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Missing Footprints: British musical comedy in colonial Hong Kong

by Vincent Chu


Before musical theatre's worldwide popularity came a British precursor—musical comedy, which was world-famous in its own right, especially within the British Empire.[1] Despite its historical prevalence, it has been widely neglected in academia and relatively obscured in cultural history scholarship.[2] Remnants of it are often ascribed to other forms of entertainment, with its music surviving as pub and parlour ballads,' now associated with the music halls.[3] More than a hundred musical comedy plays were erroneously attributed to its American cousin, musical theatre.[4] Hong Kong, once an integral transnational port of exchange of the British Empire, has seen its fair share of visiting troupes of this once transcontinental late Victorian and Edwardian art form.[5] The region can thus constitute a good starting point for tracking the footprints of this evanescent giant through the intersections of musical comedy's colonial history with Hong Kong's own history. Through archival research into Hong Kong's historical English newspapers, I attempt to highlight the traces of British musical comedy in colonial Hong Kong, revealing a surprising lack of success of the once prominent theatre form. This paper further seeks to suggest reasons for such poor reception despite musical comedy's widespread transmission in the British Empire.


Colonial Hong Kong was a fertile soil for the theatre trade: branded the Pearl of the Orient, it served as a nodal point of British trading networks in Asia. One such commodity traded ort was theatre. Hence, in discussing the modern industrial theatre model during the Edwardian era, Balme and Leonhardt note that European troupes indeed valued Hong Kong as a 'new market [with] potential for profit maximization.'[6] A competition for Hong Kong venues between Willard's American Musical Comedy and Opera Company and 'a troupe of high-class and most accomplished Italian artists' in 1888 well illustrates how immensely profitable the theatre trade in colonial Hong Kong was.[7] The Italian troupe intended to leave the Philippines for Hong Kong and perform at the Theatre Royal, City Hall during a window between Willard's company's two visits that year. However, in an attempt to monopolize the year at Theatre Royal and wade off competition, Willard booked the venue for October despite the company's arrival in November. Commenting on the incident, a news article emphasized Hong Kong as 'fresh-pots' and that the Italian troupe 'would have made a deal of money judging from past experiences.'[8]



In addition to its commercial profitability, theatre was also socioculturally valuable to the European diasporic communities in Hong Kong, allowing them to 'survive culturally and socially.'[9] For the British and other European diasporic communities in colonies, theatre performances 'provided a meeting place where [they] came together to constitute [themselves] as a community.'[10] This function of theatre performances is evident in the reportage of the 1905 opening night of Zorilla Musical Comedy Comedy's In Gay Paree. The premiere clashed with the Governor's Birthday Ball, which 'kept a large number of people away'[11] and left the act with a 'meagre house.'[12] Possibly as a gesture of courtesy, the Governor attended another performance by the company and his 'distinguished patronage' was advertised in the press.[13] It not only hinted that itinerant troupes had a primarily British (or European) diasporic patronage in Hong Kong, but more importantly, it revealed the respect or enthusiasm diasporic European patronage in the region had for theatre performances.


For the British diaspora, British musical comedy had even more to offer than other genres. It was an instrument of cultural imperialism, which 'served as a lifeline to the home country' and allowed the British diaspora to achieve cultural synchronicity with their compatriots in Britain.[14] As described in Len Platt's Musical Comedy on the West End Stage, 1890-1939, British musical comedy was more socially engaged than 'other forms of late Victorian and Edwardian theatre.'[15] By engaging with issues pertinent to the British society, such as modernity and national identity, British musical comedy served as a 'vehicle for British ideologies ... that [gave] voice to their collective expression as a popular articulation of society and values.'[16] As such, the British diaspora could learn and resonate with the shared sentiments and opinions of British society 'back home' on 'national' social issues through musical comedy despite their geographical displacement from the Britain. This sociocultural appeal was strong enough for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to stage their own production of the British play The Arcadians in 1937, which was the earliest record of a local musical comedy production in Hong Kong.[17]



