Composer and actor Ivor Novello is to be immortalised in the West End when the Strand Theatre, above which he used to live, is renamed in his honour. Paul Webb looks back at the fame and fortune of one of the stage’s biggest stars
Cameron Mackintosh’s decision to rename the Strand Theatre after Ivor Novello this autumn, following a summer programme of refurbishment, is a very welcome tribute to one of the most important and best-loved figures in 20th century British theatre.
Ivor Novello began his showbiz career in music as a choral scholar at Magdalen College Choir School in Oxford and ended it as Britain’s favourite composer of musical theatre, dying a few hours after performing the lead role in of one of his best musicals, King’s Rhapsody, at the Palace Theatre.
Novello was a longstanding friend and rival of Noel Coward, who is getting his own Mackintosh makeover when the Albery is renamed in autumn 2006. His reputation is nowhere near as high as Coward’s these days, but in his lifetime he was just as well known and, in terms of West End musical theatre, vastly more successful.
His life was dedicated to theatre, and the main reason that the Strand is being renamed in his honour is that from before the First World War until his death in 1951, he lived in a flat above it, reached by a rickety little lift (which is still there) which used to carry the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo up to his apartment, where a dazzled Margaret Rutherford once exclaimed, on seeing a room full of theatre and movie stars and a large number of exquisitely beautiful young men, “Oh, Ivor… it’s… it’s… like fairyland!”
Novello, who was unashamedly gay and lived for most of his adult life with the actor Bobby Andrews, was astonishingly good-looking himself. As Coward once quipped: “There are two perfect things in this world – my mind and Ivor’s profile!” This beauty launched him into an unexpected career as a film star, from 1919 to 1934, and this developed to the point where he was Britain’s biggest male silent movie star. Alfred Hitchcock’s first major success, The Lodger (1926), was a Novello vehicle.
The film career brought money and fame, but Novello’s first love was always the theatre, and he used both the cash and the kudos that the movies brought to launch his stage career. He had experienced success as a composer from 1914, when he wrote the iconic Keep The Home Fires Burning, but it was as an actor that he was determined to shine. So driven was he that he also became a playwright, writing himself vehicles that generally did well in the West End before being filmed the following year.
Novello knew he was better in his own shows, but reluctantly agreed to play the part of an Italian waiter in Noel Coward’s drama Sirocco (1927). This was an unmitigated disaster ending in jeers, catcalls and a scuffle at the stage door. The two men never worked together again but maintained their friendship until Novello’s death. Coward was jealous of the fact that, though he was undeniably the better playwright, Novello was vastly more successful in musical theatre, and after the composer’s death he tried to stage his own Novello-style show in After The Ball (1954). For good measure it starred two of the late writer’s leading ladies, Mary Ellis and Vanessa Lee. It was a huge flop.
Today Novello is best known for the string of musicals that saved Drury Lane from potential closure in the thirties and kept the cash tills ringing throughout the forties and early fifties. Glamorous Night (1935), Careless Rapture (1936), Crest of the Wave (1937), The Dancing Years (1939), Perchance to Dream (1945), King’s Rhapsody (1949) and Gay’s the Word (1951) all offered glamour, escapism and romance. They perfectly captured the needs of a public who had to endure the Depression then the Second World War and subsequently the austerity years that saw even worse rationing than during the war.
Novello’s shows are unavailable outside of amateur performances largely because of an inverted snobbery among British producers and directors that says that any American musical must be interesting while any British musical (especially a Novello) cannot be worth reviving today.
True, Novello seems often to be thought of as some sort of sub-Lehar writer of lushly romantic waltzes. In fact the musicals were lavish, glamorous, often the epitome of art deco chic, and far more musically varied that you would think. They were also packed with fabulous melodies. They were escapist, yes, but could have bite as well.
The Dancing Years, for example, was written in response to the Nazis banning records by Jewish composers, and the romantic story at its centre is a flashback, as the show is set in Nazi-occupied Austria, with the central character, a successful composer who has been arrested for helping Jews escape to Switzerland. This infuriated the government who were still desperate to appease Hitler and avoid war. Once war actually broke out, The Dancing Years proved to be a massive hit, as audiences could combine their dislike of Nazis with three hours of fabulous tunes and elegant costumes.
The renaming of the Strand is therefore a very welcome recognition by the theatre world of the importance of Ivor Novello to British theatre. Novello lived for the theatre, above one, opposite another (The Gaiety, now demolished) and had a social circle, unlike the more socially ambitious Noel Coward, that was almost entirely drawn form the world of theatre and music.
Although his name rightly lives on in the Ivor Novello Awards for songwriting, having a theatre named after him is the most appropriate honour the West End could confer. Now, please, can we have a major West End revival of one of his musicals?
* Paul Webb is the author of Ivor Novello: A Portrait of a Star, published by Stage Direction, ISBN 0953607305.