Pearson’s Weekly, October 25, 1906
LAUNCHING A POPULAR SONG.
How Britain Gets Its Favourite Melodies.
The work of the producer of a modern musical comedy is never finished. Unlike an ordinary play, a musical piece cannot be left to run by itself, however successfully the first-night performance may have gone off.
Even after its hundredth night its producer’s vigilance does not relax. There are lines which are too long, and must be cut down; other lines which must be cut out altogether, because they “kill” some repartee of the comedian’s. Perhaps a scene which was well received early in the run of the piece no longer gets its proper amount of applause.
But it is the musical numbers which make or mar a play of this kind, and it is on these that the management keeps its eye most carefully. After the first week of the run of a musical comedy it is easy to see which songs are “winners.” They stand out from the general music. People remember them, and talk about them.
To name only a few instances, “Sammy,” in The Earl and the Girl; “Mr. Chamberlain,” in The Beauty of Bath; and “The Church Parade,” in The Catch of the Season, were obviously numbers which would not need replacing during the run. They were always certain to make a hit.
KEEPING THE BEST FOR ACT 2.
The producer accordingly turns his attention to the weaker spots. It is nearly always for the second act that he keeps his best. By that time the audience has got the story of the piece into its head, and numbers can be introduced with little or no connection with the main thread of the plot.
The producer sees a gap between two scenes where there is room for an important new number. He proceeds to try and find one.
To decide the position of a new song is never easy. If it comes too near another big song, each will “kill” the other, and, instead of two great successes, the piece will have two comparative failures.
Almost always the new number is at first a tune and nothing more. The composer of the piece may have written it; or, more probably, it is the work of one of the numerous band of free-lance composers, who call at the theatre from time to time, and play over their latest compositions.
Perhaps it comes all the way from America, in which case it will probably have words attached to it which are unsuitable for the piece in which in is to appear.
OBTAINING A GOOD CATCH-PHRASE.
The tune is played over to the management. It is approved of.
The next thing is to hit on a good central idea or a good catch-phrase for a popular song. This is the most difficult part of the whole business. In some cases as many as twenty lyrics are written before the right one comes along.
For O Mimosa San’s first song in the Geisha as many as twenty-five tentative versions were written before the management was satisfied.
But sooner or later a suitable idea is discovered, and the lyrist is told off to write words to fit the tune. At some theatres, where more than one lyrist is employed, a number of lyrics are sent in, and the best of these, or a combination of what is best in them, is used.
The lyric written and approved of, the stage-manager’s very difficult work begins. The success of a big song depends very much on the way in which it is produced, and the stage-manager who can hit on new ideas is worth his weight in gold to a theatre.
Here again, “Sammy” may be quoted as a model of stage-management. It was the unexpectedly direct appeal to one particular box, quite as much for the haunting melody, which made the song such a hit.
THE STAGE-MANAGER’S BUSY TIME.
For days the stage-manager spends his time apparently working out mathematical problems on a large sheet of paper. What he is really doing is arranging the positions and movements of the chorus.
Taking into consideration the smallness of the stage and the number of the chorus, and the fact that one false move will spoil the picture and possibly ruin the song, the work of a stage-manager of musical comedy may be looked on as almost as arduous as that of a general in war time.
At last the theoretical work is over. The stage-manager has his plans firmly fixed in his mind, and now begins to handle his material practically.
The singer of the song does not appear yet, his or her place being supplied by the pianist, who sits at the piano on the O.P. side of the stage, well out of the way.
Rehearsals for the chorus are called at twelve o’clock each morning, and last, as a rule, till two.
The first few rehearsals are very laborious. Everything goes wrong. Stupid mistakes are made. Tempers grow short.
Then almost imperceptibly order emerges from chaos. The chorus go through their manœuvres without a hitch. The singer joins the rehearsals. The orchestra takes the place of the pianist. One or two new bits of “business” are arranged at the last moment.
And then the night of performance comes, and London has another new song to whistle.
Printed unsigned in Pearson’s Weekly; entered by Wodehouse in Money Received for Literary Work.
[Note: The editors are indebted to Arthur Robinson for providing a scan of this rare item and Parthasarathy Uppili Srinivasan for the transcription.]