Their record speaks for them - Gertrude Lawrence

Preview by David Munro

A MONTHLY assessment of the careers of stars of the musical theatre as represented by their commercial recordings.

1 Gertrude Lawrence

'September Tide' was Gertrude Lawrence's last appearance in London (1948) and her first appearance in the London Theatre since 1936, although during the last war she toured England and elsewhere for ENSA.

Despite only having acted on (and off) the London stage for 20 years, Gertrude Lawrence, mainly through her connections with Noel Coward and her appearances with him in two of his productions (three if London Calling is included), is held up as a legendary star of the London Theatre. The fact that of all her major successes on Broadway, only one was reprised in London, does not diminish her lustre nor detract from her very definite 'star quality'.

Unfortunately as she died in 1952 during the New York run of her last, and some say her greatest, success, The King and I, she must be judged by the present generations on those of her records which are still in circulation and her appearances in films, which were few and infrequent.

Born in 1898 and christened Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Klasen, she made her first appearance in 1908 as a robin in a pantomime in Brixton; her mother being in the chorus. Shortly after, she joined a theatre school and at sometime thereabouts she must have added the 'e' and adopted the surname 'Lawrence', which was the name assumed by her father when he appeared on the stage, even though at that time her father and mother were separated.

Apart from an appearance in The Miracle (Olympia 1911) she continued to appear in pantomime and, after a short stint at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, toured the music halls in sketches (with, it is alleged, her father) and touring revues until 1916, when she was employed as chorus girl and understudy in Some, an Andre Charlot revue at the Vaudeville Theatre. This was her first step forward and she never looked back.

Her life is well documented. Her own autobiography, A Star Danced, and her last husband's biography, Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A., are enjoyable reads but somewhat inclined to hyperbole and fiction. Sheridan Morley's A Bright Particular Star makes a valiant attempt to separate fact from fiction and presents a better-proportioned and more balanced view of her chaotic life.
The first verifiable records made by Gertrude Lawrence were from a subsequent Charlot revue 'Buzz-Buzz' (1918). Two solos Winnie the Window Cleaner and I have lost my heart in Maoriland and a duet, I've been waiting for someone like you, with Walter Williams, with whom she subsequently toured the music halls. It is impossible after listening to these to credit that this was the singer whose idiosyncratic style of singing became so much a part of her persona.

This was, however, more apparent in the next record she made. Entitled Broadway Medley, it featured Gertie and Bea Lillie preserving on disc their performances as the Sisters Apple - Seedy and Cora, from the New York Andre Charlot's London Revue of 1924 which, at the date of the record (1925), had transferred to London to enable Charlot to prepare his next New York revue. One side of this record appears on the 'Noel and Gertie and Bea' LP (Parlophone PMC 7135), as does Winnie the Window Cleaner.

In the six years between the recording dates, Gertrude Lawrence had appeared in two major London revues for Charlot 'A-Z' with Jack Buchanan and London Calling, her first appearance with Noel Coward and performing material he had written specially for her.

She made no contemporaneous published recordings from either show (her HMV recordings of two numbers from 'A-Z' were never released) but in later years she did record the two numbers she had made popular in the revues Limehouse Blues from 'A-Z' and Parisian Pierrot from London Calling. These were made at a time when her style had matured, so it is not easy to appreciate how she would have performed them in the revues.

Charlot's Revue of 1926 opened in New York to great acclaim at the end of 1925 and in November 1925 Gertie, Jack Buchanan and Bea Lillie recorded numbers from the show for American Columbia.

Gertie recorded A cup of coffee, a sandwich and you (with Jack Buchanan), Poor little rich girl, Russian Blues and Carrie. The last three were all written by Noel Coward and were initially sung in On with the Dance and London Calling; Carrie being originally sung by Gertrude in the latter.

Sadly, although the first three appear on CD 'Gertrude Lawrence - Star!' (Living Era ASV CD AJA 5265) I have not been able to trace a re-recording of Carrie, so it would seem that her contemporaneous recording from her only appearance in a Noel Coward revue has yet to be re-discovered.

1926 saw her first major success and one that confirmed her status as a leading lady in Musical Comedy Oh, Kay!

She recorded her two principal numbers, Someone to Watch Over Me and Do-Do-Do, twice. The first time for American Victor with a piano accompaniment, the second for English Columbia, as part of a two record selection from the show, when she also recorded May Be with her co-star Harold French; all with orchestra. They can be heard on one side of 'The Star Herself' (Music for Pleasure MFP 1245) and on CD 'Gertrude Lawrence - Star!' (Living Era ASV AJA 5265).

By now, her style was set and her rather off key notes and plummy pronunciation of the lyrics interspersed with gasps and giggles made her interpretations unique. Unfortunately, on her Columbia recordings, her partner can't sing either so their duets make one realise how great her charisma must have been to enable the show to recreate its success in London.

Oh, Kay! - London and New York - behind her, she essayed a play and then returned to New York for another Gershwin musical, Treasure Girl, which bombed. Another straight play followed and, in 1930, she took a booking in Lew Leslie's International Revue, with the strangulated tenor, Harry Richman, as co-star.

Three strikes and she was out. Although she subsequently recorded numbers from both shows no 'cast' recording exists. Was it she or the Depression responsible? Certainly as far as her career was concerned, the depression had seemingly set in.

Help was at hand in the shape of Noel Coward and Private Lives, a play with which she is forever identified both from the adulatory reports of her performance but also from the record made by HMV which encapsulates the play in two short excerpts. This record more than any other preserves the myth of Noel and Gertie for all time.

