Of the succession of musicals
that came to the stage to replace the
operetta era, The Geisha was a
firm favourite with late-Victorian and
Edwardian audiences and amateur companies
up and down the country. As the best Jones
musical, it outlived its composer before
going out of fashion in the early fifties.
Its certain box office success was modelled
on the first comic opera with a Japanese
theme, The Mikado (1886); it even
managed a longer opening run. The success
brought fame to Sidney Jones who successfully
followed the formula with another Japanese
musical play, San Toy. Little of
Jones‘ music has been recorded and until
this welcome Hyperion recording of 1998
there were only CD transcriptions of early
78s: An Artist’s Model (1895) (Pearl
GMMCDS9050) and another success,
San Toy (1899) (Pearl GEMS 0081).
Little had been heard of The Geisha
until the 1990s. To my knowledge no LP
version was recorded. Hyperion will have
been very pleased with sales of their
first issue of this disc. It must have
been something of an experiment since
Jones and his kind (Stuart, Monckton and
Rubens) had been neglected in the catalogue.
This re-issue of the 1998 recording is
now bargain priced and will consequently
reach a wider audience.
Sidney Jones was born
into a musical family where his father
was a military bandmaster/conductor
who ended up as musical director at
the Grand Theatre, Leeds and conductor
of the Spa Orchestra, Harrogate. The
young Sidney was exposed to good musical
styles and picked up the secrets of
harmony and fine composition from playing
in his father’s orchestras (clarinettist)
and later through being entrusted with
conducting duties for various touring
Owen Hall’s libretto,
which opens in a Japanese teahouse is
slick in pace and introduces strong
and amusing characters that interact
interestingly and always move the plot
forward. Harry Greenbank’s lyrics at
times provide a good story in ballad
tradition, yet become tiresome where
filled with repetitious nonsense, especially
in line endings like, ‘chappy, chap,
chappy’ ‘he’s a brute-ti-toot-toot’.
Only in the superb comedy song ‘Chin
Chin Chinaman’, excellently sung by
Richard Suart, does repetition bring
honest amusement. But is one really
going to worry about the lyrics when
the music is so engaging?
Jones has skilfully
added oriental character to his music
and achieves some very good eastern
effects that are pleasing to the Western
ear. I like the way he carries momentum
in the song with orchestral links between
the vocal lines to help achieve a continuous
flow and interest. Is there a whisper
of Puccini here? The story of Geishas
with English sailors hints at Butterfly.
The writing is frothy, full of new ideas
with good harmony. It is much lighter
than the regimentation and stronger
classicism of Sullivan.
There are many good
numbers although a few of them were
composed by Lionel Monckton and James
Philip. The main theme of the opening
chorus is rhythmically captivating.
The music hall style of writing for
‘The interfering Parrot’ and
‘The Toy Monkey’ (interpolated song
by Monckton) reverts to a standard musical
form. A Lehárian style of setting
for ‘The Kissing’ carries good
orchestration and sounds unusually modern
for this period. Likewise, the catchy
chorus number, ‘If you will come’.
It has a touch of eastern promise with
its repetitious notes and minor key
play-out. The engaging melody of
‘The Toy’ refrain would I think
sound better if taken faster. The pace
here is disappointingly ploddish. Perhaps
the top number with much atmosphere
is ‘Chon kina’ with chanting
chorus, interesting rhythm and key changes
as well as delightful orchestral detail.
Such are the skills of this composer.
The main section of the Act I finale
is reminiscent of the Act II tenor aria
in Sullivan’s The Rose of Persia
written around the same time.
Excellent notes on
the composer and production are provided
by Andrew Lamb in English along with
the lyrics of all numbers.
Raymond J Walker
‘The Musicals’ by Kurt Ganzl - gives
good detail on this musical
‘Operetta’ by Richard Traubner - gives
detail on the composers