Me and My GirlSixty Years On. Walking into History.
Me & My Girl premiered in London in 1937 with Music Hall star Lupino Lane in the lead. "Nipper" Lane, whose family's association with theatre spanned over two hundred years, was one of the biggest comic stars of his day. The show was specifically commissioned and written for him, to highlight his comic talents. It was the sequel to Twenty to One, a musical from the previous year, in which Lupino Lane first appeared as Bill Snibson. It was Lane's own idea to throw Bill into the midst of the aristocracy, having exhausted the theme of the gambling cockney layabout "on his own pitch" in the previous show.
So certain was Lane that the show would be a winner, he backed the venture himself after the producer of Twenty to One rejected the new script. Lane booked the Victoria Palace, which had been doing such bad business it was the only theatre he could actually afford. At the time of the opening there was considerable dissent amongst the cast, who had none of Lane's faith in the project. One of the other stars, George Graves, threatened to leave, increasing the cast's fears that they were dealing with a flop. When Me & My Girl finally opened on December 16, 1937, Teddie St Denis played Sally.
The show received good notices, but did not attract sufficient audiences to be financially viable. Lane pleaded for the BBC to arrange a radio broadcast of Me & My Girl , but the schedules were booked up for weeks, and it would have closed by the time the first opening existed. Fate intervened when a planned broadcast was cancelled and the spot was offered to Lane - literally at the last minute. The excerpt was broadcast in front of a live audience from Victoria Palace on January 4, 1938. The audience reaction to the Lambeth Walk number during the broadcast brought immediate activity to the box office - to the extent that the show broke box office records. The Lambeth Walk crossed the Atlantic and every other sea, and was the finale to the 1938 Royal Command Performance, becoming the biggest international dance craze of the era. It was frequently played by mistake as the English National Anthem overseas, and became the epitome of the London fighting spirit during the blitz. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were so enamoured with the show that they saw Me & My Girl three times before it was closed by the outbreak of World War Two. It was the first show to return when London's theatres re-opened after the war. In his lifetime Lupino Lane played Bill Snibson in over 5 000 London performances of Me & My Girl .
The show holds the honour of being the first musical ever to be televised, being broadcast in May 1939 and, by popular demand, broadcast again two months later. It was also turned into a film in 1939, directed for MGM by Albert De Courville, under the title Lambeth Walk, with Lupino Lane as Bill and with Sally Gray as Sally. Unfortunately no print is known to have survived, the last known copy being inadvertently destroyed in Holland in the 1980s.
In 1982 Noel Gay's son, Richard Armitage, who had inherited his father's musical and management company, began thinking back to his father's greatest hit. The only copy of the libretto was a pre-rehearsal script - virtually a rough draft - which was housed in the British Museum, having been supplied to the Lord Chamberlain's Office in 1936 for censorship. (Stephen Fry: "I examined it and was puzzled by the Lord Chamberlain's idea of what constituted a piece of rudery: a number of charmingly innocent words were ruthlessly blue-pencilled. The word "cissy" for example, was underlined with a roaring "no" bellowing in the margin in an unstable hand, as well as the word "naughty!" and, at one point, the exclamation "Oo!") Armitage immediately realised an enormous amount of work had to be done to translate the flimsy manuscript successfully into a workable musical comedy for a modern audience.
The show was augmented with many classic Noel Gay songs not previously part of the musical. Mike Ockrent was selected as director and Stephen Fry was chosen to revise the book. The intention was to strengthen the characters, retain the flavour, but write out the dated gags and references. (Mike Ockrent: "I wanted to re-invent it as a proper musical, not a play with music, which is what the 1937 version was. My idea was to make it flow like a movie...") The other imported numbers are Love Makes The World Go Round, Hold My Hand and Leaning On A Lamppost.
The show opened at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester on December 23, 1984. It broke all box office records and transferred almost immediately to the West End, where it opened at London's Adeiphi Theatre on February 12,1985. Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson played Bill and Sally. Only four years before Emma Thompson had been part of the Cambridge Footlights Revue with Stephen Fry. Prior to Me & My Girl Robert Lindsay had been better known as a dramatic actor on the West End and on television. He became a household name for performing comedy overnight and won an Olivier Award for his performance. It was hoped by Stephen Fry that the show would last six months and cover its costs. It ran for 8 years (3, 303 performances) and made him a millionaire. The show closed in London on January 16, 1993.
The production, with Robert Lindsay as Bill, opened the new Marquis Theatre on Broadway and ran for three and a half years (1, 420 performances), bagging numerous TONY and Critic's Circle Awards, including a TONY for Robert Lindsay. Maryann Plunkett played Sally. After Broadway, the production toured to over 30 United States cities with Tim Curry as the lead. This was followed by professional productions in Australia, Mexico (Io E Me Chicita), South America, Hungary, Sweden, Poland, Holland, Finland, Belgium, Germany and an all female cast(!) production in Japan.
By 1987 The Lambeth Walk was being performed to an audience somewhere in the world every 32 minutes.
As of November 1996 a new production has commenced on London's West End, and now, during the show's 60th Anniversary year, Me & My Girl finally makes it to the Theatre Royal stage in Hobart.
"Here is a show that keeps the audience in the greatest good humour from start to finish." THEATRE WORLD, 1937.
"A cunningly balanced and technically brilliant show." THE LONDON TIMES, 1985.
"I loved it. I loved it immoderately and totally, without reservation." NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, 1986.