It's Australian - and it's good!

By: John Thomson

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Source: National Library of Australia News, December 2003 (Volume XIV Number 3)

For the accompanying Images to this article please refer to the Image Gallery

The Australian Musical Collit's Inn


John Thomson explores the history of one of the earliest Australian musicals


Collage of Collits Inn programsAt the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, exactly 70 years ago this month, on 23 December 1933, the curtain rose on the ‘gala world premiere’ of Collits’ Inn, billed as ‘the first Australian historical musical play’. After extensive publicity, the opening was widely anticipated. Radio 3KZ had a special descriptive broadcast, relayed to other states, of the audience arriving at the theatre, followed by a live broadcast of Act

One. Inside the theatre were the state premier, the lord mayor and ‘a crowded audience representative of Melbourne’s world of fashion’.


The stars of the professional Collits’ Inn was written by well-known Sydney journalist and broadcaster, Tom Stuart Gurr, with music and lyrics by Sydney composer Varney Monk. The papers of Varney Monk, now in the National Library, contain a wealth of detail about Collits’ Inn as well as her forthright comments on the production.


The story of Collits’ Inn goes back much further than 1933. In 1801, Irishman Pierce Collits arrived in Sydney as a convict, but he later prospered in the colony. In 1823 he built an inn, The Golden Fleece, at the foot of the steep and dangerous Cox’s Pass over Mount York (near present day Lithgow) on the main road from Sydney to Bathurst. Its fortunes have fluctuated and its name has varied over the years but Collits’ Inn still stands and has recently been extensively restored.


In the 1920s it was run as a popular guesthouse, offering country activities in green and peaceful surroundings. Amongst the many guests were Varney Monk and her husband Cyril, a violinist. The Monks had spent their honeymoon in the area and had returned many times, loving the atmosphere of the district and its strong historical connections.


Collits' InnIn 1931 Nathalie Rosenwax, a prominent Sydney singing teacher, announced a Light Opera and Revue Competition. Varney Monk decided to enter and approached Tom Stuart Gurr, one of her neighbours, with the supposedly true story of Pierce Collits’ daughter Amelia and her doomed love for a soldier. Gurr drew further on the historical background of the old inn and its romantic surroundings, and fashioned a dramatic love story of two men striving for the affections of a beautiful young girl. He later claimed this story was entirely fictitious.


The competition attracted about 40 entries from all over Australia and the results were announced in April 1932. Collits’ Inn won second prize but, despite this, Nathalie Rosenwax decide to use her students and mount a production of it. The Island of Palms by Arnold R. Mote and Margery Browne won the £100 first prize but appears never to have been produced. Collits’ Inn opened for a packed five-night season at the Savoy Theatre, Sydney, on 5 December 1932, in the presence of the New South Wales governor. It featured Rosenwax’s star pupil, professional soprano Rene Maxwell as Mary Collits, with radio personality Jack Winn in the comedy part. It was conducted by Howard Carr (a noted musician who had edited and orchestrated the score) with Cyril Monk leading the orchestra. Newspapers next day pronounced it a success mainly due to two factors, the romantic Australian story and the ‘beautiful melodic themes, richly orchestrated and admirably performed’. There were repeat performances at the Mosman Town Hall in March 1933. In a letter written in 1935, Varney remembered that ‘our struggles to get the work on were hideous of course and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Mr Carr for being so generous in seeing my possibilities’.


Australia by Varney Monk, from the original score of Collits' InnThe musical received further exposure with a broadcast by the ABC on a national radio hook-up in June 1933, again featuring Rene Maxwell as Mary Collits. Varney continued to promote the work and took it to Australia’s leading theatrical entrepreneurs, J.C. Williamsons. As she recalled in a letter dated 1935, ‘it was turned down by the Managing Director as no good. I also used the usual argument … that the possibilities in any new show by unknown people were very seldom sensed by those to whom it was offered.’


Following this disappointment, it looked like the end for Collits’ Inn but for the fact that Francis William Thring, a successful filmmaker, was turning his attention to stage productions. Thring felt that ‘a country which could produce a Melba, a Florence Austral and many other world-famous names, should surely possess individuals capable of providing the material for musical productions equal to those from abroad’. Thring not only wanted to stage a series of Australian musicals but also hoped that they ‘may be transferred to the screen, as films suitable for world consumption’.


Varney continues the story— ‘the way Mr Thring heard the music of Collits’ Inn was that I took a good girl to Melbourne with a good voice and she sang it with a good band and I have never seen Mr Thring look so pleased since’. Thring agreed that his company Efftee Attractions would produce it professionally.


