About this Recording
8.120781 - NOVELLO, Ivor: The Dancing Years / King's Rhapsody (1939-1950)

The Dancing Years and King’s Rhapsody
Original 1939-1950 Recordings

‘[Ivor Novello] never lost the common touch … never left his public behind him.When he was right at the top, they were there, too. For nobody was ever less of a snob. His only standard was quality; he would have nothing which, in achievement or texture,was second rate’.
(W. Macqueen Pope: Ivor – The Story Of An Achievement)

‘I am not a highbrow. I am an entertainer. Empty seats and good opinions mean nothing to me’.
(Ivor Novello)

Ivor Novello’s shows stand as a last flowering of Viennese-style operetta. With no expense spared and meticulous attention to detail they provided escapism of the highest calibre. Being the very stuff of theatrical illusion and old-fashioned romance, their overtly lush melodies and sentimental lyrics masked the author’s keen sense of theatrical expediency and commercial sensibility. During the years that have elapsed since Novello’s death, his tunes have become overlaid by an even greater nostalgia.

Composer, playwright, actor,producer and matinee-idol, Ivor Novello was born David Ivor Davies in Cardiff on 15 January 1893 the son of David Davies, a local government accountant, and Clara Novello (1861-1943), a noted pioneering choral trainer and founder of the famous Welsh Ladies’ Choir, whose enthusiasm spurred Ivor’s own youthful passion for music and the theatre. From an early age Ivor played piano for her rehearsals and singing lessons and later also taught piano. From his childhood years he moved in theatrical and musical circles and through his mother’s connections he met and heard, among others,Adelina Patti and was even a pageboy at Clara Butt’s wedding (an event which inspired him to write for her the commemorative “Page’s Road Song”, which subsequently that great Dame recorded).

Ivor attended school first in Cardiff, then in Gloucester, where he studied music under Sir Herbert Brewer (of Three Choirs fame). In 1903, at ten, he won a scholarship to Magdalen College School, Oxford, and by 1908 his histrionic bent was venting itself in one-act plays and commercially successful drawing-room ballads, the earliest of which were published by Boosey & Co, in 1910. In 1911, the eighteen-year-old Ivor travelled first to Canada then to New York, where he hoped to win wider recognition as a composer with his first full-length musical play, The Fickle Jade. After various setbacks, however, in 1913 the struggling theatre composer was forced temporarily to return to London where he had secured a lucrative contract with the music-publishers Ascherberg,Hopwood and Crew which, with the outbreak of World War I, brought him an outlet for a stream of stirring ballads and morale-boosters, most famously the one that made his name: “Keep The Home Fires Burning”.

In 1916,Novello was commissioned as a sublieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service aboard HMS Crystal Palace, but as the First World War London theatre was booming he soon received more interesting commissions to write numbers for revues: Nat D Ayer’s The Bing Boys Are Here and George Grossmith’s Theodore & Co. In December 1916 he contributed to Charlot’s See- Saw and in 1917 to Cochran’s Arlette. The following year he provided various numbers for Harry Grattan’s Tabs and in 1919 shared credits with Howard Talbot for Who’s Hooper?, a revue by Clifford Grey. 1919 also saw the emergence of Novello the silent-screen matinee-idol and straight-actor. In Paris, he appeared in Louis Mercanton’s screen realisation of Robert Hichens’ novel The Call Of The Blood and, during 1921, he made his Hollywood screen debut (in Matheson Lang’s Carnival, for United Artists) and in London appeared in Harley Granville-Barker’s adaptation of Sacha Guitry’s Debureau, while (as a songwriter) also penning “And Her Mother Came Too”, for Jack Buchanan, in the revue A-To-Z.

