Salad Days: the bittersweet musical with an evergreen charm

My parents took me to Europe for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and on the way home to America we stopped in London. As we were staying in a hotel on the Strand, we kept driving past the Vaudeville theatre, where I was thrilled to see the musical Salad Days was still playing.

Written by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, Salad Days had been an obsession of mine ever since I heard the cast album, which my Aunt Agnes had brought back on her last London trip. The songs were a little fanciful, but the music was very attractive. I was especially fond of a ballad for the lead couple, Timothy and Jane, who were just leaving university: We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back.

A bittersweet undercurrent runs through this number for these two kids, evicted from the playroom into grownup life, worrying what will become of them. He’s being pushed into a job among the pompous elite, she into a posh marriage, and neither of them is keen about anything. But suddenly they are swept up in an adventure: a mysterious tramp hires them to look after a magic piano that turns everybody gay.

Or, actually, no. The piano makes everybody dance. But the authorities wanted to confiscate the instrument, as all that dancing in public creates disorder – in other words, freedom. Later on, I drew the analogy between dancing and coming out, and saw how smart Salad Days really was under its folderol. It’s a lesson in being openly what you are.

Meanwhile, I got my folks to let me see Salad Days for myself. I vividly recall my father, at the Vaudeville box office, asking for “a seat down front for this young man”. There were plenty, as it was a midweek matinee, with nobody else in the house but two rows of women in the middle of the stalls. Later, during the intermission, they actually had tea brought to them, right in their seats.

There was a lot of culture shock that day, for one had to pay for programmes (ours back home were free) and, when the show started, the two-piano pit swung into My Country, ’Tis of Thee, the “other” American national anthem. I naively thought this was in my honour, till I turned around and saw all the women standing to attention. It finally hit me that this was God Save the Queen, and I, too, rose to my feet.

The biggest surprise of the afternoon was Salad Days itself, for I was used to the big, imperious musicals of Broadway – symphonies, one might say, to Salad Days’ chamber music. The show originated in Bristol and thus observed typical regional economics, with one basic set plus bits and a small second-division ensemble doubling and tripling in various roles. There was none of the intricate choral work heard on Broadway, none of its high-tech choreography, with Jerome Robbins here and Bob Fosse there. Salad Days of course had some movement – dancing is what it’s about – but after the two leads first discovered the piano’s magical power in Oh! Look at Me, the choreography was one notch above furtive.

Still, the show was rich in charm and a sort of cockeyed confidence, which explains why it ran for almost exactly five and a half years. And it recounted the tale that traditional musical comedy has lived on for a century: we all want to be young, cute and free for the rest of our lives.

Everyone assumes that musicals are an American form, but it was the British who invented the musical in the first place, in 1728, in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The genre was called “ballad opera”, mating pre-existing tunes with new lyrics. Even so, this work, about the London underworld, is so witty and vibrant that it can be revived today exactly as Gay wrote it, while more recent musicals, from Show Boat to Pal Joey, must invariably return as “revisals”.

After about 50 years, ballad opera evolved into shows with original music, just in time for WS Gilbert to meet Arthur Sullivan. Their shows – HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and so on – reinvented the musical (now called “comic opera”). In America, these G&S shows were a sensation. Until then the American form consisted mainly of plays with a few songs, again using old music. Suddenly, an American musical wanted a smart script like Gilbert’s and sophisticated music like Sullivan’s.

True, during the 20th century the American musical developed an exhilarating sense of imagination and daring. It began to surpass the British form in depth of character interaction and staging expertise. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! arrived at Drury Lane in 1947, it was clear that America had seized control of its inheritance.

Much later, Britain struck back with pop opera: Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon. Some of the titles were of French origin, but they achieved their dramatic form under British direction. Pop opera is as big as Salad Days is small. Yet a modest show, so apparently slight in every way, can have grandeur of its own. I well recall, on that matinee afternoon in 1958, how Salad Days ended without a conclusion, as if opening its story up to the world to supply a button, a coda, a sequel. With the magical piano recovered and the tramp off roaming again, Timothy and Jane were exactly where they had been when Salad Days’ tale began, alone with each other and unsure of the future, though at least they now knew the importance of freedom.

Alone on stage, they reprised We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back. It seemed more forward-looking than before and, as I waited excitedly to see what would happen next, the curtain came down.

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