Notwithstanding these cultural merits, British musical comedy did not thrive in Hong Kong. Accordingly, response to the lukewarm public reception, many itinerant troupes began combining other genres into their repertoire. For instance, the Banvard included a revue, the operetta Katja, the Dancer (which was misidentified as musical comedy), and two American musical comedies in its 1928 season.[18] The Henry Dallas Musical Company was an exception that had performed a season in Hong Kong with a repertoire comprising solely of British musical comedies.[19] Amongst several factors that could have contributed to the lacklustre growth, the difficulties in talent recruitment was front and centre. British musical comedy was a departure from the forms of music theatre prior to its conception. Unlike the variety-natured musical halls, a musical play had a continuous narrative; unlike operetta, it required 'more natural styles of performance';[20] as opposed to operetta's focus on 'historical romanticism', British musical comedy was concerned with 'modernity'.[21] Given this, British musical comedy could be considered a balance between the 'high art' of operetta and the 'common humour' of music halls. It required trained actors who sang, instead of just full-fledged singers.[22] This niche made talent recruitment and training costly and time consuming. It was more commercially viable to recruit performers from more traditional theatre backgrounds and staging familiar traditional acts.


Musical comedy's woes did not end with its struggles in talent recruitment. Its primary appeal of sociocultural relevance was short-lived as it failed to capture the insecurities of the British public in the pre-World War I era, and was deemed 'astonishingly dissonant and quite out of touch in the inter-war period.'[23] Consequently, the popularity of the form only spanned roughly twenty-five years, already struggling before WWI.[24] Although musical comedy strived for more theatrical realism than operetta, it still painted a rosy image of British society as an 'upbeat celebration of modernity' and was faithful in its 'naïve assertion of faith in progress and social inclusion.'[25] Therefore, the once-progressive form was no longer fashionable and relevant to the shifting sentiments of its British patrons who increasingly felt alienated from the disparity between rising geopolitical tensions and musical comedy's sanguine worldview. Instead, revue established itself as the new fashionable musical theatre in the empire with talent in Britain beginning to leave musical comedy for revue, leading to its further decline.[26]



Although joining itinerant troupes was an option for musical comedy practitioners, the uncertainties associated with touring were dissuasive of any potential recruitments. For instance, Kathryn Hansen's article 'Mapping Melodrama' cites the account of the death of several members in the Australian troupe 'Sarah Lewis' Dramatic Company' due to the harsh conditions during tours.[27] This may be an extreme example of the risks of touring with a transnational troupe; even so, varied climate conditions across the colonies meant that even if survival was guaranteed, profit may not have been. Common weather events in the Southeast Asian regions like rain would discourage theatregoers from attending performances. With 'the rainy season varied from country to country,'[28] tours in the region was constricted to seasonal visits. [29] Later attempts to combat the rain with counter-measures such as setting up 'rainproof tents' proved futile as the rainy seasons in Southeast Asian tropical regions like Hong Kong were often simply overwhelming, and a portion of these performances would still be cancelled.[30] Failing to hold enough of the planned performance for a troupe was fatal to their continued subsistence, as the base cost of keeping a troupe afloat was a significant burden on its own. Often, troupes could not survive missing a number of intended performances and losing potential revenue. We need look no further than the fate of the Italian troupe that was boxed out of Hong Kong in 1888 by Willard's touring company's run at monopoly. After failing to secure a venue, the Italian troupe had to cancel its Hong Kong tour, and the unexpected loss of revenue resulted in disbandment soon after.[31] The troupe may have been able to continue by eventually newly recruiting all of its performers in Hong Kong, but no such talent was available—the earliest documentation of a local musical comedy production was in 1937, near the end of the genre's relevance as suggested by Len Platt.[32]


Whilst the initial novelty of British musical comedy at the turn of the century launched it into a significant contender in the transnational, colonial theatre market in colonies like Hong Kong, the very same novelty led to a shortage of talent the genre could never overcome. Its particular niche amalgamation of thespian training in theatrical realism as well as vocal prowess at the time failed to attract performers who were primarily trained in one aspect or the other. Frequent touring across distant British colonies along developing trade routes meant further stunted dedicated training and harvesting of new talent—traded for more short-term profits by competitive troupe management. Nevertheless, musical comedy's short but notable turn towards realism amongst its competition left a mark in theatre history and performance. British musical comedy's reflection of 'national' sociocultural sentiments across colonial British diasporic communities and its turn of the century influence, as well as how British musical comedies were eventually incorporated into music halls' programmes[33] warrant further studies.

