ON THE RECORD: Three Mid-50’s Musicals from the U.K.

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Three Mid-50’s Musicals from the U.K. This week’s column discusses new releases of Peter Greenwell’s Twenty Minutes South, Vivian Ellis’ The Water Gipsies and Julian Slade’s record-smashing hit Salad Days.
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TWENTY MINUTES SOUTH [Must Close Saturday MCSR3032]
Once upon a time — precisely one hundred years and two weeks ago, as I write this — George M. Cohan’s Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway opened at the crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street. This was a musical comedy situated 45 minutes away, in New Rochelle; the plot told of a housemaid who inherits a fortune — her name is Mary, as in “Mary Is a Grand Old Name” — but decides New Rochelle is better than the big bad city.

Fifty-five years later, and closer to town, came Twenty Minutes South. South of London, that is. This was the tale of a group of suburban commuters, rushing to the City every day “On the 8:27” (opening number) and returning “On the 5:27” (finale). The girls work as secretaries, the boys propose, etcetera. This might not sound all too promising, especially to listeners in America in 2005. But do not lose heart. Twenty Minutes South is the work of Peter Greenwell, who was totally unknown to me until three years ago, when Must Close Saturday brought us the striking Crooked Mile. One hearing of that recording made me, at least, more than ready to hear anything else that Mr. Greenwell might have written.

Twenty Minutes South was initially produced at the Player’s Theatre, which had just then originated Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend. Similarly, the show transferred to the West End, opening July 13, 1955, at the St. Martins. Unlike The Boy Friend, Twenty Minutes South quickly wilted and disappeared. Greenwell returned with at least four more musicals, including the aforementioned Crooked Mile in 1959.

The score for Greenwell’s earlier musical does not approach that of the latter. The work calls for a formulaic assortment of songs, presumably at the behest of librettist-lyricist Maurice Browning (who was not involved with The Crooked Mile). Even so, one can’t help but be struck by the composer’s deft touches. The music for “On the 8:27,” for example, is rhythmically altered time and again by train-chugging sounds from the singers. There is a typewriter song with similar written-in effects, and this was long before Frank Loesser’s “Secretary Is Not a Toy” or Thoroughly Modern Millie. Greenwell does something rhythmically similar in “Do We?,” one of those songs with two boys complaining about their girls and who needs ’em anyway? A hackneyed song slot, but handled with imagination by the composer.

Adrian Wright, in his typically compelling liner notes, quotes Greenwell on Twenty Minutes South: “I wrote what I thought was required, you know. I wrote what people expected to hear, and I didn’t do my own thing. One or two bits in it are really me, but I didn’t put myself into it, and I sort of saw what the critics meant. I was writing what I thought were the popular songs of the day. I mean, the show had a mambo.” I rather like “The Addison Mambo,” myself. And I find Twenty Minutes South breezily bright, although not to the extent that I’d describe it as a must-buy. Let’s just say that some readers of this column are sure to enjoy it, and hopefully you can already tell if that means you.

THE WATER GIPSIES [Sepia 1060]
Which brings us to The Water Gipsies, which opened on August 31, 1955 — six weeks after Twenty Minutes South — and made it through 239 performances. This one was not about little nymphs and sprites, as the title might suggest, but about people who operate horse-drawn barges along the Thames. If that doesn’t scare you away, I don’t know what will. Once you put the thing on your CD player, though, you will find something quite different than the one you might have dreaded.

Yes, there’s a big rousing chorus that begins “They call us the water gipsies,” and a big love serenade sung by the juvenile to his old gray mare, under the title “Clip-Clop” (what else?). But those songs, while old fashioned, are not bad, at least once you get past the thought of a fellow booming out “They call us the water gypsies” and serenading his horse. A few tame songs, yes, but composer Vivian Ellis and lyricist A.P. Herbert have a number of surprises for us.

They are helped, and very much so, by Dora Bryan, who positively crackles here. She plays the barge-man’s daughter Lily. “Why Did You Call Me Lily?” she sings, pointing out that “Lilies are tall and snooty, but I like lying down.” If they had to name her after vegetation, she adds, “then why can’t it be mistletoe?” Bryan’s other material pretty much follows this lead; there is an especially amusing monologue-to-music about her seduction. I only know Bryan from her later recordings. Here, she seems to be Maggie Smith and Kristin Chenoweth tied up in a tidy package, and back in 1955 she must have been quite droll.

Bryan combined with a half-dozen or so peppy songs makes The Water Gipsies enjoyably listenable, even with those clip-clops.

SALAD DAYS [Sepia 1059]
If Twenty Minutes South and The Water Gipsies were quickly forgotten, Salad Days was a blockbuster. Opening at the Vaudeville on August 5, 1954, Salad Days played through the decade, closing in 1960 with a new West End long-run record of 2,282 performances.

Blockbuster or no, the score -- composed by Julian Slade, with lyrics by Slade and Dorothy Reynolds -- can be described as quaint. Salad Days tells of a magical piano on wheels that roams the streets, causing every passerby to start dancing. Even policemen. From long-ago hearings of the LP, I favorably remembered only one song, the little ditty that the piano plays to make everyone sing, “Look at Me I’m Dancing.” (The song is officially entitled “Oh, Look at Me.”) On hearing the newly released CD, I must report that this is the only song I’m glad to rediscover — 2,282 performances, and I can’t get through a second hearing! Salad Days was knocked off the block by Oliver!, and I must say the two musicals come from different worlds. The most remarkable thing to report about this new CD is that it is two CDs. As discussed in our last column, British copyright law brings out-of-print recordings into public domain after 50 years. The problem with public domain is that everyone has equal access. Must Close Saturday [MCSR3031] and Sepia [1061] -- two British labels that specialize in bringing us out-of-print show recordings — have both seen fit to give us Salad Days.

Reasonably so, in that it was an enormous hit in its time. But for me, one CD of Salad Days is far more than enough. Must Close Saturday adds excerpts from a live tape of the show, early in its run; Sepia adds selections from Slade’s other 1954 musical, The Duenna.

Musical theatre fans have been well served by both of these labels. Sepia has given us Hazel Flagg, Love from Judy and Make a Wish, while Must Close Saturday is responsible for Divorce Me, Darling; Belle; and Trelawny. (Adrian Wright, of MCS, also maintains the highly-informative www.musical-theatre.net website.) Both worthy independents operate on the tightest of budgets; the thought of them competing with Salad Days — and presumably splitting what can’t be an enormous number of sales — seems unfortunate and unnecessary. Whether this is coincidence or a pitched battle I cannot say. I, for one, wish both Must Close Saturday and Sepia healthy futures, which will enable them to bring more first-rate original cast album CDs to eager listeners.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.