sprinter Marjorie Jackson, but alongside the hits of the day, is sounded quaint and old-fashioned.

O’Hagan, in the ’20s, slavishly followed the trends of the day. If Hawaiian songs were popular, then he wrote Hawaiian songs. Even ‘Along the Road to Gundagai’ came after Neil McBeath had written the enormously popular ‘I’m Going Back Again to Yarrawonga’ (1919). But there’s no doubt for a time he had his finger on the pulse of what the public wanted.

Like Irving Berlin, O’Hagan was first and foremost a songwriter. He could write catchy melodies, but frequently his lyrics were run-of-the-mill.

As the Age (4.2.35) claimed in its review of Rhapsodies of 1935: ‘In lyrics it is weak and uncertain; in music it is light and entrancing—and for these Jack O’Hagan must be blamed and warmly praised’. It’s an indictment that could be levelled at most of his work. Flame of Desire’s score was a pleasantly surprising notch above his usual standard. It had rousing choruses (‘Princess Marietta’), melodic love songs (‘Song of Love’), and occasional flashes of wit (‘Two of the Bright Young Things’), the latter missing from most of his work.

The strength of the score proves there was no doubt he could write good theatre music. It’s such a pity none of his other full-scale works were produced.

Sixty-two years after its première, Flame of Desire had one last hurrah. David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow used a condensed version of it as an operetta send-up in their Jack O’Hagan compilation show Here Comes Showtime (1997) at the Marian Street Theatre, Sydney.

As Mitchell and Morrow could only find the script of the first act, their plot was mainly their own invention, but they did use four songs from the score: ‘Princess Marietta’, ‘We’ll Start a Lottery’, ‘Song of Love’, and the title tune.

Sung with gusto by the six member cast, Georgie Parker, Derek Metzger, Robyn Arthur, Rod Dunbar, Jason Langley and Judith Wright, the songs came across as good examples of the genre.

For later productions the show reverted to its original title, Jack O’Hagan’s Humdingers. A fuzzy video survives of the performance.

It’s ironic that unlike his contemporaries who wrote musicals with Australian settings—among them Varney Monk (Collits’ Inn, The Cedar Tree) and Charles Zwar (Blue Mountain Melody)—O’Hagan, who was known for his jingoistic ditties, chose to set his one show in Ruritania.

Of the 600 songs that Jack O’Hagan, wrote, 160 were published. He also used the pseudonyms Dean Flintoft, J. Francis Quinlan, Ferguson Noakes, Wilson Jeffries, Al Sparks, Ted Whiting and Pamela Therese, throughout his career.

He retired in 1965, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1973, and died in 1987.

Although Flame of Desire barely made a blip on the theatrical landscape and has long been forgotten, Jack O’Hagan’s name never will be. In the annals of Australian popular music he will always be known as the man who wrote the quintessential Aussie ‘going back’ road song, almost a second national anthem: ‘Along The Road To Gundagai’.


Special thanks to

EMI Music, National Library of Australia, David Mitchell, Melvyn Morrow, Peter Burgis, Peter Wyllie Johnston, and Frank Van Straten. Books, articles and newspapers sourced for this article: Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia (Currency, 2005), The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre, (Kurt Ganzl; Blackwell, 1994), American Musical Theatre (Richard C. Norton; Oxford, 2002), Tivoli (Frank Van Straten; Lothian, 2003), Australian Popular Music (Kenneth R. Snell; Quick Trick Press, 1991), Australian Film 1900–1977 (Andrew Pike, Ross Cooper; Oxford, 1981), Australian Performers, Australian Performances (Peter Pinne; PAM, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987), The Age, The Argus, The Bulletin, The Sydney Morning Herald, Adelaide Advertiser, theatre programs, sheet music.

Wednesday, 01 December 2021

The Sentimental Bloke (Part 2)

In the second part of his coverage of the musical version of The Sentimental Bloke, PETER PINNE spotlights the life and work of its creators, Albert Arlen and Nancy Brown. Read Part 1»

Albert Arlen Nancy BrownAlbert Arlen and Nancy Brown

Prior to writing The Sentimental Bloke, Albert Arlen had had a successful career in London as an actor, playwright and composer. He was born Albert Aaron to Jewish parents in Pyrmont, Sydney on 10 January 1905. His father came from Persia and his mother from India. Very early in his career he adopted the surname Arlen, and used it throughout the thirties and forties. He legally adopted it on 16 July 1948.1

Arlen studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and after graduating moved with his family to India. He travelled to London in November 1923 and found work as a professional pianist playing in the pit for silent movies, and in cinema orchestras and dance bands. He returned to Australia three years later and formed the ‘Trio de Paris’ with Wilfred Thomas (baritone) and Ernest Long (violin), playing popular French songs and violin solos on 2FC. 

He studied piano in Paris in 1929, and from 1930 until 1939 played several small roles in London, in repertory, and in the provinces. In 1932–33 he toured in a production of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. His first musical commission came when he was touring as an actor in the farce High Temperature. The director thought the piece would make a good musical and asked Arlen to write a score for it. He obliged, and the production was later recast with musical theatre performers, and continued to tour.2 Arlen followed with the musicalisation of another farce, Ladies’ Night, which also toured. Both were successes.3

During this period Arlen also busied himself writing plays and musicals. In 1935 he wrote the musical Stardust which Hollywood studio MGM wanted to buy for Grace Moore. Arlen, aware of the many changes Hollywood usually made with scripts, declined the offer. Later, in late 1935, the show went into rehearsal as a London stage production with Marie Burke in the lead. Unfortunately King George V died in January 1936, and the backers withdrew their investment. The show never went ahead.4

Arlen had his first London success when the Arts Theatre produced his play Twilight in 1935. Two years later his controversial satirical comedy, The Son of the Grand Eunuch, based on the French novel by Charles Pettit, was presented at the same theatre on 14 January 1937. The Times called it a ‘subtle and amusing satire,’ but The Stage found it ‘dull and long-winded to the point of boredom’. The story, about a poetic lover who is chosen to succeed to the honorable office of Grand Eunuch and refuses to sacrifice the joys of love, was deemed to be too candid and embarrassing for the stage, so much so that the Lord Chamberlain stepped in and banned it after several performances.5

Arlen had more success with Counterfeit, a comedy thriller that he wrote in 1938 with Cyril Butcher. With a large cast of 20, it previewed at Richmond on 24 July 1939, getting good notices. The Times said it was ‘an amusing adventure’ and that ‘the authors have talent’, and The Stage thought it ‘fun’. The farcical plot had a Blackpool family man with a taste for criminology leave his backstreet sweetshop to track down a gang of criminals in London. Mark Stone as the Lancashire lad, Joss Entwhistle, and Laura Smithson as his wife, Maggie, were said to be ‘as jolly a couple as the North Country has put on the stage’.

The show transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, opening on 2 September 1939, with two added scenes and two new characters, played by Stringer Davis and Charles Hawtrey, who later became famous for his roles in the Carry On films. This time The Times called it ‘unpretentious agreeable entertainment’. They liked Stone as Entwhistle and Hawtrey for his scene in drag at the opera. It played 22 performances until it closed due to the outbreak of World War 2.

Arlen’s first association with the BBC came in 1936 with the radio series, Songs You Might Never Have Heard, a program that featured twin pianos (Arlen was on one and Peggy Cochrane on the other), which played for sixteen episodes during 1936–7. He co-authored the theme song with Bruce Sievier. Three years later he was back at the BBC writing the music for four radio musical plays, Dolores, Words and Music, The Land of Song (4 January 1939) and The Legend of San Michele (5 October 1939). All were scripted by Bruce Sievier. During this period Arlen appeared in two films, The Life of St Paul (1938) and Let’s Be Famous (1939).6

Arlen enlisted in the RAF on 8 September 1943. He saw active service as a Flight Lieutenant, and at one time was based in Egypt. It was in Cairo that his most famous classical work for piano and orchestra, ‘El Alamein Concerto’, premiered in 1944. He had written it after the Allied victory over General Rommel in North Africa. Two years later, whilst still stationed in Cairo, he wrote, with Terrance Paul Stanford, the radio special, ‘The Song of England’, a dramatic narrative ballad, which told the story of Britain’s struggles and triumphs from Magna Carta to Dunkirk. Produced by Anthony Escritt, the work’s soloists were John Perrow and Kay Langford, with choir directed by Flight Lieutenant Roberts, orchestrations by Frank Cordell, and a prologue spoken by John Gielgud. It contained some words by Winston Churchill and was dedicated to him, a dedication he accepted. The work was later produced by the ABC in Sydney.7

Arlen was transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Singapore in 1946. During his time there he devised and produced four revues. The first, High and Low, opened at the Victoria Theatre, Singapore, on 27 January 1946. Featured in the cast was a young Kenneth Williams, who would later find fame as one of England’s funniest stage, radio and film comedians. The second show was Stardust (possibly the same show that MGM wanted to buy), which opened at the same theatre on 30 September 1946, and the third was Over to You (9 January 1947), also at the Victoria, which was produced by Arlen but devised by Barri Chatt. All three shows toured to service personnel in Ceylon, Hong Kong and Malaya. A fourth show, At Your Service, is listed in Arlen’s papers in the National Library, but dates and theatre are unknown. He was discharged from the RAF in India on 14 April 1947.8

Arlen returned to Australia in 1948 and became program manager for radio station 2UW, Sydney. Programs he arranged or presented during his time there were Welcome Visitor (famous celebrities interviewed live), Australian Composers (featuring interviews and compositions), Radio Voyager (a musical travelogue), A Ballad for You, Musicale and Pianogramme, amongst others.9

nla.obj 134544944 11950s portrait of Nancy Brown by Paula Newman. National Library of Australia, Canberra.In 1949, at the age of 44, Arlen married Australian born Nancy Brown in Canberra.

Brown had returned to Australia to appear for the Tivoli in Here from There (1949)10 after having had a major career in musical comedy in England and America. In 1929 she played the chief bridesmaid, Gloria, and understudied Evelyn Laye in the US production of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet (5 November 1929). She took over when Laye left six months into the run and later led the US tour. She played Teresa in Elstree’s movie version of The Maid of the Mountains, the first big musical film made in Britain, and starred in the West End opposite Viennese tenor Richard Tauber in Old Chelsea (17 February 1943).11

Arlen’s first contact with Canberra Repertory came in 1958 when the group held a reading of his play Welcome Mate. Two years later the group premiered The Girl from the Snowy (17 March 1960), an operetta set around the Snowy Mountains scheme, and the clash between the interests of the ‘scheme’ and local landholders, and old and new Australians. The central love story involved an Australian singer returning from Europe to pick up with her old beau, only to meet a new one, a Norwegian, working on the scheme. Arlen was responsible for book, music and lyrics. The Canberra Times (18 March 1960) said, ‘The Girl from the Snowy is top entertainment’, and ‘an evening of real theatrical excitement’. In the title role Nancy Brown was praised for her ‘wonderful warmth of personality’, and Arlen’s songs were called ‘attractive’. The book and dialogue, however, were called weak, and ‘cliché-ridden’.

Chappell & Co. intended to publish two songs from the score—the title song and ‘In My Country’, both arranged by Hal Evans—but instead published a Piano Selection with lyrics. Printed in England in 1960, it contained the songs ‘In My Country’, ‘Sydney On A Saturday Night’, ‘Laughter And Love’, ‘In Bella Napoli’, ‘The Tumbarumba’, ‘Won’t You Take My Hand?’, ‘Can This Be Love?’ and ‘She’s My Girl From The Snowy River’.   

Although the show was successful in Canberra, Arlen was unable to secure a professional theatre production, but on Australia Day the following year the ABC broadcast a one-hour radio version. The male lead was sung by Clive Hearne and acted by Bob Peach, and the female lead was sung by Madge Stevens and acted by Marie Redshaw. Others in the cast included Douglas Kelly, Mary Hardy, Richard Davies, John Norman and Sydney Conabere. Frank Thorne conducted the augmented ABC Orchestra and Singers. The only other production of the show appears to have been by Shopwindow Theatre at St James Playhouse, Phillip Street, Sydney, on 19 November 1969. Shopwindow was an amateur group formed by Brown, with Arlen as musical advisor, in October 1968. It was renamed the Theatre Society in January 1970.12

After the great success of The Sentimental Bloke, not one management was interested in seeing what else the Arlens had to offer,13 so it was back to Canberra again for a six-night try-out of their next show, Marriages are Made in Heaven. Arlen, collaborating once more with his wife and Lloyd Thompson, came up with an original plot set in Victorian times. Two young couples in love, devise a plan to dispose of their parents in re-marriage, in order to remove any obstacle or opposition to their own marriages. Hope Hewitt in The Canberra Times (12 October 1968), called it ‘highly diverting,’ and said that the music was catchy with some ‘touching duets and trios’. The show, which was produced by Albert Arlen Australian Productions, The Theatre Players, and ANU Theatre Group, with direction by Joyce Goodes, opened at the Childers Street Hall, and played Friday and Saturday nights 11–26 October 1968.

Thirty-eight years after he first wrote it, Arlen’s Stars in Your Eyes, had a premiere by the Strathfield Light Opera Company at the Latvian Theatre, Parnell Street, Strathfield, Sydney, 14–17 October 1970. Set in London and Monte Carlo in 1935, the show was about a budding songwriter (Richard), who writes an operetta, A Royal Affair, his girlfriend (Mary) who becomes an overnight star in it, and a theatrical producer (Bernstein) who produces it. The original script contained references to Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and the Cole Porter musical Nymph Errant.14 Arlen rewrote it in 1958 with Bruce Sievier as co-author, but the Strathfield production credited only Arlen. Hilton Bonner played Richard, and remembers the show as ‘old-fashioned.’

The last work of Arlen’s to be produced was Oh! Gosh, a musical fantasy suggested by C.J. Dennis’s book of prose, The Glugs of Gosh. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust produced a studio performance of it on 19 September 1979, with members of the Australian Opera. Composed by Arlen, the work was devised, written, and had additional lyrics by Brown. The performance featured Robert Gard, Cynthia Johnston, Neil Warren-Smith, Lesley Stender, Gordon Wilcock, Anthony Lawler and John Germain, with narration by Ken Fraser, Errol Buddle on pan flute, and Arlen on piano.15

Apart from El Alamein Concerto, Arlen’s works for orchestra include Pagoda of Jade Suite and Kings Cross Suite (1948). The latter is in four movements: ‘At The Crossroads’ (Allegro), ‘Coffee Lounge’ (Waltz), ‘Idle Woman’ (Blues) and ‘Shore Leave’ (March). Its first full performance was by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Thomas with Michael Dudman (organ), in November 1982. In the Sydney Morning Herald (28 November 1982), Fred Blanks said, ‘Local colour was introduced in the concert by Albert Arlen’s suite, King’s Cross, obviously laundered and prettied up in this musical picture á la Eric Coates, material for a symphonic salon.’

There are three recordings of El Alamein Concerto: Peggy Cochrane (piano), with Jack Payne and his Orchestra. c.1945. Original UK issue HMV 12” 78 C-3428; Australian issue HMV 12” 78 EB-262. Monia Liter (piano) with Mantovani and his Concert Orchestra, 1945. Original UK issue Decca 10” 78 F-8533 (2 sides). Reissued on Decca EP DR9339-1, and on Vocalion CD CDEA6019 (in an album called Mantovani – The Early Years, Volume 1, released in 1999. Guy Saint-Claire (piano) with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Abbott (WEA 254292-1), released in 1984. Two excerpts from Pagoda of Jade Suite, were recorded as part of Chappell’s background music series, and two excerpts from King’s Cross Suite were recorded for their transcription series.

nla.obj 135096599 1Portrait of Albert Arlen by Paddy Sayer, 1973. National Library of Australia, Canberra.In the papers of Albert Arlen and Nancy Brown (MS6311) held in the National Library, Canberra, The Magic Mirror, a one-act play, is listed as having been performed, but no dates are available. There are several unproduced musicals and plays, and unpublished works. The musicals include four written with Brown and Thompson: The Violins of St Jacques, a two-act musical based on the novel by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Omar, based on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which used some adapted quatrains from the book for the lyrics, Lead a Gay Life, a comedy with music in two acts, and Queen Of Song, a two act comedy musical. Music of the Years, a play with music, was written with Thompson, and Never Know Your Luck, and an untitled work which could be King Henry, were solo efforts. There is also a one-act opera called Pedro, the Goldsmith with a libretto by Thornton Wilder.

Arlen’s unproduced plays include What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (2 Acts), Pussycat (1 Act), Two Grains of Rice (5 Scenes), Cynthia of the Minute (3 Acts, written with Sybil Weir), The End of the Section (1 Act), The Devil to Pay (3 Acts), A Tragedy in Black and White, Chicanery, Our Husband, The Broom Tree, Portrait of a Woman, The Othello Strain and a new adaptation of Camille, based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, written in 1953/54.   

The unpublished short stories include Career Woman, The Old Soldier, Characters in a Mirage, The Nile is Red, and a 148-page novel, Tomorrow When Apricots Grow.

Apart from The Sentimental Bloke and The Girl from the Snowy, Arlen’s published compositions include El Alamein Concerto, Clancy of the Overflow, Pekin Love Tale (from The Pagoda of Jade Suite), The Song of England, several non-show related songs, and a setting of C.J. Dennis’s Austra-laise (Fellers of Australia).16

Arlen received the Order of Australia in 1990. Both he and Brown died at Maroochydore, Queensland, Arlen on 24 March 1993, and Brown on 9 March 2004. Prior to her death Brown bequeathed the professional performing rights of The Sentimental Bloke to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. A tribute show, Nancy, written by John Burls, was performed at the Independent Theatre, Eumundi, Queensland, on 5 October 2001.17  

El Alamein Concerto was the critically acclaimed work that put Albert Arlen’s name on the music map, but of all his considerable achievements, nothing tops the sheer popular success of The Sentimental Bloke. It was his biggest hit. Audiences responded favorably in 1961, and 57 years later they are still applauding the story of the lovesick hero, his girl, and his mates. Arlen’s score is old-fashioned, but it is right for the period. It has charm, and the tunes are melodic and easy to remember. Any audience familiar with the Dennis verse has an expectation of what they want to see. Arlen’s version delivers. It has enough of Dennis to satisfy the purists, and the newly created material is in keeping with the spirit of the original. It is an intelligent stage adaptation that brings this set of well-loved characters to theatrical life. C.J. Dennis gave birth to the Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, but Albert Arlen made them sing!