Notes

[1] Len Platt, Musical Comedy on the West End Stage, 1890-1939 (NYC: Springer, 2004), 9. [2] Ibid, 10-2. [3] Ibid, 10-1. [4] Ibid, 13-4. [5] Ibid, 9. [6] Christopher Balme, and Nic Leonhardt, 'Introduction: Theatrical Trade Routes,' Journal of Global Theatre History 1, no. 1 (2016): 1-9, 4. [7] The Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 September 1888, 2, NPTG18880928. [8] Ibid. [9] Balme and Leonhardt, 5. [10] Tobias Becker, 'Entertaining the empire: Theatrical touring companies and amateur dramatics in colonial India,' The Historical Journal 57, no. 3 (2014): 699-725, 721. [11] 'ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY CO,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 15 November 1905, 7. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1554629754?accountid=14548. [12] 'THE ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY,' The Hong Kong Telegraph, 15 November 1905, 5, NPTG19051115. [13] 'ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY CO,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 20 November 1905, 3, https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1498566768?accountid=14548. [14] Becker, 701. [15] Platt, 20. [16] Platt, 20. [17] 'ARCADY IN HONGKONG: PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY'S SUCCESS WITH MUSICAL COMEDY LOCAL TALENT TRIUMPHS,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 16 December 1937, 8. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1759907747?accountid=14548. [18] 'THE BANVARD MUSICAL COMEDY CO,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 8 February 1928, 5. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1754300333?accountid=14548. [19] 'THE HENDRY DALLAS MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 25 February 1904, 3; 'HENDRY DALLAS MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 29 February 1904, 3; and 'THE HENDRY DALLAS MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY,' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 26 February 1904, 3. [20] Platt, 29. [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid, 128. [24] Ibid, 126. [25] Ibid, 128. [26] Ibid, 131. [27] Kathryn Hansen, 'Mapping melodrama: Global theatrical circuits, Parsi theater, and the rise of the social,' BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies 7, no. 1 (2016): 1-30, 8-9, 11. [28] Nadi Tofighian, 'Mapping "the whirligig of amusements" in colonial Southeast Asia.'Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 49, no. 2 (2018): 277, 294. [29] Ibid. [30] Ibid. [31] The Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 September 1888, 2, NPTG18880928. [32] 'ARCADY IN HONGKONG,; South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 8. [33] Platt, 127.



Bibliography

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Balme, Christopher, and Nic Leonhardt. 'Introduction: Theatrical Trade Routes.' Journal of Global Theatre History 1, no. 1 (2016): 1-9.


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Becker, Tobias. 'Entertaining the empire: Theatrical touring companies and amateur dramatics in colonial India.' The Historical Journal 57, no. 3 (2014): 699-725.


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'THE HENRY DALLAS MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 25 February 1904, 3. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1498463570?accountid=14548.


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The Hong Kong Telegraph, 28 September 1888, 2. NPTG18880928.


Tofighian, Nadi. 'Mapping 'the whirligig of amusements' in colonial Southeast Asia.' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 49, no. 2 (2018): 277.


'THE ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY COMPANY.' The Hong Kong Telegraph, 15 November 1905, 5, NPTG19051115.


'ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY CO.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 15 November 1905, 7. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1554629754?accountid=14548.


'ZORILLA MUSICAL COMEDY CO.' South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 20 November 1905, 3. https://search-proquest-com.eproxy.lib.hku.hk/docview/1498566768?accountid=14548.

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