Sunday, October 30, 2016

THE BOATSWAIN'S MATE and his 100th birthday

 Something splendid is happening in England. For many years, the nineteenth and early twentieth century operatic and strictly comic-operatic (excluding, thus, the opéras-bouffes of G&S et al) works of British composers have been all but ignored by producers and recording companies. Now, in the 21st century, such pieces seem to be being rediscovered by growing groups of enthusiasts, and gradually transferred on to disc in fresh (and often first) recordings. Cheshire’s Victorian Opera has been the leader in the field, with full recordings of such pieces as The Maid of Artois, Robin Hood and Lurline, but they are not alone in the field. The latest welcome addition to the ranks of operatic lifesavers is Retrospect Opera, whose 2015 recording of Ethel Smyth’s 1-acter The Boatswain’s Mate had somehow missed my net until now. This piece, premiered in 1916, is, of course, from a different era and in a different fach to that of brief nineteenth-century pieces such as Jessy Lea (Macfarren) or Ages Ago or the parlour operettas of Virginia Gabriel and her ilk, and, for me, falls somewhere between German’s Tom Jones and Britten’s Albert Herring in ambition and tone. Albeit on a smaller scale.

This afternoon, I have listened to The Boatswain’s Mate in toto for the first time. Because Retrospect, all power to them, have issued it in an in toto version. Dialogue and music.

It is an odd piece. Wiser than I have pontificated on its merits and shape (and the excellent booklet with the record, plus Smyth’s voluminous writings, will help one understand all that), all I need to say here is, I feel the original tale was as odd a choice for operaticisation as Albert Herring. I would have expected a jolly little tale like this to have been illustrated more in the Cox and Box or The Zoo style. But it has been handed half-an-operatic treatment. Only half, because the first part is music and dialogue (ie comic opera), the second part sung through. Personally, I much prefer the second part, even though Smyth’s libretto (or whoever’s, but that’s another story) is nicely colloquial and sparky in its dialogue, if super-conventional in action. The story is simple. The retired Mate of the title sets up a fake robbery to kid a widder inkeeperess into his arms. The plan backfires and the lady gets sweet on the bloke who ‘played’ the robber. You can imagine the original tale, dramatised, as a 20 minute curtain-raiser on a programme at a minor Victorian theatre. But Ms Smyth’s music shifts it into a different and more pretentious dimension. My problem with this is that you don’t quite know where you are. Opera? Musical comedy? Comic opera? It is definitely not necessary to fit a work such as this into a conventional box, but … well, whatever it is, it’s a lively little entertainment.

The recording has been carefully and lovingly done. The ‘reduced’ orchestrations are quite outstanding (I worry to think how overwhelming the ‘full’ ones must have been!) and delightfully played, and the performances of the three and a half players are all in keeping. I liked best the tenor, Edward Lee, who sang with open, English tones and natural-sounding words. Elsewhere we had a little bit of woof and incomprehensible lyrics.

But Retrospect has seen fit to let us hear, as a bonus, the original cast recordings. The sound, of course, is rather ‘archival’, but we hear exactly the ‘right’ voices. Courtice Pounds, somewhere between singing on the music-halls, and starring as Ali Baba in Chu Chin Chow and Schubert in Lilac Time is Benn, the Mate, the incomparably crisp-and-clear baritone Frederick Ranalow (who actually recorded a stunning Tom Jones) is the fake thief, and the New Zealand soprano Rosina Buckman – between an Isolde and a Musetta – who was a favourite recording artist, partly indeed because of her precise diction, was the widder. Like other archival recordings, these might not make easy listening, but they tell us definitively what this music was written to sound like.

The 2-disc set finishes triumphantly with a restored period recording of the overture to Smyth’s The Wreckers. All I can say is, can I please hear the rest of The Wreckers!

This is a grand project, well conceived and carried out. It brings a work, and a composer, which and who shouldn’t be forgotten or abandoned, back into the public eye. That is the kind of ‘retrospecting’ I like and admire, and I look forward eagerly to Retrospect Opera’s next offering.