Special thanks in the preparation of this article to Fred Blanks, Claire Cruickshank (Music & Dance, National Library of Australia), Hilton Bonner, Alton Harvey, Mark Hastings (ABC), Robyn Holmes (Curator of Music, National Library of Australia), Manuscripts Collection, National Library of Australia, Patrick Thomas, Frank Van Straten, Carole Walker.


1. Arlen Papers, NLA

2. NLA News, November 2004, p.20

3. Ibid

4. Arlen Papers, November 2004, p.20

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Tivoli, p.184

11. A Magic Life!

12. Arlen Papers, NLA

13. A Magic Life!

14. Arlen Papers, NLA

15. Ibid

16. Australian Popular Music, pp.4–5

17. A Magic Life!


Nancy Brown, A Magic Life—The Black Sheep of the Brown Family, Pix Stories Unlimited, 2001

C.J. Dennis, Selected Verse of C.J. Dennis, Angus & Robertson, 1950

Richard Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, NFSA/Melbourne University Press, 1994

Phillip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency, 1995

Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981

Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987

Eric Reade, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979

Kenneth R. Snell, Australian Popular Music, Quick Trick Press, 1991

John Thomson, National Library of Australia News, November 2004

Frank Van Straten, Tivoli, Lothian, 2003

John Whiteoak & Aline Scott-Maxwell, Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Currency, 2003

Adelaide Advertiser; Adelaide News; The Age; Brisbane Sunday Mail; Canberra Times; Courier Mail; Everybody’s; Listener In; New Zealand Herald; On Stage; The Stage (London); The Sun; Sydney Morning Herald; The Times (London); Weekly Times; Theatre Programs; Sheet Music; Recordings

Thursday, 02 September 2021

The Sentimental Bloke (Part 1)

2021 marks sixty years since the premiere of Nancy Brown and Lloyd Thompson’s musical version on The Sentimental Bloke. To celebrate, PETER PINNE  ‘dips his lid’ to Bill, Doreen, and to the creators of one of our most produced and best loved musicals.

FL16088667The Sentimental Bloke—C.J. Dennis on a walking tour, 1915. Drawing by David Low. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

WHEN THE CURTAIN came down on the first night of The Sentimental Bloke at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, on 4 November 1961, composer Albert Arlen knew he had a hit on his hands. His belief that his musical version of the beloved verse of C.J. Dennis would be a success was vindicated. Not only did the show play out its allotted six-week season, its run was extended to five months and it toured for another nine (making the producers J.C. Williamson very happy), but it would go on to become Arlen’s most successful show, and one of the most produced musicals in the annals of Australian musical theatre.

But J.C. Williamson’s took some convincing. Their on-again, off-again interest in the show, redolent of so many other local projects that never got off the ground, had been going on for seven years. First pitched to them in 1954, their initial reaction was ‘disinterest’. Three years later they had a change of heart, took a two-year option on the piece and paid Arlen and his co-authors, Nancy Brown (his wife) and Lloyd Thompson, one pound. There followed a Sunday night reading at the Empire Theatre, Sydney, with the cast of The Pajama Game, which included Toni Lamond, Bill Newman and Jill Perryman. The audience of 50 included Sydney’s main theatre critics.1

Nothing happened. The option lapsed and was not renewed, apparently because ‘The Firm’ thought the show too similar to My Fair Lady.2 To all intents and purposes the project was dead.

The idea for turning The Sentimental Bloke into a musical took root in 1950, when Arlen met novelist George Johnston (My Brother Jack), and they decided to work together on an adaptation of C.J. Dennis’s poems. After two years and one long synopsis, Johnston withdrew because of other commitments. Arlen and Brown, then living in Canberra, approached career diplomat and actor Lloyd Thompson, who was twenty years their junior, to see if he would be interested in working with them. He was.3

They agreed that Arlen would write the music, Brown and Thompson would work on the book, and all three would collaborate on the lyrics. As an idea for a musical, the property was sound: it had achieved previous success as a book (1915), two movies, one silent (1919) and one sound (1932)4, a radio serial (1938)5, a stage adaptation (1922) and a ballet (1952)6, which had been filmed by the ABC for TV.

Dennis’ verse narrative The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was first published in 1915. At the time, its set of colorful characters and colloquial language tapped into the larrikin streak of the Australian psyche. It was widely popular.

Bill (the Bloke), a larrikin Melbourne boxer, sees his ideal girl, Doreen, at the market and a friend arranges an introduction. A romance begins, but Bill’s jealousy of a more sophisticated rival, the ‘Stror ’at Coot’, throws a spanner in the works. Bill and Doreen make up, he meets her mother, and they get married. Bill’s Uncle Jim turns up with an offer they swap city life for one in the country, working his fruit farm. They accept, and later begin a family.7

Dennis got the idea for ‘The Bloke’ when he was staying on a farm near Melbourne. The owners had an attractive daughter, and the farm laborer they employed fell hopelessly in love with her. The parents didn’t take kindly to this, and squashed the romance. Heartbroken, the young man confided in Dennis. He said, ‘but don’t they understand, I love her.’ Dennis was so touched that he conceived the idea of ‘The Bloke’, whom he modeled on the boy. He set the action in Melbourne rather than the country, to enable him to broaden his scope of characters and situations.8   

In musicalising the property, Arlen purposely wrote the score in the musical style of 1913 when syncopation was beginning to be heard in popular music.9 The lyrics and book used material from Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick. The musical basically followed the story of Bill and Doreen’s courtship through to their marriage, with excursions to the theatre and the Melbourne Cup. Ginger Mick, Bill’s mate, still sold rabbits, and a lot of the action was set around the pickle factory where Doreen and Rose worked. Mr Smithers (the Stror ’at Coot) became the manager of the pickle factory.

Dennis’ original verse ‘A Spring Song’ was the inspiration for the song ‘Springtime Craze’, ‘The Intro’ provided ‘Intrajuiced’ and ‘I Dips Me Lid’, ‘Mar’ was the source for ‘Poor Dear Pa’, and ‘The Mooch Of Life’ became ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It’. The latter used many Dennis stanzas, including:

Life’s wot yer make it; an’ the bloke ’oo tries

To grab the shinin’ stars from out the skies

Goes crook on life, an’ calls the world a cheat,

An’ tramples on the daisies at ’is feet. 

The authors also used ‘The Play’, in which Bill interprets Romeo and Juliet in the argot of the street, in its entirety. It ultimately became the hit of the show. ‘I Dips Me Lid’ and ‘Intrajuiced’ captured the Bloke’s vernacular perfectly, ‘Piccalilli Lil’ and ‘Sunday Arvo’ were fun numbers for Rose and the company, and ‘My Sentimental Bloke’ was a sweet ballad for Doreen.

When the Arlens’ original pitch to J.C. Williamson’s met with indifference in 1954, they sold their piano to finance a trip to London to try and interest producers there. They pitched it to the George Black management, the Tom Arnold office, Jack Waller, Hugh Beaumont (Tennant’s) and Vida Hope. Beaumont thought it was gibberish, the Arnold management wanted to change the setting from Melbourne to London, and the Melbourne Cup to the Derby. Only Hope liked it. Arlen’s London publisher, Ascherberg’s, thought it was well-written but had no appeal for an English audience. Disillusioned, the Arlen’s returned to Australia.10

The Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s Hugh Hunt expressed interest in reading it, and having done so, declared the book ‘dreadful’. When J.C. Williamson’s option and professional showcase went nowhere, the Arlens began to despair. During this period, they wrote another show, The Girl from the Snowy, which the Canberra Repertory Society decided to mount in April 1960. The show was so successful that it broke house records. It inspired the Arlens to go it alone and mount a season of The Sentimental Bloke with the same company at the Albert Hall, Canberra, the following year.

With Arlen on piano and Brown playing Rose, the show came through with flying colors as the headline in the Canberra Times (8 March 1961) claimed: ‘Sentimental Bloke Captivates Audience.’ They called it ‘an outstandingly successful piece of sheer entertainment, quite brilliantly funny’, and said, ‘Albert Arlen’s music had the lift and the sentimental quality which unified the play’. They thought Bill [Edwin] Ride was perfect as The Bloke (Bill), and Douglas Skinner as Ginger Mick and Nancy Brown as Rose ‘shone with life.’ They liked the adaptation, and loved ‘The Play’.

With a glowing notice in the only paper in town, the production had no trouble in selling out its short season, which meant that when Sir Frank Tait and John McCallum came to the last performance, they had to sit on stand-by chairs.11 They were pleasantly surprised by what they saw, but were still cautious about picking up the rights. Again nothing happened—until, a few months later, the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, suddenly became available for a six-week window; the rest, they say, is history.

Like the Canberra Times, Tait and McCallum were so impressed with Ride as Bill that when it came time to cast the professional production, they imported him from Canberra. He took leave of absence from his Canberra post, which was Under Secretary to Burma. His father was Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University.12

Rosemary Butler was cast as Doreen, and Gloria Dawn, recently being brilliantly funny in Once Upon a Mattress, was Rose, with Frank Ward as Ginger Mick, her sidekick in the comedy stakes, along with Alton Harvey (Mr Smithers—The Stror ’at Coot), Robina Beard (Mabel), Judith Roberts (Gertie), Maggie Gray (Sal), Jean Battye (Ma) and Robert Levis (Uncle Percy). Veterans Letty Craydon and Lulla Fanning rounded out a top-flight cast. Harvey had always been Arlen’s choice for the Stror ’at Coot, after he saw him stop the show as Mr Applegate in Damn Yankees.13

William Rees was contracted to direct the show, but tragically went into a diabetes-induced coma the day before rehearsals were due to start, and died.14 John Young replaced him. Sets and costumes were designed by Cedric Flower (he had originally designed them in 1951 when the Arlens first started working on the project), Hal Gye’s original iconic illustration for the book was used on the program cover, and the dances were created by Betty Pounder. Arlen was musical director and again played piano in the pit. None of the score was altered between Canberra and Melbourne, but Dawn and Ward, using their vaudeville–variety experience, enhanced their comic roles to great effect.15

The press were unanimous in their praise: ‘For my money it’s a great big rosy double header hit’ (Melbourne Sun, 6 November 1961), ‘The Bloke’s alright—I dips me lid to those who have been associated in bringing to the stage this musical,’ (Weekly Times) ‘The Bloke is here to stay—Once again we salute The Bloke for its sheer irrepressible vitality,’ (The Age, 6 November 1961), ‘This Bloke is fair dinkum—As a piece made in Australia it is probably the best yet in its class (Listener In). Geoffrey Hutton in The Age also praised Brown and Thompson’s book, saying, ‘they ‘have treated Dennis with the respect due to a genuine piece of folk art.’ Of the actors, he said Edwin Ride was ‘poised and vocally rich,’ Frank Ward’s Ginger Mick was ‘sprightly and endearing,’ and Gloria Dawn’s Rose was ‘richly funny as we expected her to be.’

At the time of The Sentimental Bloke’s November opening at the Comedy Theatre, Brown was appearing as Widow Corney in Oliver! which was playing opposite at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Exhibition Street. In an unprecedented move, the J.C. Williamson management allowed her to skip the curtain calls of Oliver! so she could appear on stage as one of the authors of The Sentimental Bloke, when the first-night curtain fell.16 The show played five months in Melbourne, closing on 17 March 1962. During the season Patsy Hemingway replaced Rosemary Butler as Doreen.

The first stop on the tour was Adelaide, where the show opened at the Tivoli on 20 March 1962. The press was just as enthusiastic as in Melbourne, with The News headlining its review, ‘This Bloke Real Bonza Show,’ and The Advertiser, ‘The Bloke a Winner.’ The latter also said the show ‘has several numbers that could well set people doing what they have not done in a long while – whistling in the street and at work.’ They also claimed the top-acting honors went to Ward and Dawn: ‘They won the hearts of the audience and held the show together.’ Adelaide-born Rosemary Butler returned to play the role of Doreen in her hometown. The show played three weeks, closing on 14 April 1962.

Brisbane followed, with even more laudatory reviews. ‘Bloke—Fair Dinkum—Brisbane last night showed that the Sentimental Bloke is still their kind of cove,’ (Sunday Mail, 22 March 1962), ‘The Bloke is a beaut show—Enough to make any dinkum Australian burst with pride and laughter,’ (Brisbane Telegraph) and ‘I liked The Sentimental Bloke. I have seldom heard an audience receive a show with such affection,’ (Courier Mail). The production followed My Fair Lady into Her Majesty’s, where it opened on 21 April 1962. Dawn and Ward again stole the notices with the Sunday Mail claiming them ‘the show’s scene-stealers.’ Patsy Hemingway was back in the role of Doreen for the Brisbane season, which played a healthy eight weeks, closing on 16 June 1962.

The next stop was Sydney, which was always going to be a hard town to conquer. While The Sydney Morning Herald liked aspects of the production, décor and choreography, they carped that Arlen’s tunes were ‘bland rather than striking, stale at their worst, reminiscently nostalgic at their best.’ Ride, they said, had ‘mechanical elements in his acting,’ Ward sounded more English than Australian, Patsy Hemingway’s soprano had an ‘unsympathetic glare,’ and Harvey’s Stror ’at Coot was ‘so fantasticated as to strain the conventions of the piece.’ They reserved their unqualified approval for Dawn who they said ‘more than any other performer keeps the evening aglow. It is true that her acting sometimes moves too far in the direction of vaudeville or variety, but there is such an audible leer in everything she says and so much dying-duck-in-a-thunderstorm humour in what she does, that her performance is hugely enjoyable.’ The show opened at the Theatre Royal on 20 June 1962, and closed four months later, on 10 October.

After Sydney the show started its New Zealand tour. The first Australian musical to play New Zealand, it opened in Auckland on 3 November 1962 and played for 20 performances before closing on 20 November 1962. The New Zealand Herald called it ‘A Sure Winner… refreshingly different, fast moving and often riotously funny.’ Ride was said to have a ‘charm of manner and a humanity that makes Dennis’s larrikin a very likeable “bloke”,’ Hemingway was called an ‘engaging young actress,’ Ward ‘almost steals the show,’ and Shirley Broadway (who had replaced Gloria Dawn as Rose), ‘shared the comedy honors.’ Musical accompaniment was restricted to piano, played by Arlen, and percussion. 

The production then went down the country, playing the major cities and provincial towns. According to Carole Walker (On Stage, Summer 2007), the show was not a success in New Zealand. Williamson’s blamed it on a scandal that erupted when it was discovered the two leads, Ride and Hemingway, were having an affair. (Ride was married with a wife in Canberra). The newspapers got hold of the story and it followed the show wherever it went. Although the management blamed the scandal for the loss, Walker believed it was more due to the New Zealanders’ antipathy to anything Australian.17

Two years later, the Arts Council of Australia and J.C. Williamson’s combined to present a hugely successful bus-and-truck tour of New South Wales and Queensland, playing 49 regional towns. Heading the cast was Alton Harvey as Bill, Colleen Coventry as Doreen, Leonard Lee as Ginger Mick, Lisa Thompson as Rose and Noel Mitchell as the Stror ’at Coot. The Pickle Factory Girls included Carole Walker (Mabel), Cheryl Morgan (Gertie) and Barbara Callick (Sal); the Pickle Factory Men, Tony Bonner and Paul Maloney, doubled as stage manager and assistant stage manager. Choreography was by Barry Collins (Charlie Skewes), based on Betty Pounder’s original, and Kath McGrath was musical director and pianist.

The one-night stand tour opened at Island Bend, Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains, in April 1964, and then continued to Bega and Nowra. Other NSW dates included Griffith, Parkes, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Glen Innes, Armidale, Grafton, Lismore, Newcastle, Kempsey, Goulburn, Mudgee, Moree, Orange, Bathurst, Warren, Maitland, Stanthorpe, Coonabarabran, Wellington and Nyngan.  

The Queensland dates were Toowoomba, Charleville, Gympie, Gladstone, Nambour, Barcaldine, Kingaroy, Warwick, Pittsworth, Mitchell, Tambo, Blackhall, Longreach, Charters Towers, Claremont, Emerald, Proserpine, Townsville, Rockhampton, Maryborough, Mackay, Bundaberg, Scarborough and Roma, where it played two nights.18

Alton Harvey remembers the date in Mitchell, in South Western Queensland. After the performance cakes and sandwiches were always provided by the Arts Council ladies, and during the supper one lady approached him and said, ‘Oh, we did enjoy the show so much; if it was on tomorrow night we’d see it again.’ Harvey asked her if she had come far. She replied, ‘No, only 180 miles – we didn’t mind that, but the gates are a bit of a problem.’19

In 1976 the ABC produced a TV version of the musical. It featured Graeme Blundell (Bill), Geraldine Turner (Doreen), Ginger Mick (Jimmy Hannan), Nancye Hayes (Rose) and Jon Finlayson (Stror ’at Coot). Michael Shrimpton was producer, with Alan Burke directing and writing the teleplay. Musical director was Brian May fronting the ABC Melbourne Show Band, and choreography was by Joe Latona with the Joe Latona Dancers. To bring the show down to 90 minutes, Burke eliminated the excursion to the theatre and the Melbourne Cup sequence. It was recorded on 12 December 1975, but not telecast until 17 July 1976. Critical reaction was mixed, but film historian Eric Reade, writing in History and Heartburn, called it ‘superb’. He thought Blundell ‘turned in a mighty performance,’ Hannan was a ‘pleasant surprise,’ and overall it was ‘good entertainment.’20

Graeme Blundell later wrote his own version of the Dennis original, with music by George Dreyfus. The Melbourne Theatre Company production premiered at the Arts Centre Playhouse on 12 December 1985, but even though it managed to secure productions in Darwin (1987) and Brisbane (1988), the Arlen, Brown, Thompson version is still the preferred musical adaptation.  