Photograph of the set for Act OneF.W. Thring demonstrated his faith in the future of Australian musicals by sparing no expense on the production. Gladys Moncrieff, Australia’s most popular star of light opera, was put under a 12-month contract. In keeping with his all-Australian policy, Thring brought back from London two Australians, Robert Chisholm to play opposite Moncrieff and Claude Fleming to both direct and play the rival for Mary Collits’ hand. George Wallace, the foremost comedian of the day was also cast. The programme boasted of ‘boundless energy’ and extensive research ensuring the accuracy of the costumes and the ‘first complete revolving stage in the history of Australian theatre’.


Collits’ Inn underwent extensive revision for the professional production. George Wallace’s comic role was expanded considerably, to the point that several critics complained it overshadowed the main story. New songs were added. Taking advantage of the extra resources available, the corroboree ballet was expanded and re-orchestrated. According to Varney, it was based on a genuine chant she had once heard during a chance encounter with an Aboriginal woman in a toy shop in Kiama. With its dramatic costumes and makeup, it was to become the most talked about scene of the production. Varney recalled it ‘was considered to be more spectacular than the Totem Dance in Rose Marie … and the wild abandon of the Snake and Kangaroo corroboree thrilled the audiences’.


Following the 1933 Melbourne premiere, The Age reported

the most uproarious enthusiasm with which the play was received from start to finish, and the gasps of amazement and admiration that resounded through the theatre as that ingenious novelty a revolving stage revealed several scenes of spectacular colour and beauty left no doubt at all as to the success of the show.

Watercolour costume desigSmith’s Weekly said ‘its Australian—and its good’, a theme common to many reviews. The Sydney Daily Telegraph said ‘It was with a distinct shock that the audience realised that this play was Australian; that some one had had the audacity to use gum trees (magnificently reproduced gum trees) as a setting; that someone had realised the potentialities of a corroboree for ballet. Something for even New York to become excited about.’ The Melbourne Argus proclaimed ‘It satisfies as no Rose Marie or Lilac Time can satisfy.’


Varney Monk’s score was found to be especially tuneful. The duet, ‘Stay While the Stars Are Shining’, was generally regarded as the hit song. The Age even suggested that in the song ‘Australia’ there was ‘a fine rousing patriotic piece fit to be adopted as a national anthem’. Despite this success, Varney commented later that ‘the disarrangement of the numbers by Efftee Company made the music less effective than the amateur performances’.


Collits’ Inn ran for 16 weeks in Melbourne, achieving over 120 performances. It transferred to Sydney in June 1934. Despite more enthusiastic reviews, it ran for a disappointing eight weeks, perhaps due to playing in an unsuitable theatre. It had a three- week return season in Melbourne in October 1934.


Continuing his series of Australian works, F.W. Thring produced Varney Monk’s next musical, The Cedar Tree, and expatriate Dudley Glass’s Beloved Vagabond in 1934–35. Neither was successful and what Thring had hoped would be ‘the beginning of a new era in Australian stage productions’ faded.


A film version of Collits’ Inn was planned but never eventuated, although a soundtrack is preserved in the collection of ScreenSound Australia. Thring’s untimely death in 1936 brought an end to the grand plans.


Portrait of Varney MonkVarney never gave up her belief in Collits’ Inn and her hope that it would achieve wider recognition. Her papers contain letters to Oswald Stoll, a leading London entrepreneur, but Collits’ Inn was never to achieve an overseas production. Writing in 1966, Varney conveys in her rambling style the drama behind the production:

the advent is an epic in itself of the musical play from enterprise, struggle, all services given free, good luck, success—then to bitter disappointment for when it ran its course in Australia, and no one saw it from overseas it stopped—and thus many first rate artists, some celebrated, lived to see their enthusiasm ‘written in water’.

Since the original productions in 1933–34, Collits’ Inn has faded from the stage. There have been two truncated versions broadcast on ABC radio and a few amateur productions, but even the publication of the libretto by Currency Press in 1990 failed to generate much interest.


Collits’ Inn was hailed as a unique Australian musical. It was not the first theatrical production to use Australian settings, nor was it, as is commonly claimed, the first Australian musical. This honour seems to go to the intriguingly named FFF: An Australian Mystery Musical Comedy, which had seasons in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne in 1920. Collits’ Inn was not The Great Australian Musical many hoped it would be. But it proved that Australian creativity and talent could produce an original work that Australian audiences wanted to see and was judged worthy of a place on the world stage.


John Thomson is a former arts librarian. He is currently a consultant on ephemera and performing arts resources


For the accompanying Images to this article please refer to the Image Gallery