Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Too many Roses for Rosina


The little two-act musical piece entitled Rosina (its text fills but nine small-print double columned pages in my libretto, 46pp in the original, with all the cuts opened) was first produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on New Year’s eve 1782, as an afterpiece to a production of Henry II. It was a sticky-beak night at the Garden, for the part of Rosamund in the Shakespeare was played by Mary Robinson, the recently cast-off mistress of the very young Prince of Wales. Her notices were not likely to be good (‘the rantings of a strolling company’), and indeed the ‘gentlemen’ of the press rightfully neglected Henry II in favour of its afterpiece.

Rosina was a simple little piece, penned – book and lyrics – by a Mrs Frances Brooke (née Moore), with a story allegedly adapted from the Book of Ruth (‘Palemon and Lavinia’) telling of the orphaned daughter of an officer, raised by his servant, and toiling as a gleaner on the lands of the local squire, who wins his heart and hand, in spite of the machinations and money of his military brother. To this more than conventional tale, Mrs Brooke added, in conventional operetta fashion, a pair of soubrettes to lighten the sighing with some sprightly bickering and songs. The comic gleaning-maid, in fact, became the preferred role of many stars.

Mrs Martyr, the original Phoebe
Mrs Brooke has become fashionable in the present century. Academics have devoted regular articles to her and, in particularly, the novels that she penned. Someone has even called her America’s (!) first female novelist, because she spent a little part of her life in Canada whence her clergyman husband was seconded. She was pureblood English. Nobody, as far as I know, has dubbed her the first female to write a hit musical, which is surprising, because her ‘fashion’ these days is very largely her sex. Women’s studies, and all that.

The few bits on Mrs Brooke that I have read (I couldn’t face them all), however, seem to miss out dealing proportionately with the lady’s greatest success by far. Rosina outdid all her novels, and was performed all round Britain for a century, a standard piece in every stock company’s repertoire and played by just about every touring prima donna.

 Why? It simply caught on. After its first showing with Mr Bannister and his wife as the sweethearts, Mrs Kennedy (in trousers) and Mrs Martyr as the comedy couple, and Mr Brett as the baddie, it was praised: ‘The dialogue is easy and agreeable and the airs in general are not destitute of poetical merit … All Mr Shield’s music gave great satisfaction and we congratulate Mr Brookes (sic) upon the success of her piece’ (Town and Country Magazine). It was a thoroughly agreeable, digestible end to an evening’s theatre-going, and it went on to join The Beggar’s Opera, No Song, no Supper, The Quaker and their ilk in the class of ‘the most played musicals’ in the English-speaking world. In 1966 it was recorded by Decca with Robert Tear and Elizabeth Harwood.

William Shield ought to have a book written about him. Maybe he has. His list of successful operettas, musical comedies and light operas includes some of the most famed and durable of his time: Rosina, The Poor Soldier, The Castle of Andalusia, Lock and Key, The Farmer, The Woodman, and his songs some of the most memorable of the era: from the tenor ‘The Thorn’ to the great basso dramatic scena ‘The Wolf’.

William Shield

So, what got me on to Rosina, Mrs Brooke and Shield? My famous volume includes two pieces of sheet music, published by Mr Shade, ‘from Rosina’. One of them is ‘The Bud of a Rose’ (otherwise ‘Her mouth which a smile’) a little ballad sung by our hero at the dawn of admiration. 

The other is another Rose piece: ‘A Rose Tree full in bloom’. Sic. And this is very odd. Because that duet actually saw the light of stage in Shield’s next musical show, The Poor Soldier (Covent Garden 4 November 1873), featuring many of the same cast, and its lyric is not the work of Mrs Brooke, but of John O’Keeffe. It was exceedingly popular, so its seems unlikely (or does it?) that Mr Shade would make such a basic error. Was Mrs Kennedy (in trousers again) and Mrs Bannister’s duo interpolated into Rosina as a tenor solo at some stage?

 Mrs Brooke’s text and Shield’s music were ‘revised’ by John Oxenford and Joseph L Hatton in 1874, as Rosina continued its career through England and beyond, but The Poor Soldier also had many years of a more modest life… would it have been disembowelled to swell the more popular work?

I can’t find any evidence of such a twenty-first century mishmashing, so until any future discovery I lean towards a fault on the part of Mr Shade!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A second-hand elegiac for the heir to the throne of England.


Page 42. I’ve skipped ‘Auld Robin Gray’ sung by Miss Stephens, because everybody knows ‘Auld Robin Gray’, don’t they? Yes? I thought I did, but I didn’t know the words of the song and their story, even though it’s a much-used one. Scots lassie loves poor boy. Can’t marry because he’s got no money. He goes off to the wars, she is courted by an older, kindly man, and eventually weds him. Then Jamie comes home. The lyric was written by 21 year-old Lady Anne Lindsay Barnard to the tune of an existing ribald song, and is truly moving. Its last line ‘He’s good to me, is Auld Robin Gray’, is an absolute heartbreaker.

But on to page 42. A curiosity. Not exactly a rarity (there are copies in several libraries), but an 1810s example of commercialism and what I would call bad taste. Although a kind of bad taste that was seemingly not frowned upon at the time. Odes and elegies and other topical pieces were regularly penned to ‘celebrate’ the deaths of royals and notables, undoubtedly with the aim of cashing in on the event. But such pieces, banal as they usually were, were normally freshly minted. Mr George Shade evidently had no such qualms.

The Princess Charlotte Augusta of England was the only child of the future King George IV, and as such, first in line to succeed him to the throne of all the Britains. After some stormy politics, she finally got to marry Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, got pregnant, and died 6 November 1817 in childbirth aged 21. The mourning can, nowadays, only be imagined. Princess Diana-sized. And Mr Shade published his contribution to that mourning. ‘Charlotte’ an elegy for three voices, the music composed by J[oseph] Baildon and now adapted for the lamentable death of her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte’.

Crafty. Mr Baildon had been dead since 1774. His wife even longer. His only daughter was wed (Mrs Williams), ageing and living overseas. And the ‘adaptation’? Well, let’s start at the beginning. The poetry dated from 1747. It was penned by Lord George Lyttelton of Hagley (1709-1773) on the occasion of the premature death of his wife, Lucy Fortescue: ‘Adieu to the village delights …’. 

The poem won widespread favour and it was subsequently (I don’t know exactly when) set to music as a Glee by the respected composer Joseph Baildon (The Laurel). 

In that form it became even more well known, and even after its author’s and composer’s death, made its way into the theatre (Sheridan’s The Glorious First of June, 1794). As it made its tour of the English-singing world, it became the subject of American plagiarisms, of rip-offs in general, the ‘Lucy’ who was mourned became everything from ‘Emma’ to ‘Henry’ as the circumstances demanded, until, in 1817, Mr Shade opted opportunely for ‘Charlotte’. Which was not only the name of the dead Princess, but also of Baildon’s wife and daughter. Tacky?

Lucy's tomb
Charlotte's memorial
Yes, tacky. Prince of Wales’s feathers and all. I mean, who would buy a cheap rehash like this? But thank you, Mr Shade, we can of course date this piece, and thus probably this volume, to post 1817.

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