The next major event in the show’s history was John Lanchbery’s arrangement of Arlen’s score into a ballet for the Australian Ballet. Premiering on 5 May 1985 in the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Robert Ray’s choreographic adaptation of the musical play, with design by Kenneth Rowell, was praised by some and dismissed by others. The approvals were: ‘The Bloke is a must for everyone, ballet fans or not,’ (Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1985), ‘Robert Ray’s choreography to Albert Arlen’s music has crowd-pleasing charm,’ (Sunday Telegraph, 12 May 1985), ‘Cries of delight from the besequinned first-night audience,’ (Daily Mirror, 14 May 1985); but there was a very big thumbs down from Jill Sykes in The Sydney Morning Herald (11 May 1985), who called it ‘forgettable,’ and ‘a mindless interruption of banality or frivolity, according to your taste.’ Nevertheless, the Australian Ballet took the piece to Russia on their 1988 tour where it played the Kirov Theatre (now the Maryinsky Theatre), Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Moscow and Odessa. It had a later Australian revival in 1995.   

Following the initial production, the show became a staple on the amateur circuit, and has been produced consistently to this day. It was chosen to open the Parramatta Bicentennial Cultural Centre, in a joint production with Q Theatre, on 12 March 1988. Grant Dodwell was Bill, and June Bronhill, in one of her last musical theatre appearances, played Ma.

An original cast recording was made of the show at one of the last performances of the Melbourne season, when Patsy Hemingway was playing Doreen. It was recorded with two microphones in the pit of the Comedy Theatre, and released on the Talent City label (TC003), and later reissued by the World Record Club (WRC 5/4371). It contained an Overture and ‘Springtime Morning’ Ballet, ‘Rabbit-Oh’, ‘Piccalilli Lil,’ ‘Springtime Craze,’ ‘Intrajuiced,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid,’ ‘Sunday Arvo,’ ‘I’m A Cove With Wimmin,’ ‘My Sentimental Bloke,’ ‘For Me Sheila And Me,’ ‘Little Birds In Their Nest,’ ‘Workin’ For The Boss,’ ‘Cup Day In Melbourne,’ ‘I’ve Backed The Winner Of The Cup,’ ‘’Er Poor Dear Pa,’ ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ and ‘Happy Is The Bride.’ Talent City also released Edwin Ride’s ‘The Play’ (Romeo and Juliet), on an EP (TV021).21

In 1967 the ABC recorded a studio cast album of the score (not released until June 1968) with Jill Perryman (Rose), Neil Williams (Bill), Jimmy Hannan (Ginger Mick), Janet Crawford (Doreen) and Bobby Bright (Stror ’at Coot), with the Augmented ABC Melbourne Dance Band and Chorus conducted by Frank Thorne. It is not as complete as the original cast LP, dropping ‘Workin’ For The Boss,’ ‘Cup Day In Melbourne’ and ‘Happy Is The Bride’.22

The ballet version of the score was recorded and released on ABC 456 684-2 in 1998. The ABC also recorded a selection of songs from the score with Brian May and the ABC Melbourne Show Band and Chorus on their Australian Musicals Now LP (RCA CAMS-173 (1971). The arrangement was by Ivan Hutchinson who also conducted the orchestra on that track. The selection included ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid’ and ‘My Sentimental Bloke’. Two songs were featured in the ABC TV program Once in a Blue Moon – A Celebration of Australian Musicals, and were released on CD (ABC 5223902/1994). Robyn Archer sang ‘Sunday Arvo’ and Michael Cormack performed ‘I Dips Me Lid’. David Campbell also included ‘I Dips Me Lid’ in an Australian Musical Medley on his album Yesterday and Now (Philips 532714-2/1996).

In 1961 Chappell & Co. published two single music sheets, ‘My Sentimental Bloke’ and ‘I Dips Me Lid’ plus a Piano Selection (with lyrics), which included ‘I’m A Cove With Wimmin,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid,’ ‘Sunday Arvo,’ ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ ‘The Winner Of The Cup,’ ‘Rabbit-Oh,’ ‘My Sentimental Bloke.’ The playscript was published by Angus & Robertson in 1977, co-funded by the authors.23

The J.C. Williamson contract called for the authors to receive 7% of the gross box office receipts. In the first thirteen months the royalties amounted to over £1 million ($2 million).24


To be continued



1. NSW/Qld Tour programme, p.3

2. Companion to Theatre in Australia, p.519

3. A Magic Life

4. Australian Film 1900–1977, pp.119–208

5. The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, p.222

6. Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, p.76

7. Selected Verse of C.J. DennisSongs of a Sentimental Bloke, pp.9–39

8. Author’s interview with Alton Harvey

9. A Magic Life

10. Ibid

11. NLA News Nov 2004, p.19

12. Alton Harvey, ibid

13. Ibid

14. Ibid

15. Carole Walker Remembers The Bloke, On Stage, Summer 2007

16. Alton Harvey, ibid

17. Carole Walker, ibid

18. Alton Harvey, ibid

19. Ibid

20. History and Heartburn, p.279

21. Australian Performers, Australian Performances, The Sentimental Bloke entry

22. Ibid

23. Arlen Papers, NLA

24. A Magic Life



Nancy Brown, A Magic Life—The Black Sheep of the Brown Family, Pix Stories Unlimited, 2001

C.J. Dennis, Selected Verse of C.J. Dennis, Angus & Robertson, 1950

Richard Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, NFSA/Melbourne University Press, 1994

Phillip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency, 1995

Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981

Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987

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

Eric Reade, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979

Kenneth R. Snell, Australian Popular Music, Quick Trick Press, 1991

John Thomson, National Library of Australia News, November 2004

Frank Van Straten, Tivoli, Lothian, 2003

Barry Watts, The World of the Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robertson, 1976

John Whiteoak & Aline Scott-Maxwell, Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Currency, 2003


Adelaide Advertiser, Adelaide News, The Age (Melbourne), The Brisbane Sunday Mail, Canberra Times, Courier Mail (Brisbane), Everybody’s (Sydney), Listener In, New Zealand Herald, On Stage, The Stage (London), The Sun (Sydney), Sydney Morning Herald, The Times (London), Weekly Times, Theatre Programs, Sheet Music, Recordings

PETER PINNE concludes his look at the life and career of Australia-born, UK-based revue composer Charles Zwar.

07122020074820 0001 Page 2Zwar’s first credit for the fifties was for the company of four productions, The Lyric Revue, which opened a pre-London tour at Cardiff, Wales, 23 April 1951 (24p), then moved to the Lyric Hammersmith (134p), 24 May 1951, before transferring to the Globe Theatre, London on 26 September 1951 (317p). The cast included Dora Bryan, Ian Carmichael, Joan Heal, Graham Payne, George Benson, Roberta Huby, Jeremy Hawk and Myles Eason amongst others. Direction and choreography was by William Chappell, design by Louden Sainthill, and musical direction by Norman Hackforth. Music was by Graham Payne, Noel Coward, Richard Addinsall, Donald Swann and Zwar, whilst lyrics and sketches were by Gerald Bryant, Arthur MacRae, and Paul Dehn. There were skits on Sunset Boulevard; Peter Pan as Tennessee Williams might rewrite it; Cinderella revised by Freud; and Nancy Mitford on ‘Lady Robinson of Cruise’. Coward’s contribution was ‘Don’t Make Fun of the Fair’ which poked fun at the ‘joys’ of the Festival of Britain. Zwar and Bryant’s ‘Bar Aux Folies-Bergere’, about a pretty barmaid at the Folies Bergere was called ‘charming’ by the Times, whilst Theatre World gushed, ‘Topical comment, wittily concise … It has ideas, punch and personality.’

The Lyric Revue closed on 28 June 1952, and a second edition opened two days later at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, and transferred to the Globe on 10 July, 1952 under the title of The Globe Revue with mostly the same cast and Chappell and Hackforth still doing director, dance and musical direction duty. Zwar’s content remained the same. Sketches included; a satire on modern production styles with a staging of Madam Butterfly in ‘Modern Trends’, a bowler-hatted Carmichael miming undressing on a beach under a raincoat in a sketch called ‘Bank Holiday’, whilst Coward’s contribution this time was ‘Bad Times are Just Around the Corner’, delivered manically by Bryan, Payn, Heal and Carmichael as Morris dancers. The Times thought the best of Dehn’s lyrics ‘presents a cabaret girl seated on a piano. Figuratively as well as literally she can get round and out and in, but she cannot “Get Off”.’ They also liked Bryan and called her ‘an admirable little comedienne whose versatility gradually establishes her for the leading place in the revue’.


 Laurier Lister’s Penny Plain (443p) was basically a successor to his earlier 1947 Tuppence Coloured with the same principal cast: Joyce Grenfell, Elisabeth Welch and Max Adrian. It opened at St Martin’s Theatre, 28 June 1951 and played a year closing on 19 July 1952. Zwar had one item in the show, ‘Good Day For Godiva’, which had a lyric by Michael Flanders, and was sung by Welch. Other sketches included Grenfell and Julian Orchard suggesting that Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ may have had good reason to be wary when invited to come into the garden, and Adrian scored as a very sick actor who would rather die onstage than allow his understudy to go on. Flanders and Swann’s ‘Surly Girls’ had the men in drag in a send-up of Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s. The Times called it, ‘no more than a mildly amusing entertainment’, whilst Theatre World went with ‘although topicality abounds and there is much that scintillates, on the whole a slight disappointment’. Produced by Dare Clingberg, John K. Gibson and Prometheus Productions, direction was by Lister, dances by Bert Stimmel, and musical direction by John Pritchett. The cast also included Desmond Walter-Ellis, Rose Hill, Moyra Fraser, Jimmy Thompson and June Whitfield.

In 1951 Alan Melville had deserted revue and worked with Ivor Novello writing his last musical, the Cicely Courtneidge vehicle, Gay’s the Word. The following year he joined forces with Zwar to create the musical Bet Your Life (362p). Kenneth Leslie-Smith, who had credits for BBC radio musicals, one of which (Sweet Yesterday) ended up playing the West End in 1945, was co-composer of the score. It was written for comic Arthur Askey who played a jockey who whispers the names of girls in his sleep on his wedding night. His bride thinks he’s cheating on her until it is revealed they are the names of the winning horses at the next day’s meeting. The plot bore similarities to George Abbott and John Cecil Holme 1936 comedy Three Men on a Horse, itself musicalised in Eddie Cantor’s 1941 Banjo Eyes, and later by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1961’s Let It Ride. Apart from Askey the show also starred Julie Wilson, fresh from her stint of playing Bianca in London’s Kiss Me Kate as the wife, and Sally Ann Howes as a racing journalist, Brian Reece, Tom Gill and Noele Gordon. The Jack Hylton production opened at the New Theatre, Oxford, 4 December 1951, where it played two weeks before an eight-week Christmas season at the Manchester Opera House. It arrived at London’s Hippodrome 18 February 1952, with direction by Richard Bird, staging by Alex Shanks, dances by George Carden, musical direction by Bretton Byrd and costumes by the impressively chic trio of Erté, Clere and Pierre Balmain. Zwar and Leslie-Smith provided a lively score, but Melville’s book was criticized as not being witty enough. Still, it had a healthy life. ‘Miss Wilson is her most colourful self, particularly in her big number “I Want a Great Big Hunk of Male” [Zwar]’ (Theatre World). Wilson stayed with the show for four months and then was replaced by Noelle Gordon, at which point the running-time was cut-down to two-hours and it played twice nightly closing 25 October 1952. It had the longest run of any Zwar musical.

Laurier Lister’s Airs on a Shoestring (772p) was a successor to Penny Plain produced and directed by Lister, with musical numbers staged by Alfred Rodrigues, and musical direction by John Pritchett. It re-opened the Royal Court Theatre as a public theatre. The theatre had closed due to bomb damage during the war, and had reopened as a ‘club’ theatre in 1952. It closed early in 1953 for renovation to bring it up to London County Council code. Max Adrian headed the cast with Moyra Fraser, Betty Marsden, Denis Quilley, Peter Reeves, Sally Rogers, Bernard Hunter and Charles Warren. Zwar wrote one number with Michael Flanders, ‘Sweet Memories’ performed by Adrian. Some items were repeated from Penny Plain but overall the material was new; ‘Guide To Britten’ (Flanders/Swann) performed by the five men, took a satirical swipe at Benjamin Britten; Adrian was a class-conscious fly feeding joyously on fresh salmon on a fishmongers slab (‘Fly Customers’ Richard Waring); and Marsden performed a monologue by Joyce Grenfell about a secretary in love with her unpleasant boss (‘Sir Edgar’). New sketches were added during the course of its lengthy run. After it closed in March 1955 it went on a provincial tour.

Zwar was back in the pit playing one of two pianos (the other ivory tickler was Arnold Mayne) and writing two items with lyricist Paul Dehn, ‘Tailor Made’, and ‘Riviera, Goodbye’. The show was H.M. Tennent’s At the Lyric which played a pre-London engagement at the Cambridge Arts Theatre 7-12 December 1953, before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith, 23 December 1953 where it ran for 170p. The cast, which was headed by Hermione Baddeley and Dora Bryan, also included Eric Berry, Ian Carmichael, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Eaton and Myles Eason amongst others. It was written by Alan Melville with additional lyrics by Dehn and Michael Flanders, music by Kenneth Leslie-Smith, and direction by William Chappell. The Times said ‘it is a bright and boisterous show’, and thought Baddeley ‘had become almost the broadest of our revue comediennes’. They thought her ‘droll’ as a suburban housewife glued to the television though the sink is full of dishes and a tapioca pudding is burning in the oven. They also liked her as a bejeweled canasta player in a private hotel in Torquay, and as a cabaret star at the Casino de Paris. This was the revue that Bryan introduced her classic ‘Miss Manderson’(Melville) in which she was a psychotic patient confiding to her psychiatrist she has spent her life pushing her nearest and dearest over cliffs and is no sooner told by the doctor that she has dreamed these incidents that she pushes him through the window. The Times called her ‘admirably quiet and alarming’.

At The Lyric transferred to the St Martin’s Theatre 20 May 1954, with a new title, Going to Town (36p) The cast, content and writers basically remained the same, except that Vivienne Martin and John Walters joined the performers and some new material was added. ‘Trouble in the Far East’ (Melville/Leslie-Smith) lampooned The King and I and Teahouse of the August Moon with Eric Berry scoring laughs as Herbert Lom, whilst Baddeley and Bryan burlesqued a third-rate music-hall turn. Zwar added two new items to the running order, ‘Body Beautiful’ and ‘Deadline’. When the show closed on 17 July 1954 it went out on a short regional tour.  

From Here and There (77p) was billed as an ‘Anglo-American’ revue and opened at the Royal Court Theatre, 29 June 1955. Themed around six prosperous American tourists in London and six not-so prosperous English tourists in New York, is was conceived and directed by Laurier Lister. Delores Claman was credited with music, lyrics and sketches were by Jack Gray and Jerry de Bono, décor by Stanley Moore, choreography by John Heawood, and musical direction by Zwar who alternated with Geoffrey Wright playing one of two pianos in the pit. Stanley Barrett was on the other. Betty Marsden and June Whitfield headed a cast that included Charlotte Mitchell, April Olrich, Michael Mason, Peter Mander, Dennis Betis and Peter Tuddenham, with guest American performers: Richard Tone, Myra De Groot, James MacColl and Ellen Martin. Two of the Americans had good Off-Broadway revue credits, Tone for two early Jerry Herman revues Parade and I Feel Wonderful, and English-born De Groot for Upstairs at the Downstairs. The Times carped that the material was mostly ‘commonplace’ and ‘sadly lacks a centre’. Zwar contributed six numbers to the show, amongst them ‘Liberty Belles’ (Zwar/Johnny Wilson) which found Marsden and Whitfield as two Wren officers with boys in every port. Marsden, dressed in a sarong and playing a ukulele, also scored in ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Marsden appears as a clever comedienne when she is stranded on an island during nuclear weapon tests’ (Times). Tone and Whitfield were also noticed in ‘The Dancing Lesson’ (Zwar/Charlotte Mitchell). On 25 July Max Adrian replaced MacColl who had returned to America and played out the rest of the short run which ended 27 August 1955.

In 1959 Zwar turned to musical comedy again when he and Alan Melville adapted the lightweight period Scottish comedy Marigold into a musical. The original play by Allen Harker and F.J. Prior had been very successful in the West End during the late twenties running for three years from 1927 until 1929 at the Kingsway Theatre. Set in Peebles, Scotland in the 1840s, Marigold, the ward of Miss Pringle, finds true love in the arms of the handsome young Officer Archie Forsyth, but not before she turns down the hand of her betrothed, the dull turnip farmer James Payton, spends a forbidden day in Edinburgh, and accepts a dowry from her ‘real’ mother, French actress, Madame Marly. Seventeen-year-old Sally Smith was cast in the title role, with Sophie Stewart, who had played the ingénue in the original play, as Miss Pringle, William Dickie as the turnip farmer, and Jeremy Brett as the Officer. Jean Kent played Marigold’s mother Madame Marly. It was the first time Zwar and Kent’s paths had crossed since she debuted in the movie Hullo Fame. Stewart had also starred in a 1938 film version of the play. The Stage said ‘Mr Zwar’s music is fancy but soon forgotten’ whilst Plays and Players thought ‘Zwar’s music never quite reaches a peak but is pleasantly hummable and now and then (“Always Ask Your Heart” and “Princes Street”) hits the button.’ It was a gentle and charming piece, but in an era which had just seen the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and kitchen-sink musicals like, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Expresso Bongo, and The Crooked Mile, a light-romantic score in the Bless the Bride vein was not what audiences were looking for. Marigold played seasons in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, before opening at the Savoy Theatre, London 27 May 1959. It stayed at the Savoy for seven weeks before being evicted, but producer Stephen Mitchell found a new home for it at the Saville where it played another three weeks for a total run of 77p.

