Unveiling the EMPIRE

The opening of the Southampton Empire required a big production, unlike other cities where Moss Empires had opened new houses, Southampton didn’t have a tradition of spectacular largescale productions. The Hippodrome and Palace were primarily variety halls and the Grand a playhouse. So a decision was taken to show Southampton the likes it hadn’t seen before. It had to be big – it had to have names and most importantly a pedigree that would be recognised by the townsfolk. Something new, a European Premiere and a scheduled move into the West End would be ideal.

After months of discussions a decision was made upon a Broadway show which would open the Southampton Empire and then transfer to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London’s West End. The show was to be “The White Eagle”, the latest work of Rudolf Friml (1879-1972) whose previous works included “Rose Marie” and “The Vagabond King”. its creative team was the same as “The Vagabond King”, producer Russell Janney, librettists and lyricists W. H. Post and Brian Hooker, with the addition of new choreographer, Busby Berkeley. The story followed closely Edwin Milton Royle’s successful 1905 play “The Squaw Man”.

Following on the popularity of “Rose Marie” the plot included Native Americans and tells the story of James, the brother of the Earl of Kerhill, who takes the blame for a dishonourable action by the Earl and flees England for the American West. As Jim Carson he becomes a successful rancher and marries Silverwing, a native American woman, who he names Winona and with whom he has a son, Hal. When the Earl dies childless, Jim is set to inherit his title and return to England. Silverwing, believing that her presence will hinder the futures of her husband and son, takes her own life.

Rudolf Friml

It seems as if the creators of “The Vagabond King” were trying to capitalise on the popularity of “Rose Marie” as opposed to their own show. The Indian elements constitute the most obvious parallels with “Rose Marie”. Friml created a Native American sound world in “The White Eagle” with the same fundamental tropes he used in the earlier show, particularly Dance, Dance, Dance which is a direct descendant from Totem Tom-Tom and Silverwing’s Alone which follows Rose Marie’s pledge in Indian Love Call.

“The White Eagle” has a heroic march for the male chorus Regimental Chorus, following the precedent of The Mounties in “Rose Marie”. Here it extols the merits of the British imperial regiments around the world and features many of the features of the various British colonies. One song stood out from the show and enjoyed some popularity in its own right, Jim’s ballad Give Me One Hour.

The producer of “The White Eagle” on Broadway, Russell Janney, would work with Stoll Moss to create the British production and for six months through the summer and autumn of 1928 worked tirelessly building the British team. The show required a company of 100 to 120 and two very strong leads and for Britain, technically innovative lighting and set designs. Fortunately, with Southampton Empire being a completely new build, technical innovations were relatively straightforward, if expensive, to be incorporated. Casting was a little trickier, the demanding dance routines of Busby Berkeley didn’t suit the typical musical theatre dancer and an ensemble was created with an emphasis on classically trained ballet dancers who in turn needed further training in musical theatre dance.

Derek Oldham and Winnie Melville

The two leads also presented problems as there was a relatively short preparation time and many of the first choice names were unavailable. However, the two stars that were at the top of the list were available, and Janney gave the parts of Jim Carson and Silvering (Winona) to husband and wife, Derek Oldham and Winnie Melville.

Derek Oldham was 27 when he debuted on the professional adult stage in 1914, as Julien in The Daring of Diane, an operetta at the London Pavilion. He made an immediate mark: The Observer said that he “has an exceptionally charming tenor voice, uses it with fine art, and acts with engaging simplicity and sincerity.” After the outbreak of World War 1, he joined the Scots Guards, a year later was commissioned in the East Lancashire Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Macedonia in 1918. During the war, he formed a concert group to entertain his fellow servicemen, also producing The Chocolate Soldier not far from enemy lines. Oldham was demobilised in July 1919 and joined the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company the following month, when the company opened its first London season in over a decade. He immediately assumed the leading Gilbert and Sullivan tenor roles. He left the D’Oyly Carte company in 1922 to star in a great number of musicals and operettas during the 1920s at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and other West End theatres. His first musical was “Whirled into Happiness” at the Lyric FTheatre, as Horace Wiggs, where his leading lady was his future wife, Winnie Melville. Winnie Melville was initially a concert singer who made her London Stage debut in the 1916 musical show See-Saw at the Comedy. After appearing at the same theatre in Bubbly, she went to Paris in 1918 for Zig-Zag at the Folies-Bergères. She returned to England where she appeared in the West End before joining the tour of Sybil. She then was offered the female lead in “Whirled Into Happiness” in 1922.

They had married in 1923. They were both well known to Janney as they had worked with him In 1927, when they starred together in the European première of The Vagabond King, he as François Villon, and she as Katherine de Vaucelles. (The couple separated in 1933 and later divorced, she died in 1937 aged 42. Derek, in later years, lived on Hayling Island and died in Portsmouth in 1968.)

The show was assembled, rehearsals had begun, the finishing touches were being put to the theatre and the Stoll Moss promotion commenced. The first newspaper advertising for “White Eagle” (notice that “The” got lost on the Atlantic crossing) premiering at Southampton Empire took place during the week of 26th November 1928 announcing the opening of advance booking from 3rd December for the premiere on the 22nd December and its subsequent 2 week run. Seats were priced in the orchestra stalls at 6/6 and 5/9, stalls at 4/9 and 3/6, pit stalls at 2/4; grand circle at 5/9 and 4/9 and 3/6; Balcony at 1/10 and 1/3; with Boxes at 26/-, 23/- and 21/-. The booking office was open from 10 in the morning through to 10 at night. Advertisements were carried daily in the Southern Daily Echo entertainment page.