PS: I discover that The Wreckers was recorded in 1994, by the same conductor. Hello, ebay...

The Boatswain's Mate can be got through

Saturday, October 29, 2016

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW 2016: A bagel of a remake

‘The [original] show emerged as a thoroughly entertaining 80 minutes, endearing in its half-attempts to outrage, innocently unsexy with its black suspenders, cross-dressing, tap-dancing and silhouetted grunting, always keeping to the comic-strip and avoiding the campy, and inspiring the same enjoyment as the ghastly-funny films which were its inspiration’. (Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre)

Rocky the stage show and I go back a long way. Right back to that very first production of 1973. I can’t remember whether I saw it at the Royal Court, but I do recall seeing it in the King’s Road and, again, when it transferred rather uncomfortably to the West End, where its delightful ingenuousness and its little message of ‘don’t dream it, be it’ (ie, screw whomsoever you like) had become a bit polished and middle-class. The production was made into a deliciously low-budget film, with many of the original cast, which captured the flavour and essence of the original splendidly.

‘A film version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Curry, O'Brien, Quinn and Little Nell featured alongside Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, was a quick failure, but only a temporary one. It later became a late-night campus favourite and, as the show had done in the King's Road, began to attract regulars. A cult grew up, complete with little audience rituals performed with matches, rice, water and frozen peas and involving chanted responses to the dialogue, as the film found itself a semi-permanent home in a number of specialist cinemas. In Britain, would-be cultists could not find the film, but regional theatres and then the touring circuits took up the stage show and British youngsters transferred the American film liturgy to the stage show. It proved so popular, that soon -- in contrast to the lesson learned earlier -- the show was playing some of the vaster provincial houses to accommodate the audience demand. Fortunately, they also had the staff to clean up the water, the matches, the unfrozen peas and the soggy rice, but many a Rocky musical director bewailed a synth keyboard clogged up by rice between the keys.

Under the influence of all this flim-flam, of course, the character of the show as first staged got lost. The performance became like an interactive game, and many of the performers lost the innocently winning tone of the original, which was now replaced by a kind of pantomime silliness. At one stage, in the British provinces, the essentially masculine Frank 'n' Furter was played by a female impersonator…’

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the young Tim Curry as the classic Frank, is a wee classic of its era, which shouts infintesimal budget and has all the flavour of the Royal Court Upstairs. So why, in 2016, has Fox remade it? Does the youth of today not respond to the original style and cast of the show, which are and were so integral to the nature and success of Rocky? Do they need a more C21th bent and modern film techniques to make it seem ‘relevant’? I suppose so. Anyway, Rocky 2016 came on my screen this week and I settled down to watch it with trepidation. And got one huge surprise. It was (almost) great. It was certainly highly enjoyable. The director has kept the necessary Upstairs flavour, it was shiny but tatty, re-orchestrated of course and enlarged as to cast, but mostly seemed to stick to the ‘real’ script and scenes, and most of the principal roles were superbly filled.

My personal favourites were Adam Lambert (whom I know only as one of the better talent quest pontificators) as a searing, rocking, sexy Eddie – Frank must have been mad to consider him second-rate goods – and Annaleigh Ashford, who was so convincing and perfect as Columbia that she almost stepped out of the comic-book and into the real and dramatic.

Next up: Janet. Victoria Justice was the Janet of my dreams, with a delicious petite soprano topping off a grand ingénue performance and hurrah! A brunette. Once again I can’t imagine the role better played.

Staz Nair was a copybook Rocky, down to the (not very) little gold shorts, sweetly clunky and wide-eyed, not Schwarzenegger muscle-bound, and giving us some of our best laughs, as when Janet sweetly admitted to not liking muscled men and Frank hissed ‘I didn’t make him for you..!’. But she got him anyway.