The failure of Marigold was a sobering experience for Zwar who immediately hot-footed it back to revue. Working with Alan Melville he wrote three numbers for And Another Thing … which opened at the Fortune Theatre, 6 October 1960 (244p). Produced by Anna Deere Wiman and Charles Ross, the show was written by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge, with an additional items credit going to Lionel Bart, Barry Cryer, Robert Tanich, Christopher Dandy, and Melville and Zwar. Ross was the director, with Lionel Blair and Bob Stevenson handled choreography, whilst the twin pianos were in the hands of Ted Dicks and Charles Mallett. According to the critics, And Another Thing … was an inferior successor to Look Who’s Here! by Dicks and Ross. Bernard Cribbins and Anna Quayle headed the cast who also included Joyce and Lionel Blair, Donald Hewlett, Dennis Wood, and Anton Rodgers. The Times said ‘this is a traditional British revue, in the time-honoured manner, on the time honoured themes.’ Subject satirized included, drama critics, West End productions, Soho strip clubs, TV dance contests and Lolita. Zwar’s contributions were ‘Prayer’ performed by Cribbins, ‘Bleep’ by Wood and Rodgers, and ‘Princess and the Pea’ with Quayle. Cribbins was forced to play the early performances from a wheelchair due to a foot injury.

Zwar next contributed two songs ‘Sir Brewster’ (Zwar) and ‘The Connoisseur’ (Zwar-Dehn) to the H.M. Tennent Ltd., revue On the Avenue (14p), which opened at the Globe Theatre, 21 June 1961. Despite a starry pedigree the revue was withdrawn after a week and a half. Joan Heal, Beryl Reid and George Rose had above the title billing in the show directed by William Chappell, with décor and costumes by Peter Rice and a six-piece orchestra under the direction of Burt Rhodes. The cast also included: Marion Grimaldi, Melody O’Brien, Joanna Rigby, Michael Cole and Paula Edwards amongst others. The Times headlined their review ‘Topical but gentle wit’, whilst the Stage went for the jugular, ‘It is so dated you have the impression of seeing a revival of a show of fifteen or twenty years ago … All the girls and boys are going to be so witty, so bright and so devastating. They are not. They could not be, with such stale, puny material.’ But there were some bright spots according to the Times, ‘She [Reid] is at her wildest as a Spanish servant who despises her bourgeois employer’s lack of noble ancestry and throws an important dinner party into utter confusion’ (‘The Spanish Maid’ Dehn), whilst they said Heal ‘has several good songs and sketches to which she brings her special brand of Cockney humour.’

A month before On the Avenue opened Beyond the Fringe had swept through the West End like wildfire and revue was to never be the same again. A late-night Edinburgh Festival revue written by four recent university graduates, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, with its cutting-edge satire made shows like On the Avenue and their ilk look decidedly old-fashioned and passé. Eschewing sets, costumes, a chorus and musical numbers it changed the face of intimate revue. Its success led to the launch of the satirical magazine Private Eye (still being published to this day) and to weekly television satire with That Was the Week That Was with David Frost and Millicent Martin. At over 2200 performances it became the longest running revue in West End history.

But the old-guard did not go down without a fight. When Linnit and Dunfee’s All Square (92p) opened almost two years after Beyond the Fringe at the Vaudeville Theatre, 25 April 1963, it was back to the traditional form of revue, written by Alan Melville, with music by Zwar, design by Berkeley Sutcliffe, dances by George Carden, and direction by Charles Hickman. Charles Mallet and Harry Norman were on the twin pianos. Beryl Reid and Naunton Wayne headed the cast who also featured Nicky Henson, Anna Dawson, Robin Palmer and Joyce Blair. Despite a Daily Mirror rave, ‘had the audience laughing loud, long, almost non-stop’, and Harold Hobson (Christian Science Monitor) calling it an ‘excellent revue’, a number of the critics found the show desperately old-fashioned. Zwar and Melville wrote twelve numbers for it. Subjects skewered included: That Was the Week That Was, Rudolf Nureyev and his dash for asylum, a lady who found her lost love on This is Your Life, trade unions, debutants and erotic works of art. One sketch was based on plans to create a piazza in Piccadilly, predicting a London peopled with Italians and gondolas on the Thames.

Later in the year Zwar and Melville contributed material to Six of One (304p), billed as a revue musical in two-acts loosely based on the career (so far) of Dora Bryan. Devised by Frances Essex, it was directed by William Chappell, choreographed by Irving Davies, with Frank Horrox as musical director. The cast also included, Richard Wattis, Dennis Lotis, Amanda Barrie, John Hewer, Sheila O’Neill, David Toguri and others. The concept had Bryan appearing in mini-versions of a pantomime, a concert party, a revue, a musical comedy, a TV comedy and variety. The reviews were glowing: ‘It’s wonderful’ said Punch, ‘Immensely enjoyable’ chimed the Sunday Times, whilst the Times claimed it is, ‘cast in a rigidly artificial “showbiz” pattern, but taken sketch by sketch it brilliantly belies its intentions.’ Zwar and Melvile’s contribution was ‘Cosette’ or ‘Gentlemen Prefer Redheads’, a mock-Romberg musical-comedy with Bryan playing Cosette the Queen of Monmartre dressed in a red wig. The sketch had four musical numbers; ‘St Cyr’, ‘Mademoiselle Cosette’, ‘Not a Cloud in the Sky’, and ‘Cherish Your First Affair’.

In 1968 Zwar wrote the last of his four musicals, The Station Master’s Daughter, book and lyrics by Frank Harvey which played a four-week season out-of-town at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Gilford, 11 April 1968. It was a topical story about a stationmaster and his fight to keep his station open, despite a plan by the Transport Minister to close it down. Rose Hill played the Transport Minister, with Sally Smith, who had been Marigold in Zwar’s previous London musical, as the stationmaster’s daughter.

After the inauguration of the Phillip Street Revue in 1953, Australia continually plundered West End revues for material to bolster their programs. Many Zwar and Melville pieces were recycled in, Metropolitan Merry-Go-Round, Around the Loop and Out On a Limb. Is Australia Really Necessary? starred Miriam Karlin and revisited ‘Vienna Lingers On’ from Sweeter and Lower which was retitled ‘Old Vienna’ and sung by Darlene Johnson and Donald McDonald. Likewise Melbourne’s Union Repertory Theatre Company (forerunner of Melbourne Theatre Company) featured Zwar material in Tram Stop, Brisbane saw it in Let’s Go, Roll Yer Socks Up, and Look No Eyebrows, Adelaide in Festival Faces, whilst Perth aired it in Airs and Graces, and At Your Convenience.

Hermione Gingold was granted permission from Parliament in 1950 (as was the process at the time), to travel to the United States. She specifically wanted to start her career in America in a revue which she did in It’s About Time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1951. It incorporated some of her London material. John Murray Anderson saw her in the revue and offered her a part in his next Broadway revue Almanac (229p). Directed by Cyril Ritchard, with choreography by Donald Sadler, and musical direction by Buster Davis, it opened at the Imperial Theatre, New York, 10 December 1953. Gingold was top starred alongside Billy De Wolfe, and the cast also included Harry Belafonte, Orson Bean, Polly Bergen, Alice Pearce and Carlton Carpenter. Material was by newcomers Richard Adler and Jerry Ross with Jean Kerr as one of the scriptwriters, but Gingold found room for Zwar and Melville’s ‘Which Witch?’ She received the Donaldson Award for the best musical comedy debut.

Sticks and Stones opened at the John Drew Theatre, East Hampton, Long Island, 30 June 1956. It starred Gingold as well as Marti Stevens, Keir Dullea, Jack Fletcher and Louise Hoff amongst others. Gingold again recycled ‘Which Witch?’ and gave ‘Cello Solo’ (Zwar/Leslie Julian Jones) (in this instance just called ‘The Cello’), another outing. Zwar working with Myles Rudge on lyrics wrote a bizarre piece for Gingold called ‘Robert the Robot’, about a woman who falls in love with a robot.

From A to Z (21p) opened at the Plymouth Theatre (now Gerald Schonfeld Theatre), New York, 20 April 1960 after an out-of-town tryout at the Shubert Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, 26 March 1960. Directed by Christopher Hewett, it starred Hermione Gingold, Stuart Damon, Virginia Vestoff, Elliot Reed, Bob Dishy and others. Many writers contributed to the revue including Jerry Herman, Fred Ebb, Mary Rodgers, Jay Thompson, Herbert Farjeon and Woody Allen, with Zwar and Melville’s ‘What’s Next’ recycled from Sweetest and Lowest to close the show. It was Herman, Ebb and Allen’s Broadway debuts. A 22-year-old Jonathon Tunick was co-orchestrator. Billboard claimed, ‘Gingold displayed much keen sense of comedy, but one bright artist cannot make the production.’

Although intimate revue had passed its use-by-date in the late sixties, the West End occasional found time to revisit the genre over the next few decades. Deja Revue, had a pre-London tryout at the Rex Theatre, Wilmslow, Cheshire, where it opened 9 December 1974 (6p). Devised by Olav Wyper and Alan Melville, directed by Victor Spinetti, it starred Sheila Hancock, George Cole, Anna Dawson and others. It transferred to the New London Theatre, London on 30 December 1974, and used a selection of items from revues of the 1930s to the 1960s. Four Zwar and Melville pieces were recycled including, ‘Restoration Piece’. Hancock was praised as being ‘brilliantly funny’, whilst the Stage said ‘Most of the items have lasted well; all were worth reviving.’

On the fiftieth anniversary of The Gate Revues Diana Morgan and Geoffrey Wright devised a compilation of material from the famous shows that virtually started the intimate revue genre, and cobbled it together as Meet Me at the Gate (40p). It opened at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, 8 January 1985, with direction by Neil Lawford, choreography by Gillian Gregory, and musical direction by Courtney Kenny. Cast included Lynda Bellingham, Diana Martin, Robert Glenister, Graham Hoadly, Gaynor Sinclair and Billy Milton. The Times said ‘they are versatile performers exuberantly rehoning the edge on the material … a night to meet for unashamed nostalgia.’ Zwar and Oxford St John’s ‘Salome Wouldn’t Dance’ was one of the hits of the evening.

An earlier compilation of The Gate Revue material was called Swing Back the Gate and opened 21 May 1952 at the Irving Theatre, a small theatre near Leicester Square that was an Art Gallery by day and a theatre by night. It featured Michael Anthony who was an original member of the series, plus Maria Charles, Alec Grahame and Denis Martin, with different guest performances by original cast members each week. The opening week guest was Walter Crisham.

Zwar’s final credit was for Royal Shakespeare Company’s, The Shakespeare Revue which opened at the The Pit, Barbican Theatre, London, (4p) before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre, 13 November 1995 (112p). Devised, directed and starring Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee, with Janie Dee, Susie Blake and Martin O’Connor, it was a compilation of new and old songs and sketches with a Shakespeare connection. Zwar and Melville’s contribution was ‘Which Witch?’ sung by Blake.

Unfortunately Zwar did not live long enough to see his most-admired revue number amusing a new audience fifty-four years after it was written, having died aged 78 of emphysema at his home in Oxford 2 December 1989. Zwar met his second wife Diana Plunkett (1918-1992), a theatrical technician and manager at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, when he was musical director of Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer. They were married in 1955 and their union produced a daughter, Mary-Jane.

Through the sixties Zwar regularly contributed to television (mostly with Alan Melville), A-Z, Before the Fringe, Melvillainy, Merely Melville, and That Was the Week That Was. In 1964 Zwar wrote the song, ‘It Went Straight to Her Head’ for Repertory Revue, which played the Playhouse, Salisbury, 4-15 February 1964. It was performed by Melville and June Watson. The same year Zwar scored the documentary film Eight Hundred Mile Voyage.

Zwar’s name is indelibly linked to intimate revue. In his obituary in the Times they said ‘for thirty years he was one of the leading figures of the West End’s heyday of revue.’ His biography reads like a Who’s Who of West End revue royalty. During the height of the genres success it produced some of the most biting and satirical humor of the times—short sharp songs and sketches which lampooned the establishment, sacred cows, and theatrical activities. Zwar was not only a contributor but one of its masters.


‘Bet Your Life’ (Chappell & Co)

‘I Want a Great Big Hunk of Male,’ ‘(I Love) Being in Love’, ‘Piano Selection’

‘Marigold’ (Chappell & Co)

‘Always Ask Your Heart’, ‘Love Can’t Be Learned’, ‘Princes Street’, ‘Wonderful View’, ‘Piano Selection’

Sweetest and Lowest (Samuel French)

‘What Next?’, ‘Amo Amas’, ‘Swing Bridge’, ‘Self Portrait’, ‘Film Foursome’, ‘Days of Dalys’, ‘Why Does a Cow Go Moo?’

A La Carte (Samuel French)

‘Dawn in Covent Garden’, ‘Ladies in Waiting’, ‘Self Analysis’, ‘Restoration Piece’, ‘Pale Hands I Hate’, ‘Wherefore Art thou Romany’, ‘And the Buffs’, ‘Lament’, ‘Old Girls’, ‘Romanos’

One, Two, Three (Samuel French)

‘The Orator’ (published under the title of ‘Mixed Foursome’)

Six of One (Chappell & Co)

‘Not a Cloud in the Sky’


Blue Mountain Melody

  • ‘Blue Mountain Melody’ / (B) ‘I Can See a Picture’—John Warren (Vocal) with Jim Davidson & his Orchestra (Regal Zonophone RZ: G-22179 78rpm 11/9/1934)

Bet Your Life

‘I Want a Great Big Hunk of Male’—Julie Wilson (Vocal) (Columbia DX 1825 78rpm 1952)

‘What Care I?’—Sally Ann Howes / ‘(I Love) Being in Love’—Brian Reece (Columbia DB 3048 78rpm 1952)

Bet Your Life Orchestral Selection George Melanchrino Orchestra (HMV C4170 12” 78rpm 1952)

Marigold—Original London Cast (HMV CLP1275/Reissue Must Close Saturday Records MCSR 3042 CD)

‘Marigold Piano Selection’ William Raynor (Piano) on the album I Wanted to See the World—Songs and Music from 1950’s British Musicals (Must Close Saturday Records MCSR 3005 CD)

John Murray Anderson’s Almanac—and other Broadway and London revues sung by Hermoine Gingold and Cyril Ritchard (DRG 19009) (1999)

Some of Zwar’s revue material can be found on the following:

Melvillainy—Alan Melville (Decca LK4394/reissue Must Close Saturday Records MCSR 3042 CD)

La Gingold—Hermoine Gingold (Dolphin 7)

The Shakespeare Revue (TER CDTEM2 1237 1995)

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)


Gerald Boardman & Richard Norton, American Musical Theatre: a chronicle, Oxford

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

Kurt Ganzl, British Musical Theatre, volume 2, 1915-1984, Macmillan

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

Steven Suskin, Show Tunes, Oxford


Australian Variety Archive—Charles Zwar

Judy Harris,

London Revues,,

On Stage magazine—Blue Mountain Melody



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.

zwar 400px

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)


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



Dudley Glass was an Australian composer who built a career in London with frequent forays back to his homeland. Better known as a pianist and purveyor of light music, he was also a journalist and author and had considerable success writing for children, as PETER PINNE discovers.

Dudley GlassDudley Glass, c.1940. J.K. Moir Collection, State Libary of Victoria, Melbourne, LTAF 1250/150

Dudley jack glass was born on 24 September 1899 in North Adelaide, the only child of Philip Joseph Glass, waterproof garment manufacturer, and his wife Jeannie Glass, née Golda. He was the grandson of Barnett Glass, founder of the Barnett Glass Rubber Company.

Glass attended the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, and studied composition with Fritz Hart at the Albert Street Conservatorium, East Melbourne, for two terms in 1918. He graduated Melbourne University with a Bachelor of Arts in 1920.

A prolific composer and lyricist since his teens, on 23 May 1925 soprano Elsa Stralia performed his anthem ‘Australia, Land of Ours’ at the Sydney Town Hall which received a standing ovation. Glass was present and he accompanied the soprano on piano when they encored the last verse of the song. It had premiered a few weeks before in Melbourne and was dedicated ‘To the Children—The Builders of Australia.’

In July 1925 he secured the performance of ‘Australia, Land of Ours’ in a pageant marking the visit to Australia of the United States Pacific Fleet. The song was published by the Victorian Education Department as a supplement to their School Paper for use in schools, and many years later on 28 March 1934 was adopted by the NSW Educational Authorities for the same purpose. In 1927 Vocalion released a 78 rpm recording of the anthem recorded at the Aeolian Hall, London, sung by a massed choir with pipe organ.

Later in 1925 Glass traveled to London, via New York, as the Herald and Weekly Times’ musical and dramatic correspondent. His reviews of London theatre and the arts were also carried by the Adelaide Advertiser, and later in the sixties by Everybody’s Weekly and the Irish Times.

Two years later, in 1927 at age 28, Glass joined forces with esteemed book and lyric writer Adrian Ross to compose a musical version of W.J. Locke’s 1906 novel The Beloved Vagabond. The book had previously been adapted for the stage by the author for Herbert Beerbohm Tree and had successfully played Her Majesty’s Theatre, London in 1908, with him opposite Evelyn Millard. Ross’s long list of London and Broadway credits included the English Adaptations of the Viennese operettas, The Merry Widow, Lilac Time, and The Count of Luxembourg, as well as the British musicals, Our Miss Gibbs, The Quaker Girl, and Theodore & Co.

Locke’s romantic tale is set in Paris in the late 1880s and follows Gaston Paragot and his love for his ‘English Princess’, Joanna. When she marries another, he returns to his roving Bohemian ways until he gets a second chance at pursuing her when she is widowed. He romances her again and is drawn back into polite Parisian society but realizes he has lost his zeal for this type of life. When he also realizes his thirst for a Bohemian lifestyle has passed, he decides to settle down to a domestic farm life in Normandy with Blanquette.

