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ClassicsOnline Home » LAWRENCE, Gertrude: Star of Screen, Musical and Review (1926-1936)
Star of Screen, Musical and Revue
Original Recordings 19271936
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 Gertrudes 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 cant 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 youd 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 Gertrudes childhood are hazy, there seems little doubt that her fathers 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, Gerties 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. Deans 1913 revival of Hauptmanns 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. Gertrudes 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 Murrays 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 Cowards 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 Charlots 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 Charlots 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 Cowards "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 Gershwins Oh, Kay!, which opened on Broadway in November 1926, proved an even bigger draw. With lyrics by Georges 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 Gerties "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 shows 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 shows 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 "Lets Say Goodbye" via her recordings, while continuing her screen-career in the Paramount British film Arent We All? (co-starring Hugh Wakefield and Owen Nares, this featured Ord Hamiltons now virtually forgotten "My Sweet"). She returned to the Adelphi stage the following year, however, for the nowlegendary cult success of Cole Porters 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 Gertie has been unfaithful to him, it appealed to a certain audience thanks to the real-life love-affair of its protagonists and a sentimental theme by Richard Addinsell.
After a bout of illness and further straight-theatre appearances, during 1936 Gertie continued her collaboration with Coward in Tonight At 8.30. Also variously billed Tonight At 7.30, Tonight At 8.00 and, for matinées, Today At 2.30, this series of nine one-acters produced in groups at the London Phoenix from January 1936 contained a musical triple-bill originally launched in Manchester. Its numbers included "Then, Play, Orchestra, Play" and "You Were There" and the irrepressible Cockney skit "Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?".
Peter Dempsey, 2001
1. A Medley of Gertrude Lawrence Song Successes Intro:
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (G. & I. Gershwin)
A CUP OF COFFEE, A SANDWICH AND YOU (MeyerRoseDubin)
WILD THYME (not known)
With the New Mayfair Orchestra conducted by Carroll Gibbons (piano)
(HMV 2EA 2709-2) Recorded 4th March, 1936 0:00
2. I SAID "GOODBYE" (Novello)
With Claude Ivy, piano
(Decca GB 5247-2) Recorded 24th November, 1932 0:00
3. MAYBE (G. I. Gershwin)
Duet with Harold French; His Majestys Theatre Orchestra directed by Arthur Wood
(Columbia WA 6327-5) Recorded 25th October, 1927 0:00
4. SOMEDAY ILL FIND YOU (Coward)
With Ord Hamilton, piano, & the Chenil Orchestra conducted by Claude Ivy
(Decca GB 4080) Recorded 11th March, 1932 0:00
5. MY SWEET (Hamilton)
(Decca GB 4079) Recorded 11th March, 1932 0:00
6. MAD ABOUT THE BOY (Coward)
With the Chenil Orchestra conducted by Claude Ivy, piano; Albert Harris, guitar;
Billy Amstell, trumpet
(Decca GB 5005-2) Recorded 11th October, 1932 0:00
7. LETS SAY "GOODBYE" (Coward)
With the Chenil Orchestra conducted by Claude Ivy, piano
(Decca GB 5004-3) Recorded 11th October, 1932 0:00
8. Act 1 Love Scene from Private Lives (Coward) Intro:
SOMEDAY ILL FIND YOU (Coward)
With Noël Coward & the New Mayfair Orchestra conducted by Ray Noble;
Harry Jacobson, piano
(HMV Cc 20203-2) Recorded 15th September, 1930 0:00
9. Act 2 Love Scene from Private Lives (Coward) Intro:
I NEVER REALISED (PorterGideonRoss)
IF YOU WERE THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD (AyerGrey)
With Noël Coward & the New Mayfair Orchestra conducted by Ray Noble
(HMV Cc 20202-2) Recorded 15th September, 1930 0:00
10. HOW COULD WE BE WRONG? (Porter)
With Ray Noble and His Orchestra; Harry Jacobson, piano
(HMV OEA 5381-3) Recorded 11th October, 1933 0:00
11. EXPERIMENT (Porter)
With Ray Noble and His Orchestra
(HMV OEA 5138-2) Recorded 18th October, 1933 0:00
12. Scene from Shadow Play (Coward) Intro:
PLAY, ORCHESTRA, PLAY (Coward)
YOU WERE THERE (Coward)
With Noël Coward & the Phoenix Theatre Orchestra conducted by Clifford Greenwood
(HMV 2EA 2666 & 2667-2) Recorded 15th January, 1936 0:00
13. Scene from Red Peppers (Coward) Intro:
HAS ANYBODY SEEN OUR SHIP? (Coward)
(HMV 2EA 2668) Recorded 15th January, 1936 0:00
14. AN HOUR AGO THIS MINUTE (GreenDyrenforth)
(HMV OEA 5880-2) Recorded 7th February, 1934 0:00
15. WHAT NOW? (Green)
(HMV OEA 5881-2) Recorded 7th February, 1934 0:00
16. Scene from Moonlight Is Silver (Dane) Intro:
MOONLIGHT IS SILVER (Addinsell)
With the New Mayfair Orchestra conducted by Carroll Gibbons, piano
(HMV 2EA 693-2) Recorded 20th November, 1934 0:00
17. A Medley of Gertrude Lawrence Song Successes Intro:
LIMEHOUSE BLUES (BrahamFurber)
YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME (BlakeSissle)
DO, DO, DO (G. & I. Gershwin)
(HMV 2EA 2708) Recorded 4th March, 1936 0:00
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