Ryan McCartan is probably my favourite Brad of recent decades, and the casting of the starry Ben Vereen as Dr Scott was a good trick, though one would have liked to see more of the famous legs. Reeve Carney was a nicely understated Riff Raff, Christina Milian a pneumatic and rather overstated Magenta … and that leaves the hole in the bagel. The reason I probably won’t watch this Rocky again, in spite of its multiple joys.

I don’t know who Laverne Cox is, but he/she should never have been cast in the role of Frank ‘n’ Furter. Frank is a man. A man. He is a ‘sweet transvestite’. A man wearing women’s clothes. He is not an hermaphrodite. This Frank, with breasts bulging out of his ott costumes, reminded me of the sad days when various drag queens were cast in the role in the British provinces. The whole guts and heart went out of the show. The central character had been destroyed. And so it was here. It was only the brilliant casting of the rest of the roles which stopped the show from sinking into the hole in the centre of the affair created by this wholly unsuitable idea.

What a damned, damned shame. When all else in the staging, directing and casting was so superbly managed. I wonder what poor Tim Curry, looking ever so old and ill (I gather he, like me, has suffered a stroke) popping in a few words here and there as the narrator, thought of what had become of his famous role.

So, my verdict. A very tasty bagel indeed. With a big hole in the middle.

Friday, October 14, 2016



When Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric, it was part of a list of the horrors of airline travel, as perceived by an unprincipled, youngish, middle-classish American couple sampling international flying. The song is delicious, but I have never understood why Doris Day was included. I would love a Doris Day movie on a plane: all we get nowadays is American car chases and guns, Inglorious Basterds and a feeble film of Into the Woods. By S Sondheim.

Well, today I willingly went to the new and and splendid little risen-from-the earthquake Rangiora cinema-cum-theatre to see (nearly) 90 minutes of Doris Day. No, not a film. A live show. A one-woman show. And that one woman was the reason I roused myself from my fireside, in the rain, on a Friday afternoon to drive up to Rangiora.

Ali Harper is a New Zealand national treasure. She is the country’s outstanding female musical theatre performer, and has been such – though still young -- for a good few years. We were lucky enough to secure her for the leading role in Paul Graham Brown’s Fairystories …

So, Doris?  Ali Harper’s show is a truly one-woman affair. A delightfully conceived, arranged and staged (dir: Stephanie McKellar) piece which, with the help of a fine video background, dances elegantly between Doris’s screen persona and her less than lovely private life. Other folk are heard as voices (including her beloved dog) but the show is all Doris/Ali, whether relating faux cheerfully the horrors of the men in Doris’s life, lavishing good will on her screen leading men (a surprising number of whom seem to have been gay) and, most importantly, singing those songs we associate with La Day. The highlight for me was the star’s performance of ‘Secret Love’. Oh, I should say, Ms Harper actually has a ‘better’ voice than Ms Day. Her singing is impeccable and beautiful.

 This show is designed for a specific audience. We who remember, and enjoyed, Doris Day. Amongst the audience (amazingly numerous) today, I must (at 70) been one of the bottom-quarter by age. But, as an 80 year-old lady (who I’d taken for 60) said to me in the foyer: ‘at last, a show for us’. Well, it shouldn’t be just for ‘us’. I know many of Doris Day’s songs were best-selling (at the time) soup. But some were not. ‘Que sera sera’ and ‘Secret Love’ will last a lot longer than the latest Beyonce aria.

So, en somme, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable 80 minutes in the theatre this afternoon, with a memorable performer, one glass of wine and the feeling that I was surrounded by folk who were absolutely loving the entertainment. When I left the auditorium, virtually the entire audience of several hundred were lined up for a CD and a chat with ‘Doris’. If that’s not entertainment, what is.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

