Theatre: Darling of Drury Lane

Ivor Novello ruled the West End from the Twenties to the Fifties. It's time to bring him back, says Carl Miller

Fifty years ago, the reigning King and Queen of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane were both Ivor Novello. As composer, actor, playwright and star, he dominated the West End from the Twenties to the start of the Fifties - at one point three Novello plays ran simultaneously. He created a confection of spectacle and sentiment which revived the fortunes of theatres reeling from competition by the talkies. The successful "Novello show" formula: melodious operetta, preposterous romance and lavish visuals, became a trademark as strong as any in London theatre history. At his early death in 1951, it was claimed: "Ivor Novello, the man who made the people sing, will never be forgotten." Yet his work is now barely known outside a handful of devotees.

"Keep the Home Fires Burning" can still stir emotion as a romantic anthem of the First World War, just as "We'll Gather Lilacs" evokes the Second for many who have forgotten (if they ever knew) the name of the composer. That melodic staying power is one of the arguments used by Novello enthusiasts who would like to see his work revived after years of neglect. A new biography by Paul Webb, Ivor Novello: A Portrait of a Star (Stage Direction, pounds 10) makes the case for a reappraisal of Novello, similar to that enjoyed by Noel Coward or Terence Rattigan.

West End producers should take the Ivorphiles seriously. There's no business like old show business, with mature musicals currently on offer including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), West Side Story (1957), Candide (1956), Bless the Bride (1947) and Of Thee I Sing (1931). Oklahoma! (1943) rides out and The Pajama Game (1954) hops in. Even "new" musicals such as Buddy and Four Steps to Heaven trade shamelessly on musical nostalgia.

Look back at the last few years of the West End and it is as if the entire musical theatre back-catalogue has been resurrected - with one significant gap. Nothing by Novello, whose name was once synonymous with London musical theatre.

Detractors dismiss the shows as frippery. Yet in his The Dancing Years, which packed Drury Lane in 1939, the hero Rudi Kleber (played by Novello) is, extraordinarily, a persecuted Jewish composer. Novello drew attention to the gulf between the Viennese fantasy world which had inspired his operettas, and the city now under Nazi rule: "It occurred to me to wonder what would have happened to me if, as a composer of popular music, I had also been Viennese and of Jewish descent." Twenty years before the von Trapp family climbed every mountain to escape Hitler, Novello's bold condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism made the theatre management uneasy, and they censored his more overt references.

Yet Drury Lane owed its pre-war survival to Novello. New sound movies offered audiences a total experience - not just dramatic situations but also the emotional enhancement of musical scores and extravagant spectacle. In 1935, with the theatre at risk of going bust and becoming a cinema, Drury Lane managers begged Novello to do something on the same scale as Noel Coward's 1931 epic Cavalcade. He obliged with Glamorous Night, and a new West End era began. Seven spectacular musicals, ending with King's Rhapsody in 1949, established a Novello show as a unique confection of huge casts, big frocks, misty-eyed love songs and preposterous plotting.

Novello's own presence as hero was crucial. This had major implications for the show's construction, not least because his singing voice was, he admitted, "the croak of a tired bullfrog". His capacity to work round his own limitations was, however, inspired. Having been adored since childhood for his beauty, he took care to protect and enhance this crucial asset, playing juvenile leads into his fifties. Movie co-star Gladys Cooper called him "the best make-up man in the world".

Novello shrewdly applied his genius at maquillage for contrasting effect. Thus he played both hero and villain in Crest of the Wave (1937). The more aged he seemed as the latter, the more his loveliness as romantic lead was thrown into relief. It was a trick he used regularly, teasing his fans by first appearing aged or grotesque, later to throw off the mask of unloveliness and appear (no less made-up) as a gorgeous object of desire. His audience was devoted. Critics may rarely have praised his work, but they always grudgingly acknowledged his huge popular success.

Even national disaster did not dim the enthusiasm. On the day France fell to Hitler, Novello mused: "I suppose that means there won't be a soul in the house tonight." His director reassured him: "My dear Ivor, if there was a German machine gun mounted in the foyer and others at every entrance to the theatre, your fans would somehow contrive to find a way in." Thousands of women flocked to his funeral and memorial service, with violent clashes between devotees desperate for a last glimpse of the coffin.

Yet love turned to fury if the beloved stepped out of line. Hatred erupted at the first night of Coward's moderately louche Sirocco, in which Novello played the lead. Derision greeted a silent seduction scene, with sucking noises from the gallery whenever Novello kissed leading lady Francis Doble. Cat-calls punctuated the dialogue, culminating when Novello's character dramatically declared "I go to my mother", and one of the gallery loudly suggested what he could do to her when he got there. After his death, one Sunday paper slyly blamed that evening for the fact that Ivor never married: "If there was any hope that Novello would win through [his] mother complex to normal manhood, that nightmare experience must have killed it."

As the innuendo suggests, Novello's world was a gay one in both senses. As well as delighting thousands of women on stage, he gave pleasure to a number of gentlemen off it. As well as artistic collaborators such as his long-term partner actor Bobbie Andrews and lyricist Christopher Hassall, Novello welcomed literary figures Siegfried Sassoon and JR Ackerley into his backstage accommodation. Somerset Maugham claimed that Winston Churchill had slept with Novello to find out "what it would be like with a man". Legend records Winnie's verdict on the effects of the experiment as "musical".

Novello's verdict on Churchill as a bed partner is lost, but the politician's warnings against the Nazis and opposition to the Munich agreement inspire the politics of The Dancing Years. Indeed, the romance with Central Europe which pervades Novello's work contrasts with Chamberlain's notorious dismissal of "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing".

Although he loved King, Queen and Country, Novello's war record was dismaying. He successfully evaded active service in the First, and ended up in prison during the Second. He accepted a fan's proposal for a scam which allowed him to use his Rolls-Royce despite wartime vehicle restrictions. When discovered and arrested, he attempted to bribe the officer delivering the summons, claimed in court that his theatre appearances were "very important work for morale" and insisted on pleading not guilty when he plainly was. As a result, he was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs for eight weeks in 1944.

Some of his friends thought that the experience caused his early death. This seems unlikely, although there have always been conflicting reports of the circumstances in which he collapsed near a smashed champagne bottle early that morning in 1951. The gay artist and writer Philip Core claimed that Novello's fatal heart attack occurred during over-strenuous sex. Tabloid accounts, full of innuendo, lingered over the decadent presence of alcohol and chocolates in his flat above the Strand Theatre.

Novello's presence had been so crucial to the success of his musicals that his death killed them too. Looking back, however, the songs (which he never sang) are a greater legacy. There are justifiable objections to the books of the musicals, most of which were cobbled together in weeks. The same has, however, been true when any shows of his era have come up for revival. The book of the 1937 show Me and My Girl was completely overhauled by Stephen Fry for a revival which stormed the West End and Broadway. Cole Porter's Anything Goes had similar story surgery for its last outing, while the Gershwin musical Crazy For You was a completely new show. As the 50th anniversary of his death approaches, Novello's shows need similar treatment. Ah, but will younger audiences respond to wish-fulfilment romance, male beauty, repressed sexuality and a few melodies? Just ask Boyzone.

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