Theater News

The Man From Gosford Park

Robert Altman rediscovers British theater icon Ivor Novello and belatedly introduces him to the American public.

Ivor Novello
Ivor Novello

It’s happening at dinner tables all over town–well, at two I know of, anyway. The conversation turns to movies and Oscar nominations. Somebody says “Have you seen Gosford Park?” and there are affirmative murmurs and general agreement on how much fun Robert Altman’s Agatha Christie-like, all-star mystery is. Then someone remarks, “Wasn’t the music pretty?” And the guests–the non-theater mavens, at least–are amazed to learn that Ivor Novello, the suave actor-composer played so personably by Jeremy Northam in the movie, was a real person, and that the songs Northam sings in his untrained but persuasive baritone really are Novello’s.

It’s an extreme example of Anglo-American bifurcation. On our side of the Pond, Novello (1893-1951), né David Ivor Davies, is virtually unknown. In Britain, he’s an icon as revered as Noël Coward, with whom he has much in common. Both were multitalented actor-playwright-composers (though you could add a couple more hyphenates to Coward, such as director and novelist) and both personified a 1930s ideal of the sophisticated, elegant English gentleman. Novello, whose handsomeness was compared favorably to Valentino’s and John Barrymore’s, was more the matinee idol and had more of a film career than Coward. The Lodger, the Hitchcock silent spoken of so dismissively in Gosford Park by Maggie Smith’s Countess of Trentham, was in fact a huge popular success and made Novello a major movie star. He followed it up with another excellent Hitchcock silent, Downhill, adapted from a play that Novello co-wrote with the actress Constance Collier. Then he starred in early-talkie adaptations of his own hit stage comedies Symphony in Two Flats and The Truth Game. In all, he wrote 25 plays and musicals for the stage, only two of them out-and-out flops. While briefly in Hollywood under contract to M-G-M, he wrote most of the screenplay to Tarzan, the Ape Man. Oh, and he was also a World War I flying ace. Jolly good fellow, Novello.

He might have gone on playing romantic leads on celluloid, but he had other ambitions. The son of a Welsh choral singer and his sometime-composer wife, Novello had written occasional songs and scores in his youth, including the wartime standard “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Now he fancied himself an operetta composer, at a time when operetta was dying or presumed dead. With typical resolve and ingenuity, he revived the form and dominated the Drury Lane Theatre for 15 years. Beginning with Glamorous Night (1935) and on through King’s Rhapsody (1949), he wrote the books and scores for a nearly unbroken string of smash-hit operettas–usually in collaboration with Christopher Hassall, a fine and underappreciated lyricist. When Novello wrote his own lyrics for Perchance to Dream (1945), he produced “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” an I-love-England number that, to this day, makes little old British ladies weep.

In a way, Novello was the much-better-looking Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day: His shows were crowd pleasing spectacles, appreciated most for their special effects (shipwrecks, train wrecks, earthquakes) and lush scores. As with Lord Andrew’s musicals, highbrows disdained them but the blokes on the streets ate them up. Novello usually starred himself in his operettas, but he was no singer, so he had to tweak the form a little; the big ballads would go to the heroine or the second leads while his scripts called for him to do little but take center stage and ooze charm.

Though trading heavily in royal romances, temperamental divas, and ballroom waltzes, these shows did attempt to brush off the cobwebs of the form: Glamorous Night is the first musical about television and Crest of the Wave (1937) is a breezy Hollywood spoof. By the time of King’s Rhapsody, even Novello was having a hard time finding new operetta angles. His final hit, Gay’s the Word (1951), was a musical comedy about an operetta, starring the great British clown Cicely Courtneidge and merrily mocking Ruritanian conventions. Novello died a week into the run; 7,000 Brits crowded his funeral and the national press mourned his passing as if he were Churchill. Indeed, Novello seems to have confounded everyone’s expectations by being as unpretentious, generous, and kindhearted in real life as he is portrayed in Gosford Park. The only time he was ever associated with scandal was when he served a four-week prison term in 1943 for buying black-market petrol. Even then, the public was overwhelmingly on his side.