THE BLACK CROOK: Demystification Part 2

Betty Rigl

One thing leads to another …Answering various queries, after my recently re-published (15 years after it was written) article debunking the mythology surrounding the production of ‘the first American musical’ (it was far, far from it), I got sidetracked into other unexplained details concerning that pasticcio leg-show spectacular, details which are glibly repeated by one ‘Broadway’ website and another. And Wikipedia.The most attractive and success-bringing elements of the original production of The Black Crook were, of course, its scenery, its massed troupes of little ‘dancing’ girls and its genuine-star dance soloists (when the advertisements could spell their foreign names correctly), but, somewhere in there, there was some dialogue, lots of incidental and dance music and the odd song.The music. Let’s get the music credit for the show correct. The show was a pasticcio of music old, oldish and made for the occasion. Such new music as was required was – as the bills clearly state, and as was the custom of the time – the work of the conductor, Thomas Baker. The usual formula was ‘the music selected, arranged and composed by …’.

Quite who decided (in modern times) to tack the name of Giuseppe Operti on to the music credits for the show, I know not. Il Signor Operti (‘pianist to His Majesty the King of Sardinia’) was, at the time of the Black Crook’s opening, strumming the keyboard in Dundee, Scotland, at the Alhambra Music Hall.

Since 1856, he had been living in Britain, where his engagements had included the post of prompter for the Italian opera, playing piano at Holder’s Music Hall, Birmingham, prompter, again, with the Italian opera stars in Dublin, and producing four performances of Verdi’s Macbeth for the Ladies’ Garibaldi Benefit Fund (oh dear! poor King of Sardinia!) at Birmingham Theatre Royal. With himself in the title-role.

It was 1869 before he decided that the grass was potentially greener beyond the Atlantic, and headed for New York. I see him first (‘Signor Operti of Europe’) conducting at the new Tammany Hall. Anyway, he stayed in America, worked in mostly similar posts, composing, like Baker, when required, as he had in England, and died in Leadville, Colorado in 1886 while touring with another girlie legshow. And, in between, he took the baton for a Niblo’s ‘version’ of the Black Crook in 1872 (12 February) on which occasion he took a conductor’s privilege of shovelling as much as possible of his own music into the programme, between the dances and the acts (snake-charmer, horse act, monkeys and goats, the Majiltons etc), of what was now a veritable variety show. And, of course, shovelling the original out. ‘Signor G Operti had composed considerable new music for portions of the spectacle’ reported the press. So that is the Signor’s connection with The Black Crook. The bones of the show, under the same name, anyhow. Five years after the original production, in a very approximate ‘revival’.

The other name which finds its way into the www music credits is that of George Bickwell. 

Associated with one Theodore Kennick (words). These two gentlemen were the announced writers of the most popular of the ‘selected and arranged’ part of the score, a song entitled ‘You naughty, naughty men’, sung in the show by the English music-hall artist billed as ‘Millie Cavendish’. I wonder why no one has thought to investigate these three folk, considered by some to be so important to the History of The American Musical Theatre.‘Millie’ got me into this, so I’ll leave her till last. George and Theodore? Strange, that two writers who turned out such a popular song don’t seem to have written anything else. In fact, they didn’t seem to turn up anywhere. I began to suspect that they didn’t exist. That they were ‘authors of convenience’, covering the fact that ‘Millie’ had brought her song, one manufactured to her needs, maybe, from other folks’ material, from England. But then, I found George. Just one mention. In 1858-9. He was a very (very) minor music-hall pianist in London, and played accompaniments for J H Ogden, on tour. Did he compose or arrange the music for her music-hall act?

And what about the words … ? Mr Kennick? Hmm. I thought I may have found the words too. Alas, I couldn’t get at the script to see if the rest of what I suspected might be the original of this song (music and lyrics by J? Webster). Is what one historian labels as an important song in the timeline of American show-songwriting, in fact, a mish-mash of old English material sailing under fake colours.

In 1840 (12 May), the Haymarket Theatre produced a version, by Frederick Webster, of Duvert and Lauzanne’s French farce Le Commissaire Extraordinaire, under the title The Place-Hunter. Tom Wrench starred, and Priscilla Horton was the soubrette, Babille, with a song. Called, you guessed it,  ‘O you naughty, naughty men’.

