Preview by David Munro
A MONTHLY assessment of the careers of stars of the musical theatre as represented by their commercial recordings.
3 Evelyn Laye
On April 3 1954, I gave my first night seats for Wedding In Paris, the vehicle for Evelyn Laye's return to the West End stage, to my sister and her friend. The next morning, I asked her for her reaction and she told me she loved it, but the rest of the audience didn't as they all shouted, 'Boo' at the end. Which she thought was very unfair.
Poor sister, little did she realise that for Evelyn Laye, 'Boo' was an acclamation, not the bird for, as her autobiography tells us, she was 'Boo' to my friends' and' as 'Boo'' she was always affectionately referred to by her fellow professionals.
Born in 1900, she made her first appearance in Brighton in 1915 and in the West End in Going Up in 1918. Although her father, Gilbert, was a theatrical agent, she did not need his influence as, from the outset, it was clear she had a radiant personality and great talent: assets she retained throughout her long career.
Her first records were single sided HMV 12in. 78s, from Going Up, three duets of which, alas, only one When You Look Into Her Eyes has been transferred to CD - Pearl Past CD 9717 - When I Grow Too Old To Dream.
As I mentioned last month, Going Up was the show which, in New York, shot Evelyn Laye's only real contender for the Queen of Musical Comedy, Edith Day, to stardom. Edith Day, so far as is known, never recorded her numbers, so we must be grateful that Evelyn did and left us with evidence that shows her ability at the age of 18. Although the records are poorly recorded, the beauty of her voice and her intelligent delivery of banal lyrics foreshadows the glorious career that was to come.
After Going Up, she appeared in a forgotten musical, The Kiss Call, and then her career took off when she appeared as Bessie Brent in The Shop Girl revival in1920, at the Gaiety Theatre. Her two records from this show have not so far as I have been able to ascertain been transferred to either LP or CD. A shame, and perhaps Pearl or some other archive-based company might consider this show, together with Betty In Mayfair and Going Up for a future CD to represent her early musical career.
Sadly, the roles she played between 1920 and 1923 were not recorded; perhaps the most interesting of which was that of Helen in Phi - Phi, an anglicised version of the Operetta by Willmetz and Christine at the London Pavilion in 1922.
The following year, 1923, she appeared at Daly's Theatre in Madame Pompadour. This was recorded by English Columbia and those records were transferred by Pearl to CD GEMM CD99068 and show her in a bewitching and mischievous style, which sadly she left behind when she became a star.
Roy Royston (the perennial juvenile, as he called himself, he remained one from the 20's until well into the 40's!) recalled an instance which illustrates this trait in her character.
During the run of The Shop Girl, she was in the wings one matinee, having a cup of tea, when her entrance was called. This required her to descend a staircase festooned with chorus boys, singing and dancing.
In her haste, she appeared at the top of the staircase, still holding her cup and saucer and a large biscuit. Undeterred, she slowed her descent and handed her cup saucer and biscuit to three of the boys, as though it was all part of the number and continued to dance down the staircase into Roy Royston's arms, where she said in a stage whisper: "Sorry, darling, there's none left for you, I'll bring you a cup tomorrow!"
Unprofessional it may have been, and something the later Miss Laye would never have done, yet I think you will agree, endearing. I reminded her of this when she was a very Grande Dame and standing in for Anna Neagle in Charlie Girl, in which she had a mock Gaiety walk down in the second act. She looked at me and said: "Well, Darling, it would certainly make the matinee audience wake up," and I saw, in that moment, the girl who had done it come to life again.
She retained her humorous attitude, however, in the next show she recorded, Betty in Mayfair, where she played a prim twin who longs to be naughty and is in the last act. The music, by Harold Fraser-Simson, is also a delight and a surprise to those who measure his abilities by The Maid of the Mountains. He enters into the fun and the three 10in British Columbia 78s should, as I have already indicated, be re-released for a new audience.
