An article from Every-Woman's Encyclopaedia, The Amalgamated Press Ltd, London, circa 1911, vol.30, pp.3679-3681|
By Lily Elsie
'Few people are so well qualified to give an option on the subject of this article as Miss Lily Elsie (Mrs. Bullough), whose success on the musical comedy stage is well-known to playgoers all over the country. Her kindly advice and unsparing frankness - a candour which she applies equally to herself and her own career - should render this article one of real value to the aspirant to the stage as well as of deep interest to all lovers of musical comedy.
'The road to success in musical comedy, as elsewhere, is mostly paved with hard work, and bordered with disappointments. It is only after marching steadily and resolutely along, passing the disappointments, and ceasing to regret the things that might have been, that success is reached.
'The great mistake so many of us make is turning back, even for half a step, in doubt and indecision. Doubt is a quality that should never be encouraged on the stage. Every actress who wants to be successful must always assure herself that whatever she is doing at the moment is the right thing. The people who are lost are those who waver and hesitate, asking themselves (and other people) a dozen times a day, "Ought I to do so-and-so?" or, "Would it be wiser to do such-and-such?" While they are hesitating, they are passed and pushed aside by others with a fixed purpose in their minds, the purpose that tells them to take all they can get, provided it is not absolutely suicidal - and feel certain that it will eventually lead to something better.
'I have so often found in my stage life that things which have been accepted, perhaps not very cheerfully, as part of the things that have to be, eventually turn out trumps. People that we meet, and even dislike, at an early stage in a career, often remember us later on, and prove unexpected friends.
'On the musical comedy stage the fight for success is probably harder than in any other branch of the theatrical profession. A great Shakespearean actress, a fine comedienne, usually stands alone in her generation. However obscurely she starts, she is bound, sooner or later, to come to the front, because she is unique of her kind. But musical comedy is very different. It used to be a saying that a girl only needed a pretty face to succeed in musical plays. That idea has exploded with the advent of Viennese opera-plays, which demand acting in conjunction with singing and dancing.
'At one time it was thought that nobody in musical comedy need know how to act. They only had to smile and look fascinating, and their fortune was made. Nowadays, the road to success is steeper in the musical comedy world. To one great dramatic actress there are a dozen musical comedy girls, any of them equally excellent in their own particular way, and perfectly adaptable to any sort of musical comedy part.
'So many young girls, especially of recent years, can sing a little, dance a little, act a little. And good coaching or stage-management is all that is needed to put them in the forefront of the fight, and introduce them to the public as stars. The great struggle resolves itself into this: Who, out of a dozen evenly matched combatants has the strength, energy, perseverance, or personality - call it what you will - to seize an opportunity, and, having seized it, to hold it, and "make good"?
'That is the crucial test, the making good. So many musical comedy girls get their chance, and just fail to "make good." Either they are over self-confident, or they are careless, and forget that if they make one false move, there are nine equally clever people waiting to step into their shoes. An actress in comedy or drama is not nearly so easy to replace as one in musical comedy, and that is why I think it is harder to succeed in musical comedy than in any other branch of stage work.
Work and Don't Grumble
'Having succeeded, the vital thing is never to slip back. Nobody is so great as to be indispensable, though many stage folk are apt to forget that truism. It is only by keeping tuned right up to concert pitch in every way that a musical comedy actress stands a chance of making managers and the public forget that there are many other girls, as pretty and as clever, ready to fill her place.
'A musical comedy actress, once she has become what is called "a success," has a harder struggle to keep her position than other stage players. If a manager takes offence at some silly behaviour, or if a girl, having made a name, gets a reputation for being "slack," she soon finds her chances rapidly diminishing.
'The only way to succeed is to peg away. Work as hard as possible, and never appear to find things a trouble. A reputation for being "keen" and a "good worker" has won half the battle again and again.
'Another thing worth remembering in a musical comedy crowd is not to be always running down the management, and grumbling about trifles to other members of the company. Such things get round so quickly, and managers are not fond of fault-finders and grumblers. It is the girl who goes about her work quietly and with interest who finds herself remembered one lucky day. Managers have enough worries of their own without tackling grumblers and fault-finders.
'I know that is sounds far-fetched, and perhaps savours of affectation, but none the less it is a fact that when people tell me I have made a success, I find it hard to believe them.