PS. But what is this? Music Hall Provident fund 1866. Present: Mr T Kennick!  And what about 'Ballad: A mother's Love by J Kennick music by Vincent Davies'. Have I been too suspicious? Thomas Kennick Comic Singing Made Easy (1869). And then? Another very (very) minor music-hall character of the London 1860s? 


(Post scriptum: I can't let these folk go. And I have found a little more George. It appears that his name was rightly George Day Backwell, son of Devonshire musician Joseph Lewis Backwell and his wife Helen Day. His younger brother Joseph Day B was also a muso. And the reason that he didn't write any more songs, is that he couldn't. Round about the opening night of The Black Crook -- maybe even before, I hope after -- George died, at Brentford, at the age of 34. Brother Joseph had died at 27. Father died in 1867. I hope George's widow/partner collected the royalties. Or, dreadful thought, was Bickwell-Backwell listed as the composer of the song BECAUSE he was dead ... only a death certificate would tell for sure).

‘I puts it to you and I leaves it to you’ as another musical show says. And I am willing to be proven wrong. 

And now, ‘Millie Cavendish’. Whom the press, at one time, claimed mendaciously to be ‘of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’. Here is another person who doesn’t appear to have existed. Well, in spite of the grave in Greenwood Cemetery, King’s, labelled ‘Millie Cavendish, died 23 January 1867’, and a Wikipedia article, she didn’t. And this one I can sort out much better than I can George and the wretched Theodore.‘Millie’ lived only for the short time she appeared on the Niblo’s stage. But she’d spent fifteen years, in England, as a characteristic vocalist on the music-halls under a different name. She was (either really, or just professionally) Mrs Lawrence. Just that. I have searched and searched for Mrs ? Lawrence and her husband in the public records of the day, but so far with no luck. But I have plenty of sightings of them in action, beginning in Sheffield’s Royal Adelphi Concert Hall in August 1852. Mr L is part of a blackface double-act with one John Stolber (b c 1827; d Cairo 26 November 1869), and Mrs L is doing her serio-comic act. Songs and ‘mimic of men and manners’. Both acts were successful. Lawrence and Stolber ‘the Albanian Minstrels’ played in Germany, Spain, Egypt and doubtless elsewhere as well, until Stolber’s death. Mrs L played first-class halls, often topping the bill. I track her from Sheffield to Rendle’s Hall, Portsea, to Chatham’s Railway Saloon, and in 1855 to London’s Surrey Music Hall, the Middlesex, Holder’s Birmingham, the St Helena Gardens, Jude’s in Dublin the Whitebait, Glasgow, and then – in 1858 -- to the daddy of them all, the Canterbury Hall.

Wilton’s, the Raglan, Deacon’s, the London Pavilion, the Marylebone and back to the provinces at Hull, Scarborough (‘combines a fine figure, pleasing deportment and a musical voice’), the Manchester Free Trade Hall Monday Pops, Leeds Amphitheatre (‘a great success’) et al. In 1864 she was seen at the Knightsbridge, the Pavilion, the Marylebone, alongside a certain Signor Alberto who would become Alberto Laurence and a well-known New York singing teacher, at the Lansdowne Islington Green, in 1865 she was starred at Holder’s … but she is less in evidence than heretofore. I spy her at the Marylebone in April 1866 … and then comes the trip to America, the invention of ‘Millie’ and her sad death. Mrs Lawrence (Mr had disappeared off to foreign parts with good pal Stolber some years ago) had had a fine career, and, so it is said, in spite of a handicap. She was, the press reported, an epileptic. And she was said to have died in her New York digs from a cranial injury suffered during a fit. Some of the newspapers said it was an ‘apoplectic fit’ and her almost wholly incorrect death registration at Greenwood Cemetery goes with that. I suppose some were less charitable. One paper proffered that she had a husband and two children in London. Greenwood has her recorded as 30, and single.

