Composer and lyricist best known for The Boy Friend, a fresh and revolutionary musical that took the West End by storm.
The Boy Friend at the Players' theatre, London, in 1953. It opened in the West End the following year.
The composer and lyricist Sandy Wilson, who has died aged 90, achieved his greatest success while still in his 20s – and what a success it was. In the 1950s, The Boy Friend ran for more than five years at Wyndham's theatre in London and spent more than a year on Broadway. When it opened in the West End, in January 1954, it was revolutionary, a totally new and different kind of musical.
Big American shows such as Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and Carousel had dominated musical theatre for years. They were big and brash, full of women in gingham dresses and men in big hats chewing cigars. Here came a show that was a throwback to the flappers of the roaring 20s. Young women were seen with flattened chests and cloche hats; young men wore bell-bottomed trousers and all but said, "Anyone for tennis?" Set in a finishing school in the south of France, The Boy Friend revolved around the romance of a wealthy boy and girl who are each attempting to keep their family's fortune a secret.
Could it work? Amazingly, it did. And when the show opened in New York in September 1954, its startlingly brilliant leading lady was Julie Andrews, making her Broadway debut. It was Wilson's plangent, plaintive songs, such as I Could Be Happy With You and A Room in Bloomsbury, that really made the show. The tunes became standards, and for a time everyone wanted to do the charleston: the packed audiences found some kind of relief from the austerity of the postwar years in this romantic tribute to a more lighthearted age. The Irish playwright and journalist Hugh Leonard later proclaimed it to be "as English as muffins and monocles". The show ran in London for more than 2,000 performances, outstripped only by Agatha Christie's runaway success with The Mousetrap.
Wilson was born in Sale, Cheshire, the son of George and Caroline (nee Humphrey). He was educated at Elstree preparatory school, in Berkshire, Harrow school and Oriel College, Oxford, where he gained an English degree.
He had first thought about writing The Boy Friend while he was at Oxford, where he was declared an "idol" in the university's magazine, Isis, in 1947. He produced and wrote a mass of student shows, and in his mid-20s contributed to the West End revues Slings and Arrows and Oranges and Lemons. He wrote a pair of shows, See You Again (1951) and See You Later (1952), then originated The Boy Friend at the Players' and Embassy theatres before it opened at Wyndham's. While The Boy Friend was still running, two more of Wilson's shows opened in London: The Buccaneer, a play about a magazine, was created with the hope of cashing in on the craze for horror comics. It had originally been presented at the tiny New Watergate theatre in London in September 1953. Without any real investment, it had flopped, but since The Boy Friend had succeeded so remarkably, Wilson brought it back a couple of years later in an extended version at the Lyric Hammersmith and then the Apollo; its cast included Kenneth Williams.
Wilson then adapted Ronald Firbank's novel Valmouth, set in an Edwardian spa, for a production that picked up good reviews at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it opened in 1958. It then moved to the Savile theatre, where Cleo Laine joined Fenella Fielding in the cast.
Though he did not need the money, Wilson would have liked another show to run and run. A sequel to The Boy Friend entitled Divorce Me, Darling! (Globe theatre, 1965), which took the characters into the 1930s, failed to repeat the triumph. The critic Bernard Levin called it "relentlessly incomprehensible".
In 1970, a revival of The Boy Friend with Judy Carne ran for three months on Broadway and the following year the musical became a much-hyped, multi-coloured film, starring Twiggy, Christopher Gable and Tommy Tune, and directed by Ken Russell, who seemed more interested in replicating the Hollywood musicals of the 30s than Wilson's original setting. Wilson did not like the idea of the film at all and refused to attend the premiere. More happily in 1971, he put on a one-man show, Sandy Wilson Thanks the Ladies, and also had a success at the Hampstead theatre with His Monkey Wife, about a man's relationship with a female chimp, although it did not reach the West End.
His autobiography, I Could Be Happy (1975), ends with a vivid account of The Boy Friend in London and New York, and a hurt appraisal of Russell's movie (although he retained great sympathy for Twiggy, whom he liked). That year he also published a lavish and loving memorial biography of Ivor Novello. In 1979, he created a non-pantomime musical version of Aladdin that came and went at the Lyric Hammersmith.
In 1994, in an Observer interview marking a 40th anniversary production of The Boy Friend at the Players', he was asked what he thought of contemporary popular music. "I've hated it since 1950," he replied. "Since rock'n'roll I've turned a deaf ear."
The Boy Friend has proved indomitably endearing, despite some slightly overblown West End revivals. In 1982 there was a revival at Chichester of Valmouth, which came to be widely acknowledged as Wilson's masterpiece. Fifteen years later, Divorce Me, Darling! was also revived at Chichester, and the cabaret performer Liliane Montevecchi stopped the show with the spoof Marlene Dietrich number, Blondes for Danger.
In an age of blockbuster musicals, Wilson's talent for intimate revue and stylish musical theatre might have seemed an anachronism. But his work was unique, always well-finished and full of charm and good taste.
For many years he lived with his partner, Chak Yui, in a South Kensington flat full of scores, records, books and memorabilia, and of course a grand piano.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Wilson was a lifelong subscriber to the New Statesman magazine. In later years he spent an increasing amount of time at his country home near Taunton, Somerset, watching old films and indulging in his favourite pastime of reminiscing.
Michael Coveney writes: Although he could perform his own material very adeptly, it is probably fair to say that Sandy Wilson was perhaps a better draughtsman than a pianist. He had studied the styles and fashions of the 20s and 30s so closely that he could reproduce the effect on the page at least as well as on the stage.
He particularly liked the theatrical cartoons of the Swedish artist Einar Nerman, who worked for the Tatler in the 20s, and he provided an exquisitely elegant introduction to Nerman's 1976 book Caught in the Act. Every year, Wilson would make his own Christmas cards, and every year he would produce a collector's item, usually featuring flappers, pierrots or harlequins in a mimimal setting of crescent moons and floating balloons.
His uneasy relationship with his Oxford contemporary Kenneth Tynan ("I never found that I could penetrate that aura of brilliance and daring to discover the person behind it") was reflected in a mournful review he wrote in Plays and Players magazine of Carte Blanche, Tynan's sad sequel to Oh! Calcutta! On the other hand, his review of Michael Blakemore's 1973 revival of Nöel Coward's Design for Living, starring Vanessa Redgrave, set the seal on the restoration of that great comedy in the repertoire. And no critic has ever written so well, or so thoroughly, about theatrical costume.
- Sandy Wilson (Alexander Galbraith Wilson), composer, lyricist, and playwright, born 19 May 1924; died 27 August 2014