Sunday, February 25, 2018

How to turn a flop musical into a century-long hit ...

It’s something that doesn’t happen that often. Usually, shows that fail, fail for one or more very good reasons. Mostly, they don’t even get a second chance; mostly, in my experience, deservedly so. But it does happen, and one of the most extreme examples came about in the London season of 1796. And one of the tunes from this musical drama, The Iron Chest, is the next item in my 200-year old collection of music.

 The story of the production of The Iron Chest has been often told, so I’ll just sketch it here. William Godwin wrote a melodramatic novel Things as they are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams. The well-known playwright and manager, George Colman jr, took the bones of the tale and, as he said: Much of Mr. Godwin’s story I have omitted; much, which I have adopted, I have compressed; much I have added; and much I have taken the liberty to alter’. Among the alterations were a comic subplot and songs and music. Still, today, the usual way of making something subtitled ‘the musical’ out of someone’s else tale.

George Colman jr
The resultant piece was produced at Drury Lane,12 March 1796, with John Kemble playing the star dramatic role of Sir Edward Mortimer, who has a secret more deadly than even Lady Audley, Jack Bannister as Wilford, the tenor who stumbles fatally on his Achilles heel, Nancy Storace as Wilford’s sweetheart, and Dicky Suett and Mr Dodd in the comic roles. Unfortunately, Colman was confined to his bed during rehearsals, Kemble took over the staging, then got ill in time for opening night, when the whole thing went across like a flat pavlova, got bad reviews (especially for the miscast Kemble), was played four times, and resulted in some unfortunate public howling by Colman which has gone down in theatrical history. But The Iron Chest itself was also to go down in theatrical annals.

Mr Colman jr was the manager of the Haymarket Little Theatre and he reproduced his musical play there, with Elliston in the role of Sir Edward, and worked it – and particularly the role – up into a decided success, and soon a solid unit in the dramatic repertoire. In years to come, Alexander Rae, Charles Young, Edmund Kean, Henry Irving and other theatrical pop stars would play the part of Sir Edward, now regarded as a showpiece role of the tragic drama.

J B Booth as Mortimer
And the music in all this? It took a modest place, but it was one of the few things praised at Drury Lane. And none of it belonged to Sir Edward. As usual, the songs were sidewound into the parts of the juvenile lovers, Wilford and Barbara, and the comics, most especially Dicky Suett as Barbara’s brother, Samson. And Stephen Storace’s score turned out a lasting song. Alongside the opening glee ‘Five times by taper’s light’, which itself became a best-seller, and the billing and cooing of the juves (‘Sweet little Barbara’, ‘Down by the river there grows a willow’), Suett delivered a simple little comic song about a widow who kept an inn. She wasn’t very welcoming to an exceedingly ugly traveller who stopped in for a bite until he put a bag of gold on the table… ‘A Traveller stop’t at a Widow’s Gate’ went on to become a classic of the comic song genre, and was included in all sorts of songsters and collections of verse for a century.

 My copy of the song is not from Drury Lane. Nor even from the first Haymarket production. Because, as you can see, it claims ‘sung by Mr Mathews’. Charles Mathews took up the role of Samson Rawbold at the Haymarket in 1805. Poor Dicky Suett had died. But this clue doesn’t date the music for me either, because Mathews played the role and sang the song for something like a decade! And then others after him. Many.

 And to think, that if George Colman hadn’t had his own theatre, it might have been sung just four times.

A pirated copy of the script

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