The Shop Girl: A Unique Early Theatre Item in the University of Arizona Special Collections Main Library Archive by Elizabeth Marchalonis

The Shop Girl is considered by many scholars to be the first real direct antecedent of the modern Broadway musical. It premiered at the Gaiety Theatre in London in 1894. Producer George Edwardes developed the idea of a musical comedy which was not a burlesque but rather a full coherent story. The star was Ada Reeve who became pregnant and was replaced with Kate Cutler. The extremely rare heliographs in the University of Arizona Special Collections Area of the Main Library feature the original cast and were made during the original production but with Kate Cutler having taken over the lead role of shop girl Bessie Brent who inherits a million dollars. The other images show the entire original cast and sets, the only such documentation of this show known.

Kate Cutler as Bessie Brent on the rare original University of Arizona heliograph from The Shop Girl.


Although not the very first example of musical comedy, The Shop Girl exemplifies the type of British theatre popular at the turn of the last century. Musical comedy shows in England came into being as a result of a number of factors. One was licensing laws in effect from 1737 to 1843 which restricted the nature of legitimate performances that could take place in smaller theaters. Increasing numbers of political and religious satires induced Prime Minister Horace Walpole to reduce the freedom of small local theatres. The purpose was to restrict the performance of drama to two patent houses: Drury Lane by the Killigrew Patent and Covent Garden by the D’Avenant Patent. In the summer only the Theatre Royal in Haymarket could perform drama. This was a thinly veiled attempt, then, to censor playwrights. The minor theatres sought to circumvent the restrictions by claiming they were not selling tickets to shows but rather serving refreshments such as tea at a high price that included free performances.

The restrictions also helped to usher in the satirical opera form or burletta, although some of these performances were fully musical and lacked words or a libretto. The burletta at one time had referred to a short burlesque or satire of a famous opera, usually one concerned with Greek gods and heroes. In the 1820s, George Colman who was the Licenser of Plays under Lord Chamberlain formulated a special burletta license for minor theatres “providing that the songs were a natural part of the piece” and were “not forced into an acting piece to qualify it”. This license, however, did not in fact manage to restrict the content of burlettas. The minor theatres, unlike the major ones, chose to produce much less formal and dramatic material, preferring light-hearted fare more rooted in the daily lives of the general public. Thus a boom resulted in the popularity of minor theatres with the lower classes and dozens of new theatres sprung up throughout England.

Writer H. J. W. Dam, Producer George Edwardes, Composer Ivan Caryll, from the University of Arizona Main Library Special Collections Vaudeville Archive


The unexpected popularity of the small theatre and its fare led to the Act of 1843 which allowed minor theatres to produce the same fare as major ones so long as it met with the approval of a commission designated by Lord Chamberlain. By the 1860s the English theatre-going public in general wanted to see more realistic or topical plays and fewer plays with flamboyance and aristocratic themes. Queen Victoria added lustre to the theatrical profession generally by attending and enjoying plays; actors began to rise in social opinion and class and the church became less opposed to theatre people and productions. New theatres in the more realistic style began to open, such as John Hollinghead’s Gaiety Theatre in 1868 and the Prince of Wales in 1884 with the result that the 1890s became a Renaissance period for English theatre, which was now attended by all levels of society without shame.

This period also ushered in advances in sophistication of set design, special effects, gas and electric conveniences in the theatre and even chemical advances which could be incorporated into the productions. Phonographs could be used to record and play back sound effects. Makeup became more radical and effected dramatic transformations in the actors. During this period the management of the Gaiety Theatre fell to George Edwardes who developed musical comedies such as The Shop Girl in order to satisfy but also influence the increasing number of theatre-goers. In the costuming of his productions, public taste in fashion became strongly influenced.

George Edwardes, British Impressario

Thus the attempts to limit protest and restrict freedom within the theatre backfired and innovative theatre impressarios influenced public taste in a wide variety of areas while at the same time reflecting the public taste. Musical comedies began to integrate more fully with the content of the shows. George Edwardes thus took John Hollingshead’s efforts at early musical comedies and refined them with shows such as The Shop Girl into the type of musical comedy still seen on Broadway today. In 1897, as the whole process was developing, Hollingshead stated:

“Another influence was the simple variety shows which at first took place in taverns but eventually in the 19th century became an increasingly significant entertainment form that led to the Music Hall. Musical comedy shows that began to integrate music and acting became one offshoot of the evolution of British entertainment in the later 19th century. r a time on the throne of burlesque, is a clever concoction, having neither beginning, middle nor end, and therefore admirably adapted for a poco curante (i. e. blasée) after-dinner audience who want to hear a song or see a dance, or stare at a particular (perhaps not too particular) young lady through a double-barrelled opera glass. It has achieved success and deserves it. It deserves success because it is the first real attempt to pay out the “Variety Theatres” in their own coin….. Their freedom from persecution is entirely due to the more liberal feeling governing the theatrical managers of 1897, compared with the managers of thirty years earlier. Our best theatres are now in the hands of educated gentlemen.”

And so these types of productions generated new ideas in what was designated “allowable entertainment” and began to attract audiences away from the larger theaters, which was the reverse of the intended original restrictions.

George Edwards was an important force in the big change in theaters but he did not initiate it. Rather, he solidified the movement. The Shop Girl was not the first musical comedy but is a fully developed example of it and, most importantly, it was a big success.

