REVIEW: Lost West End Vintage: London's Forgotten Musicals 1948-1962

Recording CoverFrom Stage Door Records, another worthwhile curiosity. Lost West End Vintage is a compilation of tracks from British musicals that premiered during what is generally considered the American musical’s “golden age” – that is, between the mid-1940s and the 1970s. These shows almost all predate the ascendance in this country of the Lloyd Webber megamusical, and they have mostly sunk without trace; you’re unlikely to see a revival of Wild Grows the Heather or Expresso Bongo or Cage Me a Peacock anytime soon. That doesn’t mean they don’t contain any worthwhile music, though, and the 52 – yes, 52 – tracks included on this compilation’s two discs include several unappreciated gems. They include some things you’ll listen to once and subsequently skip, of course, but that’s the nature of this kind of album; fortunately, the good here far outweighs the bad, and the best of this recording is very entertaining indeed.

The first disc contains songs from cast albums, and the list of shows recalls an increasingly distant, far more innocent era in British popular culture. Gay’s the Word, Zip Goes a Million, Romance in Candlelight, Grab Me a Gondola, Lock Up Your Daughters, Carissima, Valmouth, Lady at the Wheel – some of these were reasonably substantial hits in their day, and it’s surprising that their music has dropped so far out of the public consciousness, particularly given that at least some of the bigger pop singers from that period are still very well known (a few of them put in an appearance on this compilation’s second disc). It’s impossible to tell whether everything in these scores is at the same standard of the songs included here. Some of these songs are merely curiosities – the most interesting thing about the late Jeremy Brett’s rather lugubrious rendition of a song called A Boy Called Johnny from a show called Johnny The Priest is the distance between this performance and his work in the role that elevated him to stardom late in his career. Some, though, are gems. The peerless Millicent Martin gives a lovely, dreamy performance of a song called ‘I Am’ from Expresso Bongo; the song itself is pretty good, and she’s even better. Bertice Reading has enormous fun with ‘My Big Best Shoes’ from Valmouth. And Frankie Howerd singing drolly about how he wants to be a ‘Song and Dance Man’ in a number from a show called ‘Mister Venus’ is probably worth the price of the album in itself. He’s not the most polished singer, true, but it’s an effortlessly funny, utterly charming performance. Elsewhere on the disc, there are fascinating performances from Cicely Courtneidge, Sally Ann Howes, Elisabeth Welch, Anna Neagle, Hy Hazell, Pat Kirkwood, and Lucille Mapp; some (not all) of them are not as polished as the singers you’d expect to hear in today’s West End, but there’s an individuality to these performers that these days, unfortunately, is rarer than it should be. The songs aren’t always pure gold, but the performers are.

The second disc is a compilation of pop covers of songs from musicals of the era, and how much you enjoy it will very much depend on your opinion of the eclectic range of performers involved. There are three Tommy Steele numbers in a row, for example – to be expected, given how big a star he was at the time – and if you’re (like me) basically allergic to him, none of them are going to make you change your mind, although it’s amusing to compare his take on ‘My Big Best Shoes’ with the studio cast performance from Bertice Reading on disc one. There are lively performances from Pearl Carr, the Beverley Sisters, Beatrice Lillie, and Edmund Hockridge; Cliff Richard meanders through a song from Expresso Bongo sounding exactly like he does today, only slightly off-pitch, and Lionel Bart lasciviously talk-sings his way through the title song from Lock Up Your Daughters. It’s all good fun, but the meat of the collection is on the first disc. Still, as a trip back to a time before the British musical was dominated by singing cats and trains and murderous masked stalkers, this compilation is well worth your time and money. It’s a delightful whistle-stop tour through a chapter of musical history that is now starting to feel very remote.


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