Bennett’s career began when he won a writing competition in "Tit-Bits" magazine. Later he became assistant editor of "Woman" magazine. Finding that syndicated serial contributions were not of a high standard, he decided to write his own and eventually became editor. He subsequently gave up editing to become a full-time writer of criticism including theatre reviews. He then started publishing his Potteries stories, moved to Paris and continued to write novels and plays. A visit to the USA saw him acclaimed as the best British writer since Dickens. When he returned to England his “Old Wives’ Tale” was highly praised and his fame was established for good. He wrote over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, as well as a continuous stream of essays and journalism.
Bennett’s success was arguably not inspired by an ambition to be a creative artist but by a desire to make as much money as he could, although he was not a mean man and gave anonymous donations to struggling young writers. Priam Farll, the hero of Bennett’s “Buried Alive” (1908), is a very successful painter who has become bored by his success, knowing full well that whatever he does he will be lauded by an art-loving society all too eager and willing to pay any price to acquire his paintings. When his manservant dies, the body is mistaken for that of Farll and is buried with honours in Westminster Abbey. Farll then decides to swap identities, assuming the name of his former and now-dead valet Henry Leek. Having been abroad for a long time, nobody, not even his cousin, recognises him. He answers an advertisement for a matrimonial agency and meets a humble young woman, Alice Chalice, moves to Putney and enjoys life more as a relatively poor man than he ever did in high society circles. Maybe this reflected Bennett’s own situation. Born in poverty, he rose to great heights but perhaps became disenchanted with success. Although Farll finds low life refreshingly different, his new situation brings its own problems.
In 1913 Bennett had adapted “Buried Alive” as a play called “The Great Adventure”. In 1915 it became a silent-film in the UK with Henry Ainley, and again in the USA in 1921 with Lionel Barrymore and the screen debut of Fredric March. “His Double Life” (1933) with Roland Young and Lillian Gish was a further film adaptation of the play, and there was another version for BBC Television in 1939, with Leonard Sachs, Felix Aylmer and Finlay Currie in the cast. “The Great Adventure” was also filmed in 1943 as “Holy Matrimony” with Monty Woolley and Gracie Fields. This version was adapted by Nunnally Johnson who was eventually to write the book for the stage musical version of “Buried Alive”. He had already been Oscar-nominated for writing “Holy Matrimony” and, before that, “The Grapes of Wrath”. He was one of the most experienced writer-directors in Hollywood who was generally also his own producer as he was allergic to others pecking around him and changing what he had written. However, the stage musical of “Buried Alive”, or “Darling of the Day” as its final title became, had a very tortuous life getting on to Broadway in 1968.
The first inkling of another theatre version was raised in 1963 when the Theatre Guild announced a stage adaptation of the novel rather than the existing stage play. It was to star Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne. However, nothing came of it until the following year when another announcement brought in British writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (of “Billy Liar” fame) to do the book. Its other credentials were perfect: composer Jule Styne who had written the music for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, “Gypsy”, “Funny Girl” and “Bells Are Ringing”; and lyricist E. Y. (Yip) Harburg who had written the lyrics of ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’, ‘April In Paris’, ‘Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe’, ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ and ‘Over the Rainbow’ as well songs for shows such as “Bloomer Girl” and “Finian’s Rainbow”. The director was to be Peter Wood who had directed “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” for the stage. By 1966 the personnel had changed again and continued to do so until finally Nunnally Johnson was taken on to write the book.
Casting for the show went through similar changes including the announcement of Victor Borge and Geraldine Page in the leading roles, until finally Vincent Price and Patricia Routledge were cast. Rehearsals did not go well and the show was ill-received out of town. After being known as “The Great Adventure” before rehearsals, the show became “Darling of the Day” in Toronto, then “Married Alive!” in Boston and then it finally reverted to “Darling of the Day” again for New York. The title is a quotation from the show’s opening number ‘He’s a Genius’. After more firing and hiring of directors and re-writes, Nunnally Johnson took his name off the project and it opened without a book credit. Although it was well-reviewed on Broadway and Patricia Routledge won a Tony Award for her performance as Alice Chalice, “Darling of the Day” ran for just thirty-two performances, losing some $700,000 in the process. It had never played London until now, in Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals series.
With such personnel as Styne, Harburg and Johnson on board it is a very amusing and entertaining show. The music may not be in the classic vein that Jule Styne achieved in “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl” but the songs are melodic and cleverly integrated into the plot, with the aid of Harburg’s witty way with words. Songs such as ‘It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love’, ‘I’ve Got a Rainbow Working For Me’ and ‘That Stranger in Your Eyes’ are delightful, while Harburg tries to capture the argot of Cockney life in London circa 1905 in such items as ‘What Makes a Marriage Merry?’, ‘Not On Your Nellie’ and ‘Butler in the Abbey’.
Although the characterisations of the cast are pretty flimsy, with little or no background to flesh them out, there is still a lot of fun to be made out of stock stereotypes such as the faithful valet, Leek, the society patron Lady Vale, and the less than honest art-dealer Clive Oxford. Paul Stewart makes the perfect gentlemen’s gentleman, Vivienne Martin is hilarious as the art-loving old Lady Vale, who will pay anything for something if it’s fashionable, while Michael Roberts as Oxford would sell his granny for a profit. Lady Vale and Oxford have a delightful duet called ‘Panache’ that sums up their attitude to life and art.
Louise Gold makes a really rounded character out of the kindly but no-nonsense Alice, singing and dancing up a storm and even introducing a few Gracie Fields trills in the process. Not known for appearing in musicals, Nicholas Jones, who usually plays stuffy establishment figures, acquits himself very well as Priam Farll, making him more than credible but with a wit and insouciance that could see him as a very fine Henry Higgins in either “Pygmalion” or “My Fair Lady”. He carries a tune well and puts a number across with, well, panache.
Apparently Patricia Routledge was such a revelation as Alice in the original New York production, that it is a pity that London didn’t get to see the show first. As it is a very ‘English’ piece it should perhaps have begun its life in London before transferring to the choppy waters of Broadway. Anyway, on this Lost Musicals showing it deserves to be resurrected so, perhaps those clever people at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park or down at the Chichester Festival could do something about a full-scale revival.
- Further performances on Sundays September 5, 12 & 19 at 3 p.m.
- Tickets from Sadler’s Wells Box Office: 0844 4124300
- Lost Musicals