It may be almost 84 years since the Abdication but interest in the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is enjoying a resurgence. The Netflix drama The Crown has brought their story to the attention of a new audience inspiring a flurry of new documentaries which fill TV schedules around the world. David and Wallis have always proved magnetic to audiences and the fairy tale of a King Emperor casting aside his Crown for the woman he loved has inspired not only books and documentaries but period dramas and motion pictures. It was perhaps only a matter of time therefore that David and Wallis would find their lives played out before the footlights. In 1972, Royce Ryton’s play Crown Matrimonial appeared at London’s Haymarket Theatre and made history by portraying a living member of the Royal Family on the stage for the first time. But in 1997, theatreland welcomed a new and unexpected telling of the Windsor tale; a musical.
Always is something of a legend among musical theatre aficionados. It is both remembered as “the worst musical ever produced” and “a forgotten gem of the genre”. Petula Clark asserts; “It was robbed of it’s success in such an unfair and unkind way. It should have lasted but the critics decided to tear it down from the moment the curtain went up”. Whilst Abdication: The Musical certainly does seem slightly bizarre as a concept, I have to say that the idea of a “tap-dancing Sybil Colefax” sounds so deliciously camp that I’m furious I missed the opportunity to see it for myself! Those who did see it however are fairly unanimous; Always: The Ultimate Love Story was memorable but perhaps not for the right reasons.
Always was the brainchild of Australian composers and lyricists William May and Jason Sprague and captured the critics interest long before it made its way to the Victoria Palace Theatre. The team May and Sprague had assembled boasted an impeccable pedigree. The director was Frank Hauser who had enjoyed a long career at the Oxford Playhouse and was widely respected for possessing “an eerily accurate eye for a hit”. A young Hauser had famously applied to become the personal assistant to actor Sir Alec Guinness. Guinness rejected his application saying, “Be my co-director instead”. Hauser’s obituary said of him “He was loyal to a fault…which brings us to Always”. According to both The Stage and The Independent, Hauser accepted the role of director for May and Sprague’s new musical because he respected them – not because he felt any particular warmth towards the project.
Hauser was joined by the American choreographer Thommie Walsh who had enjoyed a huge success in musicals such as Applause (with Lauren Bacall) and Jesus Christ Superstar. He was later immortalized as Bobby in A Chorus Line which made him much sought after and in the years that followed A Chorus Line‘s success, he devised dance routines for Chita Rivera, Mitzi Gaynor, Whoopi Goldberg, Lorna Luft and Barbara Cook. The sets for Always were designed by the award winning German designer Hildegard Bechtler who made her Royal Opera House debut in 1997 – the same year she agreed to produce sets for Always. Costumes were designed by Tom Rand who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The French Lieutenant’s Woman (starring Meryl Streep) in 1981. One critic collectively referred to Hauser, Walsh, Bechtler and Rand as; “The Golden Group”.
The casting for Always also proved impressive. Actress Jan Hartley was cast as Wallis with Clive Carter cast as David (Edward VIII). David McAlister portrayed Ernest Simpson (“a rather feeble cuckold for whom the audience quickly runs out of sympathy”) with Ursula Smith (“a surprisingly limber Queen consort”) as Queen Mary. But there two castings which guaranteed Always the attention of the critics. The first was that of Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees as chanteuse Analise L’Avender. The second was the much publicized return of Shani Wallis as Aunt Bessie. Shani was best known for her portrayal of Nancy in the 1968 film version of the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! in which she played alongside Oliver Reed and Ron Moody. Shani had not appeared in the West End since a 1984 production of 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and critics and audiences alike eagerly anticipated her return after a 13 year absence.
And so the stage was set – literally – for Always to make it’s mark. The previews began from the 22nd May 1997 with it’s grand opening night on the 10th July. Celebrities filed into the Victoria Palace, including Dame Barbara Cartland who was late into the performance because she was eagerly explaining to the press pack that she was planning to write a novel based on the Windsor romance (she never did). The curtain rose. The show began. The show continued. The curtain came down. The audience went home. And across London, the critics sharpened their pens and prepared to draw blood.
Unfortunately for May and Sprague, a loose-lipped cast member had casually dropped their unkind nickname for Always into a conversation with a critic after the performance on opening night. Thus, Wallis and Vomit, featured heavily in the reviews the following day. Piecing together the performance from the reviews is not the best way to get a clear picture of what the show was actually like but even ignoring the nastier critiques, the collective view of Always was one of bemusement and confusion. For scenes set in Paris, “a carousel with onion-sellers and accordionists were employed” (something Hauser apparently objected to but was overruled) whilst the aforemention tap-dancing Sybil Colefax left audiences in hysterics as three Highland Pipers appeared quite randomly to announce the change of location to Balmoral.
