Book Review: Pick A Pocket Or Two: A History of British Musical Theatre

Did the British invent musical theater? That’s what the reader is told in “Pick a Pocket Or Two: A… History of British Musical Theatre” (Oxford University Press, 352 pages) by Ethan Mordden, an American writer whose first Broadway show, when he was eight years old, was a double bill of Gilbert and Sullivan. But this is not a book that aggressively advances an argument. The author is too busy focusing on the individual shows. “Pick a Pocket” reads like a survey course by an impatient professor for students who are already majoring in musical theater.

In talking about “Spamalot,” Eric Idle’s musical adaptation of the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” Mordden points out that the other former members of the British comedy  troupe who created the film told the press they didn’t see the point of Spamalot. “This simply reminds us the people who don’t get musicals really don’t get musicals,’” Mordden comments, “and their being artists themselves will never change that.”

Mordden really gets musicals, and he expects you to too, as he goes through three hundred years in fourteen chapters, starting with the 18th century, focusing on John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” (1728), which he calls the first “ballad opera,” with the score all purloined from popular tunes of the day, and runs through other examples of proto-musicals (my phrase, not his), such as pantomimes, extravaganzas, burlesques and light operas – all his labels, though he calls the last one “yet another term” that any effort to define “only creates confusion.”   

The second chapter is more or less exclusively devoted to Gilbert and Sullivan and their fourteen “comic operas” (from 1871 to 1896.)  It’s only in his third chapter that he writes “now at last we get musical comedy. The man who invented it was George Edwardes, famed as the manager of the Gaiety Theatre, so the dawn of musical comedy became known as the Gaiety Era, roughly the 1890s to about 1915.”

I’ll pause here to point out that  Mordden doesn’t mention “The Black Crook,” which premiered in New York on September 12, 1866 and which many theater history books call the first musical, nor that the American George M. Cohan (1878-1942) has been called the father of musical comedy.

But the author doesn’t ignore American musicals entirely. In that fourth chapter about Edwardes et al, he tells us that the popular turn of the twentieth century English theater artist and producer George Grossmith,  known as G.G.,  “was very much attuned to the music coming across the Atlantic,” and one of his songs “was as American as it gets, brash and youthful and full of freedom.” In the following chapter we learn of productions and performers on the British stage taking their cues from George M. Cohan and creating musical numbers that were “exactly what Florenz Ziegfeld was already doing in the U.S. in his Follies revues.” Mordden, however, does not let the American musical have the last word.

The remaining chapters focus on specific artists — Ivor Novello; Noël Coward; Andrew Lloyd Webber, a chapter in which the author at least touches on each of his sixteen musicals —  or on eras– the 1950s, the 1960s, “Pop Opera,” etc.  In almost all the chapters, Mordden basically goes show by show,  in varying length and detail, offering a synopsis, greater or lesser analysis, and an occasional sentence that attempts to make a larger point about British theatre. (“The issue of social rank runs through G&S [Gilbert and Sullivan] intermittently, and through the saga of the British musical altogether.”)

The last chapter, which covers “the last thirty years,” goes over shows that current New York theatergoers could have seen, since most transferred to Broadway; these include “Spamalot,” “Billy Elliott,” and “Matilda,” and even a couple presently on Broadway (both of which debuted in the UK in 2017.) “Girl from the North Country” and “Six.” For both of these he offers what amounts to insightful reviews: 

“Girl from the North Country…took liberties with its adopted inventory, the songs of Bob Dylan. They were respectful liberties, to be sure; none of the songs was denatured. Still, a few were mashed up to create new numbers, and tempos were often changed, quite radically….this isn’t exactly a musical… It’s an out-of-category format—and an amusing way to hear Dylan’s repertory reinterpreted…”

 About “Six,” he writes ”It’s Tudor glam, exuberant and busty, arguably the most now musical of all times…has the air of a concert more than a theatre piece: it derives power from its performing energy rather than character interaction…” 

Many of the other shows and songs Mordden selects are likely to be unfamiliar for New Yorkers (and not a few British people), and the way he writes about them can be technical. His description of Noël Coward’s song “Poor Little Rich Girl”  from the revue On With the Dance from 1925: “…the first four measures of the tune are smooth and wondering, perched on not the usual tonic chord but the dominant seventh with the melody touching the fourth and sixth of the scale, a shivering, haunting effect, a kind of witch’s lullaby.” 

His chapter devoted to Coward is actually one of the most lively, and longest, focusing on his personality as well as his musicals. “Noël Coward’s masterpiece was Noël Coward, a personality towering above his works in a way unique in theatre history….The best of Coward’s writing is fast and smart, essential gay qualities, and while we can’t penetrate the mystery of chromosomes, the gay ID in art is like jazz, undefinable but unmistakable.”

Among the synopses of Coward’s five musical revues and ten story musicals, Mordden offers  a concrete example of the influence of his sexuality on his work, “Sigh No More” from 1945: “A forgotten work that produced a NC ballad standard, ‘Matelot,’ a flowing paean to a sailor boy, written  for NC’s life partner, Graham Payn.” 

The song “Green Carnation” was more publicly explicit; the lyrics sung by “four over-exquisitely dressed young men” include “…we are the reason for the ‘Ninetines’ being gay…” which Mordden calls “the first instance I know of when the adjective was used on the British stage in its modern connotation.”

“Green Carnation” is from the musical,  “Bitter Sweet,” set in the 1890s, which debuted in 1929. Among Coward’s musicals, the author writes, it’s the only “classic” – and for its score, not its book. “When we speak of Coward’s musicals, we really mean just the songs….especially the witty lyrics, because no one in West End theatre rivals them besides W.S. Gilbert.”

Mordden brings Coward back in the last line of the fourteenth chapter (which ends the book, except for an index, bibliography, and an extensive discography so that you can get ahold of the songs he talks about in such detail.) In a tone that sounds very British in its subtle jab, Mordden writes: “Coward was deeply involved in the creation of musicals – a form that, contrary to a certain legend, was invented and developed by Coward’s people.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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