James Sidney Jones was born in London, 17 June 1861. He died in London, 29 Jan 1946. He was the most internationally successful composer of the Victorian British romantic musical theatre.
Islington-born Sidney Jones was the son of the band-master and conductor, also called Sidney Jones, who was for many years a prominent figure in the musical life of the city of Leeds, where he held not only the position of musical director at the Grand Theatre but also presided over the city band. The younger Sidney began his musical life playing clarinet under his father's baton, but he soon found his own feet and left Leeds, while still in his early twenties, to go on the road as musical director with a company playing the popular American 'musical comedy oddity' Fun on the Bristol. He subsequently worked in a similar capacity with the Vokes family, touring their enduring farcical entertainment In Camp, and it was for this low comic tale of amateur theatricals in a military camp that Jones composed his first theatre music, in the shape of fresh incidental music and songs to be added to what was virtually the Vokes's 'act'.
In 1886 the young Jones's talents as a musical director came under the ever discerning eye of actress/producer Kate Santley, who hired him as musical director for the tour of her musical Vetah, and his next employer was the newly rich Henry Leslie, for whom he worked for nearly four years as conductor of the number one touring companies of the phenomenally successful Dorothy (starring Lucy Carr-Shaw, sister to George Bernard), Doris and The Red Hussar. He next took musical control of a tour of the Gaiety Theatre success Little Jack Sheppard under the management of comedian J J Dallas, and this last engagement resulted in his coming to the notice of George Edwardes, who hired him as musical director for the Gaiety Theatre's prestigious 1891 tour of America and Australia, conducting a company which included Nellie Farren and Fred Leslie, and playing the burlesque Ruy Blas and the Blasé Roué. When the company produced Cinder-Ellen Up-too-Late in Australia, Jones contributed a dance number to Meyer Lutz's score.
On his return to London Jones remained in Edwardes's employment, and took up the baton for the first time in the West End as conductor of the new musical comedy In Town at the Prince of Wales Theatre. He was obliged to give up this position when the show transferred to the Gaiety Theatre, and resident musical director, Meyer Lutz, took over command of the orchestra, but now established as one of the principal conductors of the West End theatre he was soon engaged for another important new musical comedy, Morocco Bound, produced under the management of Fred Harris at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
In the meanwhile, Jones had also begun to establish himself as a composer. He composed original music for the pantomime Aladdin II at Leeds (1889), an operetta, Our Family Legend, written with Reginald Stockton, was staged at the Brighton Aquarium, and he also supplied some individual numbers for interpolation into London and touring scores. One of these, 'Linger Longer, Loo', was taken up by Edwardes and subsequently became a hit at the Gaiety in the burlesque Don Yuan (1893), but by that time Jones had already made his mark in a more substantial manner. The society journalist Jimmy Davis ('Owen Hall') had spoken disparagingly to Edwardes of the qualities of In Town, and Edwardes had challenged him to come up with a better script. When Hall produced the book of A Gaiety Girl it was given to Jones to set to music and the result was a show which, even more than In Town and Morocco Bound, set the trend for a new era of light musical theatre. It was music which had a popular ring, no doubt gleaned from the composer's early years with the touring variety combinations, allied to something of the substance of the classic light theatre music of Sullivan and, more particularly, of Cellier, which he had so long conducted for Leslie.
Whilst continuing to work as a conductor, both for his own works and for such pieces as the hit London production of Ivan Caryll's The Gay Parisienne, and while continuing to provide additional pieces of music both for touring musicals such as Giddy Miss Carmen and his old employer J J Dallas's One of the Girls, and for town shows (Lost, Strayed or Stolen etc), Jones settled down to a steady career as what eventually became house composer to George Edwardes's new Daly's Theatre. When A Gaiety Girl finished its run, at Daly's, Jones again combined with Hall and lyricist Harry Greenbank on a successor, An Artist's Model, and this, in turn, was followed by the three most substantial light musical pieces of the era: The Geisha, A Greek Slave and San Toy.
