2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the vibrant Australian musical Lola Montez. Our current display in Smorgon Family Plaza, made possible by a recent donation to the Australian Performing Arts Collection, celebrates both the musical and the designer, Hermia Boyd.
Lola Montez was devised by Alan Burke (writer), Peter Stannard (composer) and Peter Benjamin (lyrics) who sought to create a uniquely Australian musical. Set in Ballarat, the story was inspired by the real-life exploits of Lola Montez, the celebrated and notorious courtesan and dancer, who visited the Australian goldfields in 1855-56.
Lola Montez, born Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland in 1821, led a colourful and often scandalous life. After a childhood spent in India, England and France, and a failed married before the age of 20, Montez trained briefly as a dancer in Spain where she assumed her stage name. She then travelled across Europe performing her risqué routines.
After affairs with Franz Liszt and Alexandre Dumas, Montez travelled to Munich (claiming to be of Spanish nobility) and won the heart of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Rising within the court she exerted great political influence until her identity was exposed, Ludwig abdicated and she fled to Switzerland. Tours of North America, Europe and Australia followed.
Montez’s reputation preceded her in Melbourne, with audiences on the San Francisco goldfields the first to see her provocative ‘Spider Dance’ in the early 1850s. In Australia miners were said to have thrown gold nuggets on stage during her performance, but critical reviews were less favourable. Offended by a negative review published in the Ballarat Times, Montez publicly attacked the editor Henry Seekamp with a horsewhip.
A century later, this story was bought to life by Bourke, Stannard and Benjamin who first staged the musical in Melbourne in 1958. This production by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now Melbourne Theatre Company) was directed by John Sumner and starred Justine Rettick in the title role, with set and costumes designed by Warwick Armstrong. Impressed by the musical, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust then backed a commercial season in Sydney and Brisbane. This was directed by George Carden, featured English actress Mary Preston and was re-designed by Hermia Boyd.
Hermia Boyd – designing an Australian gold rush musical
Hermia Boyd (née Lloyd-Jones) was born in Sydney where she studied sculpture at East Sydney Technical College. During her studies she began working for Guy Boyd, a member of the artistic Boyd family, decorating his pottery. It was here she met Guy’s brother David whom she married in 1948. The couple travelled widely, spending extended periods of time living in both Australia and Europe where they set up their own pottery studios in Sydney, London and southern France. During this time Hermia frequently exhibited and worked across various mediums including ceramics, printmaking, painting and sculpture.
In 1958, after Hermia, David and their family returned to Sydney, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust employed Hermia as the designer for Lola Montez. Continuing the long tradition of artists designing for the stage she conceived both the sets and costumes for the musical. Her attention to detail and artistry invested the production with what critics described as a ‘picturesque grandeur’ that captured ‘the spirit of the place and the time’.
Although the musical received mixed reviews, the soundtrack was a success when it was released on record with the single ‘Saturday Girl’, featuring Michael Cole and Jane Martin, becoming a Top 40 hit.
Decades later, there is renewed interest in the musical. A revival is currently in development with a collaboration between the original composer Peter Stannard (now 86) and The Follies Company. The gala performance for this production opens at Parramatta Riverside Theatres on 2 June 2018.
Hermia Boyd & Lola Montez: Designing an Australian gold rush musical
20 January – 25 February | Smorgon Family Plaza
Arts Centre Melbourne