I’ll find them in the end. But first I’ve got to find out what they were called! So, there we are. A little more clarification, the demystification of a few more folk, but a good deal still to find. But if I publish this now, maybe someone else can lay hands on some proof. Find a copy of The Place-Hunter. Find some first names for the Lawrences. Is he the George ‘singer and dancer’ in the 1861 census with a wife named Margaret?. Find … well, anything relevant …

STOP PRESS: I have discovered that 'Millie's real name was Mary Annie Gater. She got into the law courts in 1859 and 1862 for reasons of debt and marital or 'marital' disruptions, and all was revealed. Maiden name: Gater. Sometime name MacDonald. Married (?) name: Lawrence or Laurence. Protection order against husband 1859. Bankrupt (of 6 Wrotham Villas, Camden Town) 1862. And it's all there. Where she lived and worked, how much she earned, her fragile health ..  The judge obviously found her sympathetic, and in spite of her sizeable debts, he dismissed the case.

I have also discovered that John Stolber was genuinely of that name. He married in 1860, had a son Frederick William (1861-1923, 'valet and professional singer' later 'photographer' brought up in St Vincent's home .. who married Eliza Langridge in 1883 ... ) ... will this lead me to the Lawrences? ... one can dream...

PS several years later: An interesting playbill a quarter of a century on, when the old Crook was dragged out for one more wobble round the stage by Eugene Tomkins.  Interesting to note that the music (whatever it may have been) is still credited to Baker. 'and A W Huffmann'. Or is it Hoffmann? And, goodness! The second-act ballet composed by Georges Jacobi of the London Alhambra. I wonder which Alhambra show that was nicked from. Anyway, it did for around 300 performances at the Academy ...  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

THE BLACK CROOK. The real story of the mythologised legshow.

Once again the old Black Crook is undergoing a resurge of interest, and provoking a fresh round of articles, owing, apparently, to a current off-Broadway piece written around it. So, here we go. Can we at last, sweep away the fantasies and fictions surrounding this 150-year-old pasticcio legshow, and get round to the facts of the matter? Please! 

See The Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre (by yours truly):

1) extravaganza by Charles M Barras. Music by Thomas Baker and others. Niblo's Garden, New York, 12 September 1866.

Often, in earlier times, quoted as the first landmark in the history of the American musical theatre, this production, a spectacular put together on the lines of the French grand opéra-bouffe féerie and/or its German equivalent, was long alleged to have been created by the last-minute insertion into a fairytale piece destined for Niblo's Garden of the personnel and some of the repertoire of a stranded French ballet troupe, whose theatre had burned down. This myth (which put itself in place soon after the events, and was subsequently repeated in variously ‘improved’ versions in the obituaries of those concerned in the making of the show) has now been itself relegated to the fairytale books, and contemporary sources tell a less circumstantial tale (in which the bones of the myth can, nevertheless, be discerned) about the genesis of the show and of the burning of the New York Academy of Music, where Grau’s Italian Opera company were playing on that fatal 22 May 1866. A full three months before Niblo’s even put The Black Crook into rehearsals.

What really happened was this. Actor Charles Barras wrote the play The Black Crook as a spectacular touring vehicle for himself and his wife, dancer Sallie St Clair, and, in order to equip his show with the required imprimatur of ‘a New York success’, prior to touring, he negotiated with William Wheatley, manager of Niblo’s Garden, for one hundred performances at his theatre. 

William Wheatley

For Wheatley to agree to this remarkably long run, success or failure, Barras must have come up with some stinging inducement. It appears that this inducement was some kind of a sharing terms arrangement, but it is fairly obvious that Mr Barras was in effect paying for his piece to go on, in order to establish its title for the future. The deal in place, the author set to preparing the scenery and properties for his production at the Academy of Music in his summer hometown of Buffalo, NY. 

