The revue was a rival of Music Hall. Several hundred were presented during the war drawing in large audiences. A revue was relatively fixed and could tour the country as a single unit. The artistic director was in overall control but it was a team effort and was not dominated by the views of the stars.
Revues did not use acrobats, animal imitators or ventriloquists as the music halls did putting songs and sketches at the centre of the show. They used artists who had proved their pulling power on the music hall stage, offering them longer term contracts. Revues were considered another step towards respectability for variety theatres. Vesta Tilley happily noted that ‘The theatre was packed night after night with distinguished audiences’.
Each revue had to be original and by using current affairs this could be achieved. At the end of the revue ‘Kultur’ in 1915, the actors who played Germans were ‘drowned’ on stage in an enormous tank normally used for synchronised swimming displays. In 1917, ‘The Better ‘Ole’ considered the life of long suffering soldiers on the Western Front.
Pantomimes were also used to encourage support for the war. Two popular songs used in Pantomime in 1917 were ‘Are We Downhearted? No’ and ‘There’s a Girl for Every Soldier’. The first was used in 14 productions throughout the country and the second in 18. They were sung by as many different stars and hundreds of thousands of copies of sheet music were sold.
During the war musical comedies concentrated on producing light hearted entertainment to help people forget their troubles. For a few hours the terrible war could be forgotten. Exotic settings from far away characterised the most popular shows. ‘Chu Chin Chow’, a ‘Chinese’ version of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, broke box office records in 1916 – 17. The piece premiered at His Majesty’s Theatre in London on 3 August 1916 and ran for five years and a total of 2,238 performances (more than twice as many as any previous musical), an astonishing record that stood for nearly fourty years. Chu Chin Chow was described as a combination of musical comedy and pantomime. It was a big budget costing a spectacular £5,300, with over a dozen scene changes, fantastic sets, big dance routines, exotic costumes and Asche’s well-known innovative lighting designs. The design for the show was influenced by the English taste for all things connected with Asia (known as “orientalism”) which had originated with Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Scheherazade. Theatre journal The Era said that Norton’s music had “a touch of the East but for the most part it was on a level with the tender melody of musical comedy” and “hardly inspired”. Nevertheless, many of the songs became hits, and “The Cobbler’s Song” and “Any Time’s Kissing Time” in particular, entered the repertoire of ballad singers for at least three or four decades.
Tickets to see Chu Chin Chow were particularly eagerly sought by troops on leave from the Western Front. One of the attractions for the on-leave soldiers was the chorus of pretty slave girls who, for the period, were very scantily dressed. Complaints, not by the soldiers, resulted in the Lord Chamberlain (the British theatre censor) viewing the show and requiring “this naughtiness” to be stopped – at least for a while. The cast was large and included a camel, a donkey, poultry and snakes.
‘The Maid of the Mountains (1917) set amongst bandits in the Italian mountains was also very successful. Some of the most popular songs were: “Love Will find a Way”, “A Bachelor Gay”, “A Paradise for Two”, “My Life is Love”, and “Live for Today”.