A programme of songs—romantic, swashbuckling, plain silly—from shows staged during the glory days of the Gaiety, Shaftesbury, Daly’s and Adelphi Theatres.
Lionel Monckton was among the very finest British melodists, ranking as such with the likes of Arthur Sullivan, Eric Coates and Ivor Novello. His music encapsulates the gaiety of the Edwardian age, and it is our great loss that we hear so little of it these days. This new recording, with the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp (a major authority on this music), is the perfect introduction to his charming songs and features soloists Catherine Bott and Richard Suart. Catherine Bott brings her sumptuous voice, cut-glass diction and delightful gifts of characterisation to the service of these songs. Formerly better-known as an early music specialist, her cabaret entertainment London Pride () proved her to be an ideal performer of Monckton’s music. Richard Suart is the master of the patter song and simply one of the greatest G&S interpreters in the world.
Lionel Monckton was among the very finest British melodists, ranking as such with the likes of Arthur Sullivan, Eric Coates and Ivor Novello. His music encapsulates the gaiety of the Edwardian age, and it is our great loss that we hear so little of it these days.
Born John Lionel Alexander Monckton in London on 18 December 1861, he was the eldest son of Sir John Braddick Monckton, Town Clerk of London, and his wife Maria Louisa, née Long, who later appeared on the London stage as Lady Monckton. Lionel was educated at Charterhouse School and Oriel College, Oxford, and he played a prominent part in the founding of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. He followed his father into the legal profession but simultaneously dabbled in music and theatre criticism. Theatrical interests finally took over, though he was already thirty when he had his first number sung on the West End stage and thirty-three before he really established himself as a song composer for the Gaiety Theatre.
The Gaiety productions were inconsequential pieces—not far removed from variety shows, with a rudimentary plot, pretty chorus girls, and catchy tunes. Compared with the burlesques of familiar stories that had previously held the stage there, they featured contemporary settings, fashionable dresses, exotic locations and a younger generation of performers and writers. The audiences of the day loved them, and runs of a year or two (exceptional elsewhere) became the norm. It helped that a show would periodically go into a ‘new edition’ with new numbers to make return visits more worthwhile. In days before radio and television, and when recording and film were in their infancy, the appeal was akin to that of the television soap operas of today.
Initially Monckton contributed just a few interpolated numbers for the Gaiety to scores largely by Ivan Caryll (1861–1921). However, Monckton’s always proved the big hit numbers, and soon he achieved increased contribution and equal billing. His importance rose still further when he discovered a future star for the Gaiety in Bradford-born Gertie Millar (1879–1952), whom he married in the autumn of 1902.
The run of Caryll and Monckton shows at the Gaiety ran almost without interruption from 1894 until 1910. Meanwhile his superiority of invention also led to him succeeding Sidney Jones (1861–1946) as principal composer for two shows at Daly’s Theatre in 1902 and 1904. These Daly’s shows were more romantic, structurally more robust, and musically more ambitious. Then, with the Gaiety series coming to an end, Monckton teamed up with Howard Talbot (1865–1928) on a couple of musicals at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1909 and 1911. Most completely his own were two he composed for the Adelphi Theatre in 1910 and 1912, with his wife as lead.
The work that most provided Monckton’s enduring fame was The Arcadians (Shaftesbury, 28 April 1909), a ‘fantastic musical play’ about James Smith, an aviator (a modern touch for that time) who arrives in mythical Arcadia, which time has passed by. Renamed Simplicitas by the Arcadians, Smith (played by comedian Dan Rolyat) returns to London with a group of Arcadians who seek to reform the locals’ wicked ways. Charming weather is sung in Act 2 at Askwood Racecourse by diffident Jack Meadows (Harry Welchman) and his Irish sweetheart Eileen Cavanagh (Phyllis Dare), while All down Piccadilly conveys Simplicitas’s excitement at becoming all the rage in London. The show was seen not just around the English-speaking world but elsewhere—in Vienna as Die Arkadier (1911) and in Paris as Les arcadiens (1913).
A Country Girl (Daly’s, 18 January 1902) was set in Devon, but nevertheless managed to introduce an Indian Princess (Maggie May), who unsuccessfully attempts to woo the local squire. She introduces herself in Under the deodar, while the squire’s servant Barry (comedian Huntley Wright) gives his seafaring reminiscences in Yo ho, little girls, yo ho!. Later in Act 1 the village flirt Nan (Evie Greene) offers the invitation to Try again, Johnnie.
A Runaway Girl (Gaiety, 21 May 1898) starred Ellaline Terriss as orphan Winifred Grey, who runs away from her Corsican convent to escape a promised marriage. She falls in with a group of bandits-cum-wandering minstrels and falls in love with another of its temporary members, who needless to say turns out to be the promised husband-to-be. The show opens in a wood outside Winifred’s convent, where she confesses to an addiction to tobacco in the charming The sly cigarette. Then, in Venice in Act 2, she offers the incidental The boy guessed right. Like other Gaiety shows, this too played in Austria, Hungary and Germany, as well as around the English-speaking world.
In The Toreador (Gaiety, 17 June 1901) Edmund Payne played Sammy Gigg, who in deepest Spain gets involved with a Carlist conspiracy and an attractive señora. He also manages to get dressed up as a toreador. It was, though, another comedian—Fred Wright junior as Pettifer, a dealer in wild animals—who in When I marry Amelia anticipates marriage to his blushing bride. The show’s big hit was Keep off the grass, Monckton’s first offering for Gertie Millar in the minor role of Cora Bellamy, a bridesmaid. This was the last show at the original Gaiety Theatre in the Strand before it was replaced by a new theatre in the newly constructed Aldwych.
