Canterbury Tales is a musical conceived by Martin Starkie and written by Nevill Coghill and Martin Starkie with music by John Hawkins and Richard Hill. Originally presented at the Oxford Playhouse in 1964, it was expanded into a full-length musical and presented at the Phoenix Theatre, London on 21 March 1968 and ran for 2,080 performances.
|Music||John Hawkins |
|Book||Martin Starkie |
|Basis||The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer|
|Productions||1968 West End|
It was considered to be very bawdy, and was written soon after the Lord Chamberlain's censorship of the theatre had just ended.
The musical adds songs to five humorous tales: The Miller's Tale; The Nun's Priest's Tale; The Reeve's Tale; The Merchant's Tale; and The Wife of Bath's Tale. In addition, Chaucer's Prologue and Epilogue were spoken. The purpose behind these stories was that Harry Bailey, one of the main characters, declares that each pilgrim should tell a tale on the way to Canterbury so that the ride would be more enjoyable.
"The Miller's Tale" is about a man named Nicholas, who studied astrology and the art of love at Oxford. Nicolas boards with a wealthy man named John who has a very attractive eighteen-year-old wife named Alisoun. John is highly possessive and very jealous of anyone who even speaks to his wife. One day, Alisoun and Nicholas meet while the husband is away. Nicholas grabs Alisoun and asks her to sleep with him; at first she is reluctant, but after she realises how sweet he is she agrees. However, Alisoun is afraid that her husband John might find out even though Nicholas acts like nothing bad will come of the affair. Unfortunately for Nicholas, he isn't the only one that fancies Alisoun. A very merry man named Absolon also desires her and serenades her and buys her gifts every day. Although Absolon showers her with gifts, Alisouns heart really belongs to Nicholas. So Nicholas devises a plan to get the husband and Absolon away from Alisoun. He fools the old man into believing that there is going to be a flood. However, when the time comes the old man makes a fool of himself and the whole town is there to witness.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is about 'What women most desire'. A poor, ugly, old widow saves the life of a young knight and magically transforms back to a beautiful young wife after a kiss. This tale is very close to that of "The Frog Prince".
The Merchant's Tale is like a Fabliau. Here one can find Chaucer's most elaborate display of rhetorical art. The original production was notable for Nicky Henson's rendition of the ambiguously-titled "I have a noble cock" (based on a real medieval lyric). The object of his affections, the Merchant's wife May, was played by Gay Soper.
The London production opened on 21 March, 1968 at the Phoenix Theatre in London. It played for a record-breaking 2080 performances, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton attending the premiere, and closed on 24 March 1973. There were many fine moments, including Billy Boyle's performance of "Where are the girls of yesterday?" (based on the mediaeval theme "Où sont les neiges d'antan?" – "where are the snows of yesteryear?"), Nicky Henson's memorable comic rendition of the obscenely punning "I have a noble cock" (an actual English mediaeval lyric), and the Prioress's final declamation of "Love Conquers All" (based on her golden ornament with a crowned A, for Omnia Vincit Amor). Other cast members in London included Gay Soper, and Wilfred Brambell, notably as the characters May and January respectively, in The Merchant's Tale. The Wife of Bath was played by Jessie Evans.
The show subsequently ran throughout the world in all English-speaking countries and was translated for presentations in Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Prague and Norway. It ran for fifteen months in Australia.
The 1969 Broadway version only managed 121 performances. It was presented by Frank Loesser (Frank Productions Ltd) of Guys and Dolls fame, Hollywood Producer Jerry Weintraub and Martin Kummer (Management Three Ltd.). The high cost of keeping a show on Broadway at the time (80% to break even) contributed to a premature closure. However, choreographer Sammy Dallas Bayes was nominated for Best Choreography, and the costume designer Loudon Sainthill won that year's Tony Award.
In 1970, Jimmy Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein II, directed a highly successful US tour with choreography by Tommy Tune. The new, revised show included the very entertaining 'The Nun's Priest's Tale', included in the London, West End version, but not in the Broadway version. The tour was so successful, the show was scheduled to open on Broadway. However, the producer Hal James died suddenly and the tour came to an end.
In 1988 Jason Mullen and Hugh Leadon of Ortrex Ltd produced a scaled-down production of the musical in conjunction with Martin Starkie and Classic Presentations Ltd, touring theatres in Wales and Kent It was directed by Martin Starkie and Sylvia Denning.
• Chaucer • Clerk of Oxford • Host • The Miller • Nun • Prioress • Squire • Steward • Sweetheart • The Wife of Bath • Alisoun • Cook • Friar • Knight • May • Merchant • Molly • Pardoner • Priest • Robin • Summoner
- Overture – Orchestra
- Song of Welcome – Host
- Canterbury Day – Pilgrims
- Darling, Let Me Teach You How To Kiss – Absalon
- I Have A Noble Cock – Nicholas
- Pater Noster – Nicholas, Alison, Carpenter
- There's The Moon – Nicholas, Alison
- It Depends on Where You're At – Nun, Wife of Bath, Chorus
- Love Will Conquer All – Prioress, Nun, Chorus
- Beer Is Best – John, Alan, Miller, Molly, Chorus
- Come on And Marry Me, Honey – Wife of Bath
- Where Are The Girls of Yesterday? – Host, Chorus
- If She Has Never Loved Before – January
- I'll Give My Love A Ring – Damien, May
- Pear Tree – May, Proserpina, January, Damian, Pluto
- I Am All Ablaze – Squire
- What Do Women Want? – Knight
- April Song – Village Girls
- Love Will Conquer All (reprise)
More Canterbury Tales, a sequel by the same creative team, premiered in Melbourne on 23 October 1976.
- The remarks about the original London production including identifications of actors and song titles, are personal recollections.
- Chaucer Heritage Trust website, history section. Accessed 20 October 2021
- "This is Theatre" website, Canterbury Tales entry. Accessed 20 October 2021
- R.T. Davies, Mediaeval English Lyrics: A Critical Anthology (Northwestern University Press, 1964) no. 64, on p.153