THE VAGABOND KING (1943)
THE WINTER GARDEN THEATRE
Collage by Charles S.P. Jenkins
Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth as Katherine and Francois Villon in the revival of The Vagabond King (1943). A duet from The Vagabond King:
Webster Booth pointed out in his joint autobiography with Anne Ziegler, Duet, that the Winter Garden had been in the hub of theatre land in the 1920s, but by the time Tom Arnold’s revival of The Vagabond King opened there in 1943, theatre land had moved west and not many people (including taxi drivers) knew where the theatre was any more.
The Tom Arnold production went on an extensive tour of the United Kingdom before it opened at the Winter Garden on 22 April 1943. The production was devised and supervised by Robert Nesbitt, the dialogue was directed by Maxwell Wray, and the and the conductor of the orchestra was Bob Wolly.
The name part of the Vagabond King, Francois Villon was a strenuous one. There was a lot of robust singing and a a sword fight. Unfortunately, on the first night of the tour in Blackpool, Webster was struck on the throat during the sword fight on stage with John Oliver. He lost his voice and his part was taken temporarily by Derek Oldham, who had played Villon in the original production in 1927 with his wife Winnie Melville playing Lady Katherine.
Anne Ziegler played the part of Lady Katherine de Veucelles in this production and she had three excellent duets with Francois Villon in the show: Love Me Tonight, Tomorrow, and Only a Rose. The last duet became the Booths’ signature tune in their variety act:
The part of Huguette was taken by Tessa Dean, while Lady Mary was played by Sara Gregory. Henry Baynton, an elderly Shakespearean actor took the role of Louis XI.
Webster and Tessa Dean (Huguette)
Cartoon of Anne and Webster in the show (June 1943)
On the cover of Theatre World (July 1943)
The King makes Villon Grand Marshall of France.
The show received excellent notices, but Webster complained about the theatre being very uncomfortable. Anne was so concerned with the sanitation that she called in a sanitary inspector! Despite the success of the show it closed in July. Webster was sure that the show closed prematurely because the Winter Garden Theatre was no longer in theatre land. He realised that the role was too heavy for his light tenor voice and thought the early closure was a blessing in disguise as he might have ruined his voice had he continued singing it for a longer time.
Judging by the photos of the 1943 Tom Arnold production of elaborate sets, large chorus and the sword-fight scene, The Vagabond King would be extremely expensive to mount today.
Although Webster considered the role of Francois Villon his favourite part, it took a toll on him, not so much because of the singing which he could manage perfectly well, but because the part itself is a strenuous one. He was on stage most of the time rallying the masses to turn against the Duke of Burgundy and lead the mob into battle. The sword fight must have been quite challenging too – he probably thought he had lost his voice forever when his opponent John Oliver “was so realistic that I received the full force of his arm with his sixteen stones behind it right across my throat…. By the end of that first night’s show… I could hardly speak. A specialist was sent for, and he diagnosed a badly bruised larynx.”
Victor Standing took over the part for a few nights and Derek Oldham (who had played Villon in the original London production) took over from him until Webster’s larynx had recovered from the blow. After the first night of the London opening he was due to sing in the Good Friday performance of Messiah at the Albert Hall, which he considered “the very height of the oratorio profession”.
When he was 71 he told me that oratorio singing had meant far more to him than anything else he had done in his varied singing career, so he must have felt torn between everything he did in the nineteen-forties – musicals, films, and part of a double act with Anne on the variety stage. I dare say if he had stuck to singing oratorio he would be remembered today as one of the great British tenors of the twentieth century instead of one half of “Sweethearts of Song” duettists’ act on the variety stage.
The sword fight. Villon fights with Captain of the Archers (John Oliver).
Jeannie C 23 November 2012
Revised 25 November 2017 ©