The Gaiety Theatre was handed over to George Edwardes after the retirement of John Hollinshead in 1886. The theater had already gained a reputation as the “undisputed queen of London’s light entertainment”. This new format created new opportunities for actors, writers and artists. The first musical comedy is believed to be In Town, which was produced at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1892, followed quickly by The Gaiety Girl in 1893. The Shop Girl was first performed at George Edwardes’ Gaiety Theatre on November 24, 1894 and ran until the summer of 1896. Its run of 546 performances was a record at that time. Many of the actors went on to successful careers, most especially the original star Ada Reeve, in diverse areas of entertainment.

For The Shop Girl, Edwardes recruited Ada Reeve from her variety show act at the Metropolitan Music Hall. She was not sure and rejected his previous offer to star as Nellie Farren in Little Jack Shepherd, but she agreed to play the lead part of Bessie Brent in The Shop Girl even though she had recently become pregnant. She did not tell Edwardes and, ultimately, she named her daughter Bessie. Actor George Grossman, Jr. was brought in to play Bertie Boyd, the male lead; he was the son of a famous star of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas and he made his debut at the Gaiety Theatre in this play. Edward Payne played Mr. Miggles and was the lead comedian while regular Gaiety actor Seymour Hicks played Charles Appleby a “spritely” young medical student who courts Bessie. The writer of the book was H. J. W. Darn and the composer Ivan Caryll were also newcomers to this type of production. Additional musical numbers were created by Adrian Ross and Lionel Monckton, the latter showing a real flair for this kind of production that led to him composing more songs for many future shows. James T. Tanner was Edwardes’ right hand man who became his producer for the play.

The star of the show was Ada Reeve (born March 3, 1874 in Whitechapel, England and who had begun singing in musical halls there all through the terror of Jack the Ripper. Both of her parents were part of the Fred Wright Acting Company in London. By age ten she was working at the Pavilion Theatre in London in the Christmas pantomime production Sinbad, playing the Old Man of the Sea! These were family participation shows that reached a wide English audience as an event as much as a musical show. Amassing a large number of children’s roles Ada was known as one of England’s “three wonder infant artistes”, despite leaving school to work at the age of nine.

As her family aged and their modest show business careers faded, leaving them with little money, Ada became their sole support, working in taverns and music halls doing songs everyone knew or original pieces written by her father. At her debut at the Middlesex Theatre in Drury Lane her reviews described her as a “juvenile wonder”. As her fame grew she began to hire writers for her songs such as T. W. Conner and by age 16 she was performing more adult songs and subjects at the Trocadero , Tivoli and Britannia Music Halls and became notorious for daring to do a cartwheel in women’s clothes!

Ada became so popular that she could work at three different music halls in an evening, changing costumes en route from theater to theater and managing to avoid Jack the Ripper at the same time. She even became one of the English imports at Koster and Bial’s famous early vaudeville venue in New York City, a spot which had begun its life as a beer hall with entertainment, topless female swordfighting and special “private” booths upstairs for male patrons. It still had a bit of a reputation when Ada played there.

In The Shop Girl, Ada fronted the show for as long as she could, and then handed off the successful production to Nellie Wallace briefly and then Kate Cutler (14 August 1864 – 14 May 1955) . Ada in the meantime went on to great successes in productions in England and Australia, had two children, and even spent time in America in theater and talking pictures. In 1935 she returned to London where she continued her career in theater, film and television, passing away on September 16, 1966 after 75 years in the entertainment business as a recognized star!

Ivan Caryll, Composer of The Shop Girl

Kate, who is depicted on the dramatic heliograph images now in the collection of the University of Arizona’s American Vaudeville Museum, was basically an understudy during the period who ended up taking over in several successful shows. Kate was a successful comedienne, actress and singer who had a long and distinguished career in her own right, first as a star in comic plays from 1897 on, and later as a character actress in theater and numerous British films.

Ivan Caryll was born Felix Tilkin in Liege, Belgium in 1861 and studied at the Pris Conservatoire before becoming a music teacher in London in 1885. Seeking to achieve fame as a composer and music director of light operettas, he had no experience in musical comedy before writing the music for The Shop Girl but his work became very popular and he collaborated with Lionel Monkton on ten more musical comedies exclusively for the Gaiety Theatre between 1894 and 1909. Songs by other composers were interpolated into the play also and in fact the hit of the show was Her Golden hair Was Hanging Down Her Back, composed by Felix McGlennon. It was actually an old song from English music halls and American vaudeville that had been given new words. Caryll, as one can tell on the Heliographs in the Arizona collection, considered himself quite a character. He used to drive up to theater every night to conduct the orchestra “in a pair-horse Victoria with two men on the box and used to walk onto the stage looking like a fashion plate in his dress clothes, with his black beard parted on both sides of his chin.

The story of The Shop Girl concerns an elderly millionaire searching for his recently deceased friend’s daughter, who has just inherited a great sum of money. Once the word gets out that one of the shop girls of the Royal Stores is really an heiress, marriage proposals abound as others try to get their share of the fortune. The ending reveals that the true millionaire’s daughter is not the girl that everyone had thought to be. The play is filled with false love, true love (Bessie’s engagement to Charles Appleby), mistaken identity, songs and general merriment. In addition, the actresses portraying The Shop Girls in the play themselves became objects of pursuit by wealthy individuals who got crushes on them while watching the play, sometimes for numerous times. Edwardes actually fashioned a special “gift book” with images of the leading actresses inside and which could be given out to special guest and stage-door johnnys who were regular viewers of the show and its girls!

Topics: English | Theater