British author and record producer Adrian Wright closes a gap in the available material on musical theater with an interesting and easily read book on just what its title promises – West End Broadway: The Golden Age of the American Musical in London.
The flow between New York’s Broadway and London’s West End was predominantly a one-way street for the bulk of the Twentieth Century. It is that west-to-east flow that concerns Wright here. He documents and comments on 103 musicals that made the trip east between the World War II years of (in British eyes) 1939 – 1945 and 1972 when the flow slowed to a trickle.
Wright isn’t doctrinaire in restricting his coverage to actual transfers of Broadway productions. As is typical of the strange business called “show,” there are so many ways that producers find to try to entice ticket buyers into choosing their wares that absolute boundaries are difficult to discern, let alone enforce.
Thus, the earliest production that gets Wrights’ treatment is Wild Rose. You can look long and hard at Broadway records for such a show, but there never was a Broadway Wild Rose. Instead, the 1942 London show of that title was an old Jerome Kern show, Sally. Wright reports that the program for Wild Rose promised “A New Treatment of an Old Story” which was devised and staged by London-born Robert Nesbit. Sally, of course, was the 1920 Kern, Bolton and Grey show that made a book-musical star of Ziegfeld Follies star Marilynn Miller (who then spelled her name with two “n”s).
Wild Rose may have been a re-staging (without the by-then-deceased Miller) of a two decade old show, but Wright includes it along with the only three year old Du Barry Was A Lady in which British performers delivered versions of Cole Porter’s numbers introduced on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and a solidly American cast. How did London’s Frances Day compare with New York’s biggest female star of her day? Wright refuses judgment. He appears to be much too young to have witnessed either performance, so he contents himself with “Merman and Day? We might as well compare the moon with the sun” – he didn’t specify which was which.
After his brief sketch of the roots of popular musical theater, and a somewhat more detailed recitation of the few transfers during the war years, Wright launches a year-by-year description of the traffic which includes a fairly detailed (and apparently fair) discussion of the strengths and/or weaknesses of each show.
For example, 1946′s four pages are devoted to Wright and Forrest’s bio-musical of composer Edvard Grieg, Song of Norway. He tells a bit of the kind of show it was on Broadway and its success there to set the stage for discussing the transfer. He then lets us know that, in this case, the West End production was “not a replica of the New York original” as it had a different director and George Balanchine’s choreography was “newly invented for London.”
At the end of each year’s discussion, Wright provides a brief annotated listing of the musicals that opened on Broadway that year which later had transfers and those which never did make the leap across “the pond.”
Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. That is why it is good that Wright includes in his discussions the economic and social background of life in London at different times over the course of his 1939 – 1972 survey. The most interesting of these digressions in his narrative are those that portray the dangers and deprivations of World War II and the austerity period that followed the victory which had cost that country and its population so much of its treasure - human and financial.
In fact, Wright opens his narrative on September 3, 1939 when Prime Minister Chamberlain announced the declaration of war against Germany. The very next day, the government decreed that all theaters must close. The closure only lasted a dozen days (and nights) but it certainly demonstrated just where the performing arts stood in the list of public priorities.
The discussion of Sunny River, the Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II 1941 flop (36 performances at Broadway’s St. James Theater) which had an 86 performance run in 1943 at London’s Piccadilly Theatre, provides a fascinating look at what theatergoing was like during the war. Wright prints the text of this notice from the program of that show:
“Warning of Air Raid will be given by a RED electric sign over the Orchestra Pit. ALL CLEAR will be similarly shown in GREEN. Patrons are advised to remain in the Theatre, but those wishing to leave will be directed to the nearest official air raid shelter, after which the performance will be continuing for as log as is practicable. Should any news of particular interest be received during the performance it will be announced from the stage at the end of the succeeding scene or act of the play.”
It must have taken quite a spirit to enter into the magic of a show under those circumstances.
The post-war era of privation gets its descriptive due as well. Rationing didn’t end promptly with the end of the war. Wright reports that “clothes were rationed until 1949; in June 1947, newspapers were restricted to a maximum of four pages; in September that year the taking of foreign holidays became illegal; and in an effort to save coal, the government cut train services by 10%.” He speaks of “diets made up of dried egg, cream concocted from margarine and vanilla, and Woolton Pie” (a meatless meat pie) and tells us that “Winston Churchill pronounced (the food ration) quite adequate for a day” – but he was looking at the weekly and not the daily ration.
He also ties dramatic domestic events to post-war/post-recovery periods. He discusses the impact of the April 20, 1964 power outage that crippled the Underground and deprived the television channel BBC2 of the use of its studio on its inaugural night, which was to have featured Howard Keel and Patricia Morison in a special performance of Kiss Me, Kate which had to be replaced by playing a recording of a song from Flower Drum Song followed by one from West Side Story and then one from Mr. Wonderful. Notice that all four of the shows involved were Broadway musicals, not musicals written for the West End.
While Wright’s narrative is the main attraction of this slick-papered volume, an appendix with an alphabetical listing of the musicals covered by the book with details of both the Broadway and London productions makes the book one that can be on your research shelf.
His countrymen should not feel slighted by the fact that Wright concentrates here on the American musical theater product and not their home grown variety. His treatment is only the flip side of a coin he explored in his 2010 book with a British colloquialism for a title – A Tanner’s Worth of Tune: Rediscovering the Post-War British Musical. (Note to American readers – a “tanner” is British slang for a sixpence.)
West End Broadway:
The Golden Age of the American Musical in London
by Adrian Wright
40 Illustrations – most in color
List Price $45
West End Broadway
March 27, 2013