P.G. Wodehouse

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A world-famous and successful author, but he also contributed music, lyrics and stories to a huge number of hit musicals.
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b. Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, 15 October 1881, Guildford, Surrey, England, d. 14 February 1975, Southampton, Long Island, New York, USA. A lyricist and librettist, and the author of a series of more than 90 humorous novels, mostly dealing with an ‘hilarious, light-hearted satire on life among the British gentry, notably the inane Bertie Wooster and his impeccable valet, Jeeves’. His father was a British judge, based in Hong Kong, and Wodehouse lived in the colony with his parents until he was four, and then, for the next four years, was entrusted to a family in London, along with his three brothers. After elementary education at various boarding schools, he attended Dulwich College in the outskirts of London, and excelled at Latin and Greek. He graduated in 1900, and worked for a time at the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank in London. A year later, he joined The Globe newspaper, eventually becoming the editor of the humorous column, ‘By The Way’.

In 1904, he wrote the lyric for ‘Put Me In My Cell’, for a new show, Sergeant Brue, which opened in December at the Strand Theatre. Two years later, the renowned actor-manager, Seymour Hicks, offered him the job of writing song lyrics for the Aldwych shows. It was at the Aldwych Theatre that Wodehouse met the young American composer Jerome Kern, who was just beginning to make a name for himself. Together, they wrote the song, ‘Mr. Chamberlain’, a satire on the British politician, Joseph Chamberlain, for The Beauty Of Bath. It stopped the show each night, and became a country-wide hit. During the next few years, in between his prolific literary output which involved several trips to the USA, Wodehouse contributed sketches and lyrics to three more London shows, The Gay Gordons, The Bandit’s Daughter, and Nuts And Wine.

In September 1914, he married an English widow, Ethel Rowley, in New York, and finally settled in the USA. Three months later, in his capacity as the drama critic of Vanity Fair, he attended the first night of the musical comedy Very Good Eddie, which had music by Kern, and a libretto by Philip Bartholomae and Guy Bolton. When Kern introduced Wodehouse and Bolton, it marked the beginning of collaboration during which the trio (two Englishmen and one New Yorker), contributed books, music and lyrics to a number of witty, entertaining, and highly successful Broadway musicals. Firstly though, there were two false starts: Wodehouse was called in to assist the lyricist-librettist Anne Caldwell, on Pom-Pom (1916), and then the new team was asked to ‘Americanize’ and provide a new book and some additional songs for a Viennese operetta called Miss Springtime. The show was a hit, and contained some charming Wodehouse lyrics in numbers such as ‘Throw Me A Rose’, ‘My Castle In The Air’, and the risqué ‘A Very Good Girl On Sunday’. The trio’s first original musical comedy, Have A Heart (1917), had music by Kern, and lyrics by Wodehouse, who also collaborated with Bolton on the book. Although critically acclaimed, the show ran for less than a 100 performances, despite an outstanding score which included ‘You Said Something’, ‘And I Am All Alone’, ‘They All Look Alike’, ‘Honeymoon Inn’, ‘I See You There’, and ‘Napoleon’.

The young team’s initial impact was made in February 1917 with Oh, Boy!, the first, and the more successful of their two famous Princess Theatre Musicals. Kern and Bolton had already worked together at the Princess in 1915, with lyricist Schuyler Greene. The tiny theatre had a capacity of only 299, and so was not able to handle the large operetta-style productions that were currently in vogue, or afford to employ established performers and writers. Kern, Wodehouse, and Bolton were interested in writing more intimate shows anyway, with songs that were integrated into plots that sometimes bordered on farce with their tales of misidentity and suchlike, but came as a welcome relief from the stodginess of the European imports. Oh, Boy! was a prime example of what they were aiming for, and proved to be a smash hit from the start, eventually running for over 450 performances. One of the show’s stars, Anna Wheaton, helped to promote the production with her successful record of one of the hit numbers, ‘Till The Clouds Roll By’, and some of the other songs (nearly 20 of them) included ‘Ain’t It A Grand And Glorious Feeling’, ‘A Package Of Seeds’, ‘Flubby Dub, The Cave Man’, ‘Nesting Time In Flatbush’, ‘Words Are Not Needed’, ‘An Old Fashioned Waltz’, and the delightfully rueful duet, ‘You Never Knew About Me’. The production transferred to London two years later, where it was re-titled Oh, Joy!, and gave Beatrice Lillie her first role in a book musical.

