Margaret Harris (1943 – 2000) is slightly better remembered for her work as a conductor than her contemporary, Joyce Brown. She had a long association with the musical Hair and conducted over 800 performances, on Broadway and as MD for its national tours .
There’s much more to Harris’s career, and retracing newspaper coverage of her work reveals interviews with her, and the prospect of several Broadway shows she was never credited for. Footage of Harris conducting and playing the piano has also been found, and shared here for the first time.
Joyce Brown (1920 – 2015) – is regarded as both the first Black woman to conduct any Broadway show (in 1965) and to open a new show as conductor (1971). Her contribution was phenomenal: to music and music education; to building up Black community on Broadway; and to making opportunities for Black musicians at every stage of their career was phenomenal. Yet when she died in 2015, there was no obituary that recounted her achievements on the pages of a national newspaper. To date, she has no Wikipedia page, and Google turns up only a few articles that lay out her achievements.
This article builds on the little that is known about her by searching through digitised newspaper records of her work. It lays out Brown’s career alongside her own words, retraced from the many interviews she did during her career.
This is another entry in a continuing dictionary of women who worked in musical theatre in the 1930s in the UK. It is an evolving document – for more please get in touch via Twitter.
Irene Kensington (fl. 1925 – 1934)
Kensington was a choreographer and costume designer; she was also a pianist and arranger. Frustratingly little can be found of her life – she appears and vanishes.
Kenginston had a long association with June Radbourne’s dance ensemble the June Dancers, who performed across variety and concert venues, as both choreographer and costume designer. Initial reports of their performances note that she ‘is also responsible for modernistic arrangements of Chopin and Liszt, as well as impressions of true moderns like Glinka, Ravel and Grainger. Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor and Schubert also figure in the versatile repertoire of these eight talented dancers.’ (Portsmouth Evening News, 16/08/32, 2)
The ensemble performed at a range of venues including variety theatres like the London Coliseum in 1928, and the Hackney Empire 1929; and concert party settings like the Floral Hall in Eastbourne, August 1929 and Portsmouth in 1931. They also played in cabaret settings, including Frascati’s Frascaberat in London 1931. Kensington also designed the costumes for the dancers, Very little survives of the company apart from a few postcard images of Radbourne herself and one or two of the dancers.
Newspaper reports reveal Kensington attended the Margaret Morris school of ‘Dancing and Other Arts’ in 1920. In 1927, she designed and choreographed for a troupe from the the Margaret Morris Theatre, presumably from the school; the troupe were the basis for the Radbourne company.
Elsewhere, Kensington designed the costume for the Seymour Hicks play What’s His Name; as well as choreographing and costume designing the 1932 musical She Shall Have Music. The last reference to her is choreographing Babes in the Wood in Exeter in 1934, but at present, no further information can be found.
Clare Kummer had a song which was a huge hit: “Dearie” in 1905, which sold over 1 million copies of sheet music. To put that in context: in 1900, it is estimated that there were about 1 million pianos in the entire US.
It’s been a little while since I last used this lovely site, leaving the delights of Simba the Not the Lion King up as my final statement, which clearly has to change! Lots to discuss, but most recently I’ve written a series of blog posts which started yesterday for Maestra on women composers who were part of Broadway’s early history. The first went up on #Internationalwomensday – and features the work of Cissie Loftus.
As well as showcasing my stalker/detective/historian skills, it represents the first time her compositions have been listed in one place. In time – it means that it can be used to improve her Wikipedia page – and particularly for Nora Bayes, who doesn’t even have one yet!
To start off, I’ll explore the work of three of the most prolific women composers in early 20th century musical theatre: Clare Kummer, Cecilia ‘Cissie’ Loftus, and Nora Bayes. They all worked at the beginning of the 20th century and all took on multiple roles in their professional careers, including: acting, music hall performance, composition, lyric-writing, and producing. The three women attracted extensive press coverage, not least because all three of them disobeyed expected social mores in their personal lives: Bayes had five husbands and Loftus’s divorce made international headlines. Yet their composition practice has largely been forgotten. Retracing their work is one way of changing that.
Maestra Music is an incredible organisation, working to support women composers and music professionals in musical theatre, led by Georgia Stitt. Next week will be Nora Bayes and the week after Clare Kummer, so stay tuned and sorry for leaving off-brand Simba for so long, all by himself.