The original 78 can still probably be found in charity shops. Why bother! It appears on practically every LP or CD either Noel or Gertie ever made (including both CDs mentioned herein) and the clipped tones and insensate dialogue of the two protagonists have echoed remorselessly down the years.

Whatever one may think of the play, record or performances, it revived what looked like a flagging career, even if for the next two years after it closed she appeared in a series of unmemorable and disastrous plays.

The world remembers Amanda - the world is never wrong, so that when she appeared in Nymph Errant in 1933 it was as a star produced by CB Cochran, with music by Cole Porter. How, in the words of one of its songs, could we be wrong?

We were, but we were also left with three of the most enchanting records she ever made. Admittedly she did not sing Experiment in the show but who cares when you hear the consummate artistry she brings to it on the record. Nymph Errant, The Physician, How could we be wrong? and It's bad for me sound as fresh and enchanting today as they did when she waxed them.

These can be found on a 10" LP (RCA Victor LRT7001/HMV DLP1099) or on one side of a 12" LP 'The Star Herself' (Music for Pleasure MFP 1245) but do not appear to have been transferred to CD, although individual numbers appear on the two CDs mentioned

After Private Lives, she made a number of records of songs in 1931/32 on the English Decca label. These were mainly pot boilers although she recorded My sweet, which she had sung in the film Aren't we All, Limehouse Blues from A-Z, Parisian Pierrot from London Calling and Someday I'll find you from Private Lives.

The Decca LP - 'The Incomparable Gertrude Lawrence' (ACL 1171) - released in 1964, contains 11 of these titles, including the three above and extracts from a medley of her famous songs that she made for it at the same time, which are reasonably transferred and make a worthwhile example of her artistry overcoming what, in many cases, was inferior material.

Her next visit to the recording studios was in February 1934 when she recorded two titles for HMV from Big Business - An hour ago this minute and What now. Both were songs by Johnny Green and it is suggested that she sang them in a radio play, Big Business, but at this time verification is hard to come by.

Certainly, the next month Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph also recorded two titles from the film Big Business, but the only film that year with that title was a Claude Hulbert farce and not a musical, which leads one to the conclusion that it was a show written for radio in which Gertie may have appeared. (The sleeve notes to the 'Noel and Gertie' album support this but Sheridan Morley was unable to confirm it when asked). These two songs appear on a current CD 'Gertie' (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120560).

She certainly appeared in the play, excerpts of which she recorded in November 1934, Moonlight is Silver. In this, she played opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who appears with her on the record.

Although the record is mainly dialogue, she does sing the title song and can be heard doing so on 'Gertie' (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120560). This CD also has several of the records referred to earlier as well as two of the next three records which she made with Noel Coward, from Tonight at 8.30 in 1936. The recorded extracts were from Red Peppers, Shadow Play and Family Album; the first two of which are represented in part on the CD.

Sadly, financial disaster struck her and she was made bankrupt (in respect of a laundry bill of £50!), so after she finished the run of Tonight at 8.30 she shook the dust of the London stage off her high heeled shoes and retired to America and greater triumphs for the next 12 years. Before leaving she found time to record a medley of "greatest successes" for HMV, which can be heard on the aforementioned Naxos CD.

In America, her two great musical successes were Lady in the Dark (1941) and The King and I (1951), both of which were recorded on 78s and subsequently transferred to LP and eventually to CD.

Lady in the Dark is paired with Nymph Errant on the 10" LP. It is also on one side of a dual album (paired with Down in the Valley) on a 12" RCA Victor LP (LPV 503). The King and I was a full 12" album the CD of which is on Broadway Golden Classics (MCAD 10049). Lady in the Dark was transferred to CD as a tailpiece to the CD of the televised show starring Ann Southern (AEI - CD - 041)

In 1950/51, she made a series of 78s for American Decca which included Exactly Like You and On the Sunny Side of the Street, both from Lew Leslies International Revue (1930) - I've got a crush on you from Treasure Girl, the Gershwin musical she appeared in after Oh, Kay! which, itself, is represented by Someone to Watch Over Me and Do-Do-Do.

In addition she sings yet another Limehouse Blues, Parisian Pierrot and Someday I'll find you which, together with one or two other songs from these sessions, were re-issued on LP under the title A Bright Particular Star (MCA MUP 336), presumably to coincide with the release of Star, the film of her life in which she was portrayed by Julie Andrews in 1968.

Gertrude Lawrence died September 6, 1952 of cancer, during the run of The King and I, but her memory lingers on in the minds of those who saw her and in the legacy of her recordings.

NB - Apart from her commercial recordings, there have been several LPs of her performances on American radio and elsewhere.

The only one which may be worthy of note is Gertrude Lawrence - Star Quality (AEI 2119), which purports to be a retelling by her of her life and includes an alternative version of Has anyone seen our ship from Red Peppers, allegedly with Noel Coward and the usual repertoire from her past successes to which are added one more number from Andre Charlot's London Revue of 1924 - I don't know and a few monologues of passing interest.

As it contains two songs from The King and I it was probably broadcast in 1951 or early 1952. I have not been able to ascertain whether it has yet appeared on CD.

The two CDs referred to in the text are currently available; the LPs are not but may be obtainable from specialist shops or over the Internet. Her records also appear in other LP compilations not mentioned but the most comprehensive ones are those referred to above.