Produced by Charlton Mann (Parabond Ltd), it opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 1 September 1927 (56 performances), with direction by Dion Boucicault, choreography by Carlotta Mossetti, and musical direction by Philip Lewis. The cast featured Frederick Ranolow (Paragot), Lilian Davies (Joanna), Mabel Russell (Blanquette), Norman Macowan (Comte de Vernet), Frank Harvey (Denis Walters), Vera Robson (Marie), Leslie French (Asticot) and W.E. Stephens (Bringuet).

The Illustrated London News said ‘a composer with a neat turn for waltz refrains has been found in Mr Dudley Glass’, whilst The Times thought the music ‘characterless’, The Stage claimed it had ‘well-shaped and rounded melodies’. But The Times did acknowledge that Lilian Davies’ songs ‘appeared to give great pleasure’. The Aberdeen Press and Journal said the book and lyrics are ‘specially captivating’, and ‘all the songs and chorus items are tuneful and gay’. An excerpt from the second-act was broadcast live from the Duke of York’s Theatre on the BBC on 18 October 1927.

Glass and Ross’s score was in the fairly traditional light opera vein with a virile ‘song of the open road’ for the leading man, ‘The Vagabond Way’, a pretty ballad ‘The Lonely Princess’ for Joanna, with ‘You Again’ fulfilling the lovers’ love duet. A comic interlude saw Paragot and chorus render, ‘The Faithful Pig’, whilst ‘A Joyous Band of Brothers’ was a chorus for the Art Students, and ‘We Are The Charming Creatures’ a similar confection for the Models. There was also a Normandy Peasant Dance, Gypsy Dance, Can-Can, and ‘Boheme’ a salute to the Bohemian lifestyle. Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd., published a ‘Vocal Score’ and two single sheets, ‘The Vagabond Way’, and ‘The Lonely Princess’.

After 56 performances at the Duke of York’s the production moved to the New Theatre but could only manage another 48 performances for a total run of 104 performances, despite the popularity of Ranalow and Davies. The musical fared much better when it was produced in Australia in 1934.

Entrepreneur and producer F.W. Thring thought The Beloved Vagabond would be an ideal vehicle for Gladys Moncrieff and Robert Chisholm following their acclaim in Collits’ Inn, his first venture into live theatre which had been an unqualified success. Opening at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, 21 April 1934, The Beloved Vagabond proved to be a worthy successor to Collits’ Inn playing to larger audiences and running longer than it did in London.  

Glass had originally written the role of Joanna with Moncrieff in mind and in fact she was in London when the production was mounted but unable to participate because of her commitments to The Blue Mazurka which she was appearing in at the time.

With Moncrieff as Joanna, Chisholm as Paragot, and George Wallace as Asticott, the cast also including, Byrl Walkley, and Marshall Crosby, with Claude Flemming in the director’s chair, Jennie Brennan as choreographer, and Fred Quintrell as musical director. It was beginning to look like the cast of Collits’ Inn had become Thring’s musical repertory company. The score underwent changes for the Australian production with ‘The Faithful Pig’, ‘Have the Band In’, and ‘We Are Charming Creatures’, dropped, and ‘What Altogether Beautiful Weather’ added. Wallace’s songs, ‘Parley Voo’, and ‘Napolean’ had lyrics by Glass and Jack Mcleod.

Table Talk called it ‘Pleasant, sentimental and tuneful music’, praising Moncrieff as Joanna, ‘a part that suits her far better that others she has had of late’, whilst Chisholm was called ‘first rate’ and ‘imparts to his role that romantic fervour calculated to set female hearts aflutter’. The production played 8 weeks (69 performances) in Melbourne, before moving to Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre, 24 August 1934, where it played another 7 weeks (55 performances). Critical reaction was just as good with the Sydney Morning Herald claiming ‘Miss Moncrieff’s voice has never sounded lovelier’, and ‘Mr. George Wallace has never been funnier’.

The Beloved Vagabond had an afterlife on radio. On the opening night of 21 April 1934 the first act of the musical was broadcast from the Princess Theatre on Melbourne radio 3KZ preceded by a description from the foyer by Norman Banks and also relayed interstate on the National Broadcasting Stations 5DN in Adelaide and 2GB in Sydney. During the Sydney season on the 12 September 1934, Glass accompanied Gwladys Evans and Cyril James on piano in a ‘pot-pourri of melodies’ from The Beloved Vagabond, on 2GB.

On 3 and 5 November 1936 the BBC broadcast a radio production of the musical during their Empire Radio Programme. It was produced by Walter MacLurg, adapted by Glass, with the BBC Chorus and BBC Empire Orchestra (leader Daniel Melsa) conducted by Eric Fogg. Later in 1952 the ABC in Australia produced their own radio version of the musical with Kathleen Goodall and Frank Taylor. It was broadcast on 3AR on 25 May.

In 1936 a British musical film version of W.J. Locke’s novel was released with Maurice Chevalier, Margaret Lockwood and Betty Stockfeld. The musical score was by Darius Milhaud. Although the film does feature some songs by Arthur Wimperis and Richard Heymann there are none from the Glass stage version.

Glass’ next London stage credit after The Beloved Vagabond, was for the revue This and That which opened at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross, 23 December 1929 (10 performances). Produced by the London Repertory Company, it featured Harry Hemsley, Horace Custins, Bernard Lee, William Dewhurst, Harry Brunning, Jacqueline, and the Victoria Girls amongst others. Music and Lyrics were by Glass, direction by Ellis J. Preston, with musical direction by Neville Ravel. The Times thought it is ‘good enough to justify the short journey to King’s Cross, for any one in search of two hours of concentrated amusement’. They liked the comic Harry Brunning and said he had ‘an individual sense of fun’, Jacqueline, played the piano ‘pleasantly’, and Harry Hemsley, a comedian noted for his vocal impressions of children, for his ‘versatility’. ‘This and That may be classed as a venture which does not aim too high, but never falls into the slough of mediocrity.’

One year later Glass again had a musical treading the boards in London. Working with Adrian Ross on book and lyrics, they produced a musical treatment of Austin Strong’s 1907 play The Toymaker of Nuremburg. Opening at the Kingsway Theatre, 20 December 1930, the musical played twice daily until 24 January 1931 (54 performances).

Strong’s straight version had originally played the Garrick Theatre, New York, in 1907, and later London in 1910.

The comical plot concerns the Toymaker’s eldest son, Adolf, who returns from America just in time to stop his father from emigrating, from David and Greta from being separated, and the family dachshund from being forced to round-up cattle in the US to replenish the family fortunes.

Produced by Denis Heslam and Kenneth Hyde, with direction by Stephen Thomas, and choreography by Leslie French, the set and costume designs were by the renowned designer George Sheringham, whose commissions included redesigning the costumes for the 1929 season of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas staged by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Frederick Ranalow, who’d starred as Paragot in Glass’ The Beloved Vagabond, was back again to play the Toymaker in this latest trifle. His son Adolf was played by Alan Durai, with Leslie Holland (Handyman), Dewey Gibson (Sentry/Lamplighter), Lawrence Bascombe (Poet), Lewis Shaw (David), Anne Bolt (Greta), Roy Byford (Employer), and Alex Frizell (Wife), amongst a large cast of dancers and children.

The reviews were glowing with Glass and Sheringham’s contribution praised. James Agate in the Sunday Times said it was ‘an attractive entertainment in which the music of Dudley Glass and the scenery of George Sheringham compete for admiration’. He then went on to say it was ‘The Best English light opera for many a long year’. The Observer claimed it was ‘an enchanting tuneful masquerade upon a gaily-painted stage’, whilst The Stage noted that ‘this musical version of an old favourite was received cordially on opening night’.

Five songs: ‘The Toymaker’s Song’, ‘Gingerbread Man’, ‘The Road To Fairyland’, ‘Tick Tock’, and ‘Is It Love?’ were published as an Album of Songs, plus a Piano Selection, by Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd.

The Toymaker of Nuremburg was not produced on stage in Australia, but in June 1947 the ABC broadcast a one-hour radio adaptation by Glass on Melbourne radio 3LO. The cast featured Maxwell Cohen (Toymaker), David Allen (Adolf), Bernard Manning (Employer), William Crougey (Friend), Charles Skase (Sergeant), and Katheen Goodall (Greta). Principal acting roles were taken by Walter Pym, Keith Hudson, John D’Arcy, Syd Hollister, Ruby May, and Helen Jacoby. The program was repeated on ABC regional stations 2 September 1947. Later the ‘Overture’ from the musical opened Hector Crawford’s ‘Music For The People’ programme on Sunday, 24 February 1952.

Eldorado was a project that had been kicking around the West End for a couple years in the late twenties and in that time going through eight writers. It was finally produced at Daly’s Theatre, 3 September 1930, starring Desiree Ellinger, Donald Mather, and Oscar Ashe who also handled direction. A Romeo and Juliet story set in Mexico amongst rival feuding families, the musical was spectacularly staged. Several songs by Glass were interpolated into the score after it opened (titles unknown). It played 93 performances in London before touring regionally in 1931.

Frederick Ranalow was back again to star in a third Glass musical in the West End. It was called Colour Blind and it opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 15 October 1930, (122 performances). Working with Fredrick Jackson who wrote the libretto, Glass provided a musical score that ran less than one-hour and featured Ranalow as Prospero, David Leslie (Dr. Nichols), Douglas [L.] Webster (Dobson), Margery Gordon (Pamela), and Erica Leslie (Marion), with Moray MacKay as musical director. The plot had a man’s colour blindness resulting in him attempting to kidnap the wrong woman. The Era said ‘Glass gives us a miniature musical score which contains a ballad, a waltz song of Viennese extraction, and a dance number in the brisk modern vein’. They also said ‘Mr. Frederick Ranalow sings magnificently and acts with a sense of comedy’.

In early 1934 just prior to the opening of The Beloved Vagabond, Glass was asked by producer F.W. Thring to write two songs for Gladys Moncrieff to strengthen her role in his recent London acquisition, the operetta, Jolly Roger which was about to open at Sydney’s Criterion Theatre, 23 February 1934. The songs were ‘Love is Calling’, and Ballad of the Western Sea’. Further interpolations into the score included an ‘Opening Ballet’ and a third act ‘Blue Ballet’ both composed by Glass and a second act ‘Pirate Ballet’, for which Glass arranged the music.

The show which was themed around pirates and their derring-do, was set in Jamaica, had book and lyrics by Scobie Mackenzie and V.C. Clinton-Badderley, and music by Walter Leigh, and had played the Savoy Theatre, London, from 1 March 1933 (199 performances). The cast included Gavin Gordon (Sir Roderick Vernon), Victor Orsini (Jolly Roger), George Robey (Bold Ben Blister), and Muriel Angelus (Amelia).

In Australia Gladys Moncrieff (Amelia) headed the cast which also featured Claude Flemming (Sir Roderick Vernon), Allan Priora (Jolly Roger), and George Wallace (Bold Ben Blister). The critics enthused saying Moncrieff’s role ‘gives her ample opportunity for the display of the strength and delicious purity of her voice … She was at her best last night—which is saying something—in ‘Ballad of the Western Sea’, one of Glass’s numbers. The musical played the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, from 3 November 1934 where the Glass numbers were noticed once again, ‘Miss Moncrieff’s songs are effective, notably those which Mr. Glass wrote for her’ (The Argus).

During a subsequent return season at the Criterion Theatre in Sydney, Jolly Roger was broadcast ‘live’ by radio 2FC on the evening of 8 March 1935, and on relay to other National Broadcasting Stations around Australia, including 2NC (Newcastle), 2CO (Canberra), 3LO (Melbourne), 5CL (Adelaide), 5CK (Crystal Brook, S.A.), 4QC (Brisbane), 4RK (Rockhampton) and 6WF (Perth). George Wallace was no longer with the show and his role (Bold Ben Blister) was taken by Alfred Frith.

A Night In Venice opened at the Cambridge Theatre, London, 24 May 1944. Although the work had been popular on the continent since 1883, this production was its British premiere. The music was by Johann Strauss ll, the libretto by F. Zell and Richard Genee, and the English adaptation by Lesley Storm, with lyrics by Glass. Directed by Leontine Sagan, with choreography by Freddie Carpenter, it starred Henry Wendon, Dennis Noble, Daria Bayan, Josephine Yorke, and Jerry Verno, in a farcical, romantic story that involved several cases of mistaken identity. The Times thought the ‘cheerfulness and sentiment’ in the plot only need a ‘little more stirring to come up as light as a soufflé’. Because of wartime air raids the production was withdrawn on 8 July. It was revived later in the year at the Phoenix Theatre, where it opened 28 November 1944. The BBC broadcast a live excerpt from the operetta on 15 December 1944.

The last musical that Glass wrote was the operetta, Drake of England, produced by the ABC in 1953 as part of the festivities to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The world premiere took place on 3 June 1953. A dramatization of Louis N. Parker’s Elizabethan pageant play Drake, it recalled some of the inspiring events of the reign of the first Elizabeth and recreated some of the figures of the period—Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Drake, and Lord Burghley. As a romantic background to the days of the Armada and its defeat under Drake, there was a tender love story between Drake and Lady Elizabeth Sydneham.

The cast was headed by Alan Coad (Drake), Sybil Stroud (Queen Elizabeth I), Violet Harper (Lady Elizabeth Sydenham), Colin Crane (Tom Moone, Devon seaman and the right-hand man of Drake), Joy Youlden (Mother Moone (wife of Tom Moone, nurse to Lady Elizabeth), plus Mary Disney, Kenrick Hudson, Bettine Kauffman, and Douglas Kelly. Adaptation for radio was by Phil Darbyshire, direction was by Norman Shepherd, with musical direction by Frank Thorne conducting the ABC augmented singers and dance band.

Songs included: ‘Spinning Chorus’, ‘Drake’s Hymn’, ‘Thank You, Mr. Drake’, ‘Drake’s Drum’, ‘Sailorman’, ‘Heart Of England’, ‘Northern Star’, ‘Rise Sir Francis’, and ‘Devon O’Mine’.

Drake of England was repeated regionally on 17 January 1954, the same year that the BBC broadcast the ABC recording in its general overseas service, 21 April 1954.

‘This opera is naturally a national institution in Denmark but there is no reason to suppose that it will not travel now than an excellent English translation has been made’ said Robert Simpson reviewing the BBC’s production of Masquerade on Radio 3, Sunday 19 March 1972. Glass had provided an English version of the libretto for the comic opera by Carl Nielsen originally written in 1906.

Based on a comedy by Ludvig Holberg, the original libretto was by Vilhelm Andersen.

Set in spring 1723 in Copenhagen, the plot revolves around Leander and Leonora, two young people who meet fortuitously at a masquerade ball, and swear undying love for each other and exchange rings. Complications ensue when Leander is reminded he is betrothed to another until all is resolved in the last act to everyone’s satisfaction.

The BBC radio production featured, Norman Lumsden as the Professor, with a chorus of students, officers and young girls. Ernest Warburton was the producer, Bryden Thomson conducted the BBC Northern Symphony, with Stephen Wilkenson as chorus-master of the BBC Northern Singers.

Named one of Denmark’s twelve greatest musical works, it had enjoyed lasting success in that country, attributable to its many verse-repeating songs, its dances and its underlying ‘old Copenhagen’ atmosphere. Its first United States performance was by the St. Paul Opera in Minnesota, and its first New York performance by the Bronx Opera Company in 1983, both with Glass’s libretto.

On 29 March 1979 Glass was staying at the Stefan Hotel, Oslo, Norway, when he wrote to his cousin Nancy and told her of a possible production in Oslo of his opera Gerda: An Opera of the North, based on a poem by Madeline Mason. After working on it for fifty years it was finally finished, orchestration and all. The following year he received a letter from the Oslo Music Society with a program enclosed of a concert where excerpts of his opera had been presented. The first time an excerpt from the opera had been heard was at a recital in the Melbourne Town Hall, 4 June 1949, when dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence had sung ‘The Viking’s Bride’ (Huldra’s Aria). The opera has never been staged in its entirety.

In 1932 and 1933 Glass wrote music for two favourite children’s books, Songs From the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts by Hilaire Belloc, and Nonsense Songs by Edward Lear. Anona Winn performed them during the BBCs ‘The Children’s Hour’, 18 November 1932 and 17 August 1934, with Glass accompanying her on piano. In the same period he also wrote two children’s books, Round The World With the Red Head Twins, about the adventures that befell a brother and sister who began by meeting the Regent in Regents Park, which was illustrated by George Sheringham, who had designed The Toymaker of Nuremburg, and The Spanish Goldfish, in which a boy (Lorel) and a girl (Schrimp) have a holiday at Land’s End that includes a voyage round the world and a visit to Father Neptune and Davy Jones.

On 26 January 1937 Glass was master of ceremonies for a special BBC radio broadcast by four Australian celebrities, opera singer Evelyn Scotney, musical comedy star Dorothy Brunton, vaudevillian Albert Whelan, singer Albert McEachern. Scotney sang ‘Little House of Dreams’ from The Beloved Vagabond, and also sang with McEachern Glass’s anthem ‘Australia, Land of Ours’ which ended the programme. A recording of McEachern’s performance on the program was privately recorded and later released by EMI on a 3 LP box-set compilation album ‘Malcom McEachern—Basso Supreme’ in 1983.

Working with the renowned lyricist Clifford Grey, Glass composed the popular wartime song ‘The Empire Is Marching’ (1940), but his most recognizable tune is the jaunty ‘Will-O’The-Wisp’ which was used by BBC radio as a theme during ‘In Town Tonight’ for four years in the 1940s. The piece was originally written in 1928 and included on music publisher Chappell’s series of ‘Mood Music’ discs recorded by the Queens Hall Light Orchestra in 1943.

Glass also wrote The Songs of Peter Rabbit based on Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and a play version Peter Rabbit: A Musical Play For Children. Both were published separately. They were composed in 1951 and later recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Company by Tracey Dahl in 2002.

