In their charming and poignant one woman show, Jessica Walker and Director/Co-Writer Neil Bartlett (with Joseph Atkins at the Piano and Music Direction and Musical Arrangements by James Holmes) create a tribute to the artistry and glamour of the often outrageous cross-dressing women of the British music hall and American variety stages, taking a uniquely contemporary look at what it means when a woman wears the trousers - on stage.
Ms. Walker tells the story of these often infamous entertainers and the curious area they occupied as performers; women playing men, obviously, but singing about the joys, the beauty and the sexuality of the female form as well. The show chronicles the history of several of the women who embarked upon wildly successful show-biz careers by dressing up as men. Although the objective was not to fool the audience, as Walker notes - these performers “always sang in their own voices” - there was more than a bit of ambiguity as to the meaning of their work, and lingering suspicions about whether their onstage antics reflected their off-stage lives.
CD Liner Notes:
What is it that makes a woman in male attire so appealing? Having spent much of my career playing trouser roles in opera and music theatre, this was a question I often found myself pondering. The concerted search for some answers to this question came as a result of someone’s chance remark, post show, about my resemblance to Victorian male impersonator Vesta Tilley. Intrigued, I bought a biography of the lady in question, and began my journey of discovery into a rich and subversive world of largely forgotten performance history; the history of the British and American women who had taken to the stage dressed as men, singing about wine, women and war to the delight of their audiences. The stories of these ladies, and the songs they sang, inspired the creation of The Girl I Left Behind Me.
Vesta Tilley, it turned out, though certainly iconic, emerged as one of the most feminized and least daring of the male impersonators, living and performing as she did in Victorian England, when to be ‘mannish’ was not deemed acceptable. Amazingly, though, from as early as the 1860’s Annie Hindle – a woman who was as happy to be called sir as madam – was already entreating vast audiences in song not to ‘put their foot on a man when he’s down’ in full male costume. Pioneer Hindle paved the way for Ella Wesner, another American artist who challenged social convention, spending periods of time dressed as and identifying as a man offstage as well as on, and even ‘marrying’ another woman. As early as 1888 Wesner was singing, ‘all those who’ve never made love to a girl, well, they don’t know the fun they have missed’. Adding to this list of powerful and often outrageous performers came Hetty King, Ella Shields and Gladys Bentley, all contributing to the art of cross-dressing in their own particular ways.
To tell the stories of these extraordinary performers, I was fortunate enough to be teamed up with the brilliant theatre director and author Neil Bartlett. He quickly identified that what would make the subject interesting today was not only to look at why Annie, Vesta and Ella felt the need to put on trousers, but to examine why I wanted to dress up as a man and sing these long forgotten songs. As a result, the narrator figure in the show who talks about the lives of these remarkable women, and then sings their songs, could be construed as a version of myself. S/he often speaks in the first person, and sometimes even forgets altogether that s/he is actually meant to be talking about somebody else. Although the show is indeed a tribute and testament to the performers themselves, it is also very much a piece that explores my personal connection to the material, and, perhaps as importantly, my relationship with the audience.
The audiences who flocked to see and hear performers like Tilley reacted to them in an extreme and surprising way. Men had their suits tailored to match Vesta’s; women waited at the stage door and proposed marriage to her. The audience seemed to want to buy into this illusion of girl as boy. They took part in the whole deception of the act, and an exploration of this audience collusion is a central theme in the show Neil and I created.
Of course a show about singers would be nothing without the songs. Ranging from the best known number After the Ball to the 19th century obscurity Down by the Old Mill Stream, to the poignant Civil War love song The Girl l Left Behind Me, they give a huge emotional and physical range to explore. For the original production Musical Director and accompanist Jim Holmes brought his ability to rearrange and invent on the spot, using the piano, in effect, as another character in the show, with his witty instrumental interjections. For this recording we have the contribution of accompanist Joseph Atkins, MD and arranger, who played for the NY performances of the show, and who has brought his own unique style to the piece.
There are three extra numbers on the disc, all of them arranged by Joseph Atkins. The first two are songs that didn’t make it into the show, purely because we were so strict about only including songs that fitted into our narrative thread. If You Knew Susie could be viewed as the encore that never was. Come into the Garden, Maud is a rare, American setting of the Tennyson poem, and is hauntingly beautiful. The final song, Sally, is a later song, made famous by Gracie Fields, who did not sing it cross-dressed. In my version, I am definitely wearing a tux…
Jessica Walker, London, September 2013
From The New York Times review by Charles Isherwood, Sunday, May 5, 2013:
“The Girl I Left Behind Me,” [New York Times ‘Critics Pick’] features the gorgeously gifted singer Jessica Walker, who along with the writer & director Neil Bartlett, conjure a vanished novelty of the theater, the cross-dressing female performers who once fascinated large audiences in England and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Strange as it may seem in these days of increasingly blurred gender norms, watching a woman dressed as a man singing songs of love for women may actually be a more exotic entertainment today than it was a century ago.
Ms. Walker herself is certainly a bewitching performer. Looking moderately boyish, with her strongly planed face and strawberry-blond hair in a crisp masculine cut, she has a voice that you’d never mistake for a man’s: a pure, bright soprano of such melting beauty I think I could listen to it forever.