by Stephen Vagg

Stage musicals are among the hardest/most expensive/fun/terrible/highly regarded/disregarded of all theatrical art forms. When they work, they can run forever, and earn you a fortune, groupies and stalkers. When they don’t, it’s grim times all round, money lost, bitchy jokes at your expense and hello, camp classic. There’s something magical about a musical, but as anyone in the theatre knows, not all magic is good.

Lola Montez occupies a distinguished place in Australian theatre history. Not through being a flop, or a hit, but more by virtue of its sheer existence. It was written during the 1950s, a time when it was tough, to put it mildly, to be an Aussie writing for the stage. Yet the team behind Lola – Alan Burke (book), Peter Stannard (music) and Peter Benjamin (lyrics) – not only got their piece written, but they also managed to get it professionally produced… and filmed by the ABC in 1962.

A bit of backstory: Alan Burke was a Melbourne-born theatre director who had just come back to Australia from a stint in England when he ran into some old uni friends at a party, Stannard and Benjamin. They all loved theatre and decided to have a go at writing a musical. “The way Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were inclined to say ‘let’s take the bar and put on a show’,” Burke said later, in a National Film and Sound Archive interview with Graham Shirley. (You can listen to another Burke oral history here)

There had been some successful Australian stage musicals before, including Collitts’ Inn (1933), The Highwayman (1950), Reedy River (1951) and the 1930s “revue-sicals” of George Wallace. But they were rare, despite the huge popularity (then and now) of the genre with the Australian public. (The best source on Australian stage musicals, incidentally, is a book by Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston, Australian Musical. I also wrote this piece.)

Burke, Stannard and Benjamin succeeded where others had failed by being the three things anyone needs in theatre (or showbusiness): smart, hard-working and lucky.

First, the smart. The trio wanted to do something Australian, but with international appeal, and picked a solid subject matter: Lola Montez, the legendary 19th century dancer and courtesan, who briefly visited Australia during the Gold Rush and had various adventures, including horsewhipping Henry Seekamp, editor of The Ballarat Times, who had given her a bad review, thus earning the appreciation of actors everywhere. The title role would be a great star part, the gold fields were a colourful setting, and since Lola was a performer, the songs would come naturally.

Secondly, the hard work. The trio put in the effort over 1956-1957 to actually get the thing down on paper, on spec, coming up with some splendid songs and a workable book. “We modelled it without any sense of shame on a Rodgers and Hammerstein,” said Burke. “We’d studied them, really studied them you know, how long can you go between songs before they get bored. When do you reprise something? When can you bring in a new song without it being disturbing? All that sort of thing.”

Thirdly, they were lucky. Burke worked at the Elizabethan Theatre Trust which had just had a huge success with The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll; there was enthusiasm for Australian-written work for the first time in, well, ever, and this led to Hugh Hunt, artistic director of the Trust, agreeing to sponsor a run of Lola Montez at the Union Theatre. That went well enough for the Trust to greenlight a big professional production in 1958. According to Burke, they “wanted something to make a lot of money and Hugh’s funny, ambivalent attitude he didn’t like musicals. They were second rate theatre, but they made money, so ‘let’s find a musical’.”

After this, the trio’s luck got a little wobbly. The Trust imported a director and insisted on an imported star to play Lola: Mary Preston, who Burke felt was too young for the role and couldn’t act. They then cast a juvenile lead who Burke felt was too old. There were firings and rewriting during the Brisbane run before the show reached Sydney, and when it did, reviews were erratic and public response uncertain. Lola Montez managed a run of more than three months, but the production wound up losing the Trust over 30,000 pounds. If you want to know more, I recommend this excellent article by Peter Pinne.

So, Lola Montez was a flop… but also it wasn’t. Three months is still pretty good, and in some quarters the musical was very well liked (if not loved); a cast album was released (you can listen to it here in full), and one of the songs, “Saturday Girl” became a minor hit; the musical was adapted for radio in 1959; Burke says he made enough in royalties to buy a house and Lola Montez established his reputation in the industry for more than anything else he did.