When Novello returned to the USA in 1923, it was in the dual capacity of composer and screen Adonis. Several of his ballads, meanwhile, had been popularised in concerts and recordings by, among others, McCormack and Metropolitan Opera soprano Frances Alda. In 1923,Novello the handsome heartthrob appeared in The Bohemian Girl (with Gladys Cooper and Ellen Terry, for the Knoles studio) and, in the mould of Richard Barthelmess or Ramon Novarro,was cast by D W Griffith opposite Mae Marsh in The White Rose. His other silent-screen appearances, which included The Man Without Desire (1923), The Rat (1925), The Constant Nymph and The Vortex (1928), placed him as the leading British romantic male star of the day. After successfully making the transition to talkies (with Once A Lady, for Paramount, in 1931) he continued to appear in plays on the London stage but, with the fiasco of Coward’s Sirocco (1927), he turned actor-manager instead for such productions as Symphony In Two Flats (1929; filmed by Michael Balcon in 1930),Murder In Mayfair (1934) and Full House (1935).

Such was Novello’s multifarious thespian experience when his first real theatrical milestone loomed out of the blue with Glamorous Night (1935), his first full-scale musical for fourteen years.The show was, he always maintained, first conceived ‘over lunch’ between himself and the songwriter and theatrical entrepreneur Harry Moncrieff Tennent (1879-1941), as a potential vehicle to replenish the Drury Lane Theatre’s depleted coffers. Grandiose in conception (its lavish, scenic sets included a shipwreck scene) and with text – the first of a series – by the London-born actorturned- lyricist Christopher Hassall (1912-1963), its instant success (243 performances) owed much to its star, soprano Mary Ellis (1900-2002) as opera-singer Militza Hajos. Born in New York, Mary had earlier trodden the hallowed boards of the Metropolitan (from 1918, in company with, among others, Caruso, Chaliapin, de Luca, Farrar and Jeritza) before turning to musical comedy. In 1924, she had created the title role in Oscar Hammerstein II and Rudolf Friml’s 1924 Broadway success Rose Marie and in 1933 Cochran brought her to London for the British première of Kern’s Music In The Air. In 1934 she played a poisoning spouse in the Twickenham (GB) film Belladonna and also starred in the 1936 film version of Glamorous Night (ABP/Walter Mycroft).

Novello’s next and no less sumptuous production Careless Rapture (1936) survived 296 Drury Lane performances before touring Great Britain during 1937-1938. This show (like its successor Crest Of The Wave) starred the Kansas City-born singing actress Dorothy Dickson. With The Dancing Years (1939) Mary Ellis made a welcome return and featured prominently opposite Novello, in the dual capacity of actor and pianist. The show’s rich score incorporates several of Novello’s most enduring tunes, notably Leap Year Waltz,My Life Belongs To You, My Dearest Dear,Waltz Of My Heart and I Can Give You The Starlight. One of the last great pre-War Drury Lane musicals (closing with the outbreak of war in September 1939, after 187 performances), it marked the end of Novello’s reign at that great theatre. Following a British provincial tour, however, The Dancing Years returned in 1942 to the Adelphi for a further 969 performances and was filmed (in England) in 1949.

Novello’s next wartime production Arc De Triomphe (Phoenix Theatre, 1943) again cast star attraction Mary Ellis as an opera singer, although the hauntingly atmospheric solo “Dark Music” (created by Elisabeth Welch) has since proved the show’s only lasting number. For his next venture Perchance To Dream (Hippodrome, 1945),Novello wrote his own libretto. An extravaganza set in Regency England, and featuring Olive Gilbert, Muriel Barron,Roma Beaumont, Margaret Rutherford and Ivor himself, at 1022 performances this was Novello’s longest-running show to date and by 1949, again with Hassall as librettist, he had capitalised on its success with King’s Rhapsody (Palace Theatre; 839 performances). With a storyline of ‘kingmarries- commoner’, this musical benefited from a fantastical setting (Romania transposed as Ruritania) and offered such Novello perennials as The Violin Began To Play and Someday My Heart Will Awake. Its cast included Vanessa Lee, Olive Gilbert, Denis Martin and Novello. When Ivor Novello died, (in London on 6 March 1951), his part in the show was assumed by Jack Buchanan. King’s Rhapsody was filmed in 1955 (Everest-GB) with a cast headed by Errol Flynn and Anna Neagle.

Peter Dempsey, 2004

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