Guest Blog: Making a musical out of a music hall legend, Dan Leno
Dan Leno (1860-1904) was the greatest comedian of the English music hall. From 1886 to his death, he was immensely popular, pioneering the style of stand-up comedy which held sway until the gag-men of the 1930s took over.
The Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp is set in1904. Dan Leno (played by Chris Vincent) has been confined to a lunatic asylum by his wife. Fellow inmates include Queen Victoria, Napoleon, Catherine the Great and two men who think they’re Jesus. Even music hall legend George Robey makes an appearance as a young rival. Leno faces life-threatening surgery to cure him of his appalling headaches - but maybe he’s not mad, maybe he’s just no longer funny.
In this production diary, Kydd explains how the show – and its story structure – came about and how he recruited American Idol mentor Andy Street onto the creative team…
My musical The Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp is about the last few days of the celebrated music hall artiste Dan Leno (he died aged 42 in 1904), who was a top halls performer with a string of eccentric characters but specifically known for his impersonation of women in both his act and in pantomimes at the Haymarket in Piccadilly.
I was initially attracted to the idea of a show about Dan as I was given a picture of him as a birthday card and there was some resemblance, and I considered the possibility that I could play him! (I have since banished this idea as I think after a bit the actors would begin to hate me if I was constantly telling them where the gag was whilst being in a scene with them!) Also my great grandmother was a singer on the halls called Stella Sinclaire, and my father, the late actor Sam Kydd, was hugely influenced by the music hall and was friends with Max Wall who I remember seeing many times as a boy.
Leno (pronounced Lean-o) spent some time in an asylum just before his death with violent headaches which some biographers put down to having a brain tumour and others to syphilis. Whatever the truth, he was clearly considered unstable or he wouldn’t have been in such an establishment.
This led me to think of a story where he might have been placed in the asylum by his wife to try and rid him of his promiscuity. I came up with this idea after I’d read that he and fellow stars of the Halls would do four or five performances a night, earning huge amounts in the process and were ultimately comparable to rock stars in their popularity – 60,000 people attended Dan’s funeral and lined the streets – and when I also read of his numerous affairs, it didn’t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine him as bisexual in an era where homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment!
Now, I had intended to write a ‘comedy’ musical and it was all turning a bit black. I then looked at the idea of incorporating some of Dan’s material, which is readily available on the internet. Clearly amusing to an Edwardian audience. Not much use in 2012. So I completely invented his act; and threw in a young George Robey as a rival. Still a bit black though. So I concocted the idea of madmen in the asylum being involved and a comedy orderly. And set the whole thing in the music hall along with a Chairman.
As for the songs which are slightly necessary in a musical, I attempted to write them myself having written for the comedian Brian Conley in the past. But it became apparent that I needed a musical knowledge of the era that I didn’t possess. That’s where Facebook came in handy.
Completely flukily... or was it synchronicity?... a musician called Andy Street popped up on the right-hand side as ‘someone I might know’. And indeed I did know him. In the Nineties, I’d worked on the TV series This Way Up with him for LWT where he was MD. I shot off a friend request, he accepted and I sent him the book and a few ideas for lyrics. Luckily, he loved it. He was between jobs. We set about it.
There was one drawback. He lives in Thousand Oaks California. We skyped and emailed. We managed the time difference. He has written 18 great songs. He has since become a mentor on American Idol - the billing has naturally changed on the publicity material!
The Hard Boiled Egg and The Wasp opened on 23 May 2012 (preview 22 May) at the Giant Olive Theatre in Kentish Town, north London, where it continues until 10 June.