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MARY ELLIS - THE MISSING BIT OF THE OBITS
Dominic Vlasto reveals the true story of what happened to ‘After The Ball’.
Mary Ellis’s obituary in the New York Times, reprinted in a previous issue of Home Chat, made no mention whatsoever of her appearance in Noel Coward’s After The Ball of 1954; and her obituary that appeared in The Daily Telegraph was barely more informative, referring only to the fact that “...in the early 1950’s, Mary Ellis’s stage appearances became less frequent. Her friendship with Coward survived a misjudged adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan ...” Mary Ellis had made her name as a leading singer in musicals, with hugely influential roles in works by Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and most notably Ivor Novello (among others) throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, and she also maintained a reputation as a “straight” - and very alluring - actress. She did play a Coward play - Point Valaine - in 1947, but never a Coward musical, until the faux-pas of After The Ball in 1954 - this twenty or so years later than the leading musical roles for which she had become famous. But exactly whose faux-pas was it? It is well-known that Coward was pretty vituperative about the musical side of the original production when he first saw it on tour: “The orchestra was appalling, the orchestrations beneath contempt ... the whole score will have to be reorchestrated from overture to finale and Norman [Hackforth, the original MD] will have to be fired.” (Diaries, 1 April 1954). However, what is often missed in this particular Coward hyperbolic diatribe is the fact that he starts it by being vituperative about the “absence of style in the direction”, for example: “It was restless and untidy and ... a great deal of the performance was inaudible”. He is also pretty unpleasant about Mary Ellis herself. It seems, so far, to have been the judgement of critics and commentators that the failure of After The Ball was due principally to Coward’s mis-judged adaptation. Coward himself acknowledged - but only after the show’s disastrous opening and subsequent entire reorganization - that elements of the piece were not completely satisfactory. “The more Coward we can get into the script and the more Wilde we can eliminate, the happier we shall all be...”, he noted on 21 April 1954, and then, on 13 June: “I feel in my heart that the fact that almost a third of the score has had to be cut will mitigate against its success ... it is now, subtly, a bit lopsided”. This I think was a huge understatement, and I believe that the principal damage to the show had already been done before the reorganization, and no amount of cuts and rewriting was going to be enough to save the day. For the rest of the story - how the production came to be in this situation in the first place - we must turn away from Coward, who was ensconced in Jamaica during January-March 1954, to the only other known commentary of the production in preparation - that reported briefly by Norman Hackforth in his little-known 1975 autobiography, And The Next Object. Norman’s “promotion” from accompanist to musical director was hardly an illjudged flight of fancy on Coward’s part; for as well as having been Coward’s accompanist and principal amanuensis since the war years, Norman was a seasoned composer and MD of musical revue and had just spent much of 1951 and 1952 as conductor of the highly successful Lyric Revue. (In addition, Norman had also been the “fixer” behind Coward’s engagement to perform cabaret at the Café de Paris and had during 1953 been musical editor of The Noel Coward Song Book.) It was to Norman that Coward turned during the autumn of 1953 to write down the musical score of After The Ball from his dictation at the piano, a process which both of them remembered with pleasure: “The music is pouring out and I can scarcely go to the piano without a melody creeping from my fingers, usually in keys that I am not used to and can’t play in,’ commented Coward (Diaries, 23 October 1953), while Norman recalled that “it became more and more absorbing as we went along, and he seemed to be writing some lovely music”. During November and December that year, Norman worked on the score with Coward during the weeks in London and also over several weekends at Goldenhurst, while casting the show was in progress. Coward had decided against directing the show himself and had engaged Robert Helpman to direct. Casting had only just been completed by the time Coward was due to leave for Jamaica on December 15th, and nothing was going to stop him, not even the fact that the score was not finished. The solution was simple: the day before he left he called Norman, and summoned him to come out to Jamaica after Christmas for a couple of weeks to wrap the whole project up. The last songs for After The Ball were duly transcribed in Jamaica. “Last night”, Coward diarized on 17 January, “just before dinner, I finished the last note and the last word of After The Ball ... the relief is immense, particularly as I know that it is very good indeed. I have been very much en veine and have turned out some of the best lyrics I have ever written”. Norman flew back to London on January 20th clutching the precious manuscripts, and at once started putting the score into rehearsal, while Coward, “supremely confident”, was remaining in Jamaica until the end of March. “I had met Mary Ellis”, recalled Norman, “for a preliminary run-through of the songs in mid-December, and I had been a little uneasy from the start at the way she had reacted to the music. As soon as I got back to London I started to work with her in advance of the date of general rehearsals. Slowly, my worst fears were realized. Miss Ellis could not sing the part. Some of the songs were exacting and difficult, but I knew without a shadow of doubt that her voice was totally unsuited. I had poured my life’s blood into this music, had painstakingly and lovingly written down every single note of it, and apart from Noel himself nobody knew it better than I, and knew with total conviction how he wished it to be sung. Miss Ellis could not sing it, and Robert Helpman knew; and the management declined to interfere; and Mr. Coward was on the other side of the world; and I was slowly going up the wall.” Bobbie Helpman later confessed to Coward that he had been “utterly dumbfounded by the horror of the first orchestra rehearsal”, so much so indeed that he apparently wanted (so he said later) to open the tour with only a piano for accompaniment. For Norman, the process of watching and listening to Coward’s gloriously melodic and lushly-harmonized score being progressively shorn of its charm got worse and worse throughout four weeks’ rehearsal in London and the subsequent twelve-week tour which opened in Liverpool on March 1st. Norman could see that “it was no good, and, as the weeks went by, it didn’t really get any better”. Noel got back from Jamaica at the end of March, and saw the show for the first time during the sixth week of the tour in Manchester. He was not complimentary: “There are ... moments of imagination and charm, but not enough, not nearly enough ...Vanessa [Lee] sang divinely but acted poorly ... Mary Ellis acted well but sang so badly that I could hardly bear it. If the show opened in London as it is it wouldn’t run a week ... thank god we have another eight weeks”. But at the start of May, after major rewriting (turning it into three acts instead of the original two), cutting much of Mrs Erlynne’s best music, reconstruction of the ballroom scene with a lot more comedy for Irene Browne as the Duchess of Berwick, complete re-orchestration and a new musical director, Coward was still “terribly disappointed about After The Ball. The whole project has been sabotaged by Mary not being able to sing it. Unfortunately she is a strong personality and plays it well, otherwise I would of course have had her out of the cast weeks ago.” It was certainly a very unhappy moment in Norman’s career, and one about which he never felt comfortable about revisiting: “If he [Coward] had struck me across the face and told me I was no bloody good it would have been less painful!”, he wrote, “and in the final issue, I shall never believe that it [all the reorganization] made any difference ... at the end of it all, it was still a bad show.“ Hackie stayed with the reorganized show for the rest of its tour and gratefully retired from the fray before its London opening in June, whereupon it received some pretty stinking reviews and managed to plod through till the autumn when it closed. It is difficult to believe that Coward ever really held Norman responsible for what had happened, as he was unhesitatingly brought back as accompanist for the fourth season of Café de Paris cabaret performances the same autumn and for all of Coward’s subsequent London cabaret appearances till 1958. Hackie ends his chapter of autobiography about this period: “A year later, Noel Coward wrote a song called ‘Why Must the Show Go On?’ I have often wondered.”