The Messenger Boy (Gaiety, 3 February 1900) was the first Gaiety show to offer a change from the customary ‘girl’ titles. Edmund Payne was Tommy Bang, who is supposed to be delivering a promissory note but is given a compromising letter instead. The big hit was Maisie, sung by a totally incidental character played by Rosie Boote, who was rewarded for her success by making the real-life transition from chorus girl to aristocracy by becoming the Marchioness of Headfort. It was in singing this song on tour that Gertie Millar first attracted Lionel Monckton, leading to her transition to star status at the Gaiety.
The Orchid (Gaiety, 28 October 1903) was the show that opened the new Gaiety Theatre in the Aldwych. It concerned the quest to preserve a rare orchid, with Gertie Millar playing Lady Violet Anstruther, principal pupil at a horticultural college. The setting for Act 2 is Nice, where Gertie Millar somehow contrived to appear in clogs and shawl to sing with Fred Wright junior (as Zaccary, a professional orchid hunter) the duet Liza Ann, designed to show off her northern roots.
The Cingalee (Daly’s, 5 March 1904) was exotically set on a tea plantation in what was then Ceylon and is today Sri Lanka. My cinnamon tree is sung by the Cingalese tea-picker of the title, Nanoya (Sybil Arundale), and Pearl of sweet Ceylon by the romantic lead, tea plantation owner Harry Vereker (Hayden Coffin). Their mutual love is finally rewarded.
For The Circus Girl (Gaiety, 5 December 1896) a major attraction was the set, featuring a Parisian circus ring viewed from behind. The plot, such as it was, involved confusion between the circus people and a bunch of English folk let loose in Gay Paree. Leading lady Ellaline Terriss’s big hit was Monckton’s lilting A simple little string, whose currency extended to the ballroom, where it provided music for the ‘barn dance’.
It was The Shop Girl (Gaiety, 24 November 1894) that began the Gaiety series, with a story about the search for an heiress among a team of shop girls. George Grossmith junior, son of the leading comedian of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, was a man-about-town who introduced himself as Beautiful bountiful Bertie. Grossmith wrote his own words for the song, including mention of The Gaiety Girl and Morocco Bound, two other musical comedies of the time.
The Mousmé (Shaftesbury, 9 September 1911) was the successor to The Arcadians. It went back to the Orient that had served so well in Sullivan’s The Mikado as well as in Sidney Jones’s The Geisha and San Toy. It also looked forward to the shows of Ivor Novello in featuring a spectacular earthquake. The sublime waltz The Temple Bell was sung by Florence Smithson, a coloratura soprano, and it necessitated Monckton writing for a voice very different from those available to him at the Gaiety.
For The Quaker Girl (Adelphi, 5 November 1910) Monckton composed the entire score as a vehicle for his wife Gertie Millar. She played an innocent Quaker girl, Prudence Pym, who is expelled from the brotherhood for sipping champagne. In A bad boy and a good girl in Act 1 she and American admirer Tony Chute (played by Joseph Coyne, London’s first Danilo in The Merry Widow) reflect on their contrasted backgrounds. In Act 2 she finds herself in Paris, where in The little grey bonnet she describes the Parisian excitement at her dress. Then, in Tony, from America, she acknowledges her commitment to her American suitor. The appeal of the Quaker dress in Paris was real, and the show achieved production and publication there as La petite quaker in 1912, as well as Spanish production as Los quakeros in 1913.
The Girls of Gottenberg (Gaiety, 15 May 1907) was based on a recent incident at Köpenick, just outside Berlin, when a shoemaker posed as a Prussian officer and took over the city hall. The incident did little more than provide an excuse for poking some light-hearted fun at the Germans, as in the duet Two little sausages, performed by Gertie Millar as an innkeeper’s daughter and Edmund Payne as Max Moddelkopf.
Our Miss Gibbs (Gaiety, 23 January 1909) was the greatest success of all the Caryll and Monckton collaborations; but it also became the last, when Caryll emigrated to America. It was a star vehicle par excellence for Gertie Millar, playing Mary Gibbs, a Yorkshire girl at Garrod’s store in London, who falls in love with a bank clerk who turns out to be an earl. The refrain of her innocent Act 1 entrance song Mary encapsulates as well as anything the infectiousness of Monckton’s writing. However, the song that has above all come to represent the Gaiety era is Moonstruck, performed apropos of very little in pierrot costume in a second act topically set at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition at the White City.
Monckton was an austere-looking individual—very much at odds with the image of his music. Like most theatre composers of his time he used specialist orchestrators to bring his scores to completion. He was, though, often his own lyricist, as on ten tracks here—either in collaboration (tracks 1 and 2), alone under his own name (tracks 7, 18, 19, 20 and 22), or (for some early songs) under the pseudonym ‘Leslie Mayne’ (tracks 9, 10 and 11). After The Mousmé he continued to compose not only for musical plays but also for revues. However, American ragtime influences had made his style outdated by the time of his death in London on 15 February 1924 at the age of sixty-two. Afterwards Gertie Millar herself joined the aristocracy when she married the Earl of Dudley.
Monckton’s music remained much played in Britain until after the Second World War. Then it increasingly became obscured by the taste for American musicals and pop music. His wonderful melodies, though, are surely timeless, and their lyrics remain enjoyable for their period naivety and innocence. A world brightened by Monckton’s music is surely an altogether happier place.
Andrew Lamb © 2008