The Dancing Years (1939) is Novello’s masterwork and, with Glamorous Night, one of only two of his operettas to play in the U.S. (at the St. Louis Municipal Opera); even Perchance to Dream, which ran over 1,000 performances in the West End, was curiously never brought to New York. The Dancing Years is operetta to the core but unusual in its flesh-and-blood characters. Its composer-hero, Rudi Kleber (Novello), and its diva-heroine, Maria Zeigler (Mary Ellis), are talented, interesting adults whose occasional bouts with temperament, insecurity, and childishness doom their affair. It’s a convincing, grownup love story, complete with bastard child. Amusingly, it foreshadows The Sound of Music by (a) naming its heroine Maria, (b) climaxing at a Viennese music festival, and (c) sending menacing Nazis stomping all over the stage in the second act. One song from its hit-filled score, “I Can Give You the Starlight,” found its way into Gosford Park.

Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello in Gosford Park(Photo: USA Films)
Jeremy Northam as Ivor Novello in Gosford Park
(Photo: USA Films)

Altman has said in interviews that he has wanted to make a movie with Novello songs ever since M*A*S*H. Good thing he didn’t stick them in that film, but they’re made to measure for Gosford Park, (or vice versa) and the soundtrack album is a fitting introduction to Novello’s rich, rather hard-to-categorize output. The comic novelties “And Her Mother Came Too” and “What a Duke Should Be” are from his World War I musical-comedy days. The simple, affecting “The Land of Might Have Been,” from something called Our Nell (1922), is transitional–a contemplative ballad somewhere between musical comedy and light opera. “I Can Give You the Starlight” is full-throated operetta, a rangy waltz with a long, wandering verse. “Why Isn’t It You?” from Crest of the Wave is a taste of the lighthearted, fox-trotting Novello, with more than a touch of Jerome Kern in it. In fact, his music often sounds like Kern’s and sometimes like Sigmund Romberg’s, but Novello’s unfailing Britishness prevents his work from overtly echoing any of his Broadway contemporaries. And, like Kern, he is harmonically adventurous: “The Wings of Sleep” from The Dancing Years and “A Violin Began to Play” from King’s Rhapsody, for example, have chord progressions that are still fresh and startling. If they sound to you like boilerplate operetta, you’re not listening hard enough.

For years, it was virtually impossible to get one’s hands on any Novello CDs in the States. Now, thanks to and its ilk, it’s fairly easy to assemble a Novello mini-library. Lately out of print but worth tracking down is Ivor Novello: Centenary Celebration (Pearl), with vintage medleys from his greatest operettas and a couple of rare tracks from his first musical comedy, 1916’s Theodore & Co. Hurtling forward to the stereo era, Marilyn Hill Smith Sings Ivor Novello (Flyback) presents the British soprano in a generous, straightforward sampling of Novello standards, while the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan mixes Novello with Rodgers, Borodin, and various religious and pseudo-religious chestnuts on My Life Belongs to You (Sony Classics). Finally, Lorna Dallas’s The Girl I Knew (Harbinger, 1997) is a special treat, a half-and-half menu of Novello and Kern assembled with rare intelligence and taste. The American soprano, who has made London her home since playing
Magnolia in the 1972 Show Boat revival, is an ideal interpreter of this material, and the arrangements of Christopher Denny and Barry Kleinbort bring both composers’ music swingingly up to date without stylistically betraying them.

I’m not expecting Novello’s melodic genius to commercially supplant, say, the junk that Britney Spears grinds out. But wouldn’t be terrific if the Gosford Park soundtrack (Number 132 on Amazon’s charts when last I checked) and these other in-print CDs sparked a mini-revival in his music? It would be great to see, say, an Encores! rendering of The Dancing Years or maybe a small-scale Novello revue off-Broadway. Britain has adored the man and his music for nearly a century. It’s high time that we on this side of the Atlantic caught up.