'Even now, after the happy years I have spent at Daly's, it is always a matter of amazed wonder to me that I am, for the time being, at least, an example of an actress who has succeeded in musical comedy. I can never forget that the success has only been won after a great deal of hard work, a great deal of poverty, a great deal of disappointment, and is probably the more precious for that very reason.
The Merry Widow
'Even the Merry Widow - the part in which I was supposed to make my name - did not seem the crowning point of my career to myself. Perhaps it was because I only played after such difficulties, and because there was so much justifiable opposition to the casting of a practically unknown actress for such a heavy part, except from Mr. George Edwardes, who always stuck to his opinion that I should be all right. I rehearsed in daily fear of being told politely I was no good; and the actual arrival of the first night, with myself as Sonia, seemed, and still seems, like part of some marvellous dream. I cannot forget the applause, the kindness that was shown me before and behind the curtain.
'I was so scared that I had really been a terrible failure that I did not read a single notice after the production. And the Merry Widow had been running over six months before I could bring myself to believe that I really was safe, and a success.
'Personally, my besetting sin in my musical comedy career has been a perpetual and inveterate self-depreciation. I have learnt, in a hard school, that a girl who depreciates herself finds others only too ready to depreciate her. I am quite hopeless even now, though I realise perfectly well how fatally foolish it is. Whenever I am asked if I can do a certain thing, my first instinct is to say at once: "Oh, no, I'm sure I couldn't!" It is only by a frightful effort that I am learning the wisdom of holding my tongue, or giving a non-committal "I'll try" as an answer.
When I was offered the part of Aladdin in The New Aladdin at the Gaiety, I promptly wrote to Mr. Edwardes: "No, thank you! I couldn't possibly play it." Luckily for me - luck which no girl who could do such a silly thing deserves - Mr. Edwardes refused to accept my estimation of my own powers, and insisted that I tried. My "trying" ended in my appearance as Lally. But had the director of the Gaiety accepted my statement, the probability is that I should be still gaily touring. Perhaps that little experience may prove a warning to other girls who are inclined to be as foolishly diffident as I was.
'The great thing in starting a musical comedy career is to begin young, In musical plays, more than in the drama proper, a girl does her best work while she is still young, and depends a great deal on her personal appearance for her success. As a few years must necessarily be spent in "working up," it is silly to start late, and then to find that when success comes, it is already slipping away.
'I went on the stage when I was little more than a child, and my first years were spent on the music-halls. By the time I was sixteen I was playing quite a big part in London, Princess Soo-Soo in A Chinese Honeymoon, at the old Strand Theatre. I imagined, in my ignorance, that my name was definitely made! But I soon found that many ups and downs lay between me and even moderate success.
'From London I went on tour, and then back to London to play at Daly's and the Princes of Wales's. Finally, at the Prince of Wales's, my stupid behaviour and giggling on the stage - I was one of four racketty girls - caused Mr. Edwardes to give me my notice, which I now realise I richly deserved. For weeks I wandered about, very hard up, and finding an engagement almost impossible to secure. And I had imagined that London could not do without me, at optimistic sixteen!
'When things were blackest, a chance meeting with Mr. Edwardes in the street set me on the road to good fortune again, and I found myself back at Daly's. Engagements in London and on tour followed, and during a holiday I was offered the part of Aladdin.
'I began to think that my touring days were over. But, no - off I went again! A good example, this, of the ups and downs of the musical comedy world. Some girls might have thought it was foolish, and preferred staying in town, perhaps out of work, to going on tour. But I simply made up my mind to do whatever came my way; and it was while I was on tour that I was offered the part of the "Merry Widow."
'Since then, I have remained at Daly's, and I cannot help feeling very proud and happy that it has been my stage home for over four years. But every day that passes brings home to me the need for always keeping up to the mark. The greatest success does not entail or permit of slackness.
'When people begin talking about "successful actresses," I often wonder if they realise that a "success" has to work ten times harder to keep up the reputation given to her by the public than someone whose name is not yet made. From nothing, nothing is expected. But from something and somebody the world expects so much, and has a way of expressing great disapproval if it does not get what it expects.'
The Editor is very grateful to John Culme's Footlight Notes for providing this article for inclusion here.