The Biograph Girl: Neglected musical shines light on early cinema’s dark underbelly
Unperformed professionally since its first West End run, The Biograph Girl depicts stars of the silent movie era. Book writer Warner Brown tells Nick Smurthwaite why a tiny theatre is the perfect venue for a belated revival
Warner Brown was still a student when he wrote The Biograph Girl, a musical about the silent movie era, now having its first professional revival since the London premiere in 1980.
“I’d always been fascinated by the history of movies, how it all began,” explains Brown, who has revised the book for Jenny Eastop’s production at London’s Finborough Theatre.
Knowing little about the world of musical theatre, the fresh-faced Brown was steered towards respected writer and composer David Heneker, whose shows included Half a Sixpence, Charlie Girl and Expresso Bongo among others, then in his mid-70s.
“I turned up at David’s house in Chelsea, and this charming Edwardian gentleman answered the door,” Brown says. “David became my mentor. He taught me all the rules of musical theatre, about internal rhymes and structure, and then said: ‘Now you know the rules, you can break them.’ He believed lyrics should be conversation, not poetry.
“Everything with David was a special occasion. He was very successful and wealthy by then. You’d finish a song and he’d open a bottle of champagne.”
Because of Heneker’s pedigree, the show attracted the interest of Harold Fielding, a top producer at the time, whom Brown describes as “one of the last of the old-school impresarios”. Fielding hired the actor-director Victor Spinetti to direct it, and the cast included Sheila White as Mary Pickford, Bruce Barry as DW Griffith and Kate Revill as Lillian Gish.
Brown recalls: “Harold Fielding was quite scary and shouty, although I think a lot of it was done for effect. He winked at me once in the middle of one of his frequent outbursts, as if to say: ‘Don’t worry, kid. I’m just play-acting.’ Oddly, Harold didn’t seem to mind me chipping in with suggestions.”
The silent movie star Gish – one of the leading characters in the show – attended the premiere in 1980, and she and Brown subsequently became friends. “I used to visit her in her apartment in New York, and she would invite people like Joan Fontaine and Ethel Merman round to meet me.”
So why has The Biograph Girl languished in obscurity for 38 years? “A lot of people have wanted to revive it over the years but I’ve resisted everyone until now,” he says.
“I was drawn to the Finborough because I loved the idea of doing it as a chamber piece in a small space. I met the director, Jenny Eastop, and knew straight away I’d be in safe hands.”
Eastop, who is returning to the Finborough after her award-winning production of James Bridie’s Mr Gillie last year, convinced Brown that the tiny west London venue was a better fit for The Biograph Girl than a big glitzy West End stage, even though it has a cast of 10.
“The show is far more like The Grinning Man than 42nd Street,” says Eastop. “There is a dark underbelly that hasn’t been explored before, and the lines of communication are always more direct in a smaller venue.”
One of the key differences between Eastop’s new version and the original show will be the portrayal of the pioneering silent movie director and star-maker DW Griffith, who made The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and is considered by many to be the cinema’s first auteur. He was also a problematic figure in real life, which the show dealt with initially.
Brown says: “Griffith was a racist and I addressed this in a number called Rivers of Blood, about people protesting against the racism in Birth of a Nation. But Harold Fielding didn’t like it, so it was cut from the original show. Now we’re putting it back in.”
Eastop was also keen to reinstate the song: “Fielding had a reputation for taking out anything that was risque or contentious. Rivers of Blood is an important song about taking responsibility for the art you create. Obviously, you can’t give characters of that time modern sensibilities, and what was deemed acceptable then is very definitely not acceptable today.”
She adds: “A lot of the songs have upbeat, razzmatazz tunes with dark, cynical lyrics about how the dreams of stardom evaporated.”
What have been the main challenges for Eastop in terms of squeezing a West End show into a bijou, 50-seat theatre? “In the early days of silent movies, they would shoot scenes in the corner of a warehouse or on a rooftop; the sets were often improvised in the moment, and it was all done on a shoestring. I think you’re more likely to capture that ad hoc feel of early cinema somewhere like the Finborough, than in a huge theatre in the West End.”
The musical director joins the action, playing keyboards on stage and some members of the cast play instruments. “We’ve managed to achieve the largest and clearest space possible,” Eastop adds. “We need to get a sense of the company moving as one, without the audience feeling they’re about to be trampled on.”