Glass wrote and scored two documentary films during his career. The first was called Song of Australia which was produced by the Commonwealth Government Cinema and Photographic Branch in 1936. It looked at the early days of the gold rush and pastoral pioneering to the then present day. The second was a film of Tasmania, which embraced Hobart in 1952.

In 1937 Glass published two books about his extensive travel, The Book About the British Empire—With Two Hundred and Sixteen Illustrations (currently selling on ebay for US$850.00), and Australian Fantasy, a photographic essay capturing the essence of Australia.

Broadcasting and lecturing commitments became an integral part of his career, as did piano recitals. During the Second World War he gave more than 1000 performances in Britain as a pianist and speaker for the Army Education Corps. After the war he continually devoted his time to similar activities, making lecture tours of the United States and of Britain for the London County Council, the Imperial Institute, the Royal Empire Society, the Royal Academy of Music, and the Royal Society of Arts. He also regularly appeared on BBC and ABC radio.

Glass never married. He died at Lambeth, London, 29 November 1981 after being struck by a bus near the British Library, which he visited almost daily.

Fiercely Australian, he was an unofficial cultural ambassador throughout his life. This passion did not translate into his theatre work which had a distinctive European base. He did however write one Australian work, a musical version of Rolf Boldrewood’s classic bushranger novel Robbery Under Arms. Working with Frank Harvey, who wrote the libretto, in 1934 F.W. Thring expressed interest in producing it but died before the project could come to fruition. It remains un-produced.

Today Dudley Glass is barely remembered, if at all, not helped by the fact that very few of his compositions were recorded. The most recent reissue of his music was of his most popular and most remembered tune, ‘Will-O’-The Wisp’. It can be found on BBC Radio & TV Themes released in 2015. It gives a good indication of Glass’s style of music, a style that favoured the whimsical, the cheeky and the impudent. Although he wrote opera, he was more at home in the world of operetta and writing ditties for children as his canon of work reveals.


 Listen to ‘Will-O’-The-Wisp’ - Dudley Glass on YouTube:



Dudley Glass Discography

Australia, Land of Ours:

*Massed Choir with Pipe Organ, recorded Aeolian Hall, London, Vocalion K05264 (78rpm)

*Malcolm McEachern – Vocal Quartet & Orchestra MSS Recording Company, London, at their receiving station, Richmond, from a BBC Australia Day Broadcast 26/1/1937 EMI MM-3 (1982)

Empire is Marching, The:

*Ivan Rixon Singers Regal G24370 (78rpm)

*Dennis Noble with Male Quartet and the Band of the Coldstream Guards conducted by Captain J.C. Windram Recorded Abbey Road 21 August 1940 HMV B9080


*Charles Williams and his Concert Orchestra Columbia DB2764 (78rpm) released 1950/CD EMI 80133 Released 1993

*Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra conducted by Sidney Torch Chappell Records (1943)/BBC Radio & TV Themes 1940s and 50s UPPM Records (2015)/Archive Music Revisited AMR054

Songs of Peter Rabbit:

*Rhymes, Reveries, Rimes – Tracey Dahl, Shannon Hiebert, Erica Goodman CBD1163 (2002)

Dudley Glass Publication—Music:

Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew/Chappell & Co Ltd (1927) The Beloved Vagabond Vocal Score, The Vagabond Way’, ‘The Lonely Princess’

Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew (1930) The Toymaker of Nuremburg ‘Album of Songs’ (‘The Toymaker’s Song’, ‘Gingerbread Man’, ‘The Road To Fairyland’, ‘Tick Tock’, ‘Is It Love?’), ‘Pianoforte Selection’

Duckworth, Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew (1932) ‘Songs from the Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ Verses by Hillaire Belloc, Pictures by BTB

Frederick Warne & Co Ltd (1982) ‘Songs of Peter Rabbit’

Frederick Warne & Co Ltd (1933) ‘Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs’ 

Chappell & Co. Ltd ‘Australia, Land of Ours’ (1925), ‘Will-O’-The-Wisp’ (Danse Humoresque) (1928), ‘The Empire Is Marching’ (1940), ‘Will-O’-The-Wisp’ (1943)

Murdoch, Murdoch & Co (UK) ‘An Empire Cruise’ (1928), ‘In A Golden Boat’ (1925)

Shott & Co Ltd (UK) ‘From A Gipsy Caravan’ (1925), ‘In Realms Of Dance’ (1925)

Enoch & Sons (UK) ‘A Little Ghost Of Summertime’ (1927)

Elkin & Co (UK) ‘Little House Of Dreams’ (1936)

J.B. Cramer (UK) ‘My Country Love’ (1925)

Allan & Co ‘Over Here’ (From ‘Over There’)

Published in the UK but Publisher unknown:

‘A Carol of Bethlehem’ (1925), ‘The Land of Gold’ (1925), ‘Melody of Memories’ (1925), ‘Pan In Piccadilly’ (1937), ‘The Twilight People’ (1924), ‘Nocturne’, ‘Churches’, ‘Wicked Chinaman & Other Tales’

Dudley Glass Publication – Books:

Methuen Round The World With The Red Head Twins (1933)

Frederick Warne The Spanish Goldfish (1934), The Book About The British Empire (1937)

Hutchinson & Co Australian Fantasy (1937)

 Webb & Vary (1915) Writing For the Press


Special thanks to Rob Morrison for his contribution to this article.

Acknowledgements: Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007 (Peter Campbell), Australian Musicals—From The Beginning (Allen & Unwin) Peter Pinne & Peter Wyllie Johnston,, The ABC Weekly, Aberdeen Press and Journal, The Argus, The Era, Illustrated London News, The Observer, The Radio Times, The Stage, Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Times, Table Talk, The Times, Trove, Wikipedia, The Wireless Weekly, and Frank Van Straten

Wednesday, 03 June 2020

Bran Nue Dae (Part 2)

bran nue dae 

Peter Pinne concludes his account of the landmark indigenous musical Bran Nue Dae and the career of its creator Jimmy Chi. Read Part 1 of this article»

In 2008, 24 years after Jimmy Chi had started work on the stage version of Bran Nue Dae, preparations began for a $6.5 million feature film version of the show. The cast included Geoffrey Rush (Father Benedictus), Ernie Dingo (Uncle Tadpole), Missy Higgins (Marijuana  Annie), Jessica Mauboy (Rosie), Rocky McKenzie (Willie), Tom Budge (Slippery), Deborah Mailman (Roxanne), Josie Ningali Lawford (Theresa), Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Pastor Flakkon), Dan Sultan (Lester) and Magda Szubanski (Roadhouse Betty).

The movie’s executive producers werey Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street and David Whealy, and it was produced by Robyn Kershaw and Graeme Isaac from a screenplay written by Chi, Reg Cribb and Rachel Perkins that adhered closely to Chi’s original musical. Rachel Perkins also directed.

Felicity Abbott was the production designer, Margot Wilson the costume designer, Stephen Page the choreographer, with cinematography by Andrew Lesnie. Cezary Skubiszewski wrote the music underscore. Finance was provided by Screen Australia, Ominilab Media, Screenwest, Film Victoria, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund and Robyn Kershaw Productions.[1]

The film was shot on location in Western Australia. Most of the major songs from the stage production were included, plus interpolations of the country standard ‘Stand By Your Man’, Rolf Harris’s ‘Six White Boomers’ and ‘Zorba’s Dance’.

The film, like the stage show, was a joyous and uplifting celebration of Aboriginal culture, and wonderful feel-good entertainment. ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)’ was given the full show-stopping tap-dancing treatment in the mission scene and reprised as the finale on the beach. The young performers McKenzie, Mauboy, Sultan and Higgins gave raw but endearing performances, and Dingo, repeating his stage turn, grounded the piece in reality. Rush, with an exaggerated German accent, was a stern but likeable Father Benedictus, with Szubanski and Mailman eating up the cameos of the sex-starved Roadhouse Betty and Roxanne. It was the acting debuts of Mauboy, a former Australian Idol runner-up, and Higgins, a pop performer with several hits to her credit.

The film debuted in Australia on the last night of the Melbourne International Film Festival, 8 August 2009, and internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival on 12 September 2009 in the Scotiabank Theatre. It picked up the Audience Award for Best Feature in Melbourne, and the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. It was also an ‘Official Selection’ in the Berlin and Dubai International Film Festivals, and was amongst the out-of-competition films to be screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Its official Australian theatrical premiere was – appropriately – at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema, Broome, on 8 December 2009, where the stars of the film walked a ‘red dirt’ carpet. A national release followed on 14 January 2010.

The film received generally mixed reviews, scoring a 6.5* out of 10: ‘An exuberant musical road movie’ (Sunday Mail), ‘Hilarious… A celebration! The next homegrown cinema classic’ (MTV Australia); but FilmInk said: ‘It falls short of its potential, with mediocre performances and dance sequences,’ which was mirrored in the review in Variety (US): ‘Blandly stereotypical characters in a trite road-trip narrative … There’s scant real dancing, mostly forgettable, showtune-type songs and no ethnic authenticity.’

But when the movie premiered in Los Angeles on 10 September 2010, critics were kinder. Kenneth Turan in the LA Times claimed: ‘Australia’s infectious Bran Nue Dae was the equivalent of a Bollywood musical set in the outback,’ whilst Win Kang (Orange County Examiner) gave it four stars and said ‘I loved this film’.

Domestically the film was released by Roadshow. It took $7 680 192 million at the box office.[2] In the US, however, where it was released by Freestyle, the gross was a mere $133 568.[3]

The movie soundtrack, released on 15 January 2010, reached a peak position of 29.14 on the Australian ARIA Albums Chart. The film was later released by Roadshow Entertainment on DVD (R1098139) and Blue Ray. A separate Special Music Edition Sing-Along was also released on DVD.

Jimmy Chi’s follow-up to Bran Nue Dae, also developed in Broome, was the eagerly awaited Corrugation Road. Like Bran Nue Dae, it was partly autobiographical. Following a breakdown while studying at university, Chi had spent time in a mental institution after he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He struggled not only with his own cultural identity but with the legacy of some grim incidents in his early life, including sexual abuse and serious accidents. The musical was based on his experiences in mental institutions over a 20-year period. 

Corrugation Road starts when Barry is arrested on Christmas Eve for spray painting ‘Merry Christmas’ on Perth’s London Court and he is committed to Graylands psychiatric hospital. From the bizarre world of the hospital ward we journey with Barry through his past, visiting his ‘local’ which undergoes transformations into a gay bar, a sleaze nightclub and a pleasure dome. Siamese twin doctors, Basketcase and Fruitcake argue their opposing views on psychiatry. Fed up with their conflict, the patients decide to operate and separate them. Liberated by their separation, Dr Basketcase leads the patients out of institutional care into the ‘real world’ – but the ‘real world’ proves inhospitable and the patients are found inhabiting an urban camp experiencing poverty, squalor and violence. Barry’s past again revisits him: he realizes he is in love with Fiona, the wife of Garry, his gay brother. Accompanied by Bob Two-Bob he journeys back to his country in the Kimberley, finally arriving at Fiona’s home, Sunday Island, where he is reconciled with his brother’s sexuality, and with Fiona. By story’s end Dr Fruitcake has arrived by helicopter to set up a Kimberley mental health service. 

In Corrugation Road Chi posed questions about madness and sanity, child abuse, parenthood, sexuality and religion. As in Bran Nue Dae, the issues were presented with humour, a sense of the bizarre, and an over-riding optimism.

The score, composed by Chi, the Pigram Brothers and Duncan Campbell, followed the same country idiom as Bran Nue Dae, again with traces of blues, rock and Gospel. There were no character or plot-driven songs, although some did pay lip service to the subject matter: ‘Pop A Little Tablet’, ‘Modern Doctor Of Psychiatry’ and ‘Suicidal Blues’.

Corrugation Road played four preview performances at the Street Theatre, Canberra, 10-14 October 1996, before its premiere season at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, 17-26 October 1996, for the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

The cast included Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Bob Two-Bob), Josie Ningali Lawford (Fiona), Richard Mellick (Fruitcake), Michael Turkic (Basketcase), Becky Brown (Nurse/Siren), John M. Collard (Patient), Garry Cooper (Larry), Denise Cox (Patient), Trevor Jamison (Barry/Patient), Naomi Pigram (Child/Patient), Michael Smith (Patient) and Ali Torres (Patient).

The musical was produced by Black Swan Theatre Company. Ross directed the work, with set and costume design by Steve Nolan, choreography by Anna Mercer, and musical direction by Iain Grandage.

Critical reaction was mixed: ‘A truly Australian, often hilarious, frequently poignant, very professional, sensationally whacko show; a kind of cross between Hair and Cosi’ (Fiona Scott-Norman, Age); ‘A more ambitious project than Bran Nue Dae. But it’s only partially successful… there are too many songs in the show that just aren’t up to scratch or need further work’ (Steven Carroll, Sunday Age); ‘It is the joyful, energetic performances which carry the show, particularly Ningali Lawford, who brings a freshness to the role’ (Kate Herbert, Herald Sun).

Following the Melbourne season the show played the Subiaco Centre, Perth, from 4 November 1996. It was scheduled to close on 7 December, but due to popular demand the season was extended to 21 December. Erin McGrath in The Voice enthused: ‘Chi’s all-new musical, though containing a serious undercurrent, was as entertaining and lively as any musical of its kind that I have seen.’

According to Ron Banks (West Australian): ‘The biggest scene-stealer was John Collard as the drag queen, an appearance which snatches the initiative from Becky Brown’s very sexy nurse bump and grind routine.’

Two years later the largest single grant ever made by the Australian government to an Australian musical, enabled Corrugation Road to make a national tour. In Western Australia it played Perth (18 June-11 July), Mandurah (13-14 July), Bunbury (17-18 July), Karratha (21-22 July), Port Hedland (24-25 July) and Broome (28-31 July). In the Northern Territory it played Alice Springs (6-7 August).

The New South Wales component of the tour included Sydney (11-22 August), Newcastle (25-29 August), Lismore (1-2 September), Woolongong (4-5 September), and Gosford (8-12 September). In Victoria it was seen at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University (15-26 September), and in Warnambool (29-30 September), Geelong, Frankston and Warragul.

The original cast of the 1996 production recorded the score in Broome. It was released by Angoorrabin Records (AR-8). The CD booklet contains lyrics to the songs. 

In 1991 Jimmy Chi received the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Drama Award for Bran Nue Dae. In 1998 he was awarded the Deadly Sounds National Indigenous Music Award for excellence in Film or Theatre Score.[4]

In 1997 Chi was presented with the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement by an Indigenous Artist, and in 2004 he was acknowledged by the Western Australian Government as a State Living Treasure.[5]

Chi’s songs have been recorded by Irish singer Mary Black and Aboriginal singer Archie Roach. The song ‘Child Of Glory’ has been featured at Broome’s Opera Under the Stars Festival and has been adopted as their theme song in tribute to the composer. Chi’s hymns are regularly sung at Aboriginal funerals in Broome.[6]

Jimmy Chi’s achievement in bringing Bran Nue Dae to the stage was immense. He not only created the first Aboriginal musical, but one of the most successful Australian musicals ever. He gave a voice to indigenous culture which was joyous, uplifting and inspiring. Nothing can or will diminish his contribution to Australian musical theatre.



1. DVD Liner


3. Box Office Mojo website

4. Wikipedia

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

Newspapers and magazines sourced

Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), The Australian (Sydney, NSW), The Bulletin, Canberra Times (ACT), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Financial Review, Green Left Weekly (Sydney, NSW), Herald Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Los Angeles Times (California), MTV Australia, Orange County Examiner, Sunday Age (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun-Herald (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Voice, West Australian (WA).

Saturday, 07 March 2020

Bran Nue Dae (Part 1)

Bran Nue DaeCast of Bran Nue Dae, 1993 touring company. Photo by Jeff Busby. Courtesy of Black Swan Theatre Company.

Heralded as Australia’s first indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae was devised by Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles in the 1980s. Since its premier at the Festival of Perth in 1990, it has toured Australia and was made into a highly successful film in 2009. With a new production celebrating the show’s thirtieth anniversary having opened in Parramatta in January 2020 ahead of a national tour, we reprint Part 1 of Peter Pinne’s article, first published in On Stage in Spring 2011, that looks at Bran Nue Dae and the career of its creator Jimmy Chi. Read Part 2 of this article»

Bran Nue Dae holds the distinction of being not only Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, but also the first hit Australian musical to be made into a major feature film. Yes, there had been two previous stage works committed to celluloid, Kenneth Cook’s Stockade (1971), which simply took Sydney’s Independent Theatre’s stage production and filmed it at the Colonial Australiana Village, Wilberforce, North of Sydney, [1] and Frank Howson’s What the Moon Saw (1990), which was based in part on his stage musical Sinbad the Sailor—The Last Adventure (1982), [2] but Bran Nue Dae was very different. Whereas Stockade had been seen only in Sydney, and Sinbad the Sailor in Melbourne, Bran Nue Dae had toured nationally and was a very well-known musical long before the cameras started rolling. As of 2010 the movie had grossed $7.6 million, and was one of the Top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office. [3]

Bran Nue Dae had its origins in the 1980s when Jimmy Chi (1948-2019), a self-taught Aboriginal musician and composer based in the pearling port of Broome, Western Australia, wrote some songs which were performed by Kuckles, a local band. The first public viewing of the work as a piece of musical theatre took place in 1986 at a workshop produced by the Aboriginal Writers’ Oral Literature and Dramatists’ Association in Perth. [4]

The work received a positive reaction. Chi was encouraged to continue working on the piece by playwright and poet Jack Davis, Marita Darcy of Broome who persuaded him to get the songs down on paper, and Peter Bibby, editor of Magabala, the recently created Aboriginal publishing company in Broome. At this point the band Kuckles had also become involved in the project and had written some songs for it. Chi was a member of the group. [5]

Interest was shown by Robyn Kershaw, and later Duncan Ord of the Western Australian Theatre Company, Tasmania’s Salamanca Theatre, and the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust, which included the script in their National Playwrights’ Conference and Workshop in Sydney in 1989. [6]

Chi’s plot, set in the early 1970s and loosely based on his life story, opens in Broome, where Willie, an Aboriginal teenager, has his world turned on its head when his Auntie Theresa sends him to Perth for a Christian upbringing. At the Catholic mission Willie steals some food and is subject to harsh discipline metered out by Father Benedictus. Missing his girlfriend Rosie, he decides to run away back to Broome. Along the way he meets up with his Uncle Tadpole and two hippies, Marijuana Annie and Slippery. He also encounters police brutality, and has his first experience of sex. Father Benedictus pursues Willie and eventually they all meet up on the beach at Broome for a happy reunion and reconciliation when they discover they are all related to one another. [7]

The story opened with Willie and Rosie going to the movies at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema in Broome, an open-air movie house with seating on canvas-backed chairs. The 80-year-old cinema still operates and is the last remaining open-air cinema in Australia.

