In the 1950s and ’60s, several British musicals were running in London;, they were gentle tales of first love and innocence loved by all who saw them.
The 1950s and ’60s were the pre-Lloyd Webber days when musicals did not involve huge sets and large choruses. They gave audiences what they wanted in a post-war existence. Perhaps they were sugary sweet and everyone married their first love and lived happily ever after and some of them did not run. But those who saw them loved them at the time and look back on them with pure nostalgia.
The onset of the brash American musical killed off these shows, where there were no drugs, people fell in love and the sun always shone. Some of them have been revived with modern interpretations but these shows belong to an era that no long exists.
The Water Gypsies
The book and lyrics were adapted by Alan (A.P.) Herbert from his own novel, and the music was by Vivian Ellis. It told the story of the canal boat people who lived on boats decorated with Castles and Hearts and Roses (the hit song from the show).
Premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre (now the New London) in August 1955 the story of the low-life river dwellers ran for 239 performances with a cast that included Dora Bryan, Laurie Payne, Pamela Charles and Peter Graves.
Bryan played Lily Bell and stole the show with her song “Why Did You Call Me Lily?” and was a great contrast to Charles who played the innocent heroine Jane whilst Laurie Payne played the love interest, the illiterate bargee who led the company in “Castles and Hearts and Roses.”
This is one of the survivors of the ’50s which has been revived several times and never seems to date. Perhaps it is because audiences can escape reality and enjoy a musical about youth, innocence and first love. The title originated from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in her speech at the end of Act One when she regrets her involvement with Julius Caesar in her youth, “My salad days when I was green in judgement, cold in blood.”
With music by Julian Slade and lyrics by Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade it was premiered at the Bristol Old Vic in 1954 before it transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre in London on August 5th 1954 where it ran for 2,283 performances. It was the longest running show in British musical Theatre history until it was overtaken by “Oliver” and it won the Evening Standard Award for the Most Enjoyable Show in 1955.
Undergraduates Jane, played by Eleanor Drew and Timothy (John Warner) fall in love when they are at university and marry in secret because Timothy’s parents want him to get a job before he settles down. They produce several influential uncles to offer jobs he doesn’t want so he vows to take the first job he can get. When a tramp offers him £7 a week to look after his piano for a month Timothy and Jane agree and it is not until they take possession of it they find it has magic powers to make everyone dance when they hear it.
Free As Air
This musical was written by the same team that was responsible for Salad Days, but never had the same impact. It opened at the Opera House in Manchester before moving to London’s Savoy Theatre on 6th June 1957 where it ran for 417 performances.
The show revolved around two days in May on Tethou, a fictitious Channel Island as the islanders prepare for their Independence Day celebrations. They find there is no young lady to play the Queen so when the monthly boat arrives bringing a stranger Geraldine she seems to be the solution to their problems, but this upsets local girl Molly. The original cast included Patricia Bredin as Molly and Gillian Lewis as Geraldine.
Robert and Elizabeth
A show based on Rudolph Besier’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the music was composed by Ron Grainer and the book and lyrics were by Grainer and Ronald Miller. It is an operetta-style musical and was a great success when it opened in London in 1964.
The casting was strong with Keith Michell as Robert Browning and June Bronhill as the fellow poet he falls in love with, Elizabeth Barrett. John Clements was excellent as her stern father Edward Moulton Barrett and Henrietta was played by Angela Richards.
It went on to play at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, Australia on May 21 1966 with British actor Dennis Quilley playing Robert Browning and Australian June Bronhill recreating her role as Elizabeth. After six months in Melbourne the musical played in Sydney for four weeks but it never reached Broadway in New York due to a copyright dispute with the writer of the original book Rudolph Besier.
This was the most disastrous musical that limped into London in 1969, often playing to nearly empty houses in the Palace Theatre for just 44 performances. Although it failed miserably Edward Woodward did win a Variety Club Award for the Best Performance in a Musical in 1969 as the hero Sydney Carlton.
With music by Jeff Wayne and lyrics by Jerry Wayne, it was billed as “The Spectacular New Musical” and was supposed to be a mammoth British attempt to stage a musical based on Charles Dickens’ story of the French Revolution. Elizabeth Power played Lucy Manette and Kevin Colson was Charles Darnay.
Ned Sherrin staged a spectacular production of Salad Days, which toured the country a few years ago and it still pops up now and again. Chichester Festival Theatre staged a production of Robert and Elizabeth as part of their Festival season, but it was done differently. A theatre company was staging a musical about the love affair between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and then it went into the old-style musical but somehow it lacked the charm of the original production.
The Water Gypsies has been consigned to history but Free as Air is still produced by amateur companies throughout Britain. “Two Cities” died a death and has now been overshadowed by a spectacular new American production of A Tale of Two Cities, which ran on Broadway and may well get a West End production eventually.