It’s probably better remembered than any other production by the Elizabethan Theatre Trust apart from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. In 1959, executives at ATN-7 got Burke, Stannard and Benjamin to come up with a hugely entertaining original stage musical for television, Pardon Miss Prescott, about which I have written previously. In 1965, the ABC presented a TV special called Lola and the Highwayman which consisted of selected songs from Lola Montez and The Highwayman.

Here’s a clip.

And the musical is always being done by amateur and school productions – a list of some are here. So, Lola wasn’t a flop. Just a musical which lost money first time out, which isn’t rare, but which also had a long life, which is rare.

Oh, and it was filmed for television in 1962, directed by none other than Alan Burke himself. The production was shot in Melbourne, with Burke in charge of the adaptation, getting the running time down to 90 minutes. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played the score. Burke thought the musical “sat comfortably on television” because it had a lot of intimate moments.

The plot of Lola Montez centres around Lola’s visit to Ballarat in 1855, accompanied by her manager, Sam. There was a subplot about an Irish miner, Daniel, who travels to Ballarat to find Jane, a girl who nursed him in the Crimean War. Daniel becomes besotted with Lola after seeing her do her famous Spider Dance and gives Lola a nugget. Lola is keen on the much younger Daniel, seeing him as a way to hang on to her youth. Eventually, Lola leaves Daniel with Jane and returns home with Sam. During all this, Lola finds time to horsewhip that editor, Seekamp.

For the role of Lola, Burke wanted to cast an age-appropriate actress who could sing, and picked New Zealander Brigid Lenihan, who had appeared in TV plays such as Little Woman, and A Night Out. Frank Wilson, best remembered now for playing gruff old types in Bruce Beresford films like The Club but then a song-and-dance man, was Lola’s manger, a part he’d played on stage (Wilson’s career trajectory was a little like American actor Jerry Orbach: musical star to gruff curmudgeon). Daniel was played by pop singer Johnny Rohan, Jane by Patsy Hemingway. Campbell Copelin, who played a series of memorable cads throughout his long career, was the newspaper editor, while Alan Hopgood, the famous actor-writer, was singing miner, Smith (Hopgood had also been in the stage production).

Lola Montez was shot on videotape, apart from a ballet sequence done on film (this sequence had been cut from the Trust production, but Burke put it back in). Burke admitted to Graham Shirley that he had a panic attack on the day of filming but managed to recover and get back in time. You can see photos of it here.

Reviews of the production were generally very positive – one from The Age is here. The Sunday SMH called it “brilliant”. Frank Roberts of The Bulletin, the worst TV critic of the 1960s, performed a hatchet job, while also – get this – admitting in his review that he only saw half the broadcast.

A recording of the broadcast was wiped. “I was furious,” said Burke, understandably. “Not just my selfish conceit or anything like that but as a piece of history. I was very angry that it was not to be preserved.” I’m angry it was wiped. So, all we have of Lola Montez are some photos, sheet music, an original cast album and reviews. And the fact it was made. But that fact should be acknowledged.

The team of Burke, Standard and Benjamin reunited a third time for a musical of Ruth Park’s novel The Harp in the South, which was never produced. (Burke did direct a mini-series based on the novel for the BBC in 1964.)  Side note: Australian TV went back to the Lola well in 1988 when she was the subject of an episode of Michael Willesee’s Australians, an anthology series made to commemorate Australia’s Bicentenary; Tony Morphett wrote the script, Linda Cropper was excellent as Lola with Nicholas Eadie co-starring as her manager. You can see a copy of that here.

The fame of the musical Lola Montez does linger on. It was wonderful that the ABC filmed it.

The author would like to thank Simon Drake of the National Film and Sound Archive, Graham Shirley and Peter Pinne for their assistance with this article.
1 Comment
  • Malcolm Thomas
    Malcolm Thomas
    20 February 2022 at 5:19 pm

    “Lola Montez’ as a stage musical was a delight. I still have my LP of this show. Two memorable songs were ‘Saturday girl’ and “Southerly buster’. It would be great if ‘Lola Montez’ was revived either as a stage musical or as a movie. This would surely be possible because there is so much incredible Aussie talent these days, and ‘Lola Montez’ would still resonate well with modern audiences.

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