The first commercial production of the musical took place at the Octagon Theatre, Perth, during the 1990 Festival of Perth, in a co-production between Bran Nue Dae Productions and the Western Australian Theatre Company. The work was credited to Chi and Kuckles, with the band providing the musical accompaniment and Stephen Pigram, one of its members, as musical director. Andrew Ross, a big supporter of the project, handled the direction, and Michael Leslie choreographed. Prior to opening, the company had rehearsed for eight weeks, six in Broome and two in Perth. [8]

The cast included Ernie Dingo (Uncle Tadpole), Michelle Torres-Hill (Rosie), John Moore (Willie), Bob Faggetter (Father Benedictus), Lynda Nutter (Marijuana Annie), Alan Charlton (Slippery), Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Pastor Flakkon) and Maroochy Barambah (Auntie Theresa).

Critical reaction was unanimous. Ron Banks (The West Australian) headlined his review ‘Aborigines put on satirical side’, whilst Peter Ward (The Australian) called it a ‘boisterous sunrise of engaging charm’. The Financial Review claimed ‘the humour is direct and frequently outrageous. One of the most obscene—and wildly funny—songs ends with condoms being thrown into the audience.’

The Bulletin said, ‘Bran Nue Dae’s joyous effect on an audience was apparent as its message of universal humanity—helped by an immortal borrowing of “Ich Bin Ein Aborigine!”—struck home,’ whilst Jill Sykes in The Sydney Morning Herald enthused, ‘Once in a while, something very special emerges in Australian theatre—something like Bran Nue Dae.’

The actors were also praised: ‘There is an especially fine performance from Dingo, while Moore and Torres-Hill are appropriate matinee idols’ (Australian), though it was also noted that ‘Some of the lesser experienced cast members had trouble with vocal projection.’ (West Australian)

The Financial Review, whilst endorsing the show, did carp: ‘Aspects of the scripting, performance, direction and choreography, for example, are simply awful. But after a while you realize that this is not the point. There is an authenticity to Bran Nue Dae which heralds the arrival of, not only a new musical form, but—more importantly—a new form of black theatre.’

And he was right. Bran Nue Dae did have a ring of authenticity about it. Granted it was rough and raw, but it was also fresh, invigorating, irreverent, funny and uplifting. Although it touched on Aboriginal issues such as alcohol, drugs, and police harassment, its treatment of Aboriginal culture was light-hearted and positive.

Chi’s exuberant score set the tone of the piece. Drawing on Broome’s mix of Koepanger (pearl fishermen), Malay, Chinese, Japanese, European and Aboriginal cultures and his own background with a Scots/Bardi/Aboriginal mother and a Chinese/Japanese/Anglo-Australian father, the songs were a mix of country, rock, Gospel, reggae and musical comedy.

Audiences could not resist the infectious title tune with its insistent reggae beat, or the country sensibility of ‘Long Way Away From My Country’ and ‘(Feel Like) Going Back Home’. ‘All The Way Jesus’ and ‘Child of Glory’ were pure Gospel, but the showstopper was the satirical ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)’ which never failed to bring thunderous applause.  

The musical was the hit of the Festival and played 15 performances at the Octagon Theatre. Later, with minor cast changes (Rohanna Angus as Rosie, Sylvia Clarke as Auntie Theresa and Stephen Albert as Uncle Tadpole) it toured from 6 to 29 September 1990 to the Western Australian regional towns of Kununurra, Derby, Broome, Port Hedland and Karratha, with Darwin the last stop. [9]

In Broome the musical came full circle when it played five sold-out performances at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema.

The production then played 6 performances at the Canberra Theatre, Canberra, 2-6 October 1990 (The Canberra Times called it ‘A joyous parody’) and 13 performances, 10-20 October 1990 at the Playhouse, Adelaide. The Advertiser’s Tim Lloyd was equally laudatory: ‘As simple as a road movie, often very funny, and complex and even disturbing at the same time.’

Ernie Dingo returned to the role of Uncle Tadpole when the production played 12 performances at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, from 12 December 1990. Peta Koch (Courier Mail) called it ‘a pearl of a play … theatre at its most captivating and heartwarming.’

Sydney critics went overboard when the same production became part of the Festival of Sydney, opening on 4 January 1991 at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta: ‘Infectiously joyous, irreverent and life-affirming,’ (Sun-Herald); ‘Bran Nue Dae is in a world of its own … A great celebration and a wonderful experience to share’ (Bob Evans, Sydney Morning Herald); ‘Joyous, vibrant, wildly funny … sings with a voice unequivocal and unique’ (Frank Gauntlett, Daily Telegraph/Mirror).

The musical played 19 performances before transferring to the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre on 22 January 1991 for a further 22 performances, closing on 9 February 1991.

Melbourne was the only capital city not to see the show, but Leonard Radic did review a performance he attended at the York Theatre, Sydney, for The Age: ‘Bran Nue Dae stands out for its warmth and simplicity. It is a good-natured, unpretentious show which bounces along with engaging cheerfulness.’ He echoed these sentiments two years later when he again reviewed the musical when it finally reached Melbourne in a co-production between the Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan Theatre Company. It opened on 2 July 1993 at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, during the 1992/93 national tour.

The tour was produced by Black Swan Theatre Company, an organisation that evolved from discussions between Janet Holmes à Court, Andrew Ross, Duncan Ord and Will Queckett, following the premiere of the first production of the musical in 1991, with help from Minister for the Arts, David Parker. Their charter was to produce distinctive regional theatre. [10] Almost thirty years later, Black Swan is the major State-funded theatre company of Western Australia.

The cast for the tour included Leah Purcell (Marijuana Annie), Trevor Jamieson (Willie), Alice Haines (Rosie), Steve Kidd (Slippery), James Hancock (Father Benedictus), Stephen Albert (Uncle Tadpole), Sylvanna Doolan), Sylvia Clarke (Chorus), and Josie Ningali Lawford (Chorus). Andrew Ross was again the director, Michael Leslie the choreographer, design by Steve Nolan, with musical direction chores being shared by Stephen Pigram and Chong Lim. The production had also acquired Lindsay Field as vocal arranger. [11]

A cabaret version was devised to travel to Fiji and other places. [12]

In 1991 a documentary by Tom Zubrycki about the making of the musical and the life of Jimmy Chi, Bran Nue Dae, premiered at the State Film Theatre, Melbourne. Reviewing the film in Green Left Weekly, Peter Boyle said he wished he hadn’t missed the stage version, and called it ‘Jimmy Chi’s Magical Musical’.

In 1994 Josie Ningali Lawford created a one-woman show that traced her life from the Kimberleys to her stage career in Bran Nue Dae. Produced by Deckchair Theatre, it played the Courtyard Studio in Canberra, from 10 to 15 October 1994.

Later the Aboriginal Theatre Program of the Community Arts Centre of Newcastle mounted a production of the musical at the Newcastle Community Arts Centre, where it played from 8 to 16 December 1995.

The musical won the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1990. The following year the playscript with lead-lines of the songs was published by Currency Press and Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation. It won the Special Award in the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.

The 1990 cast recorded the score in Broome. It was released on cassette (BND001) and was only available from the Broome Musicians’ Aboriginal Corporation, Broome. Later the 1992 Black Swan Theatre production was recorded and released on CD by Polydor (BNDCD001).

To be continued ...


1. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper: Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford, 1981, p.335

2. Scott Murray (editor), Australian Film 1978-1992. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 307

3. Wikipedia

4. Chi & Kuckles, Bran Nue Dae playscript, Currency Press, Sydney / Magabala Books, Broome WA., 1991

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Ibid


10. Ibid


12. Philip Parsons (general editor), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 97

Newspapers and magazines sourced

Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), The Australian (Sydney, NSW), The Bulletin, Canberra Times (ACT), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Financial Review, Green Left Weekly (Sydney, NSW), Herald Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Los Angeles Times (California), MTV Australia, Orange County Examiner, Sunday Age (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun-Herald (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Voice, West Australian (WA).

Australian ARIA Albums Chart

Saturday, 07 September 2019

Seven Little Australians (Part 2)

SLAb6Cyrano in Concert, 1994

From the Archives

First published in On Stage in Spring 2009, Peter Pinne concludes his exploration of the musicalisation of Seven Little Australians by looking at the career of composer and arranger David Reeves.


Early in 1991, while the Queensland Theatre Company was mounting its production of David Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Reeves himself was busy in Melbourne preparing for the opening of his new show, Favourite Son, originally called Once Upon a Time. This time Reeves was credited with music and concept, and Terry Stapleton with book and lyrics.

Stapleton had started writing and reviewing for The Bulletin in Adelaide in the 60s, and later became successful working in television for Crawfords, creating The Last of the Australians, Bobby Dazzler and This Man, This Woman. No stranger to theatre, his plays included Some Night in Julia Creek, Last Dance, A Few Close Friends and Say Goodbye.

Favourite Son’s plot involved a young man (Young Johnny) from the country who gets an offer from an American movie director (Sam) to go to the city to star in a film. The only problem is the director is a shark and the film turns out to be a jeans commercial.

Reeves was again the producer, Pamela French was director and choreographer, with design by Terry Ryan. The cast of 14 was headed by Terry Serio (Young Johnny), Reg Gorman (Big Johnny), Nadine Wells (Milah), Rod Anderson (Sam), Joseph Clements (Max) and Danielle Goullet (Julietta). Musical director Conrad Helfrich led a 7-piece pit band.

The show opened at the Comedy Theatre on Friday 28 December 1990. The notices were devastating. Peter Craven in The Australian (31 December 1990) called it an ‘inoffensive but undercooked piece of nonsense which has no serious claims on a city audience.’ He said ‘the score has some pleasing moments, even some memorable ones,’ and that Stapleton’s lyrics balance ‘corn and slickness,’ but the whole production seemed to have been put together by a ‘country town music master and performed by the local light opera company.’ The performers came out of it best of all. ‘Serio is about as convincing in the part of the young dolt in the city as the material allows. Goullet, as the girlfriend, sings and acts well in a Patti McGrath manner and Wells and Anderson make an engaging pair of scumbag Americans.’

If Craven’s notice wasn’t enough to sink the ship, then Leonard Radic’s in The Age (1 January 1991) certainly was. He wondered ‘how such a patently sub-standard piece of work ever found its way on to a major city stage.’ He went on to say, ‘The book and lyrics are knee-deep in clichés like “making it” and grabbing “the big chance” when it comes.’ He also thought the production had a provincial air about it, but acknowledged the chorus was ‘willing’ and the dance routines ‘snappy.’ He thought Serio was convincing in a role that was totally implausible, and that Gorman battled hard to make something of his part. He ended his notice by asking, ‘How did such an undernourished theatrical turkey ever make it to the post-Christmas table? How?’

The backers pulled their money and the show closed on Friday 4 January 1991. Its 5-night run lost $500,000. Reeves decided it was time to try his luck in London and moved his family there the following year.

  • SLAb01

    Costume design by Terry Ryan for Favourite Son, 1990.

  • SLAb05

    Normie Rowe as Cyrano, Cyrano in Concert, 1994.

With sponsorship from Allgas Energy Ltd, Queensland, Reeves’ version of Cyrano first saw the light of day as a ‘highlights’ album in 1992, released by EMI on cassette (HAD135) and CD (HA0135). The cast featured Normie Rowe, Penny Hay, Simon Gallaher, Kirri Adams, Neil Mason, Michael Leighton-Jones, Gregory Massingham, the Jones & Co. Chorus, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tommy Tycho. Reeves was responsible for music, lyrics and orchestrations, with assistance on the latter from Tycho and Arthur Greenslade.

Recorded at Channel 9’s Starsound Studios in Brisbane, the album contained almost 70 minutes of the show’s score. It was an ambitious work with touches of Reeves’ favorite composers, Bach, Bernstein and Gilbert and Sullivan.10

Cyrano premiered in a concert version, with the CD cast, at the Suncorp Plaza, South Bank, Brisbane, 7 November 1992. Barbara Hebden in The Sunday Mail (8 November 1992) claimed: ‘Reeves could have a winner on his hands.’ She found the music ‘melodious’ with a ‘strong rhythmic pulse’, and particularly praised the recycled ‘About You’.

Two years later, a fully-costumed concert version of Cyrano, with basically the same cast, was presented at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, from 11-15 October 1994, with Oscar-winning British actor Sir John Mills introducing and closing the performances. The show had undergone a major rewrite with Hal Shaper now being credited with book and lyrics.

Shaper, a South African, had major London credits writing lyrics for Jane Eyre (1961), Treasure Island (1973) and Great Expectations (1975), in which Mills had featured. Shaper also had success writing pop tunes, notably the Matt Monro hit ‘Softly as I Leave You’.

‘In embryonic form, Cyrano revealed easy-listening melodies sung engagingly,’ said Patricia Kelly (The Australian, 14 October 1994), adding that though Rowe was no Pavarotti, he had ‘plenty of heart and soul’. Peta Koch (Courier-Mail, 17 October 1994) was also laudatory of Rowe and singled out his songs ‘Journey to a Woman’s Heart’ and ‘Spirit Candles.’ She also liked Miranda Gehrke’s portrayal of Roxane, especially in ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore,’ and Kirri Adams as the Duenna with her show-stopper, ‘A Woman’s Work’. The use of Mills to introduce the show was criticized by reviewers as unnecessary, but there was no denying it provided a major publicity and promotional hook.

Several songs from the earlier version remained, albeit with different or revised and improved lyrics: ‘The Journey to a Woman’s Heart’. ‘What are You Talking About?’, ‘Roxane’, ‘Gascons Forever’, ‘In the King’s Service’ and ‘Drink a Little Wine with Me’, but the revision did not use ‘After You’. This new version was recorded and released on Castle (CDSGP 9800) in 1994. A third recording, reverting to the original 1992 version of the score, was issued in 2007 by English Gramophone (CD HA0136).

Reeves premiered his next show, Dorian, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Arts Theatre, London. It opened on 25 September 1997 to universal pans: ‘An utter disaster that will undoubtedly die a deserved death’ (Warren Seamans, The London Theatre Guide Online, September 1997), ‘A flat, fatuous piece of writing with no subtlety, depth or wit whatsoever’ (Sarah Hemming, Financial Times) and ‘It takes a certain ingenuity to turn a 19th century literary masterpiece into a musical Penny Dreadful. Mehmet Ergen’s production makes it look like a piece of cake’ (James Christopher, The Times).

But if The Times hated Dorian, it loved Reeves’ next effort, Becket—The Kiss of Peace, hailing it ‘A masterpiece’ (Robert Thicknesse). An oratorio about the murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry II’s direct or indirect involvement in it, the work was first performed on 21 October 2000 in Canterbury Cathedral, along with works by Aaron Copland (‘In The Beginning’) and Leonard Bernstein (‘Chichester Psalms’).

  • SLAb01

    OzMade Musicals’ 2006 presentation of scenes from Reeves’ James and Maggie. Megan Holt as Maggie Moore and Jeremiah Tickell as J.C. Williamson.

  • SLAb05

    Flyer for Grand Central, 2006.

There are two recordings of the score, a live version of the original cast on English Gramophone (EG 000421/2007), and a studio version, recorded prior to the world premiere, with the same cast except for Harvey Brink, who was replaced by James Kanagasooriam, on English Gramophone (EG 000157/1999).

The following year Reeves was commissioned by the Festival of Peace, Italy, to write another oratorio. The result, Planet Requiem, was performed as part of the 2002 Assisi Festival.

Four years later Reeves created Grand Central, a Latin love story set in New York in the 70s, about illegal immigrants and the stand-off between Cuba and the United States. The work was given a concert performance at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle, NSW, on 21 April 2006. Peter Wyllie Johnston said it was: ‘an original work with universal themes which Australians, accustomed to the challenges of immigration, can readily appreciate’.11

A ‘snapshot’ of two excerpts from James and Maggie, a musical about the tempestuous love affair between theatrical entrepreneur J.C. Williamson and his actress wife Maggie Moore, was included in Magnormos’ OzMade Musicals on 19 November 2006 at Theatreworks, St Kilda. The featured segments highlighted the first meeting of Williamson (Jeremiah Tickell) and Moore (Megan Holt) with the duet ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ and ‘I’ve Said Yes,’ where Moore tells her mother that she is going to marry Williamson. For James and Maggie, Reeves collaborated once more with Peter Yeldham, who created the book and lyrics. The musical was first drafted three years after the professional debut of Seven Little Australians. To date there has been no production of the full show.

Reeves continued to write musicals and in 2009 created Vox a musical from an original story about Americans returned from combat in Iraq, and in 2013 Hey! Hey!—(The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) a young people’s musical set to Mark Twain’s theatrical text. Both were published by DRM (David Reeves Publishing).

In 2019 Reeves compiled and arranged Stage Door Songbook—Songs from Australian Musicals which was published by Origin Theatrical. The songbook contained songs from nine musicals, including Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Grand Central, and Cyrano de Bergerac, plus Lola Montez, Matilda, The Venetian Twins, Paris, Ned Kelly and The Boy From Oz. It was a unique publication being the first time a music publisher had ever published a collection of songs from Australian musicals. Reeves also wrote a brief snapshot of the genre as an introduction.

