|Chu Chin Chow|
Oscar Asche in Chu Chin Chow
|Basis||Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves|
|Productions||1916 West End
1940/1941 West End revival
Chu Chin Chow is a musical comedy written, produced and directed by Oscar Asche, with music by Frederic Norton, based (with minor embellishments) on the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. The piece premièred at His Majesty's Theatre in London on 3 August 1916 and ran for five years and a total of 2,238 performances (more than twice as many as any previous musical), an astonishing record that stood for nearly forty years until Salad Days. The show's first American production in New York, with additional lyrics by Arthur Anderson, played for 208 performances in 1917–1918, starring Tyrone Power. It subsequently had successful seasons elsewhere in America and Australia, including in 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922.
A silent film of the musical, starring Betty Blythe, was produced in 1925 using some of the music. A talking film, with the score intact, was made by the Gainsborough Studios in 1934, with George Robey as Ali Baba, Fritz Kortner as Abu Hasan, Anna May Wong as Zahrat Al-Kulub, Frank Cochrane reprising his stage role of the cobbler, and Laurence Hanray as Kasim. The show toured the British provinces for many years. It returned to London in 1940 for 80 performances, when it was interrupted by the London bombing but then returned in 1941 for another 158 nights. In 1953, an ice version was produced at London’s Empire Pool, Wembley, starring Tyrone Power, which also toured the provinces and abroad. Occasional productions are still mounted, including one in July 2008 by the Finborough Theatre in London, England.
The success of the "Arabian Nights" adaptation Kismet, a 1911 play by Edward Knoblock, inspired Oscar Asche to write and produce Chu Chin Chow. Asche directed the musical and played the lead role of Abu Hasan, leader of the forty thieves (the "Chu Chin Chow" of the title refers to the robber chief when impersonating one of his victims). Besides Asche, the production starred his wife, Lily Brayton, and the former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company star Courtice Pounds. Costumes were by the designer Percy Anderson.
Chu Chin Chow was described as a combination of musical comedy and pantomime. It was a big budget spectacular costing £5,300, with over a dozen scene changes, fantastic sets, big dance routines, exotic costumes and Asche's well-known innovative lighting designs. The design for the show was influenced by the English taste for all things connected with Asia (known as "orientalism") which had originated with Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Scheherazade. Theatre journal The Era said that Norton's music had "a touch of the East but for the most part it was on a level with the tender melody of musical comedy" and "hardly inspired". Nevertheless, many of the songs became hits, and "The Cobbler's Song" and "Any Time’s Kissing Time" in particular entered the repertoire of ballad singers for at least three or four decades.
Tickets to see Chu Chin Chow were particularly eagerly sought by troops on leave from the Western Front. One of the attractions for the on-leave soldiers was the chorus of pretty slave girls who, for the period, were very scantily dressed. Complaints, not by the soldiers, resulted in the Lord Chamberlain (the British theatre censor) viewing the show and requiring "this naughtiness" to be stopped—at least for a while. The cast was large and included a camel, a donkey, poultry and snakes. 2.8 million tickets to the show were issued. The year following the premiere of the musical, a souvenir booklet was prepared, which included a novelized version of the play by Willam A. Page. He included additional background explanations to explain the scenery and physical attributes of the characters.
Chu Chin Chow was one of three hit musical shows that are most associated with the London musical stage during World War I (the others being The Bing Boys Are Here and The Maid of the Mountains), and music or scenes from these have been included as background in many films set in this period. Interestingly, the three shows were each very different from each other. The Bing Boys was a revue, The Maid was essentially an operetta, and Chu Chin Chow is often considered an adult pantomime. Other popular musicals of the period were Theodore & Co (1916), The Happy Day (1916), The Boy (1917) and Yes, Uncle! (1917). Audiences wanted light and uplifting entertainment during the war, and all these shows delivered it.
The wealthy merchant Kasim Baba (brother of Ali Baba) is preparing to give a lavish banquet at his home for a wealthy Chinese merchant, Chu Chin Chow, who is on his way from China. The robber chieftain, Abu Hasan, wishes to add to his riches the property of Kasim. Abu Hasan forces his captive, the beautiful Zahrat al-Kulub, to spy for him in Kasim's house, disguised as a slave girl, by holding her lover hostage. She is nearly found out several times. Zahrat sends a message to Abu Hasan, letting him know about the banquet. Hasan arrives at Kasim's palace in disguise as Chu Chin Chow, whom his gang has robbed and murdered. He tries to glean information that will enable him to rob his host.
Meanwhile, the slaves tell Ali Baba, Kasim's poor, lazy brother, about Hasan's secret cave and the password "open sesame". Ali Baba enters the lair helps himself to some of the thieves' treasure. The greedy Kasim persuades his brother to tell him where his sudden wealth came from and slips out to see what he can find at Hasan's cave. Kasim finds the treasure but is captured by Abu Hasan and put to death. Hasan and his forty thieves plan an attack on Baba household on the occasion of the wedding of Ali Baba's son Nur al-Huda Ali and the slave girl Marjanah.
Finally, on the eve of the attack, Zahrat gets her revenge by disposing of Hasan's men using boiling oil, stabbing Abu Hasan to death, and generally saving the day. Zahrat and her lover are reunited, Ali Baba gets Kasim's widow, Alcolom, and all ends happily.
3 August 1916
|Original Broadway cast,
22 October 1917
|Abu Hasan||Oscar Asche||Tyrone Power, Sr.|
|Kasim Baba/Cobbler||Frank Cochrane||Albert Howson|
|Ali Baba||Courtice Pounds||Henry Dixey|
|Nur al-Huda Ali||J. V. Bryant||George Rasely|
|Abdullah||Norman Williams||Francis J. Boyle|
|Marjanah||Violet Essex||Tessa Kosta|
|Zahrat al-Kulub||Lily Brayton||Florence Reed|
|Alcolom||Aileen D'Orme||Kate Condon|
|Mahbubah||Sydney Fairbrother||Lucy Beaumont|
Major productions included the following: