UNSUNG HEROINS – Sweetness wasn’t a quality Josephine Blake had when it came to musicals, but she was incisive and made her way through some pretty successful appearances in American musicals in Britain, with a few home-grown products along the increasingly thorny way
Josephine Blake shared the same old story with a host of other leading ladies – she s
logged away for years and always seemed ready for stardom, but her name didn’t catch on as it might have done. As always, there was the usual inability to harness the sparks she created on stage to a vehicle worthy of her.
She claimed to have made her stage debut at age fifteen. Anyway, the first professional engagement we can trace is in the revue You’ll Be Lucky at the Adelphi Theatre in February 1954; it starred the popular (and almost forgotten) radio comedian Al Read, with Sally Barnes and Lauri Lupino Lane. A year later Blake went into the British production of the Borodin-borrowed Kismet at the Stoll Theatre, listed in the programme as ‘Street Dancer’. Her first real solo role was in a very supporting part, backing Patricia Kirkwood, as Rose Brown in Chrysanthemum at the Prince of Wales Theatre in November 1958 and subsequently (and very briefly) at the Apollo Theatre. Trumpeted by some as one of the lost musical masterpieces of British theatre, Chrysanthemum didn’t appeal too much at the time, and threw in the towel after 148 performances, several of them without the show’s star.
There was no chance she would attract great interest hidden away in the long cast list of Chrysanthemum, but she had a real break when she was cast in the Peter Cook revue Pieces of Eight, again at the Apollo Theatre, which opened out to a great success in September 1959. Again, she was very much in support (the show’s main female ‘singer’, Myra de Groot, had qualities that matched Blake’s, and good numbers to deliver. We presume that Blake understudied her.) Blake was already working with excellent colleagues: the show had material not only by Cook but Harold Pinter, and starred Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding. There wasn’t a part to keep Blake in London until March 1963 when she got the strong supporting role of Smitty in Frank Loesser’s brilliant How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Shaftesbury Theatre. British audiences got Loesser’s joke, and lapped up his satire on big business for 520 performances. Blake was absolutely solid in a part that involved her in much of the score (notably the manic ‘Coffee break’ and ‘Been a long day’) exhibiting a voice that sounded as if it had never been near a dainty British musical.
She got good notices, too, in Strike a Light, the second musical about the Bryant and May matchgirls to hit London in 1966 (this time in July at the Piccadilly Theatre), but despite a cast that should have lured everyone into the stalls – headed by Jean Carson, Evelyn Laye and John Fraser – Strike a Light was scuppered and sank quickly. Blake’s supporting role of Keziah had the Plays and Players critic declaring the show’s one success was ‘an opulent blonde called Josephine Blake. Clad in mauve, and towering over everybody else … this was a veritable Brunhilde of Bethnal Green. She deserves a musical to herself – about Boaedicea, perhaps?’ Failing to be cast as Queen of the Iceni, Blake was chosen for the role of Nickie in the British production of Sweet Charity, seen at the Prince of Wales in October 1967. It was another hit at 476 performances, and once again showed how suitable she was at filling American requirements, but after Sweet Charity was done with she apparently vanished from London shows for many years.
She came back with something like a vengeance. In 1983 she played the leading role of Velma in the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum production of Chicago (before the show became really fashionable), and the same year she was cast as Kate Devlin in Peter Hall’s production of the musical Jean Seberg at the National Theatre. That turned out to be a flop of legendary proportions. Undeterred, Blake was often to be found in provincial setups through the years, tackling the roles that London had denied her – among them Lucille in No, No Nanette (at Plymouth), Rose in Gypsy (at Manchester) and, again at Manchester, Phyllis in Follies. She had enough oomph for all of them, and more besides.
She was now light years away from her days in Chrysanthemum, a natural born Broadway baby, and in 1988 she moved into London with a production of Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, originally done on Broadway by Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli. Allied with Diane Langton in the Minnelli role (for which she was rather unsuited), Blake gave a towering performance as the mother, Anna, without quite achieving the greatness the role demanded. It was nevertheless a tour de force that very few other British musical actresses would have even attempted. The show lasted at the Cambridge Theatre for a month, and seems to have put an end to her London career in musicals. The following year she played Mona Kent in a new tour of the fun-packed little show Dames at Sea. It started off at the charming Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne and embarked on a tour. At the matinee we attended at the Theatre Royal Brighton the magic was in rather short supply, and we did not stay for the second half, during which Miss Blake may well have been quite wonderful. She was not helped by some weak casting around her.
Fortunately, we have some good recordings of Miss Blake to remind us of her considerable gifts. Although British writers never took her up, she found a second (or first) home in American musicals, for which she had a superbly cutting voice and manner. Whatever audiences thought of her, they never slept when she was on.