The Guardian was the only review to include a kind word; “Regrettably, Always lacks anything approaching a good tune, although Clive Carter as the King, a dead ringer for one of J M Barrie’s Lost Boys, and Jan Hartley as the serene Wallis, have sufficiently impressive voices and stage presences to almost persuade you otherwise”. Even Shani Wallis could not save the show according to the News of the World which passed judgement on Always as; “clodhopping” and “insipid”. It alludes to a scene whereby a trombone playing chef dances with a dog (Slipper, we assume?) but concludes; “If Always was a place, I’d take you there, the about-to-be Edward VIII sings to his beloved Wallis Simpson. Well, if Always were a place, I’d send them both there – with one-way tickets”. The Evening Standard summarised Always as “gross schmaltzification of the story” and just a month later, the curtain was brought down on Always for good. It would never be staged again and even the original cast recording made before the show opened is now as rare as hen’s teeth to find.
But find a copy I did and I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that (the nightmare scene set in a fairground aside), Always really doesn’t strike me as being all that bad. Rather, I think it a matter of timing. Firstly, 1997 will always be remembered for the year in which the British monarchy almost collapsed following its disastrous handling of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But public opinion on the Royal Family had been at a low ebb for almost a decade with 1992 proving to be the Queen’s infamous Annus Horribilis. In almost every review I can find of Always (pre-September when Diana died in Paris), there are sneering remarks about the Royal Family with one evening suggesting that it would “cause the Queen Mother convulsions which would be far more entertaining to watch than the show itself”. Maybe audiences were just not in the mood for a royal musical?
There is an undeniable theme in the reviews which goes beyond judgements on the quality of the story or the songs. Rather, a common complaint was that it was “too kind” to David and Wallis. Reviewing the Original London Cast Recording (which was oddly narrated by Ian Richardson who did not appear in the show itself), the Telegraph said; “Why we should be interested in this white-wash of a pair of self-indulgent royal layabouts is beyond me”. The Evening Standard seemed repulsed by the idea that the musical was presented as a love story at all, demanding that “the political ramifications of their affair” should have taken priority; “May and Hauser try to promote their revolutionary relationship as a timeless romance but it comes across as a piece of heritage kitsch”. May and Sprague’s most outrageous sin however seems to have been to; “portray [David and Wallis] as star-crossed innocents, emotional retards seeking refuge from lives blighted by childhood unhappiness”
And yet there is truth in this. Both David and Wallis suffered childhood trauma which undoubtedly tainted their future relationships. For David, King George V’s presence as a strict and unforgiving disciplinarian and Queen Mary’s aloof lack of open sentimentality no doubt propelled him into the arms of married women as he searched for a love he had longed for as a boy. In Wallis’ case, a fear of poverty and being left alone to fend for herself absolutely drove her to find successful men who could provide for her and make her feel secure. The idea that David and Wallis found refuge in each other is actually incredibly accurate and if this is the approach May and Sprague took in their musical, they were actually closer to offering a faithful representation of the Windsor romance than that which had previously been offered. But was London ready for such a sympathetic portrayal? Clearly not.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that Always was doomed because of anti-Wallis sentiment that still pervades to this day. After all, there have been more balanced portrayals of the Duchess (both before and after Always) which have been far more successful regardless of their controversy. Having heard most of the songs (admittedly I couldn’t quite make it through the whole show!), the lyrics are a little schmaltzy, there are some truly awful attempts to introduce humour and I can’t get the image of a tap-dancing Sybil Colefax out of my head but there are two highlights. The first comes in a valiant rendition of Love’s Carousel by Sheila Ferguson. It darts a little from semi-royal themes to fairground music that’s totally incongruous with Ferguson’s attempts to bring deep meaning to the number but I’ll admit to having a soft spot for it just the same. After all, how can you go wrong with Sheila?
But the second highlight and the absolute stand out number is the title song Always, performed by Jan Hartley. Delivered by a wistful Wallis awaiting her fate at the Villa Lou Viei in Cannes, she attempts to renounce the King and in doing so, reveals that whatever happens, she will continue to love him just as fervently – always. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrics do seem to be have been adapted from letters Wallis wrote to David during their early romance. As a result, it’s the most authentic song I have heard from Always and had every song had the same sincerity, perhaps Always would not be remembered as the clanger it apparently proved to be. Even some of the critics begrudgingly admitted it had a unique charm despite its many flaws as theatre critic Nick Perry wrote; “The critics will hate it, the tourists will love it”. Despite my better judgement…I think I’m with the tourists!