Jules Leotard – The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze! (1838-1870)
Music Hall – a dead entertainment or a living tradition?
More often than not, when you introduce the idea of singing a Music Hall song to a young person, you are met with some resistance. It’s unfamiliar territory, maybe considered old-fashioned and the songs too simplistic. Students of Music Theatre are required to sing songs pre-1900 as part of their exams, so it is a subject worth exploring.
With the right introduction, it is clear that much of what we consider entertainment today was fathered in the Victorian Music Hall and the tastes of modern audiences are not too dissimilar to those of the Victorians.
Watching shows like Britain’s Got Talent and other popular entertainment, we see stand-up comedians with a heavy leaning towards social satire, hire-wire gymnasts, performing animals, magicians, male and female impersonators or ‘drag’ artists, mime artists, jugglers, ventriloquists, escapologists….. not to mention our fascination with strong men and women, super star sportsmen, professional wrestling, all presented with lavish stage effects, eccentric and over-the-top costumes. All of this was there in the Music Hall theatres so popular with the Victorians.
Above all they loved a good song, often the sole property of one beloved star singer, who would top the bill and raise the audience’s spirits with a good familiar chorus and sing-a-long.
Famous artists toured the country with their own signature songs – Florrie Ford ( She’s a Lassie from Lancashire, Oh I do like to be beside the sea-side, Down at the old Bull and Bush), Vesta Victoria (Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow, Waiting at the church), Marie Lloyd (My old man said follow the van, The Boy I love is up in the gallery, Oh Mr Porter), George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie), Charlie Coborn (The Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo) and numerous others.
The Music Halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs and professional writers were kept busy providing a variety of numbers, mostly comical, often cockney, cheeky, often telling a story poking fun at society figures.
Music Hall in London had its origins in entertainment provided in the saloon bars of public houses during the 1830s. The most famous London saloon of the early days was the Grecian Saloon, established in 1825, at The Eagle (a former tea-garden), 2 Shepherdess Walk, off the City Road in East London. It is still famous because of an English nursery rhyme, with the somewhat mysterious lyrics:
Up and down the City Road
In and out The Eagle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel.
This saloon ‘song and supper’ entertainment, initially popular with the working class, became increasingly popular throughout society, so much so, that during the 1850s, the public houses were demolished and music hall theatres developed in their place. These theatres were designed chiefly so people could consume food and alcohol and smoke tobacco in the auditorium while the entertainment took place. This differed somewhat from the conventional type of theatre, which until then seated the audience in stalls with a separate bar-room.
By the end of the century, London boasted several hundred music halls and there was at least one in most towns and cities throughout the country.
• Jules Leotard was a famous trapeze artist who inspired one of George Leybourne’s popular numbers – the Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze: (and incidentally gave his name to the all-in-one suit now used by dancers and athletes)
‘He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze….’
• Music hall had a profound influence on The Beatles through Paul McCartney, who was himself the son of a Music Hall performer (Jim McCartney, who led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band). Many of McCartney’s songs are indistinguishable from Music Hall except in their instrumentation.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” “Oobladee, oobladah”
• Despite the fact that many Music Hall buildings were bombed in the war and/or later demolished, there is now a renewed interest in preserving them. You can see one of the original Music Halls, Wilton’s Music Hall, now restored and functioning as an arts and entertainment centre in Tower Hamlets.
Around 1950, the popularity of Music Hall seemed to have waned, but strangely, certain songs hung on. Amateur companies kept the tradition alive. Music Hall lived on in the BBC series The Good Old Days, Variety shows and period drama. Nowadays it’s quite common to hear these old songs popping up in pub sing-a-longs or other community entertainments .
I would guess they are here to stay!
Guest Blog by Marion Shuster
BA hons (Cambridge) LRSM
Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule. www.learn2sing.org