At this stage, Messrs Henry Jarrett and Henry Palmer came into the picture. Having recently formed a producing partnership, they’d been over in Europe ‘looking for novelties’ to import to America. Amongst what they’d seen were a production of the féerie La Biche au bois in Paris, and the pantomime at Astley’s Theatre in London, and they had decided that they would put on a show, back home, which utilised some of the more original spectacularities they’d seen in those two pieces. They’d talked to some of the lead dancers from the Paris show, they’d negotiated the purchase of the big transformation scene from the London panto, and they had had the thought that their, as yet unwritten, show might go well (and not too expensively) at the Academy of Music. But then the Academy burned down, and so the would-be-producers made their way instead to the other home of New York spectaculars, Niblo’s Garden. But Niblo’s wasn’t available. Mr Barras had booked it for his 100 performances. Quite whose idea it was to mix and match, and to slip the bit of British panto Jarrett and Palmer had already paid out their money for, into The Black Crook, isn’t recorded. But the result of the negotiations that ensued among Wheatley, Jarrett, Palmer and Barras, was that Barras was relieved of his potentially onerous ‘sharing’ terms and paid, instead, a small flat sum as a royalty, and that Jarrett and Palmer, effectively, took over as producers of the New York mounting of his play. And the first thing Jarrett did was to set off overseas, again, to start gathering up the ideas, decorations and personnel which they wanted, to change the show from a spectacular melodrama into something more like Paris’s wonderful La Biche au bois. A veritable pot-pourri of scenery, mechanics, costume (or lack of it) and girls.

Barras’s scenic and costume designs, of course, went completely by the board. His half-made sets and clothes stayed behind in Buffalo, whilst the new producers ordered new ones, more in line with the Parisian-Londonish spectacle they intended to produce. In the end, Jarrett arrived back in New York only the day before rehearsals began, bringing with him 45 dancers and actors to add to the local contingent hired by Wheatley (‘wanted 60 ballet girls for Black Crook at Niblo’s..’), and many a crate of European props.

By the time they opened, the extravaganza (‘written expressly for Mr Wheatley..’) ran for a full five hours. And that in spite of the fact that great chunks of Barras’s text, including his big final climax, which had got in the road of the panto transformation, had simply, and blatantly, been cut out. But if there wasn’t too much dramatic construction left, the show now included a full score of songs and choruses by various writers, some new and some borrowed, selected and arranged by house musical director Baker, a great deal of ooh-aah mechanical scenery, and a vast dose of the leg-show ballets and parades, typical of the more grandiose French productions, all of it mixed in with Barras’s remaining scenes of fairytale drama and romance, to make up a highly attractive, if reasonably incoherent and lengthy, opéra-bouffe féerie entertainment. The show’s priorities were visible from its advertising: the splendid `Tableaux, Costumes, Marches, Scenery' (‘operated by 71 stage-hands’) and the 'premium transformation' (‘purchased entire from Astley’s Theatre, London’) were splashed large across announcements which did not even mention the text or the music, and the 'Grand Parisienne Ballet Troupe' (62 girls, 39 American and 23 British, but, nevertheless, advertised as being fashionably French) and the 'Garde Imperiale' of marching girls were prominently billed, whereas the names of the principal actors and singers were down in the miniprint, when they were advertised at all.

Barras's tale was rather more Germanic than French, telling of the plots concocted by the vile Hertzog (C H Morton), under the spell of the diabolic -- and shades-of-Der Freischütz -- Zamiel (E B Holmes), to deliver up a monthly ration of human souls to the powers below. Hertzog selects the artist, Rudolf (G C Boniface), whom he frees from the clutches of Count Wolfenstein (J W Blaisdell), as his victim of the night, but, as he leads him to his fate, the young man saves the life of a benighted dove. The dove is the disguised fairy, Stalacta (Scottish operatic soprano Annie Kemp Bowler), and, in the course of the evening, she outwits Hertzog and steers Rudolf to a happy ending with the fair Amina (Rose Morton). The comedy was provided by the dramatic folks' servants, with J G Burnett as von Puffengruntz producing the lowest of it, and the musical hit of the show was a soubrette number `You Naughty, Naughty Men' as introduced by Mrs Lawrence, for 15 years of the English music halls, here performing under the pseudonym of 'Millie Cavendish' (she died, in an epileptic fit, four months into the run), in an incidental rôle.

