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British Musical Theatre   Ivan Caryll

Right from the opening chorus the audience went wild about The Shop Girl, a slight story of an attractive girl who serves in a store and charms all the customers and, after a few misunderstandings, agrees to marry her sweetheart, a young medical student. 'The performance was a triumph for all concerned', said the Times. And the Daily Chronicle declared, 'Mr Edwardes never had a body of vocal comedians more determined to do their best for a novelty.' The Shop Girl broke all records for the theatre and ran for 546 performances.

Every night before the performance a fine pair-horse Victoria with a coachman and footman used to drive up to the Gaiety stage door, and a dark, bearded man in evening dress would jump out and hurry inside. This distinguished personage, often mistaken for a Russian nobleman, would walk on to the stage looking like a fashion plate and take a bow. As Ivan Caryll made his way to the orchestra pit the musicians applauded him by tapping on their instruments, having been ordered to do so. Caryll had written the score of The Shop Girl and also conducted the Gaiety orchestra.

Felix Tilkins, which was Caryll's real name, had emigrated to England from Belgium in his youth. At first he had known hard times and earned his living by giving music lessons to women in the suburbs; he was so poor that he of ten had to go without a proper meal. Then he sold some numbers to George Edwardes and was put under contract. Though the public knew him as lvan Caryll, everybody in the theatre called him Felix. When conducting he used to sit as near the footlights as possible and watch the artistes like a hawk when they were singing. Though not a big man, great force radiated from him; when he was conducting his big concerted numbers and finales, he would suddenly swing his body right round and appear to sweep the orchestra along with him during the passage.

Ivan Caryll never looked back after The Shop Girl. He composed the scores of nearly all the Gaiety musical comedies for the next decade, in collaboration with Lionel Monckton, and also established himself as the best conductor of light music in England. The Guv'nor had a superstition about keeping a 'girl' in the titles of his shows, so The Shop Girl was followed by My Girl, The Circus Girl and A Runaway Girl. Whenever Caryll felt in a creative mood, he sat down and composed in a fever of activity until he had completed the work; his scores were noted for big swirling waltzes and semi-operatic finales.

Caryll prided himself on being one of the best dressed men in town; he was most extravagant and spent money as soon as he earned it. This peacock was in his element driving up to the Gaiety in his Victoria, then hearing the audience's applause as he walked on to the stage and took his bow. He became renowned for his lavish hospitality; he used to entertain his theatrical friends in princely style, was an excellent host and very popular. Geraldine Ulmar, his first wife, has been mentioned as a Gilbert and Sullivan star.

In the new century Caryll wrote the scores of The Little Cherub, The Earl and the Girl and The Duchess of Dantzig, a comic opera based on the story of Napoleon and Madame Sans Gene, the washerwoman who married Marshal Lefebre and was created a duchess. Produced at the Lyric on October 17, 1903, the Daily Telegraph described Ivan Caryll's music as 'well-graced' and said, 'There were some points of vocal excellence.' Caryll was called the ideal composer for this kind of operetta because of 'the Gallic feeling that underlies so much of his music and a ready vein of melody which . . . has a tenderness and a quite individual charm...' Holbrook Blinn played Napoleon to the Madame Sans Gene of Evie Greene. Though Blinn never had to sing a note,'he walked away with the laurel wreath for an admirable and clear-cut piece of acting which was the nights most magnetic feature'.

During the run of the piece Caryll took a luxurious suite of rooms at the Carlton Hotel, Haymarket, where he entertained the cast and his many friends every night. There were times when his extravagance landed him in trouble; his creditors would start to press for their accounts and he had a few narrow escapes from the sheriff's officer. An excellent judge of a Continental piece which would adapt into English, he often took trips to Paris and elsewhere in search of new musical plays.

At the Gaiety Ivan Caryll began to get jealous of Lionel Monckton, his collaborator, who invariably wrote the most popular numbers in the shows. Monckton had composed 'A Little Bit of String' for Ellaline Terriss; 'Soldiers in the Park', sung by Grace Palotta, 'Follow the Man from Cook's', and 'Maize', which Rosie Boote sang in The Messenger Boy.


British Musical Theatre | Composers

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