Writer-composer-lyricist SANDY WILSON died last month at the age of 90. Michael Darvell pays tribute to an extraordinary man of the British theatre and the one show of his that has been perennially popular for more than 60 years.
The fact that Sandy Wilson, who has died aged 90, had his greatest hit, The Boy Friend, in the early 1950s when he was still in his twenties, does nothing to dim the reputation of a man whom Noel Coward compared favourably to Cole Porter and himself. Certainly not as prolific in his output as the indomitable Cole and Noel, however, Wilson arguably produced a single piece of musical theatre that seems destined to last for ever. The musical shows of Porter and Coward were of their time and are now rarely revived.
Although Coward’s plays regularly enjoy revivals, his musicals are hardly ever staged, possibly because they have not aged that well. Cole Porter revivals are generally restricted to Kiss Me, Kate and Anything Goes, although of course his songs, like those of Coward, are still in the repertoire of any self-respecting cabaret artist, being part of the Great American and Great British Songbooks. Wilson may not have had a vast catalogue of songs to his name, but he contributed a lot to such revues as Slings and Arrows, Oranges and Lemons and Pieces of Eight (with Peter Cook), and what there was is choice material indeed.
Although he wrote eight full-length shows as well as the revue material, Wilson will always be remembered for The Boy Friend, a tiny show that he devised for the cast of the Players’ music hall theatre, underneath the arches by London’s Charing Cross station.
At the time (1953) he was sending up the rather trivial musical shows of the 1920s, the prime example of which was Rodgers and Hart’s The Girl Friend of 1926. This had a paper-thin book by Herbert Fields about a cyclist on a dairy farm who loves the daughter of a professional cyclist. He enters a six-day race to impress his would-be girlfriend and, despite being hassled by gamblers, he wins both the race and the girl. The big song to come out of it was ‘Blue Room’ which many bands and singers recorded at the time. The show ran for more than 300 performances, a good run in those days. Despite good songs, The Girl Friend had a daft book, but then in the 1920s nobody was looking for anything serious in a musical comedy.
The Boy Friend, Wilson’s pastiche of Rodgers and Hart’s show was every bit as daffy as its source, but the writer played on this and produced a delightfully tongue-in-cheek musical that charmed everybody in 1953. It dealt with, of course, a boy-meets-girl situation in which several well brought-up girls are attending Madame Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies at the Villa Caprice on the French Riviera. When Polly Browne, daughter of a millionaire, arrives, she pretends she has a boyfriend to take her to the carnival ball. Then Polly’s widowed father turns up, and soon realises that Madame Dubonnet is an old flame of his and so they get together again. Disconsolate Polly with no escort for the ball soon cheers up when the errand boy, Tony, delivers her fancy dress costume and they are immediately attracted to each other. Acts II and III sort out all the complications and happy endings for all loom ahead.
Apart from his witty script, Wilson also provided a clutch of what have become classic numbers in the 1920s style of popular music – songs such as ‘Perfect Young Ladies’, ‘Won’t You Charleston With Me?’, ‘Fancy Forgetting’, ‘I Could Be Happy With You’, ‘A Room in Bloomsbury’, and ‘It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love’ and many others in what is a perfect score with no dud songs in sight.
It captured the period beautifully and became such an instant success in April 1953 at the Players’ that it was brought back again later the same year. Following a short season at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, it moved into London’s West End and stayed at Wyndhams Theatre for some five years and a total of 2,082 performances, a figure beaten only by Julian Slade’s Salad Days which later notched up 2,200 performances.
The Boy Friend transferred to Broadway with some of the original cast, plus Millicent Martin and Moyna MacGill (mother of Angela Lansbury) and with the young Julie Andrews starring as Polly Browne – and it was the making of her future career. While appearing in New York in The Boy Friend she was discovered by the producers of My Fair Lady who offered her the part of Eliza Doolittle. The rest is theatrical history.
Meanwhile, The Boy Friend had a run of over a year on Broadway. Although Wilson and his director Vida Hope went to New York, they were banned from the theatre by the American producers who had their own ideas about how The Boy Friend should be staged for an American audience. Wilson also had trouble with Ken Russell’s 1971 film version starring Twiggy and Christopher Gable, which the director turned into a tribute to Hollywood but which Wilson thought was a travesty of his original. Luckily the many revivals of the stage show since then have been both good and successful and made a nice little earner for Wilson. No doubt The Boy Friend will continue to be played all over the world indefinitely.
Wilson went on to write his other shows but none of them ever enjoyed the success meted out to The Boy Friend. In 1955 The Buccaneer starred Kenneth Williams as a young boy in a story about a children’s comic, but it ran for fewer than 200 performances. Wilson then adapted the rather overheated prose of Ronald Firbank’s book Valmouth in 1958, which played London and Broadway but was not a commercial success. He then tried a sequel to The Boy Friend by presenting the same characters a decade on in Divorce Me, Darling (1964) in which he guyed the popular songs of the 1930s, and in particular those of Cole Porter. Like The Boy Friend it too started out at the Players’ Theatre before transferring to the West End where it didn’t even reach a hundred performances.
In 1969 Wilson compiled a revue of the writings of American humourist and critic Dorothy Parker, called As Dorothy Parker Once Said, in which the very talented Libby Morris acted out Parker’s recitations and short stories in what was a really entertaining evening. Next came a musical version of His Monkey Wife, John Collier’s tale of a man and his relationship with a chimp, at the Hampstead Theatre in 1971. For The Clapham Wonder (1976) Wilson adapted The Vet’s Daughter, a book by Barbara Comyns, which played the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury in 1976, and three years later he wrote a Christmas show based on the story of Aladdin for the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.
Perhaps Wilson was too much of a nostalgist to be successful in his later career. He was possibly a man of the 1920s and 1930s when a theatre tune was a good one that everybody hummed on leaving the auditorium. In The Boy Friend he found his true metier and created a classic piece of musical theatre that earned him a good living and one that will last for ever. What other composer wouldn’t dream of doing that? For Sandy Wilson the dream came true.