With Edwardes's famous Daly's star team to write for, Jones turned out ever more masterly scores, including a fine supply of individual hit songs ('The Amorous Gold-fish', 'Chin, Chin, Chinaman' etc.). Soprano solos, such as 'A Geisha's Life' and the waltz song 'Love, Love' from The Geisha or 'The Golden Isle' from A Greek Slave and baritone ballads such as 'The One in the World' (San Toy) and 'The Girl of My Heart' (Greek Slave), were outstanding examples of late-19th-century romantic show music, set in shows which could still dip near to the music hall in some of their point numbers, such as the insistently anthropomorphic fables of 'The Interfering Parrot' or 'A Frog He Lived in a Pond', and rise to some magnificently tuneful concerted finales, such as that ending the first act of A Greek Slave, a piece of ensemble music which bordered on the light operatic without ever becoming too heavy for the kind of musical play which housed it.
Marie Tempest as O Mimosa San
in The Geisha.
Both The Geisha and San Toy became international hits, being played over several decades not only in Britain and the colonies but all round the world. Both were played in Germany, in Hungary and in Austria, where The Geisha became the most successful English-language musical of all time, being played regularly in metropolitan and provincial houses for more than half a century and taking a firm place in the regular repertoire, as it did also, in a lesser way, in Italy. If A Greek Slave took a definite third place to these two works, this was in no way due to any failings in its musical score, which held some of Jones's most attractive work.
After his series of successes at Daly's, Jones tried his hand at a comedy opera, My Lady Molly, an old-fashioned costume musical with strong affiliations with Dorothy. Given that the vogue for such pieces had long been drowned in the tide of success created by Jones's own musicals, on the one hand, and the lighter fare purveyed at the Gaiety Theatre on the other, the show was a fine success, but when Jones and Hall were hired by Tom Davis, grown rich on the triumph of Florodora, to write him a piece for his Lyric Theatre, the resultant The Medal and the Maid, again rather more by Hall's fault than Jones's, was a failure - the first in the composer's and the author's careers. A return to oriental topics in the pretty See See did rather better, but Jones had to wait for a further success until 1908, when he combined with the young Frederick Lonsdale in another trend-setting show, King of Cadonia, the archetypal modern Ruritanian musical, mounted with singular success under the management of Frank Curzon. Its successor, A Persian Princess, failed, but when Jones changed direction yet again he once more found at least a measure of success, back with Edwardes, this time at the more light-hearted Gaiety Theatre, with The Girl from Utah.
It was now 1913, and musical tastes were taking a very heavy turn away from Victorian ballads and point songs towards the syncopated dance-based rhythms coming from America. Jones was not at home in this musical atmosphere. He turned one last time back to Daly's Theatre to supply the score for the post-Edwardes production of the thoroughly Ruritanian The Happy Day, with Jose Collins and Bertram Wallis starring where Marie Tempest and Hayden Coffin had been, but although this last show fared well enough it was no Geisha, and it had nothing like the success of his most famous piece. At the age of 55 Jones withdrew from the world of the musical theatre and, for the last 30 years of his life, he wrote no more.
11892 Our Family Legend (Reginald Stockton) 1 act Brighton Aquarium 8 October
1893 A Gaiety Girl (Harry Greenbank/Owen Hall) Prince of Wales Theatre 14 October
11895 An Artist's Model (H Greenbank/Hall) Daly's Theatre 2 February
1896 The Geisha (H Greenbank/Hall) Daly's Theatre 25 April
1898 A Greek Slave (H Greenbank, Adrian Ross/Hall) Daly's Theatre 8 June
1899 San Toy (H Greenbank, Ross/Edward Morton) Daly's Theatre 21 October
1902 My Lady Molly (C H Taylor, Percy Greenbank/George H Jessop) Theatre Royal, Brighton 11 August; Tern's Theatre, London 14 March 1903
1903 The Medal and the Maid (Taylor/Hall) Lyric Theatre 25 April
1906 See See (Ross, P Greenbank/C H E Brookfield) Prince of \Vales Theatre 20 June
1908 (The) King of Cadonia (Ross/Frederick Lonsdale) Prince of Wales Theatre 3 September
1909 A Persian Princess (P Greenbank/Leedham Bantock, P J Barrow) Queen's Theatre 27 April
1913 The Girl from Utah (w Paul Rubens/Ross, P Greenbank, Rubens/James Tanner) Adelphi Theatre 18 October
1916 The Happy Day (w Rubens/Ross, Rubens/Seymour Hicks) Daly's Theatre 13 May
Adapted from The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre by Kurt Gänzl.
Page updated 25 August 2004