  • SLAb01

    Program for Aunty, Armidale School, 1982.

  • SLAb05

    Lyricist Jim Graham.

Prior to Reeves’ position at TAS, he was an acclaimed organist with seven organ albums to his credit. He performed regularly for the ABC and at the Sydney Town Hall, including Messiah from 1962 until 1978.

Like Edmond Samuels with The Highwayman and Albert Arlen with The Sentimental Bloke, David Reeves believed in his product, was passionate about getting it produced, and made it happen. Throughout his career he has continued to secure corporate finance for his projects. One has to admire his determination. His canon of work is certainly eclectic: four adaptations of famous literary works, one comic strip, five originals, and two oratorios. He has had his failures, yet he has also had his successes.

He hit the jackpot first time out with Seven Little Australians, but nothing he’s written since has equaled its popularity. It’s a skilled adaptation of Ethel Turner’s classic book with a very pleasant score. When it premiered in 1988 it did sound old-fashioned, but it was good old-fashioned – melodic and jaunty, schmaltzy in places, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. Audiences felt for the characters. It had heart. It was engaging, funny, and a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. One can’t ask for more than that.

Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.

Images courtesy of Peter Pinne.


  1. Matt Mollett, ‘Against the odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
  2. Margot Date, ‘Beyond the cringe with a Mosman composer’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Northern Life, 24 May 1990, p. 79
  3. Peter Wyllie Johnston, The Development of the Australian Musical, 1900-2000, PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne, 2007


The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Sydney, NSW), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs


Seven Little AustraliansA scene from the Sydney season, Footbridge Theatre, 1989.

From the Archives

Once again we dip into the archives of On Stage. First published in the Winter and Spring 2009 editions of the magazine, Peter Pinne explores the musicalisation of a much-loved children’s classic.


By 1988 Ethel Turner’s classic children’s book Seven Little Australians had sold more than 3 million copies since its first publication in 1894. It had been translated into more than ten languages, made into a stage play (1915), a feature film (1939),1. a radio series, a BBC television series (1953), and a highly successful 10-episode ABC television series (1973)2.—therefore it was no surprise that someone would come up with a musical version of the well-loved property.

Opening on 22 June 1988 at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, the show immediately captivated critics and audiences, and settled down for a four-month run. This was followed by seasons in Hobart, Launceston, Adelaide, and later Sydney and Brisbane, making it one of the most successful Australian musicals of recent times.

Turner’s book, set in the period in which it was written, was a funny, touching and romantic story of a hard-hearted military man, Captain Woolcot (Woolcott in the musical), with seven children, who marries a much younger woman, Esther, after his wife dies. The story hinges on the acceptance of Esther by the children, especially the eldest, Meg, who is almost the same age. The consequences of teenage rebelliousness and a softening of the father’s attitude are what give the story its heart. The tale does have an affinity with The Sound of Music, being about a stern Captain and his children, but there the similarity ends. 

According to composer David Reeves, ‘the development of Seven Little Australians as a professional stage musical from my point of view started around 1984 when I approached Noel Ferrier of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). All previous attempts by others to attract a producer had come to nothing and director Rodney Fisher (brought in to help by Noel) stated to all involved at that time that “all that existed was an idea.” Noel encouraged me as a composer to take on the project in association with the AETT with a view to a major production.’

But the journey of the musical version of Seven Little Australians started long before the involvement of the AETT.

  • SevenLittleAust 001

    The program for the Melbourne premiere, Comedy Theatre, 22 June 1988.

  • Composer and arranger of the score, musical director and producer David Reeves.

In 1976 Jim Graham, history master at The Armidale School (TAS), an exclusive boys’ school in Armidale, NSW, secured the rights to turn Ethel Turner’s novel into a musical from her son, Sir Adrian Curlewis. The following year, David Reeves took up the position of Director of Music at TAS, and Graham asked him to collaborate on the show, with Graham writing book and lyrics, and Reeves composing the score. Graham had previously written and directed melodramas and plays for the school, as well as producing their annual dose of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Born in Sydney in 1943, Reeves was schooled at Sydney Church of England Grammar and started his professional career as an organist at the Garrison Church in The Rocks. He studied at the NSW Conservatorium of Music under Alexander Sverjensky, and won several scholarships. Later, in tandem with his career as a concert organist, he worked as a jazz pianist and wrote jingles and documentary film scores. He also wrote the all organ score for the Hanna-Barbera animated film Silent Night (1971) and a stage/ballet score for the ABC in 1972. Seven Little Australians was his first score for the musical theatre.

This first version of the show was co-produced by The Armidale School and the Drama Department of the University of New England at the University’s Arts Theatre on 21 April 1978. Graham was the director, with Reeves as Musical Director. The local Armidale Express called it ‘charming’, and said it was ‘bubbling with melody’. It played for five nights and then one month later, with the same cast, played for one night (27 May 1978) at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney—a performance billed as the world premiere.

Following the Seymour Centre performance, producers Malcolm Cooke and Mike Walsh showed interest in the project, but wanted a rewrite of the book and lyrics. David Mitchell, Richard Wherrett and Rodney Fisher were brought in to work on the book at one time or another, but Cooke and Walsh thought there were still problems. Eleanor Witcombe, writer of the Seven Little Australians TV series, was then hired as a script doctor. They signed John Truscott to create the sets and costumes (according to David Mitchell, Truscott’s model for the house was ‘fabulous’), and booked Her Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne for the show.

Unsatisfied with the rewrites, Cooke and Walsh later bowed out, but not before they had a new score (unused) written by ex In Melbourne Tonight arranger Geoff Hales. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas later filled the space in the theatres in Sydney and Melbourne.

Enter Sydney Festival director, Stephen Hall. He displayed an interest in the show and wanted to get it up as a commercial production. Operation Young Composer was an initiative that had begun in 1983 to assist up-and-coming young composers. In the early days, performances were given as part of the Sydney Festival, whose sponsors at that time were Air Canada and James Hardie Industries. It was Hall who brought James Hardie to the table. Eventually the firm agreed to invest $1 million in the musical,3. but the project stalled for some time, the relationship between Reeves and Graham soured, and Graham reluctantly bowed out.

Nevertheless, Reeves, an intensely driven man, was determined to see his dream of a musical version of Seven Little Australians reach the commercial stage. He seconded John Palmer, a lyricist and scriptwriter for animated children’s movies (Dot and the Kangaroo) to rewrite the book and lyrics, and then took it to Noel Ferrier at the AETT. Ferrier loved it and work-shopped it at the Trust’s warehouse, Dowling Street, Potts Point, Sydney, in 1985. Melissa Bickerton played the role of Judy.

The plan was for James Hardie Industries to fund a production by the AETT and Reeves. Over a period of eighteen months, because of management and internal difficulties within the Trust, the project languished, and eventually Hardie agreed to Reeves himself producing the work during the Bicentennial year. It was an unusual move for James Hardie which had previously sponsored the James Hardie 100 car race at Bathurst. According to Hardie executive Jim Kelso, ‘The Company always wanted to do something as a gesture to the Bicentennial that would be distinctly Australian.’4.

Three months before the Melbourne opening, Reeves enlisted the aid of noted author and scriptwriter Peter Yeldham (1915, The Alien Years, Captain James Cook) to further revise the book and lyrics. Yeldham had been Reeves’ original choice (before Palmer), to do this work, but Yeldham had been committed to the ABC-TV series Captain James Cook.

With James Hardie’s money in his pocket, Reeves set about finding a production team. Disagreements saw the early departure of feminist director, Chris Johnson, and set designers Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson.5.

Enter John O’May, an American actor, who at that time had been working professionally in Australia for 16 years. His performance credits had included Godspell, Company, The 20s and All That Jazz and Che in Evita, but he did have directing experience. Reeves hired him as the director, and also cast him in the leading role of the father, Captain Woolcott.

Kenneth Rowell, whose work in design had been acclaimed in opera and ballet, then came on board to do sets and costumes, and former TV dancer Pamela French was employed to handle choreography. Rowell’s set drawings were reminiscent of paintings by Tom Roberts and the Heidelberg School.6.

IMG 0139

Alyce Platt as Esther, Comedy Theatre, 1988.

Alyce Platt, former hostess of TV’s Sale of the Century was cast as Esther. Platt was no Julie Andrews vocally, but her soprano was sweet and sure. Judith McGrath doubled as Martha and Miss Jolly, Judith Roberts was Miss Burton, and Noel Mitchell played Monsieur Marceau. Others in the adult cast included John Murphy (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Lisa O’Dea (Mrs Bryant/Aldith McCarthy), Dale Burridge (Alan Courtney) and Grant Dale (Andrew Courtney).

In the children’s roles, Melissa Bickerton was Judy (as she had been in the workshop), with Beven Addinsall (Pip), Michelle Pettigrew (Meg), Sean Delahunty and Murray Golding alternating the role of Bunty, Tamsin West and Caroline Graig doing likewise with Nell, Charmaine Gorman and Sheridan Compagnino sharing the part of Baby, and Janelle Fisher and Rebecca Mitchell taking turns as the Little General. The family aspect of the show carried over to the casting with Judith Roberts and her two daughters Charmaine and Kate Gorman all scoring parts in the show.

The orchestra, which was conducted by William (Bill) Motzing, numbered 22. Orchestrations were by Reeves.

Helen Thompson in The Australian (24 June 1988) called it ‘fresh, funny, pleasantly unassuming in style and perfect family entertainment’. She thought Platt was ‘sympathetic and winning’, McGrath’s comic skills were ‘superb’, but found O’May’s Captain ‘too engaging to be a convincing disciplinarian’. However Leonard Radic in The Age (24 June 1988) thought O’May caught the ‘right mix of sternness and humanity’, but found Platt’s role ‘colourless’. On two points they both agreed: Bickerton was ‘excellent’ as Judy, and five-year-old Rebecca Mitchell as the Little General ‘stole the show’.

Clark Forbes in The Sun (23 June 1988) called it a ‘good, old-fashioned show’, which was echoed by almost every other reviewer. The adaptation was faithful to the source material and Reeves and Palmer’s score was toe-tapping and bright. Some made references to possible echoes of songs from other musicals—Annie, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!—but most agreed the big love ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ was a fine number that hit all the right emotional buttons. Other songs singled out included ‘Walking The Block,’ ‘The Academy of Monsieur Marceau’, ‘Can You Love Me’ and ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini.’ Only two songs survived from the 1978 Armidale production: ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, retitled ‘Rattle the Track’.

Jim Graham’s involvement in the show was reduced to a ‘based on a concept by’ credit in the program.

Reeves’ belief in his material had been vindicated. He had a hit on his hands, which was endorsed by the public when the show played for 15 weeks, ending in October 1988. At that point it had become the most successful Australian musical to play the Comedy Theatre since The Sentimental Bloke’s five-month record in 1961-62.

Next up was a tour. The first stop was a short season at Australia’s oldest surviving theatre, Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal, from 8 October 1988. For the Hobart performances the roles of Baby and the Little General were recast with local children. According to John Unicomb, then the general manager of the Theatre Royal, it was ‘the biggest musical to come to the state in the past decade’.7.

Rosina Beaumont in The Mercury said it was ‘three hours of dinkum Aussie entertainment sure to please everyone from the littlies to grandma’. She liked the ‘energetic dancing of the chorus’, and thought O’May’s direction was ‘masterful’. The show played 8 performances. It closed on 15 October and moved to Launceston’s Princess Theatre, where it opened on 21 October and closed 26 October after 11 performances.

John Lorey in the Launceston Examiner labelled it, ‘Our own Sound of Music!’ and praised Platt for her ‘warmth and charm’, O’May for his ‘commanding stage presence and fine baritone voice’, Roberts and Mitchell in their various roles, and McGrath for her ‘droll’ playing of Martha.

A little over three weeks later, on 20 November 1988, the show berthed at the Adelaide Festival Centre just in time for the Christmas holidays. The cast remained the same except for the younger children’s roles which were again played by locals.

Tim Lloyd in The Advertiser (21 November 1988) said, ‘Thanks to Ethel Turner, it will warm many hearts in this country.’ He thought there were ‘two-and-a-half passably good songs and several enjoyable dance routines.’ He liked Platt, O’May and Bickerton, and called French’s choreography ‘the best thing about the production’. The News printed a review by a nine-year-old child. This was strongly condemned by Reeves in a Letter to the Editor (1 December); he claimed his was ‘not a children’s musical’, but a show ‘designed to appeal to a mass audience and to provide a good night’s entertainment’. Despite a lack of promotion, the show played a solid three-week season, closing on 10 December 1988.

It was to be almost nine months before the reached Sydney. It opened at the Footbridge Theatre on 16 September 1989. The producers and the production were identical, but the show had undergone some major cast changes. John O’May was back to direct and play Captain Woolcott, as was Melissa Bickerton (Judy). They were joined by newcomers Edwina Cox (Esther), Robert Berry (Monsieur Marceau), Judy Glen (Miss Burton), Shirley Cameron (Martha), Wayne Scott Kermond (Andrew Courtney), Marcia Gaye Snowden (Meg), Chris Dickson (Alan Courtney) and Dean McRae (Pip).

Script and score rewrites included moving ‘Parramatta River’ to the head of the show, cutting ‘Spring’, and ‘Children’, adding the new song ‘Back, Back to Sydney’, plus reinstating ‘Soldiers of the Lord’ and ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which had originally been dropped in Melbourne. The orchestra had been reduced to nine. The program included the lyrics of all of the show’s songs, with O’May now credited for lyrics along with Reeves, Palmer and Yeldham. Graham’s ‘based on a concept by’ credit had disappeared.

Bob Evans in The Sydney Morning Herald (18 September 1989) said it was ‘a show that is brimming with sentiment and spiced with smiles. It is guaranteed to have you blinking back the tears’. Frank Gauntlett in the Daily Mirror headlined ‘Family show hits home’, and Bronwen Gora in the Sunday Telegraph called it an ‘Aussie musical made for the family’.

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Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.

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Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.

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A scene from the Sydney season, Footbridge Theatre, 1989.

Bruce Dellit (with fiddle) in the Brisbane season, Suncorp Theatre, 1991.

All the critics loved Bickerton with the SMH saying she ‘gives one of the most dynamic and appealing performances seen on any Sydney stage this year’. They thought O’May played Woolcott to ‘perfection’, and that Cox’s performance was ‘exemplary’, along with Kermond, Berry, Glen and Cameron.

Eighteen months later a new production of the show was mounted by the Royal Queensland Theatre Company under the direction of Alan Edwards, using the revised Sydney script and score. It opened at the Suncorp Theatre on 21 February 1991.

The 22-strong cast included Simon Burvill-Holmes (Captain Woolcott), Susie French (Esther), Veronica Neave (Judy), Kevin Hides (Monsieur Marceau), Margery Forde (Miss Burton/Mrs Hassal), Sally McKenzie-Mee (Martha/Miss Jolly), Bill French (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Alinta Coady (Meg) and Matt Leighton (Pip). Musical direction was by Dale Ringland, with choreography by Graeme Watson.

Peta Koch was scathing in her review in The Courier Mail (23 February 1991), saying the show ‘had not been reworked enough to make its remounting worthwhile’. She said, ‘Reeves’ music and the script were not memorable and the plot is tenuous and laboured’. Her praise was reserved for Burvill-Holmes as Woolcott, French as Esther, Neave as Judy, and McKenzie-Mee as Martha and Miss Jolly.

Just as dismissive was Brett Debritz in the Brisbane Sun (22 February 1991): ‘[It’s] too long, too slow, and it lacks truly memorable tunes.’ Sue Gough in The Bulletin questioned why QTC couldn’t have found ‘something better than this pinchbeck G&S, this antipodean version of The Sound of Music’ to start its season.

Before the production opened at the Suncorp Theatre, the scheduled three-week season had been sold out, so it was decided to extend it by one week, to March 16. The bad notices killed the box office and for some nights of the extra week the show played to an audience of only 75.

To date, this was the last professional production of the work, although there have been several productions on the amateur circuit. In 1996 Reeves and British producer Dan Crawford went searching for finance for a projected London season. The show was to have had a name change to Judy, but to date British audiences have not been exposed to the tears and joys of the Woolcott family.8.

The show made money in Melbourne and Tasmania, lost in Adelaide and Sydney and despite the poor last week, did very well in Brisbane.

Reeves recorded the original cast and released it on cassette under his own label Bodemo (BOD 003). Later the album was picked up by EMI who reissued it on LP (EMC-791157) and CD (CDP 791157). It received an ARIA nomination for Best Original Soundtrack or Cast Album in 1989.9. Recorded two months after the show premiered in Melbourne, the album is missing ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which was dropped after the opening. Two songs also have different titles: ‘Dear Miss Woolcott’ is listed as ‘Fall in Like with You’ and ‘Rattle the Track’ is titled ‘Catching the Central Express’. The album also includes ‘Soldiers of the Lord’.

EMI also released a 45rpm single of the ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ sung by Julie Anthony, with ‘Monsieur Marceau’ sung by The Seven Chorus on the flip side (EMI 2065). The Tommy Tycho Orchestra accompanied both tracks. During the 1988 Melbourne season, the entire cast made a TV appearance on The Mike Walsh Show, singing ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini’. An archival tape survives of this performance. Castle Music published the sheet music of ‘Look for a Rainbow’ with Julie Anthony on the cover, but there was no credit for the show.

A private original cast LP recording of the 1978 Armidale School production contains an Overture and Entr’acte, a title tune, plus 12 other songs, including the two songs, ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, that ended up in the commercial production.

To be continued...


Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.
Images courtesy of Peter Pinne & Frank Van Straten.



  1. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981
  2. Albert Moran, Moran’s Guide to Australian TV Series, Allen & Unwin, 1993
  3. ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
  4. ibid.
  5. ‘Seven up after ten years’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1988
  6. ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
  7. ‘Turning point for State’s theatre’, The Examiner, 17 October 1988
  8. Matt Mollett, ‘Against The Odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
  9. ibid.



The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs

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