The next two years she coasted, replacing others in established pieces and not making too great an impression on the public until she opened in 1928 a new theatre, The Piccadilly, with a Jerome Kern musical Blue Eyes, not a success, but it was recorded and these discs appear on the World Record Club LP - Jerome Kern in London - SH.171.
The same year, her personal life hit the rocks when her husband, Sonnie Hale,
had an affaire with Jessie Matthews, which resulted in a divorce case which
rocked London and caused the Divorce Rules of Evidence to be modified after
so-called salacious letters from Jessie to Sonnie were read out in court and
appeared in detail in the press.
Evelyn was shattered and blamed the impresario CB Cochran for not having stopped the affair, with the result that she turned down the London Production of Bitter Sweet, although she later relented and played it in New York
After Blue Eyes, she appeared in a revival of Lilac Time, before
assuming the role of Marianne in New Moon at Drury lane in 1929. By
now, the austere Miss Laye had appeared; there are hints of her in Blue
Eyes, but in New Moon she is a fully-fledged Operetta Soprano,
a role she continued with until Wedding In Paris after the war. It
would seem no coincidence that the cool, passionless persona emerged at the
time of the break-up of her marriage.
New Moon was recorded by English Columbia and has been re-released both on LP - World Record Club Sh254/American Monmouth Evergreen MES7051; and CD -Gemm CD9100
New Moon behind her, she went to Broadway for Bitter Sweet
and returned the following year to take over from Peggy Wood in London. She
recorded the two main songs, I'll See You Again and Zigeuner
on a 10in English Columbia 78, which appear on both LP tribute records - The
Entrancing Evelyn Laye - MFP1162 and - The Golden Age of Evelyn Laye
- EMI GX4125371.
The CD collections, 'When I Grow Too Old To Dream' - Pearl Past CD 9717 - and Gaiety Girl - ASV Living Era CD AJA5211 - contain all the songs on the LPs and more.
She then went on tour in England with Bitter Sweet and Madame Pompadour, re-appearing in London in 1932 as Helen in AP Herberts' reworking of the Offenbach operetta, La Belle Helene, in which she made a great success. Alas! she never commercially recorded any numbers from this, although there is a BBC recording of Oh God Of Love, that has never been released.
She followed this, in 1933, with Give Me A Ring, in which she co-starred
with Scottish comedian, Will Fyffe and with Flanagan and Allen among others.
She then departed for the USA, presumably to recover her sanity and her dignity,
and to get re-married!
While in the States, she went to Hollywood to star with Ramon Novarro in The Night Is Young (1934) for MGM, a tedious film written especially for the screen by Oscar Hammerstein and Sigmund Romberg.
This was not her first film musical. She had made One Heavenly Night, with John Boles for Goldwyn in 1931 and Waltz Time for Gaumont British in 1933. The latter was a free working of Die Fledermaus, by AP Herbert, and two numbers from this, recorded by English Decca, and The Night Is Young, recorded by HMV, can be heard on the Pearl CD.
She returned in 1934 to England to make two films for Gaumont British. The first, Princess Charming, was not a success, although she recorded four songs from it, on HMV, which can be heard on both the CDs.
Her second, and last film until after the war, was Evensong, in which she played an aging opera singer, based on Melba, superseded by a younger singer played by Conchita Supervia. It was probably her best performance on film. The charm and vivacity she displayed on stage tended to look arch when filmed and although one feels that, with the proper direction, she could have been as great a success in musical films as Jessie Matthews, she never really conquered the medium.
America called again and in 1935 she appeared in Bitter Sweet in Los Angeles and a play in New York.
In May 1937, she appeared opposite Richard Tauber in a Lehar operetta, Paganini, for Cochran. Although the play was only moderately successful, she recorded two of her duets with Tauber and her two solo numbers for Parlophone. All four can be heard on the ASV Gaiety Girl CD.
