Lionel Monckton (1861-1923), from the stable of composers working for London producer George Edwardes around 1900, is best remembered for a non-Edwardes operetta favorite, The Arcadians (1909), which has been recorded several times. Not so most of his other successes, which stopped being revived when British light opera societies switched over to American musicals. Monckton’s style is definitely post-Sullivan: a wealth of easy melodies, unsophisticated harmonies, and a certain parlor-ballad-cum-music-hall forthrightness. Musical satire? Invention? Operetta genius? Not terribly often. But Monckton had a remarkable facility for catchy songs that a chorus – and audience – could take up and, more, a wistfulness that reminds me of his contemporaries, Leo Fall and Jerome Kern.
This is a product of Theatre Bel-Etage, a theatre company in (of all places) Tallinn, Estonia. Is that where these ancient British musicals are hibernating? It’s wonderful to hear them, even in potpourri fashion (and it’s hard to tell if these are the complete original orchestrations – they sound almost computer-generated). The Arcadians excerpt prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this show is Monckton’s finest. Included here are the comparatively unfamiliar songs – the waitresses’ chorus, ‘Fickle Fortune’, ‘Sweet Simplicitas’ and ‘We want to be Arcadians’ – and these and the rest of this wonderful score enchant, in an attractive 23-minute medley. If you would like a more accurate idea of this score, seek out the fine Ohio Light Opera recording or the superb (but deleted) excerpts on Angel, which include some tracks with original-cast members. Little in British operetta can compare with such truly bewitching bonbons as ‘The Girl with the Brogue’, ‘Half Past Two’ or ‘Charming Weather’.
The Cingalee (1904) takes place in the Ceylon of long ago colonial tea-planters – before this island paradise became the more troubled Sri Lanka. The fashion for Asian locales had been started by The Mikado and continued by The Geisha and San Toy. The condescending racial nature of the libretto is naturally outré today, and the score has none of the brilliant, otherworldly-plus-West End fascination of The Arcadians. But there are a few nice items, including the bouncy (but questionable) ‘White and Brown Girl’ and the extended finale from Act II.
You will not see The Cingalee revived; but The Quaker Girl (1910) is possible. I have been waiting for decades for more than short 78 medleys and single original-cast discs. There are 18 minutes here, and I have liked nearly everything I have heard from this score. The best bits here (hardly whole songs) include the spectacualr dancing lesson duet, with a lovely waltz; the fabulous slow waltz ‘Come to the Ball’ – taken up by the chorus to resounding effect; the cute ‘Tony from America’ (which Gertie Millar – the creatrice – made chortlingly famous); and a really catchy comic duet, ‘Mr Jeremiah, Esquire’. (The refrain begins “oh, Jerry! Will you pass the sherry?”)
The voices here, occasionally pretty, have been drilled to give an Edwardian flavour, though the vowels often have what I assume are Estonian shadings. It’s not exactly Shaftesbury Avenue. The booklet responsibly prints all the lyrics by period favorites Percy Greenbank, Adrian Ross and Arthur Wimperis – the latter wins the Derby with his clever Arcadians words. Journey back in time to the London musical a century ago.
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