Edwardian Musical Comedies are perhaps the most neglected series of musical comedies masterpieces in the present era. These shows, which delighted a generation with their carefree atmosphere, robust humour and sophisticated but catchy melodies, are seldom heard, recorded or staged these days, and yet offer a wonderful resource for those wishing to extend their repertoires, whether in concert or fully-staged. Edwardian Musical Comedies, broadly speaking, are those shows from the period from the 1890s, when Gilbert & Sullivan began to lose their dominance, to the rise of the American musicals by Gershwin, Porter and Kern following the First World War. They were at their peak in the Edwardian era, and capture that ages optimism, energy and good humour. The first Edwardian Musical Comedy, by popular consensus, was 'In Town' (1892), the last, perhaps 'The Maid of the Mountains' (1916). The major composers of the genre were Sidney Jones ('The Geisha'), Ivan Caryll ('Our Miss Gibbs'), Howard Talbot ('A Chinese Honeymoon'), Leslie Stuart ('Florodora'), Paul Rubens ('Miss Hook of Holland') and, most popular of all, Lionel Monckton ('The Quaker Girl'). The shows were a mixture of the prosaic, many being set amongst the working class of London, and the exotic, with most of the British Empire featured in some show! Often, they were both, featuring stolid British types and their misunderstandings and adventures with strange Johnny foreigners.
'The Arcadians' is, in my opinion, rightly regarded as the masterpiece of the genre. The composers were Monckton and Talbot, both at the height of their powers (which makes Talbot's frequent ommision from the credits even more iniquitous). The story, about the havoc wreaked when truth-telling Arcadians arrive in corrupt London, neatly parallels the position of Edwardian Musical Comedies in theatrical history, with operetta-singing Arcadians, representing the past, meeting with music hall-singing Londoners, representing the future. It is this tension that makes the shows so enjoyable: sophistication with the common touch! Generally, the book, lyrics and music were all written by different people, which was a first for the musical stage – and now the usual way of doing things.
Their chief glory, however, lies in their musical scores. These combined the delicacy and sophistication of operetta with the robust tunefulness of the musical hall. Whether or not you think you have heard these songs before, when you first encounter them you feel that you have known them all your life! It is easy to see why the likes of 'I gotta motter', 'Tell me, pretty maiden' and 'Chin Chin Chinaman' were the pop music of their age.
The shows were frequently built around a resident company of artists, rather like the Savoy Operas, which included a number of the greatest stars of the stage - including such names as Marie Tempest, Gertie Millar, Hayden Coffin and, from the Savoy, Rutland Barrington. The most important theatres to give them origin were The Gaiety and Daly's, presided over by George 'The Guv'nor' Edwardes, the Cameron Mackintosh of the Edwardian Stage. Scores were constantly refreshed and re-arranged, often by a number of different composers, to keep audiences coming back.
The Edwardian Musical Comedy was very much a British phenomeum, but some of the shows repeated their success abroad, both in America and in Europe. Most notable among these was 'The Geisha', which proved far more popular on the Continent than 'The Mikado' ever did.
Why are Edwardian Musical Comedies never produced?
The main reason for the scarcity of productions of Edwardian Musical Comedies seems to be unfamiliarity - productions have been almost unheard of since the 1960s, and a whole generation has grown up who only know of Gilbert & Sullivan in the history of musicals prior to 'Oklahoma'. There is also difficulty coming by librettos, scores and, in particular, band parts. The latter exist, to my knowledge, for only a very few shows; a tragedy, as the orchestrations that do survive are a revelation. The librettos, when found, are often rather long and wordy, with very many principal characters, and a number of obscure references (these shows were always up-to-date!). These factors combine to make Edwardian Musical Comedies seem to be more bother than they're worth. However, spend some time on this site reading the scripts and listening to the music, and I think that you'll strongly disagree!
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