THE BIOGRAPH GIRL
Book by Warner Brown
Lyrics by Warner Brown and David Heneker
Music by David Heneker
Phoenix Theatre, London 19 November 1980 (57 perfs
A new British musical saluting Hollywood's glorious era of silent pictures. Parading the movies' earliest heroes, heroines and clowns, it takes a refreshing look at the birth of the "flickers" and that memorable age of stardust and stars, of tinsel glamour and scandals, of sky-rocketing salaries and tremendous vitality. It is a nostalgic reminiscence of the silent movies seen through the eyes of four famous figures: Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, both of them great silent film stars; David Wark Griffith, the most famous of all the American silent directors and Adolph Zukor, one of the studio bosses who laid the foundations of the movie industry we know today.
Act I opens in New York City in 1912.
We are in a nickelodeon watching a one-reel movie made by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Among the audience are Mrs Mary Robinson Gish and her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy. They see their old friend Gladys Smith on the screen and go to the headquarters of the Biograph Company to find her. There they learn that Gladys has changed her name to Mary Pickford and is known as "The Biograph Girl". They watch her working for director D.W. Griffith whose busy staff take the pressure off the creative artist. But creative work at the studio is constantly interrupted by agents from the combine which owns the basic patents for film making and is trying to put the Biograph Company out of business. To get away from this harassment, Griffith moves his studio to the West Coast and takes Mary with him together with Lillian and Dorothy who, by this time, have become film actresses. Lillian is deeply under the spell of Griffith's creative genius but has sympathy to spare for the young comic who fails his audition. Lillian appears in Griffith's great film Birth of a Nation, while Mary advances her career and leaving Griffith and working for Adolph Zukor at a hugely increased salary. However, the price of this success is that she has to hide her increasing sophistication behind the facade of childish innocence which is her public image. For Griffith, the penalty of success is that Birth of a Nation causes race riots and brings demands for censorship. He is determined to protest by making one epic film which will speak to people around the world of peace and universal tolerance.
Act II opens at the premiere of Griffith's movie Intolerance.
It is an artistic triumph by a financial disaster. Mary advises Lillian to leave Griffith and pursue her career elsewhere but Lillian is still artistically bound to him. As Griffith's financial troubles increase Zukor thinks that he is finished; but Mary decides to leave Zukor and form a new company in partnership with Griffith, Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Zukor is dismayed but congratulates her on her understanding of the movie business. However, even with his new partners, Griffith still fails to make money and tells Lillian to leave his studio and accept one of the better offers from his rivals. Reluctantly she agrees and their long enduring professional partnership is broken.
Time moves on. It is 1925 then 1926. Mary is firmly established as one of the greatest stars of the silent screen but talking pictures are just around the corner. Griffith feels his career is ended, that he is a forgotten man. Lillian tells him he will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of film.
In 1927 the screen finds its voice and the silent stars realise their careers are behind them. For Lillian it has been an art; for Mary it has made a fortune; for Zukor it has been a business; for Griffith it has been a dream. But the dream is not over. Out of the ashes arises the Phoenix of the talkies. Hundreds of new stars emerge. Bigger studios are built. The work of the pioneers has created the most popular entertainment force the world has ever known.
Musical Numbers: (in alphabetical order)
The Biograph Girl
A David Griffith Show
Every Lady Needs A Master
I Just Wanted To Make Him Laugh
I Like To Be the Way I Am In My Own Front Parlour
The Moment I Close My Eyes
More Than A Man
The Moving Picture Show
Nineteen Twenty Five
One Of the Pioneers
Put It In the Tissue Paper
That's What I Get All Day
Working In Flickers
- "(The) score is always tuneful, witty and sophisticated." Francis King, Sunday Telegraph
- "---A most excellent, delicate, perceptive entertainment." Sir Harold Hobson, Drama
- "A sweet lament for lost innocence ... this delightfully unassuming show contains the same naive charm as those early flicks' themselves. A minor miracle." Jack Tinker, Daily Mail
- "A joyous celebration of the silent screen ... a delight. It captures moments of sheer exuberant nostalgia." Sheridan Morley, International Herald Tribune (Paris)
Nine (minimum) with doubling and trebling
Mrs Mary Robinson Gish
Two pianos, bass and drums. Enlarged orchestration available on request