Did you know it was a true story?
Indeed, Mrs. Henderson Presents, the 2005 film that became a 2016 British musical – and whose excellent London cast album is now available — was based on two real people.
She was Mrs. Laura Forster Henderson (1863-1944); he was Mr. Vivian Van Damm (1899-1960). Together, they forged a professional theatrical collaboration that became the talk of London.
In 1931, after the newly widowed Mrs. Henderson bought a building on Great Windmill Street, she decided to transform it into a theater. She semi-named it after its location, modestly calling it The Windmill Theatre.
Truth to tell, The Windmill wasn’t a great presence on the London theater scene. All-too-few people attended, so Mrs. Henderson reluctantly took the step that represents the greatest dagger-in-the-heart to a legitimate stage aficionado: she starting showing films.
(“Film!” Don’t you even hate the word? It reminds us of that unwelcome visitor that invades our eye. Lyricists abhor it, too, for “film” doesn’t rhyme with anything.)
Mrs. Henderson wasn’t pleased with herself, so she searched for someone who could stage revues and settled on Van Damm. From time to time they fought like George and Martha, especially when his Revudeville, as he portmanteau-named his vaudeville revue, didn’t do business, either.
Well, Mrs. Henderson reasoned, France had the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge, each of which offered nudity, so why couldn’t England have something similar? By now, the country was at war, and she felt that its citizens could use a good diversion.
Getting nudity approved by Rowland Baring, the Lord Chamberlain, would seem to be impossible. Baring, also known as The Second Earl of Cromer, was a blue blood who acquired a bluenose in “preserving good manners and decorum” in all matters theatrical.
In “Lord Chamberlain’s Song” we see how Mrs. Henderson got the better of him – and got a better product to sell at The Windmill. One of Don Black’s wittiest lyrics has The Lord complain of “dirty” Swedish plays that Strindberg wrote: “Scandinavia is to blame – those endless nights!”
Black also gave The Lord a riff on a famous classic song title that results in what may be the most clever musical theater joke since Comden or Green came up with the Handel-Hallelujah-Hialeah pun in Bells Are Ringing. I won’t give it away, for discovering a delicious lyric on one’s own is one of musical theater’s most endearing delights.
Nudity wasn’t the only reason why The Windmill became an S.R.O venue. During World War II, when the Germans were routinely bombing Britain, theater owners had the option to close – and most did. The Windmill, however, never did, aside from a twelve-day stint in 1939 after Winston Churchill had demanded that all theaters be closed. But on Day Thirteen, the place was back in business.
One reason for the stick-to-itiveness? Mrs. Henderson truly believed that many of the young men who were going off to war had never seen a naked female body, and that this could be the one chance they’d have.
Not until Mrs. Henderson Presents surfaces in Toronto next February will North Americans know how well bookwriter-director Terry Johnson did his jobs. However, we can certainly tell from this recording that the show has an exemplary score.
George Fenton wrote the acclaimed score for the original film and signed on to do the musical. However, like Leonard Bernstein — who didn’t take any melodies from his ballet Fancy Freewhen he created the music for On the Town – Fenton started from scratch. He did, however, split the music duties with another composer: Simon Chamberlain. If names mean anything, wouldn’t you assume that Chamberlain composed “Lord Chamberlain’s Song”? But which composer wrote what hasn’t been made clear.
And yet, whoever’s responsible, we know that both composers wrote period-appropriate music (which, sadly enough, isn’t always the case these days). Better still, Larry Blank, who is second to none in having an excellent sense of time and place when orchestrating, did the honors here.
If you know Lionel Bart’s Blitz – and I hope you do – here’s a more even-tempered version of “Who’s That Geezer Hitler?” It’s “He’s Got Another Thing Coming,” in which Der Führer is excoriated in a waltz. The lackadaisical tempo suggests that his defeat will be easy.
As we all know from history, it wasn’t. By the end of the song, bombs are falling atop the theater. How’s that for a dramatic Act One closer?
Even before this, however, Van Damm has an amazing moment of introspection. He quietly castigates himself for “Living in a Dream World” and is shamed that “People are burying their dead ones while we’re burying our heads” and that “Young men looking at disaster while we look the other way.” An appropriately mournful (and yet appealing) melody accompanies the superb lyrics.
Only later does Van Damm acknowledge that the revues are bringing joy to people when they most need it. The feelings also bring to mind the oft-told story of American soldiers who attended Oklahoma! after the United States had entered the war but before they left for overseas duty. Many said that the show reminded them that their country’s values were well-worth defending. Happy-go-lucky musicals, often criticized for having “no redeeming features,” do help people to escape their troubles for a couple of hours. That is no small achievement.
Tracie Bennett, who delivered one of the most remarkable performances I’ve ever seen as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, ages to become the septuagenarian Mrs. Henderson. Musical theater loves older women with big dreams, and Laura indeed has them.
In “Whatever Time I Have,” we see that Mrs. Henderson, unlike Dolly Levi, doesn’t need permission from her deceased husband to keep living; before he died, he insisted that she enjoy life without him. And so she will. “There’s no law that says you have to act your age,” she insists – which is good advice to all of us.
Portraying Van Damm is Ian Bartholomew, who in London has amassed a most varied resume: Guiteau in Assassins, Vandergelder in Dolly, George in Virginia Woolf and The Fool in King Lear.Bartholomew delights in “Rubens and Renoir,” a waltz of seduction with a tinge of G&S. Here he tries to convince auditioning actresses that the type of show he and Mrs. Henderson have in mind is a lofty one.
In song, Bennett and Bartholomew make Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm sound as if they connect far more often than they don’t. That’s especially true of an up-tempo razz-ma-tazzer in which they admit that they’re “Anything but Young.” The jazzy arrangement allows them to flaunt the ticking of the clock by singing joyously from the heart — or, shall-we-say, their own tickers.
The 2005 film told us before the end credits that Mrs. Henderson tragically died in 1944, before the war ended. We also learned that she left The Windmill to Van Damm, who continued operations until he died in December, 1960. He willed it to his daughter Sheila. She, believe it or not, was one of England’s most acclaimed race car drivers of the ‘50s and ‘60s. As a result, she didn’t have theater much on her mind and closed The Windmill fewer than four years later.
They’ll never get a musical out of that story, but, oh, they got a good one out of Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.