The Belle of New York, a musical play by Hugh Morton, with music by Gustav Kerker, failed to find favour in its home city of New York, but when it opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, on 12 April 1898 it became an overnight sensation. The virtually unknown American actress Edna May, who later became a great favourite in London, played the leading role of Violet Gray, the Salvation Army lass. The Belle of New York initially ran at the Shaftesbury for 697 performances.
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'… A few footnotes need to be added to the account of the 1890s. There was The Belle of New York, Gustave Kerker's first resounding success, a rather conventional cross between comic opera and musical comedy, which for some reason enjoyed greater success in London than here [in New York], and was subject to repeated British revivals until as recently as 1940. Apparently the topical allusions to New York life never became dated in London, and retained a flavor as characteristic and exotic as that of a gangster moving picture.'
(Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America, Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1950, p.126)
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'Without the gifts of Miss Phyllis Rankin [Fifi-Fricot in The Belle of New York], either as a histrionic or a vocal artist, Miss Edna May, the "Belle of New York," proved metal quite as attractive to the British public. One feels, somehow, that she is the possessor of no great powers as an actress, one knows that her voice is of no unusual quality or range. Yet, nevertheless, Miss Edna May, from the moment she appeared on the stage, was a colossal success. Once more, in her, we see how "personality" in acting overrides everything else. Without it, the greatest artist is a mere handicraftsman, and never reaches popularity; with it, mediocre art is glorified and basks in the sunshine of public favour. When the two are united, a genius is born.
'Miss Edna May is very pretty, very fragile looking, very sweet and gentle. Her attractions are those which make a woman attractive on or off the stage. She just "walks through" her part, warbles unpretentiously, dances without effort, gracefully, but not particularly skilfully - and London bows down and worships. One is sure that in every part she will play, Miss May will be just the same - she does not act, she simply goes through her work, conscientiously and well, but without anything to show any great amount of talent or sparkle. Her personality, her magnetism, do the rest.
'As the Salvation girl in The Belle of New York, she first appears in the conventional uniform - a little idealised - with downcast head, and a moment later she sings. Before that song was finished her success was certain, her English reputation was secure. This is part of her song -
And I therefore cannot see,
When I go out to preach,
Why men must say to me
That I'm a perfect peach.
I always try to indicate the way
That leads to sweetest virtue.
For if from the righteous path you stray,
Then Satan he will hurt you.
But when young men profess
That the light of faith they see,
They never proceed to follow that light,
They always follow me.
'Miss May tells with pleasure how her Manager chose her from among the chorus to play the leading part in The Belle of New York, in America. His judgment has been fully justified.'
(Celebrities of the Stage, London, circa 1899, p.36)
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'If my name is remembered long after I am gone it will be because of my long connection with the dear old Belle of New York, the most famous of all musical-comedies.
'I toured the play continuously for over thirty-two years with only one break, and it has occupied so much of my life and is linked so strongly in my affections that I have expressed the wish to my wife that when I pass from this earthly stage some reference to the Belle of New York shall appear on my tombstone. (N>B. - I will not be cremated.)
'I shall always remember my late wife's last words to me. They were: "Never, whatever you do, part with our baby, The Belle."
'Let me go back a bit. My memories of the original production of the play at the Shaftesbury Theatre may interest old playgoers who hold the merry piece in the same regard as I do, and no doubt the younger folk, familiar with its sparkling music and its humours, will like to read something from one who was present at its famous first night.
'The première on 12 April 1898 was certainly one of the great nights in the history of musical-comedy.
'The company had come almost unheralded from the Casino Theatre, New York, where the play had not been much more than a moderate success. Indeed I believe that The Belle never became so popular in the States as it was on this side.
'It came to London and became an outstanding success as the result of happy chance. Early that year George Musgrove had the Shaftesbury Theatre empty on his hands, and his pockets were equally empty. He went to New York and there saw The Belle, the manager of which was "broke." Musgrove, taking a sporting chance, made an offer to take the company to London. The members of the company were told that if they cared to accept "summer salaries" they would be taken over. Every one of them, chorus and all, jumped at the chance of seeing London in the season even at the cost of "summer salaries." The salary of J.E. Sullivan, one of the leading characters, for instance, was only £13 a week. It was subsequently raised to £80 when the piece caught on.
'The importation of a complete American company, lock, stock, and barrel, was regarded as something very surprising and original in those days.
'"We question whether a more daring bit of speculation than this was every indulged in that in bringing the Casino company invoiced for the Shaftesbury to the consignment of Messrs. Williamson and Musgrove," said the Daily Telegraph.
'The company was all American. It included Harry Davenport as Harry Bronson, Dan Daly as Ichabod Bronson, J.E. Sullivan as Karl von Pumpernick, the "polite lunatic," Frank Lawton as Blinky Bill, "a mixed-ale pugilist," Helen Dupont as Cora Angelique, "Queen of Comic Opera," Phyllis Rankin as Fifi Fricot, [Ella] Snyder as Maimi Clancy, and, of course, Edna May as Violet Gray, the Salvation Army lassie who was the heroine of the play.
'The demand for first-night seats were so great that Ben Greet and I, in evening dress, had to stand at the back of the pit.
'Edna May, that demure little lady from up-state New York, who had the sweetest of soprano voices, the most engaging presence, and who looked entrancing in the Salvation Army costume of Violet Gray, took London by storm.
'She was "young and pretty," as the Belle used to sing, and with the most appealing and gentle manner, having those attractions which make a woman irresistible off as well as on stage.
'The surprising thing - and I do not think it is generally known - is that she was not originally intended for the leading part in London. She had played it in New York, but she came over here in the chorus and as understudy. The principal for some reason or other could not play at the last moment, and so Edna May came on to win triumph from her first entry when she sang: "And I therefore cannot see…"
'Yet she knew so little about acting that the producer had to mark a chalk line where she had to stand on the stage. There have undoubtedly been far more accomplished actresses in musical-comedy, but for the part of Violet Gray she was ideal. Together with her fair, demure beauty, she had more of the indefinable quality of personality than any of the footlight favourites who were her contemporaries.
'She was indeed the most fascinating musical-comedy queen of her generation.'
(J. Bannister Howard, Fifty Years a Showman, Hutchinson & Co, London, 1938, pp.112-114)
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