On the Edwardian Musical

On May 6, 1910, King Edward VII of Britain shuffled off this mortal coil. We thought it an appropriate time to briefly explore an historic theatrical form that continues to bear his name, one that is a vital link in the chain of popular entertainment, but one that we have neglected up ’til now, for it was also brief in duration, and of foreign origin, though its impact was definitely felt on American stages, hence the stuff we more typically write about here. It seems to fill a niche somewhere between the very oldest burlesque (i.e. the Lydia Thompson sort) and the great Broadway revues. A light may dawn when I mention two of the more famous Edwardian shows: A Gaiety Girl and Floradora. After the British Blondes and before the Ziegfeld Girls, there were the Gaiety Girls and the Floradora Girls.

The inspiration for this post came about a month ago, on the natal anniversary of musical writer Owen Hall, but I quickly realized that he wasn’t exactly the Alpha and Omega of the form, so today the fuller post. The originator of Edwardian musical comedy may more properly be said to be impresario George Edwardes (1855-1915) through the name of the theatrical form of course refers to the regal period, not to him. Before assuming management duties at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1885, Edwardes had managed theatres for Richard D’Oyle Carte, still famous as the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. Edwardes intitally produced old style burlesques at the Gaiety, but over time developed a new form that incorporated the best elements of burlesque, Gilbert and Sullivan, music hall, and the American shows of Harrigan and Hart. A key attraction of these shows was the in-house dance chorus The Gaiety Girls, who were somewhat more refined and family friendly than similar choruses in burlesque. Popular songs were another important element. As has perennially been the case, the weakest and most negelected element was plot, but there usually was one, however scanty. In Town (1892), was the first of these shows, followed by the better remembered A Gaiety Girl (1893), starring Cissy Fitzgerald. Then came all manner of other “Girl” shows, all featuring modern, independent, fashionable heroines: The Shop Girl (1894), The Circus Girl (1895), A Runaway Girl (1898) and many others. Edwardes also produced similar shows at other theatres he managed. At Daly’s Theatre (which he’d opened with the American Arnold Daly there were such entertainments as An Artists Model (1895) and The Geisha (1896). At the Adelphi Theatre, there were offerings like The Quaker Girl (1910).

The aforementioned Owen Hall (James “Jimmie” Davis, 1853-1907) wrote the books to many of these shows, and he is too interesting a character not to write about. Davis was an English Jew who’d grown up partly in Dublin. He’d practiced a few years as a solicitor before becoming a journalist/ editor/ publisher/ sportswriter and theatre critic (and friend of Oscar Wilde, prior to the scandal). He was also a problem gambler, hence his professional pseudonym, a homonym for “owin’ all”. Several of Hall’s sisters were successful writers, too. We’ll catch up with them anon. At any rate, Hall had written a bad review of In Town, criticizing its book in particular, so Edwardes challenged him to write a better one, which turned out to be A Gaiety Girl, followed by many hits thereafter. His most famous hit, however was created outside of Edwardes’ orbit, and that was 1899’s Floradora. Floradora premiered at the Lyric Theatre and was created with the team of Leslie Stuart and Paul Rubens. It was particularly famous for its sextet of fetching females known as the Floradora Girls, the most famous of whom was Ada Reeve. Legendarily, each of the Floradora Girls was said to have married a millionaire. Since this show ran forever, and there were numerous productions of it, there are a seemingly endless number of stage stars who’d been Floradora Girls, though there were only six original ones.

Naturally, the most popular of these shows crossed the pond and became popular in America, not just in New York, but in touring units as well, Having had occasion to mention them from time to time, it seemed fitting to clarify the reference, for the influence would be felt in vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway revues, and Broadway book musicals, as well. The genre outlasted King Edward, by the way. It’s popularity lasted until around the First World War.

For more on variety theatre history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,