She then returned to New York to appear with Jack Buchanan and Adele Dixon in Between the Devil, a Dietz and Schwarz musical based on bigamy, which only ran for 93 performances. In it, she introduced, but did not record, I See Your Face Before Me. Bad times, rather than face, would have been more apropos.
Howard Dietz, in his memoirs, Dancing in the Dark, ascribed the failure to Jack Buchanan being as funny as being hit on the head with a cosh. That was no help to Evelyn, who headed home to a dreary round of the Music Halls and Pantomime until 1940, when she made a triumphant comeback in the wartime revue Lights Up.
In this, she sang two Noel Gay numbers, All For A Glass Of Champagne and Let The People Sing, for which she is probably now best remembered. These, together with another song, You've Done Something To My Heart, were recorded by English Columbia and appear on The Golden Age of Evelyn Laye LP and Tape, and the Gaiety Girl CD.
She also, at this time, recorded My Heart Belongs To You, from The
Dancing Years, and Our Love, based on Tchaikovsky's Romeo and
Juliet Overture, on a 10in. English Columbia 78, which, so far as I can
ascertain, has never be re-recorded; perhaps not surprisingly.
After a short-lived revival of The Belle of New York, she appeared with Edith Day in Sunny River at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1943, which was a mistake for both of them careerwise.
For the next two years, she toured the provinces and played principal boy in Pantomime, followed by a short stint at the Princes Theatre in the Oscar Straus operetta The Three Waltes. HMV recorded two of the waltzes, Forever and How Can Words Content A Lover, the first of which appears on both LPs and the Gaiety Girl CD, but not the second, which has never been re-recorded.
Thereafter, she returned to the provinces and Pantomime until, in 1953, when she played Mrs Darling in Peter Pan in London. But her years of exile in the theatrical desert were ending, as in 1954 she appeared, initially in a small part which was drastically rewritten making her the lead, with Anton Walbrook, in Wedding in Paris at the Hippodrome in April 1954 - 10in LP Parlophone PMG1011.
F rom then on, she never looked back. She had re-established herself in the West End theatre as a star and a theatrical legend.
The previous year, there had opened The King and I. Evelyn was the ideal actress for Anna. There has always been speculation as to why she never appeared in the part.
It is alleged that Oscar Hammerstein refused to let her audition or play Anna, as she had turned down the lead role in The Three Sisters, his and Kern's monumental flop at Drury Lane in April 1934. He felt this had resulted from Evelyn's failure to take the leading role and never forgave her.
Who can say, now, if there is any truth in this? In 1934, she was busy making films and while this would not have prevented her from an appearance on stage, it is possible that the Studios, not Miss Laye, scuppered Oscar's ship by refusing to release her. It was, however, widely rumoured at the time, that she applied for the part of Anna and was turned down when it had been generally anticipated she would get the role - and that, one feels, was a misjudgement for whatever reason, when one considers who eventually was cast!
The rest of her theatrical career was mainly spent as the lead in plays and farces, some of which, like No Sex Please We're British, were enormously successful. Her last two appearances in a musical, apart from a short stint in Charlie Girl, when Anna Neagle was on holiday in 1969, was as Mrs Besant in Strike a Light (1966), which was recorded by Decca but never released, and Mrs Fitzmaurice in Phil The Fluter (1969), with Stanley Baxter, which was recorded and issued by Phillips SBL7916.
Apart from Children's records, which she is supposed to have made for HMV in the Fifties, although I have not been able to trace the titles or numbers, she made one more appearance on disc, in a recording of extracts from a BBC Two broadcast In With The Old - TER1122 in 1986, at the age of 86, in which, as the sleeve note says, her voice had gone from silver to gold, yet the magic is still there.
Evelyn Laye died in 1996. Her life was dedicated to the theatre - she was touring in a revue Glamorous Nights at Drury Lane at the age of 92. While her first marriage was unhappy, her second, to the actor Frank Lawton, was by all accounts idyllic. They had no children but her legacy lies in the records she made and that legacy is everlasting.
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