LAWRENCE, Gertrude: Star of Screen, Musical and Review

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Star of Screen, Musical and Revue

Original Recordings 1927–1936

For more than two decades Gertrude Lawrence was the undisputed ‘First Lady’ of musical comedy in London and New York, having had parts in best-selling shows bestowed upon her by Coward, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Kurt Weill. Revered and beatified in theatrical circles even before her sudden death, on September 6, 1952, she was the very stuff of legends by the time Twentieth Century Fox finally embalmed her in Star! (the $14-million, Oscar-nominated, 1968 evocation of a lost theatrical world in which she was portrayed by Julie Andrews). Opinions varied as to Gertrude’s greatness, but she remained a topic for conversation and that was the main thing. Coward confessed \she would simply take my breath away", while Agnes De Mille averred "She can’t sing – but who cares?" For Lawrence Olivier "She was a blazing great star, and we shall never see another like her" and ‘Gertie’ herself, that rather fragile yet curiously colourful spectral figure of theatre history (whose reputed rags-to-riches story was itself a stage-managed affair) was more modestly inclined towards light self-dismissal: "I am not what you’d call wonderfully talented, but I am light on my feet and I do make the best of things".

Gertie was born Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Klasen in Newington, London on 4th July, 1898. Her father, a struggling Danish singer and theatrical supporting-artist who had spent his early years in Germany, earned a precarious living in musical comedy under the pseudonym of Arthur Lawrence, while her mother Alice, a scion of a middle-class English family, was now a long-suffering housewife with strong (albeit frustrated) theatrical aspirations. While the precise details of Gertrude’s childhood are hazy, there seems little doubt that her father’s shiftlessness and alcoholism led to her parents’ separation during her early childhood. Her mother comfortably remarried, however, and the alleged poverty of her youth was a myth which, once famous, Gertie later fostered to add colour to her published autobiography, A Star Danced (1945).

Self-motivated, Gertie’s rise within the theatrical profession was more painstaking than meteoric. Encouraged by her mother and grandmother, she made a stage début (as a singing child-dancer in the pantomime Babes In The Wood in Brixton in 1908) and, after further training with Italia Conti, worked her way up steadily from the chorus-line. By 1911 she was in the chorus of The Miracle at the Olympia and subsequently joined the London-based touring Liverpool Repertory Company run by actor-turned-impresario Basil Dean (1888-1978), initially as a chorus-member of the fairy play Fifinella, in 1912. Dean’s 1913 revival of Hauptmann’s Hannele introduced her for the first time to a fellow Londoner later to play such a significant part in her life and career – Noel Coward (1899- 1973). Between 1913 and 1916, Gertie was both chorister and an understudy in several revues in London (there were no theatre closures during World War 1) and on tour.

Her long and fortuitous association with André Charlot (1882-1956) began with Some in June1916 and continued with Cheep! (1917), which offered a variety of roles plus the chance to understudy that great leading lady of British and American musical comedy, the Canadian-born Beatrice Lillie (1898-1988) in Tabs (1918) which led directly to her first major leading role, the following year, in Buzz-Buzz. Gertrude’s first recordings, of items from this show, were made for Columbia in January 1919. In 1920 Gertrude gained her first London cabaret experience "leading the frolics" at Murray’s Club, toured in Midnight Frolics and understudied Phyllis Dare in Aladdin at the Hippodrome and in 1921 toured Britain in variety and appeared at the Prince of Wales in A To Z. In 1922 she played in De-De at the Garrick and Midnight Follies at the Hotel Metropole, and 1923 in Rats at the Vaudeville and London Calling at the Duke of York, during which she first breathed life into Coward’s first big hit "Parisian Pierrot".

Transatlantic recognition came when, with Bea Lillie and Jack Buchanan (1891-1957), she appeared at New York Times Square and on tour in André Charlot’s London Revue Of 1924 and introduced the Philip Braham hit standard Limehouse Blues, conceived originally as a duet with Buchanan. In the subsequent 1926 edition of Charlot’s revue premièred in London and on Broadway (both during 1925), Gertie introduced A Cup Of Coffee, A Sandwich And You (her 1926 American recording of this became a US No. 5 hit) and Coward’s "Russian Blues" and "Poor Little Rich Girl" (created in London by Alice Delysia in the 1925 Cochran revue On With the Dance, this last was later introduced to New York by Gertrude and popularised by her 1926 US No.11 hit recording).

George Gershwin’s Oh, Kay!, which opened on Broadway in November 1926, proved an even bigger draw. With lyrics by George’s brother Ira, drawing on a story-line by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, this show was a landmark in every sense and unequivocally established Gertie in the USA. Endorsing "an actress of genius" The Times, reviewing the 1927 London production, reported Gertie’s "variety of talents looks, grace, humour, voice, dignity, acting ability and immense charm", adding that: "She can play the gamine and the lady; she can range in voice and gesture from the good-natured cockney slut to the well-bred woman". As for the show’s musical content, the poignant "Maybe", the subtly suggestive "Do-Do-Do" (a US No. 8) and the show-stopping "Someone To Watch Over Me" (US No. 2) are now inextricably linked with Gertrude Lawrence.

After Oh, Kay!, other plays and revues followed in both England and the USA, and the promise of a career in early ‘talkies’ came with The Battle Of Paris for Paramount during 1929, before Gertie resumed her sporadic partnership with Coward in Private Lives (London 1930, Broadway 1931). This show’s tongue-in-cheek, tragi-comic love-scenes have long been recognised classics of musical comedy. In 1932, at the London Adelphi, Coward produced his revue Words And Music. Although not a cast-member, Gertrude popularised "Mad About The Boy" and "Let’s Say Goodbye" via her recordings, while continuing her screen-career in the Paramount British film Aren’t We All? (co-starring Hugh Wakefield and Owen Nares, this featured Ord Hamilton’s now virtually forgotten "My Sweet"). She returned to the Adelphi stage the following year, however, for the nowlegendary cult success of Cole Porter’s musical play Nymph Errant, which provided both romance and risqué with such numbers as "How Could We Be Wrong? ", "The Physician" and "Experiment".

As Nymph Errant wound to its close in the spring of 1934, Gertie worked for the first time with her dashing young lover Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-1988) in The Winding Road, a mediocre play by Philip Leader which had a short run in Manchester in May but never made it to London. Hired for an eleventh-hour rescue attempt, the novelist and playwright Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton, 1888-1965) responded by writing – and subsequently directing – an altogether new play entitled Moonlight Is Silver. With a flimsy plot revolving around mining engineer Fairbanks who believes wife Ger
Disc: 1
Scene from Moonlight Is Silver
1 A Medley Of Gertrude Lawrence Song Successes
2 I Said "Goodbye"
3 Maybe
4 Someday I'll Find You
5 My Sweet
6 Mad About The Boy
7 Let's Say "Goodbye"
8 Act 1 Love Scene from Private Lives
9 Act 2 Love Scene from Private Lives
10 How Could We Be Wrong
11 Experiment
12 Scene from Shadow Play
13 Scene from Red Peppers
14 An Hour Ago This Minute
15 What Now?
16 Scene from Moonlight Is Silver
17 A Medley Of Gertrude Lawrence Song Successes
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