b. Elsie Evelyn Lay, 10 July 1900, London, England, d. 17 February 1996, London, England. An actress and singer - one of the most celebrated leading ladies of the English musical stage. Her father was the actor and composer Gilbert Laye (he added the ‘e’ on to the family name for stage appearances) and her mother the actress Evelyn Stewart. Known as ‘Boo’ from when she was a baby, Laye was constantly performing as a child, and made her professional stage debut at the age of 15 as a Chinese servant in a production entitled Mr. Wu. After appearing in The Beauty Spot, Going Up, and The Kiss Call, she had her first West End success in 1920 with The Shop Girl, in which she was backed by a chorus of real guardsmen as she sang ‘The Guards’ Parade’. In the early 20s she delighted London audiences in shows such as Phi-Phi, and The Merry Widow. Madame Pompadour (1923), her first show for C.B. Cochran, was a significant landmark in her career, and was followed by more good roles in stylish productions such as Cleopatra, Betty In Mayfair, Merely Molly, and Blue Eyes. By 1929, when Laye introduced Drury Lane audiences to ‘Lover, Come Back To Me’ in Sigmund Romberg’s musical The New Moon, she had become the brightest star on the London theatre scene; Cochran called her ‘the fairest prima donna this side of heaven’ (‘I think he must have had a little too much champagne’, says Miss Laye). Around this time she was separated from her husband, the comedian Sonnie Hale, and he later married one of her main ‘rivals’, the enchanting Jessie Matthews. She turned down the leading role in the London production of Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet, but triumphed in the 1929 Broadway production, and later succeeded Peggy Wood in the West End version.
Laye’s success on Broadway resulted in a trip to Hollywood and appearances in One Heavenly Night with John Boles, and The Night Is Young, in which she co-starred with Ramon Novarro and sang Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II’s enduring ‘When I Grow Too Old To Dream’. While in America she married the British actor, Frank Lawton, and they were together until he died in 1969. On her return to England she made more film musicals, including Princess Charming, Waltz Time, and Evensong (1934). The latter is regarded as perhaps the most accomplished of her relatively few screen appearances and decades on continues to be re-shown in cinema retrospective seasons, and on television, providing a tantalising glimpse of an artist who lit up the screen whenever she chose to neglect her beloved stage for a while. During the remainder of the 30s, Evelyn Laye was a ‘ravishing’ Helen of Troy in Helen!, appeared with the embryonic John Mills in Give Me A Ring, co-starred with the far more mature Viennese tenor Richard Tauber in Paganini, and returned to Broadway in 1937 with Jack Buchanan and Adele Dixon for Between The Devil. The show made history when it was presented for one night at the National Theatre in New York on the occasion of President Roosevelt’s birthday, thereby becoming the first American Command Performance. In 1940 she sang ‘You’ve Done Something To My Heart’, ‘Only A Glass Of Champagne’, and ‘Let The People Sing’ in Ronald Jeans’ revue, Lights Up. During the remainder of World War II she appeared in the 1942 revival of The Belle Of New York and another Romberg/Hammerstein show, Sunny River. She also served as Entertainments Director for the Royal Navy, and led the first-ever concert party for the troops based in the remote Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.
In 1945 Evelyn Laye returned to the London stage in Three Waltzes. Immediately after the war, when suitable parts in the musical theatre were few and far between, she played straight roles in plays throughout the UK and on a 1951 tour of Australia, but made a triumphant comeback to the London musical stage in Wedding In Paris in 1954. More straight plays followed before she starred in the musical, Strike A Light! (1966), and replaced Anna Neagle for a time in the long-running Charlie Girl. In her last West End musical, Phil The Fluter (1969), she reflected on a better, more civilised age, in the memorable ‘They Don’t Make Them Like That Any More’, a number that was so perfectly suited to her. In 1971 she appeared with Michael Crawford in the comedy, No Sex, Please - We’re British, and two years later was awarded the CBE. During the rest of the 70s and 80s she made several more films, including Say Hello To Yesterday with Jean Simmons, and Never Never Land with Petula Clark. She also did a good deal of television work, and appeared in the provinces in A Little Night Music with Honor Blackman in 1979/80.
In 1992, at the age of 92, Laye toured parts of the UK with the nostalgia show Glamorous Nights At Drury Lane, and received standing ovations. In July of that year, in A Glamorous Night With Evelyn Laye At The London Palladium, the élite of British showbusiness gathered to pay tribute and nod in agreement as she sang ‘They Don’t Make Them Like That Any More’.