Julian Slade

Co-author of 'Salad Days', for 10 years the longest-running show in British musical history


Julian Penkivil Slade, lyricist and composer: born London 28 May 1930; died London 17 June 2006.

In 1954, musical theatre in the West End of London was dominated by the Americans. Oklahoma! had opened at Drury Lane in the mid-Forties, starting the theatre's long run of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, Annie Get Your Gun's mammoth run had heralded the takeover of the Coliseum by such musicals as Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls, and His Majesty's had played host to Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon. There were British hits - Love from Judy, Zip Goes a Million, Bet Your Life, and several intimate revues, but they were small-scale and had comparatively modest runs.

Then came two home-grown shows that truly took theatreland by storm, winning rave reviews, audience cheers and long queues at the box office - Sandy Wilson's magnificent Twenties pastiche The Boy Friend, and Julian Slade's decidedly English story of college graduates and their adventures with a magic piano, Salad Days.

Both shows were to run for years, and they are the ones with which their composers will forever be most identified. Slade's musical was the more controversial, for its book and lyrics (on which Slade collaborated with Dorothy Reynolds) were derided by some as too archly fey, but there was no denying the score's tunefulness, or the youthful gaiety of the whimsical plot.

Born in London in 1930, Julian Penkivil Slade was one of three sons of a barrister, and was educated at a prep school in Oxford, won a scholarship to Eton and finally read Classics and English at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he wrote two musical plays, Lady May (written for May Week) and Bang Goes the Meringue. At the age of 16, he had his first book published, a children's story, Nibble the Squirrel (1946).

In 1951 he joined the Bristol Old Vic training school after he told the school's director, Denis Carey, of his ambition to be an actor - at Cambridge he had played Lady Macbeth in an all-male production of the Shakespeare tragedy. Though he played a few small roles at the Bristol Old Vic, it soon became apparent that his real talent was that of composition. He wrote incidental music for the theatre's production of Two Gentlemen of Verona (1952), which transferred to the Old Vic in London, then he became musical director of the theatre, also writing two Christmas musicals, Christmas in King Street (in collaboration with the actress Dorothy Reynolds and James Cairncross) and The Merry Gentleman (with Reynolds).

He also wrote songs for a new version of the 1775 comic operetta with a libretto by Sheridan, The Duenna, incidental music for The Merchant of Venice at Stratford, and music for a version of The Comedy of Errors that was subsequently shown on television in 1954 and at London's Arts Theatre in 1956.

Salad Days (the title was taken from Cleopatra's speech in Antony and Cleopatra in which she refers to her "salad days when I was green in judgement") was commissioned by Carey in February 1954, and written by Slade and Reynolds in six weeks as a summer show for the resident company at the Bristol Old Vic, but its enormous popularity prompted a transfer to the West End. It almost was not produced in London at all, for managements initially insisted that some familiar names be cast, but Slade was adamant that the original cast members should, if they wanted to, recreate their roles. He won his argument when two managements, Linnit and Dunfee, and Jack Hylton, agreed to combine to share the risk.

In August 1954, Salad Days opened at the Vaudeville Theatre, where it ran for 2,288 performances, beating by 50 performances the record set by Chu Chin Chow. It remained the longest-running show in British musical history until overtaken by Oliver! 10 years later. Reynolds was in the original cast, and Slade himself played the piano in the pit for the first 18 months. It was later produced all over the world (though a New York production in 1958 was a failure), enjoyed major revivals in 1976 and 1996, and has been performed both on radio and television.

The story of a magic piano which causes the most unlikely people to break into song-and-dance, it includes among its catchy songs the syncopated "Look at Me, I'm Dancing", a lazily reflective "I Sit in the Sun" and, probably the most performed of the numbers, the duet for the leading couple as they try not to become nostalgic for their just concluded college days, "We Said We Wouldn't Look Back". That wistful, charming ballad was the theme tune for the show Hey, Mr Producer (1998), a salute to the career of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who saw Salad Days as an eight-year-old and decided at that moment to produce musicals - Mackintosh himself sang the song as the finale of the tribute.

Though four more Slade-Reynolds shows were produced in London later, none of them caught the imagination as Salad Days had, though they featured attractive melodies. Free as Air (1957) was considered more slick and professional by some critics, but the whiff of amateurism about Salad Days had been part of its charm. Follow That Girl! (1960) had the beguiling Susan Hampshire as star, but its run was brief, and Hooray for Daisy (1961), about a cow, had a title that alone would deter any whimsy-haters.

Wildest Dreams (1961) was the final collaboration with Reynolds, after which Slade had a modest hit with Vanity Fair (1962), written with Alan Pryce-Jones and Robin Millar, and there were other shows that did not get into London, including Nutmeg and Ginger (Cheltenham, 1963) and The Pursuit of Love (Bristol, 1967), an adaptation of Nancy Mitford's comic novel. He returned to the West End with a moderate success, Trelawney (1972), an adaptation of Thackeray's theatrical tale, starring Gemma Craven and Ian Richardson.

Slade composed music for the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, including productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, and he adapted another Mitford novel, Love in a Cold Climate (1997).

Julian Slade used to express regret that so much of his music remained unperformed and unknown, but he himself made a recording, Looking for a Piano (1980), on which he played and sang his material, including songs from Salad Days naturally, but also including some charming numbers from the "lost" musicals, such as "Let the Grass Grow" from Free As Air, the title songs from the Mitford musicals and numbers from Lady May, Bang Goes the Meringue, The Merry Gentleman and others.

The original "magic piano" that played Slade's captivating rhythms for five and a half years on the Vaudeville stage is now on display at the Theatre Museum in London.

Tom Vallance

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