While Oh, Boy! was resident at the Princess Theatre, Wodehouse was involved with four other New York shows in 1917. Firstly, he collaborated again with Kern and Bolton for Leave It To Jane, a musical adaptation of George Ade’s comedy, The College Widow. This was similar in style to Oh, Boy!, and included The Siren’s Song’, ‘The Crickets Are Calling’, ‘Leave It To Jane’, ‘The Sun Shines Brighter’, ‘Wait Till Tomorrow’, ‘Cleopatterer’ (an amusing piece of Egyptian hokum), and several more. The show was revived off-Broadway more than 40 years later, in 1959, and ran for over two years. For Wodehouse, Leave It To Jane was followed by Kitty Darlin’ (music by Rudolph Friml), The Riviera Girl (music by Emmerich Kalman and Kern), and Miss 1917 (music by Victor Herbert and Kern). The young rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917 was George Gershwin, in his first professional job in the theatre. In February 1918, Wodehouse, Bolton, and Kern completed Oh, Lady!, Lady!!, their final Princess Theatre show together. The all-star cast included Vivienne Segal, who sang ‘Not Yet’, ‘Do Look At Him’, ‘It’s A Hard, Hard World For A Man’, and ‘When The Ships Come Home’, amongst others. It is sometimes said that disagreements over financial affairs between Kern and Wodehouse caused them to part, at least temporarily. In any event, although the three men were to work in pairs during the next few years, the brief spell when they combined to contribute to the dawn of a joyous revolution of the American musical theatre was over, except for Sitting Pretty (1924), which proved to be a 95 performance disappointment.

During the next two years Wodehouse contributed book and/or lyrics to productions such as See You Later, The Girl Behind The Gun, The Canary, Oh, My Dear!, The Rose Of China, and The Golden Moth, with a variety of composer, lyricists and librettists, such as Jean Schwartz, Joseph Szulc, Ivan Caryll, George Barr, Louis Verneuill, Louis Hirsch, Caldwell and Kern, with whom he wrote ‘The Church Around The Corner’ and ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Girl Down’ for Sally (1920). In the early 20s, he collaborated with Kern again on two successful London shows, The Cabaret Girl and The Beauty Prize. Two years later, Bolton and Wodehouse wrote the book for George and Ira Gershwin’s hit, Oh, Kay!, and they were both involved again in The Nightingale (1927) (‘Breakfast In Bed’, ‘May Moon’, ‘Two Little Ships’), with music by Armand Vecsey. In 1927, Kern staged his masterpiece, Show Boat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Interpolated into their score, was ‘Bill’, a song which was written by Kern and Wodehouse nearly 10 years previously, and cut from the original scores of Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918) and Zip Goes A Million (1919). It was sung in Show Boat by Helen Morgan, and provided Wodehouse with the biggest song hit of his career. In the following year, he collaborated with lyricist Ira Gershwin, his brother George, and Sigmund Romberg, for the popular Rosalie, starring Marilyn Miller (‘Hussars March’, ‘Oh Gee! Oh Joy!’, ‘Say So’, ‘West Point Song’, ‘Why Must We Always Be Dreaming?’). Ironically, for someone who had been at the forefront of the radical changes in American show music for the past 10 years, Wodehouse’s final set of Broadway lyrics were for an operetta. With lyricist Clifford Grey and composer Friml, he contributed numbers such as ‘March Of The Musketeers’ and ‘Your Eyes’ to Florenz Ziegfeld’s music adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (1928), which starred Segal and Dennis King, and ran for over 300 performances. With a final flourish, Wodehouse’s Broadway career ended with a smash hit, when he and Bolton provided the book for Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934). In that same year, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves appeared together in a novel for first time, and Wodehouse, who had been balancing several balls in the air for most of his working life, at last allowed the musical one to drop to earth. During the 30s he spent some time in Hollywood, adapting his novel, A Damsel In Distress, for the screen.

In July 1940, while at his villa in Le Touquet on the French Riviera, he was taken into custody by the German invading forces, charged with being an enemy alien, and interned in the local lunatic asylum at Tost in Upper Silesia. In June 1941, he was moved to Berlin, and subsequently broadcast a series of humorous talks about his experiences as a prisoner of war, which were transmitted to America. In Britain, where the population was constantly under siege from German aircraft, Wodehouse was reviled in the press and on radio, and there was talk of him being tried for treason - although most of the British population had not heard what turned out to be fairly innocuous broadcasts. Still in custody, he was transferred to Paris, and eventually liberated in August 1944. He returned to the USA in 1947, and became an American citizen in 1955.

He continued to write constantly, and in 1971, on his 90th birthday, his 93rd volume was published. Four years later, perhaps in a belated national gesture of reconciliation, Wodehouse, was created a Knight Commander of the British Empire in the UK New Year honours list, just two months before he had a heart attack, and died in a Long Island hospital in February 1975. As for the charges levelled at him during World War II, according to secret British government files released in 1996, Wodehouse was considered ‘a vain and stupid ass’ rather than a traitor. In June 1998, those infamous letters describing his life in wartime Berlin and Paris were part of 6, 300 pieces of Wodehouse memorabilia which realised $351, 900 (£211, 140) at Sotheby’s in New York, following the death of their owner, publisher James Heineman.