Just as the similarly constructed Sheep's Foot had done in California earlier in the year (20 March 1866), The Black Crook provided New York with its most effective piece of grosse Spektakel-Feerie to date, and -- perhaps even more attention-pullingly -- its most uninhibited mass view of apparently little-clad female limbs to date, and those legs and the displays of scenic machinery roused an unparalleled interest as, with an ever fluid programme of components, the show ran on on Broadway for fifteen and a half months, closing 4 January 1868 after 475 performances. With his title more established than he could ever have dreamed, Barras quickly got his rather less grandiose production (‘without the imported nudities...’) off the mark at Buffalo, and the show was repeated thereafter, in often largely varying versions, all around the country, to the great profit of its author who had, as planned from the start, reserved to himself all outside-New York production rights.

Thus, for the few years of his life that remained, he collected largely, as Black Crook productions -- many bearing little resemblance to his play, and merely using the title as a come-on signalling ‘leg-show with scenery’ -- sprung up. The show also made intermittent return visits to the New York stage over a number of years (Niblo’s Garden 1870, 123 performances, 1871, 87 performances, 1873 130 performances &c) and in latter days it was toured long around America by the country’s most determined spectacle merchants, the Kiralfy brothers.

A sad coda to the tale. Wheatley, Jarrett and Palmer all made fortunes from the Niblo’s run of The Black Crook. The bought-out Barras had to wait till a little later to make his money. He certainly did -- John McDonough snapped up the rights for a dozen major cities, John Meech of Buffalo for 16 lesser ones, and Maeder, Davey and Curran for the minor towns of 15 states -- but he had little joy of it. Sallie, for whom the piece had been written, died (Buffalo, NY, 9 April 1867) even before the New York run had ended and, soon after, a depressed Barras sold his mansion at Cos Cob to Edwin Booth. Finally, on 30 March 1874, he threw himself from a moving train.

The Black Crook became, during its months as a Broadway phenomenon, the butt of burlesque in virtually every minstrel and burlesque troupe in town. Christy’s Minstrels, the San Francisco Minstrels, Kelly and Leon (The Great Black Crook Burlesque) all featured parodies of the show, Tony Pastor offered John F Poole’s The White Crook and visiting British actor Edward Warden penned a Black Cook which went round the country.

A silent film based on the Black Crook story was produced in 1916 (11 January), with Australian ex-tenor Henry Hallam as Wolfenstein, E P Sullivan as Hertzog and Mae Thompson as Stalacta.

The favoured mytho-story of the creation of The Black Crook was used as the background for the show The Girl in Pink Tights (Sigmund Romberg/Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov Mark Hellinger Theater 5 March 1954).

2) grand opéra-bouffe féerie in 4 acts by Harry and Joseph Paulton founded on La Biche au bois. Music by Georges Jacobi and Frederic Clay. Alhambra Theatre, London, 23 December 1872.

An early effort to reproduce in Britain the same kind of vast and spectacular grand opéra-bouffe féerie which was then popular in France, this version of the La Biche au bois legend owed nothing to its American homonym except its title. Lovely opéra-bouffe star Cornélie d'Anka starred as the vicious witch of the title out to thwart the enchanted Princess Desirée and her Prince, but the largest part of the evening's entertainment was, as in the American show, given over to its physical production, its ballets and the low comic element, as personified by author Harry Paulton as a comic vizier and Kate Santley (who had appeared for a while as Stalacta in the American Black Crook) as the heroine's maid, in which rôle she delivered the show's stand-out song `Nobody Knows As I Know' in the overtly roguish style she favoured. The production, staged for Christmas, played until the following August. A simplified version with revised text and music was successfully produced at the same theatre in 1881.

As a result of the reponse to this reprint of my fifteen year old article,  I followed up, a few days later, with another ... which can be read at ...