Gertrude Lawrence Biography

Gertrud Alexandra Dagmar Lawrence Klasen, 4 July 1898, London, England, d. 6 September 1952. An actress, singer, dancer, comedienne, one of the most vivacious and elegant performers in the history of West End and Broadway theatre. Coming from a showbusiness family, her mother was an actress and her father a singer, Lawrence studied dancing under Madame Espinosa. She made her first proper stage appearance at the age of 12, as a child dancer in the pantomime Babes In The Wood at the south London, Brixton Theatre. In 1913, while studying acting and elocution under Italia Conte, where her cockney accent was obliterated, she met the 12-year-old Noël Coward who was to have such an important influence on her later career. After appearing in various provincial theatres in shows such as Miss Lamb Of Canterbury and Miss Plaster Of Paris, Lawrence made her West End debut in 1916 at the Vaudeville Theatre as principal dancer and understudy in André Charlot’s revue, Some. In 1920, after taking a variety of roles in other revues such as Cheep, Tabs andBuzz-Buzz, she appeared as leading lady at Murray’s Club, London’s first cabaret entertainment. Later, she toured variety theatres with Walter Williams, before taking the lead, with Jack Buchanan, inA To Z (1921), followed by De-De, Rats and Noël Coward’s London’s Calling! (1923), in which she introduced his bitter-sweet ‘Parisian Pierrot’. She then co-starred on Broadway with Beatrice Lillie in the successful André Charlot’s Revue of 1924, giving America its first taste of ‘Limehouse Blues’.

In 1926, after more Charlot associations, including his Revue Of 1926, in which she sang ‘A Cup Of Coffee, A Sandwich And You’, Lawrence became the first English actress to originate a role on Broadway before playing it in London, when she took the lead in her first ‘book’ musical, Oh, Kay, with a score by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, which included ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’, ‘Maybe’, and ‘Do-Do-Do’. After repeating her triumph in the West End, Lawrence appeared in several other musicals productions in the late 20s, although none were as lavish as the International Revue (1930) in New York, in which she sang Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields’ catchy ‘Exactly Like You’ with Harry Richman. In the same year she was back in London, co-starring with Coward in his sophisticated light comedyPrivate Lives, fondly remembered for lines such as ‘Strange how potent cheap music is’, and the waltz, ‘Someday I’ll Find You’. During the 30s Lawrence appeared in a number of successful straight plays, including Can The Leopard?, Behold We Live, This Inconsistency, Heavy House, Susan And God andSkyllark.

One musical highlight of the decade was Nymph Errant (1933), in which she sang the title song ‘Experiment’, ‘How Could We Be Wrong?’, ‘It’s Bad For Me’ and one of Cole Porter’s most amusing ‘list songs’, ‘The Physician’ (‘He said my epidermis was darling/And found my blood as blue as could be/He went through wild ecstatics when I showed him my lymphatics/But he never said he loved me’). Another, Tonight At 8.30 (1936), saw her re-united with Coward in his series of one-act plays, two of which, Shadowplay, (‘Then’, ‘Play Orchestra Play’ and ‘You Were There’) and Red Peppers (‘Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?’ and ‘Men About Town’), are particularly celebrated. That was the last time Lawrence was seen in a musical production in London. She and Coward took Tonight At 8.30 to New York in 1936, and, five years later, Lawrence had her biggest Broadway success to date when she appeared in Lady In The Dark, with a score by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, which gave her the droll ‘Jenny’ and the haunting ‘My Ship’.

For much of the 40s she toured countries such as Belgium, France, Holland and the Pacific Ocean Area, on behalf of the USO and ENSA, entertaining the Allied Troops. At the end of World War II, Lawrence began a three-year engagement as Eliza in a revival of Pygmalion, which played New York and toured the USA. She also appeared in various other straight plays in the UK and the USA, including September Tide (1949), and completed The Glass Menagerie, the last in a series of films she made, beginning with The Battle Of Paris (1929). In March 1951, she opened on Broadway in ‘the most satisfying role of my career’, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s spectacular musical The King And I, playing the part of the children’s Governess, Anna for well over a year before being taken ill with a rare form of cancer. She died in September 1952, within a week of being admitted into hospital. Rodgers subscribed to the view, widely held throughout her lifetime, that Lawrence sang flat. ‘Just the same’, he said, ‘whenever I think of Anna, I think of Gertie’.

In 1968, the movie Star!, purported to relate her life story. Starring Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey as Noël Coward, it ran for almost three hours (‘cost $14 million and took four’), and was subsequently trimmed to two and re-titled Those Were The Happy Times. In the early 80s, UK critic and author Sheridan Morley devised the after-dinner entertainmentNoel And Gertie, which, revised and expanded, toured abroad and played in the West End in 1989 with Patricia Hodge as Gertie and Simon Cadell as Coward. Subsequently, the leading roles were played by Susan Hampshire and Edward Petherbridge, amongst others, and - off-Broadway in 1992 - by Jane Summerhays and Michael Zaslow.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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