The UL recently acquired two slightly unusual items: a copy of the song “You were there” from Noel Coward‘s musical Tonight at 8.30, signed by Coward and his leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence; and music for the ballet that enlivened the play A kiss in Spring, composed by Herbert Griffiths, and heavily annotated by Constant Lambert, who helped to arrange the work. Kiss in Spring seems to have been a fairly turgid work, its audience saved from a lingering death by boredom thanks to the choreography of Frederick Ashton, the work of Griffiths and Lambert, and the dancing of a young Alicia Markova. So why this interest in the lighter side of the British musical tradition?
Musical revue was big in Britain from the 1920s to the 1950s. Here at the UL we have several archives that showcase the work of composers and their association with revue, among them that of Geoffrey Wright (1912-2010). Geoffrey was an alumnus of Corpus Christi, and Footlights. From 1935 onwards he provided music for West End shows working with some of the biggest stars of the day, including Peter Ustinov’s London première. After the war his pre-war revues were revived, and he wrote a musical Burning the boats which had a short run at the Royal Court. He went on to work with John Osborne conducting the band for the original run of The Entertainer, which featured a feast of great British talent including Laurence Olivier (who would later win an Oscar for his role in the film version), Brenda De Banzie, Dorothy Tutin, and director Tony Richardson.
We were lucky enough to receive Geoffrey’s archive following his death in 2010. It contains may of his music manuscripts, and a plethora of scrapbooks. The earlier scrapbooks charting his time in Cambridge are particularly fascinating. Geoffrey designed many of the costumes and sets for University dramatic events ranging from Footlights to the ADC, for the Marlowe Society and Greek plays. Most of these plays featured male-only casts.
The plays generally seem to be fairly conservative fare (e.g. Shakespeare, Molière, Oscar Wilde comedies), but were often quite daring in their use of costumes and settings. Hamlet, for example, was staged in the Regency period, while the stage for The Importance of being Earnest had the appearance of a huge black dome – the effect was achieved by the use of cellophane mounted on black scenery which shone like a mirror.
Social changes are reflected in Wright’s scrapbooks. The 1933 Footlights revue was entitled “No more women!”. This partly reflected the growing importance of women in University society – L. Susan Stebbing of Girton College became the first female Professor of Philosophy in the UK in 1933, while Alice Ambrose, Margaret MacDonald, Helen Knight and Margaret Masterman all worked closely with Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early ’30s. It was also a parody of Terence Gray, cousin of Ninette de Valois, and a central figure in the reincarnation of the Cambridge Festival Theatre.
The 1934 production of Antony and Cleopatra by the Marlowe Society was notable for being the first in the Society’s history in which women were allowed to take part. This was so noteworthy that it even made reviews in overseas papers, and a full page in The Sketch (NPR.C.96).
In 1936 Wright, who had graduated in 1934, designed the scenery, costumes and wigs for a performance of The Frogs of Aristophanes, with music by Walter Leigh. This would be one of Leigh’s best known compositions. He died in 1942 near Tobruk. The Cambridge Daily News‘ review noted, excitedly, that Prince Peter of Greece together with the Greek Ambassador attended the opening performance. “They were received at the Arts Theatre by the Provost of King’s, who was wearing his Grecian Order of the Holy Sepulchre“.
The Geoffrey Wright Archive provides an enchanting look at the changing world of British musical theatre, and of artistic life in Cambridge between the wars.