Sally- The musical
The early 1920s were the time of the big theatre musical. Hoping to compete with the encroaching movie craze, J C Williamson Ltd (JCW) spent a great deal of time and money creating sumptuous shows. Amongst these were Maid of the Mountains and Sally.
Sally, an American musical, first appeared on Broadway in 1920. Produced by Florenz Zeigfeld it was designed to promote his mistress, Marilyn Miller. Marilyn was primarily a dancer so the production focussed on show casing her ballet skills.
Guy Bolton wrote Sally and Jerome Kern penned the music. It had a very simple plot but catchy tunes. The story revolved around Sally, a waif, who was a dishwasher at the Alley Inn. Sally rose to fame and found love through joining the Zeigfeld follies and becoming a star. The play ran for 570 performances on Broadway and was an enormous success
Williamsons decided to open their 1923 Australian season with Sally. They were hoping to reproduce the popularity of the Broadway run. The firm gathered its most experienced local producers, scenery designers and choreographers to recreate the spectacle on the Australian stage.
George Highland was the producer. George had produced several musicals for JCW. These included the spectacular Maid of the Mountains in 1922. Maid of the Mountains created a star in Gladys Moncrieff, and public and critics acclaimed both her and the musical. Highland was a capable and steady producer who could handle large casts and actor egos.
Minnie Everett, long time ballet mistress of JCW, was the choreographer. Minnie had almost two decades of experience and was the best ballet arranger in Australia. She had trained stars such as Maggie Dickenson and Madge Elliott. Minnie was inventive and could create unique ballets that amazed audiences.
Scenery designer Leslie Board, and stage manager, George Kensington, joined Minnie and George. The group were the best in their field and had worked together on many musicals for the company.
An equally experienced and impressive cast was gathered. George Gee who had arrived in Australia four years before, played Otis Hooper, a theatrical agent. It was a comedy part. George was a specialist at musical comedy roles and was well liked by the Australian public. He was ‘A virile athletic man, and the possessor of a radically happy disposition.’ A man with big eyes above a short moustache, George’s expressive features could reduce an audience to merry laughter. He was a character actor who could be trusted with major parts.
Hugh Steyne was another comedian.. Steyne had started his career in vaudeville. He had been a regular with the Tivoli Famous Players and had crossed to the legitimate theatre. This transition was a common phenomenon of the early 1920s. Steyne played Admiral Travers in Sally.
The cast also included Gracie Lavers. Gracie was a regular performer for JCW. She had appeared as a supporting player in many musicals and was popular with the public. Her most important roles had been in the memorable 1920-21 season that launched Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott. She had joined them in several shows including the popular "Theodore and Co" Gracie played the second female lead in Sally, the role of Rosalind Rafferty.
To play Sally, the foundling turned lead dancer, a relative unknown was cast. Her name was Josie Melville and she was a protege of Minnie Everett. Josie had begun as a child in JCW pantomimes including a role in the ballet of Goody Two Shoes in 1919. She became a principal dancer. and was perfect for a role designed for a ballerina. Josie was 19 years old with a sweet face surrounded by reddish brown curls. She had a naive charm which made her perfect for Sally.
Sally opened on Saturday January 6th 1923 at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney. It consisted of three acts of five scenes. The scenes were, the Alley Inn, the garden, the Zeigfeld Follies, Sally’s dressing room and the church around the corner. Sally had everything , a rag to riches story, an exquisite ballet as a centrepiece and a wedding as a happy finale.
The first scene at the Alley Inn was designed to introduce the main characters. It included a duet by George Gee and Gracie Lavers, a dance lead by Josie Melville and the songs, "You can’t keep a good girl down,’ "Looking for the Silver Lining ‘ and ‘Sally’. In this act Josie had to sing two songs and perform three dances.
The second act opened with a transparent gauze curtain dimly veiling the actors and sets on stage. When lifted, it revealed a wondrous garden, This act included a song and dance number, "The Wild Rose’ a song "The Schnitza Komisski’ a schtza dance, a trio, a duet and finally Josie Melville in a Slavic dance.
Act three was the Land of the Butterflies at the Ziegfeld Follies. In this act, Josie danced on a lavish set with almost thirty other dancers. Twelve ballerinas performed as butterflies, twelve as moths and Pixie Herbert danced as the bat. It was a magnificent scene. The ballerinas, choreographed by Minnie Everett, danced beautifully and Josie had the opportunity to show her skills as a principal dancer.
The final scene was the wedding scene. Sally and her hero were wed in a romantic setting which completed the fairytale of Sally of the Alley.
Sally was a huge hit in Sydney audiences loved it. The Referee simply said
‘Everybody is unanimous about Sally. It is a great success.’
The combination of lyrical songs, toe tapping tunes, and eye catching girls was a formula that appealed to the public. The most popular scene was the butterfly ballet at the Zeigfeld follies. This scene represented another triumph for ballet mistress Minnie Everett.
Josie Melville was a popular part of the show. Audience and critics acclaimed her as Sally. At the end of the first show,
‘Applause was deafening and at the conclusion of the show, the little Australian girl smiled and bowed a thousand times and clung in gratitude to Minnie Everett, her teacher."
Josie’s performance as Sally was a surprise to critics and audiences. Few realised that the young Australian could act ,although her dancing skill was well known.. In fact Josie’s overnight success echoed the theme of the play making it even more satisfying for the demanding Sydney audiences.
Many critics noticed that Josie’s singing ability was slight. The Sydney Mail stated that,
‘There is nothing at all remarkable about the quality of Miss Melville’s voice, which though sweet , is rather thin’
However, her youth and charm made up for deficiencies in this area. The Mail added that
‘ Her youthfulness has in itself an appeal, and her innate charm and refinement find expression in natural acting, while her exquisite dancing is indeed the very ‘poetry in motion’.
Sally ran in Sydney for over 19 weeks. A longer run than the Gladys Moncrieff vehicle, Maid of the Mountains. The Referee suggested that its popularity was due to Josie Melville and George Gee, plus "plenty of bright catchy music and a bevy of beautiful girls sumptuously gowned.’ The paper added that "Sally is an exacting part needing versatility and Josie Melville fills every requirement."
Josie was the belle of Sydney. Her movements were reported, including a visit to a sick Minnie Everett, and she had songs dedicated to her. One of these was ‘Have you seen Sally (the talk of the town)’ published by Chapell and Co . The music had a picture of a smiling Josie on the cover..
Josie’s fame meant that she had to be diplomatic. During the annual boat regatta, she had to wear the colours of all teams on her ‘pinny’ during the show. The performance on boatrace night was interrupted repeatedly by excitable schoolboys.
The boys from Shore, Grammar and the other schools who had been shouting all the afternoon
were in excellent mood and longing to do some more. Hence every lull in the performance was
an excuse for fresh pandemonium…Members of the company were assailed with streamers and throw downs and had
to get through the show the best way they could.
It was clear through all this noise that Josie Melville was the schoolboy’s favourite.
Sally moved to Melbourne in September and continued playing until June the following year. It was a huge success and was generally thought to be the beginning of a stellar career for Josie Melville. It was not to be. Josie pursued her career for a short time, but never repeated the success of Sally. She married a South Australian businessman in 1934 and devoted herself to family life.
In Sally, JCW combined all the features of a typical 1920s musical. It had extravagant sets, huge ballets, and a stereotypical plot line. The addition of a relatively unknown girl to play Sally ensured the success of the production in Australia. The onset of the depression made the repeat of such sumptuous productions impossible. Sally was one of the last gasps of the spectacular era of theatre musicals.