However, on Wednesday 19th December the advertisement had a markedly different look, the title “White Eagle” had been replaced with “Winona”. No explanations, no information just a new name, not even a reference to its previous title. The assumption is that the original title didn’t have the pulling power and for the West End a closer association with “Rose Marie” might be more attractive to the theatre-going public. However, the truth was that Rudolf Friml had been particularly taken by Winnie Melville in the initial auditions that he wrote a new song for the show “Winona” titled after the name given to her character, Silverwings in the show. The song was included and became the title song – hence the change in the name of the new musical.

And so it was that audiences who had booked for “White Eagle” turned up at the theatre on opening night and saw the premiere of “Winona”, the same show but were they to know? Because of the length of the show, late trains were organised, ensuring audiences could get home. On the Monday, reviews were carried by the national and local papers, mostly focused on the theatre rather than the show.

One reviewer wrote – Is this a second “Rose Marie”? Well, it lacks those moments of complete captivation which we found in “Rose Marie”, but some of the music is beautiful and much is full of that operatic quality so characteristic of Friml. To appreciate its full charm one needs to follow the orchestra closely. It is the kind of music which probably grows on one with hearing, Here and there it takes on a plaintive quality that is very charming: and the orchestra under the direction of Jaques Henval, is at its best in these passages. It begins like a musical comedy, but later assumes qualities that are sometimes are of opera and sometimes, plain drama. In short, its atmosphere is mixed. There are some brilliantly spectacular effects, as, for instance, when the weird Indian ceremonial is performed; there is, in fact, much calculated to impress the eye. But the play is not all of a piece; it is much too long at present and occasionally there is real weakness, as in the supposedly humorous second scene of Act I, made necessary by the preparation of the big Indian scene that follows. In brief, a certain amount of refashioning would seem desirable. It will be quite sufficient attraction for some to know that “Winona” provides some admirable opportunities for Winnie Melville and Derek Oldham to display their genius. Both these favourites were in capital form on Saturday. Miss Melville as Winona, the Indian princess in love with the Englishman whom she thinks has come to redeem her race, was picturesque, and at times pathetic and always in fine voice, especially in the delightful Lullaby. Mr Oldham made a sympathetic, self-sacrificing hero and his singing likewise was excellent throughout, especially in the stirring Regiment Song. Some of the other acting calls for praise, especially that of Cecil Mannering as a villainous Cash Hawkins, to whom he gave real character and Henry Moore, as Winona’s little boy. The latter’s voice could be heard perfectly all over the theatre, which could not be said of the utterances of all the elder performers. There was some attractive dancing, notably that of Miss Elaine Letter as the Indian, who is possessed of snake-like grace. Among the songs which possess charm are Winona, Gather The Rose, and My Heaven With You. It is possible with alterations, condensations and the effects of performance, “Winona” may, in a week or two’s time, reveal more clearly its latent attractions, especially those of Friml’s music.

Broadway’s Casino Theatre where The White Eagle premiered

So the reaction to the Southampton opening wasn’t too different to “The White Eagle” opening on Broadway where it had the misfortune to open at New York’s Casino Theatre on the 26th December 1927, the night before the epochal “Show Boat” had its New York premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre.  The attention of the media and theatre worlds were on “Showboat” and not “The White Eagle”. However, both were musical milestones and had “The White Eagle” got due recognition it would have stolen much of the limelight from another musical “Oklahoma” which opened 16 years later and is widely recognised with the introduction of balletic dance into musicals with the Dream Ballet, something that was first seen in 1927 in “The White Eagle”.

It seemed the ingredients were right but somehow the parts didn’t gel and those familiar with “Rose Marie” considered it an inferior attempt to build on its predecessor’s success.

The New York Times wrote – The White Eagle combines the best and worst features of an effort to get the most out of poor old Puccini (a reference to Puccini’s 1904 Madama Butterfly), Gilbert & Sullivan (an Englishman concerned about honour) and the conventional Broadway musical. There was a little bit of everything and too much of some things. The effect was a sort of musical cafeteria where one might take one’s choice. There was a good song in every act, there were marvellously effective stage settings and costumes and some bizarre and original choreographic work (here he is referring to the work of Busby Berkeley who became the visionary of geometric designs and innovative camera angles that became to define the early musical films; if his efforts in “The White Eagle” were in any way indicative of what he would do on-screen in the 1930s, it is no wonder that the NYT found the choreography bizarre).

And so it was that after 48 performances on Broadway and 17 performances in Southampton, “Winona” sunk below the horizon, never to be heard of again. And as for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane another new show would open in place of “Winona”, as on April 4th “The New Moon” with music by Sigmund Romberg and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II graced its stage.

For the Southampton Empire it was a commercial success, probably down to the public’s curiosity with such a huge venue opening in their town. With a full diverse programme scheduled through 1929 the next 12 months would be a very good gauge as to what would work in Southampton to achieve maximum success.

The theatre was emptied of the sets and props over the Saturday night and Sunday morning, in order that the next show could move in. The next show, “The Shows The Thing” brought Gracie Fields to Southampton for the first time.

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