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LESLIE STUART (1864-1928): Composer of Florodora - a biography

Routledge (Tanner & May)

ISBN 0 -415-93747-7

pp295 £35

 

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This engaging biography gives valuable insight into the rags to riches success of an important London theatre music composer, originally known as Thomas Barrett of Manchester. Along with Jones, Monckton and Rubens, Stuart was instrumental in bringing about a wedding of music hall song and dance to spoken dialogue providing the first English Musicals. When exported to America, the Americans warmed to the style, but when staged in France, the French did not at first know what to make of the genre.

Florodora was Stuart's unparalleled success, and try as he could to repeat his successful recipe with this showstopper he never quite equalled the grade. He did however continue to write some very good songs, which towards the end in America became outmoded when Ragtime took the spotlight.

Exploring the origins of a gifted musician is always fascinating and in this respect Andrew Lamb has made an excellent job. Like Sullivan (twelve years his senior) who Stuart greatly admired, he began in humble surroundings and from backstreet Manchester learnt to play the piano. Also like Sullivan, he became a church organist. Whereas Sullivan stuck to orthodox tradition Stuart was inventive and spiced up his liturgical music for choir and congregation. His role as concert promoter is given excellent and detailed treatment, with good information on the planning of such concerts. The asides, like stories of artists that fail to turn up, are fascinating. We get a clear picture of the singers in demand at the time and the reasons for their popularity with the public: Lamb has clearly researched this aspect carefully.

Stuart was largely self-taught one assumes for we are given little insight into where he learnt all his musical skills apart from tuition by a local piano teacher. There seems to be a gap in knowing how he later made his jump to professional status as a recitalist. An association with Charles Hallé was effected and was probably cemented when Hallé, a fellow Roman Catholic, worshipped at the church where Stuart was organist.

The social and domestic detail of Stuart family life makes interesting reading. Clearly the money accrued from Stuart's work in song-writing and as self-made concert promoter led to a higher class of living; a large family with live-in servants and a move from Manchester to London. It is in London where the association with publisher David Day (Hunter, Day & Lewis) took root. Unclear from biographies of other composers of the period has been the perennial problem of underground pirate printers producing street vendors with illicit sheet music for sale at knockdown prices. Chappell, Cramer and Metzler must have all been affected by the loss of income from this. This book records a lot of detail for the first time. Lamb details the detective work in hunting down pirate copies, their sources and the parliamentary debates that followed. It all makes interesting reading.

We realise just how gifted Stuart was when it takes only a few hours to produce a new song to add to an already running musical, sometimes being motivated by employment of a new star (and annoyance to the existing cast). We get little insight into the method of putting a musical number together though. Often the lyricist would be given the music to fit the words, an unsatisfactory way of working. Stuart left the orchestral scoring to others like Carl Kiefert, and the staff of theatre directors. Certainly, the tight formula used by Gilbert and Sullivan to create a Savoy opera was lacking at the Lyric and Daly's theatres, and there seems to be a much freer relationship between cast and management. Yet little expense was apparently spared in mounting a Stuart musical. No anecdotes from the performers have been found to indicate the level of order or disorder associated with the mounting of these productions. Although additional numbers were added after a first night there is no indication to suggest whether the dialogue or existing music was reworked.

Peculiar to musicals is the regular inclusion of additional numbers by other composers. How this habit came about at this time is unclear. With Florodora for instance, Rubens provided the lyrics to half the songs as well as the music to 'I've an Inkling' and 'Queen of the Philippine Islands'. Looking at the score of Florodora I find Stuart does not provide an overture, just 8 bars of introduction. Likewise the finale to Act II is a hastily written affair, a reprise of 23 bars with no introduction and only 4 bars of playout. This contrasts significantly with the concerted and extended chorus finale of Act I. Is this a characteristic of Stuart, I wonder? Was he too busy with other things or had he become bored towards the score's completion? It is also a mystery why Stuart would only conduct the first Act of the show on a first night yet later with a different show would spend two months of its run in the pit.

In the Leslie Stuart story we are rightly concerned with the success of Florodora. We are provided with a detailed synopsis, the content of numbers, who sang them, and the critics' appraisal of productions as we are for all the following musicals. The financial backing of Stuart's first production must have been immense and added to the success of the staging.

The elegant costumes were an extravagance and no expense had been spared in employing the leading London set designer/painters, Hawes Craven, who had provided Sullivan's Haddon Hall and Ivanhoe scenery that was much admired. It is unclear whether this was transported to New York for the American run since the American backers were unsure of the show's success there. A picture of the original run would have been preferred to the illustration provided in the book for the New York run .

Pic: Florodora, New York 1901 (Notice the cramped stage with little depth)

Stuart lived beyond his means, became bankrupt. Although composing to the end, musical theatre had moved on and it was the turn for Kern, Porter, Berlin, Ellis, Novello and Coward to take the limelight.

A foreword by Kurt Ganzl seems misplaced for it reads more as an advertisement for other books in the series and takes the focus away from consideration of the book in question. So much use of the first person also tends to detract from support for the author, which is surely a preface's intention. The book is handsomely printed but the photographic material has suffered a flatness in its transfer to fibrous paper and underinking.


Stuart produced an interesting autobiography (pp.135) in 1927 which has been reprinted with index by Fullers Wood Press with forward and annotations by Andrew Lamb. This is available from email: andrew-lamb@fullerswood.fsnet.co.uk for £13 (UK), £14 (Europe) and £15 (USA/Australia)]


Raymond Walker

 

 

 



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