Cyril Ritchard 1898 – 1977 and Madge Elliott 1896 – 1955
- Cyril Ritchard 1898 – 1977 and Madge Elliott 1896 – 1955
Cyril Ritchard 1898 – 1977 and Madge Elliott 1896 – 1955
Cyril Joseph Trimnell Ritchard was born on 1 December 1898 at Surry Hills in Sydney.
Leah Madeleine Elliott was born in London on 12 May 1898 and grew up in Toowoomba, Queensland, where she learnt to dance.
In 1932 Cyril and Madge returned to Australia for J.C. Williamson’s.
Their stay in Australia climaxed with their wedding – 15 years after they had first met.
The Singing Lunts
‘He is a light comedian and dancer with the creative humour and alertness of a Jack Buchanan, the head and legs of a Noel Coward, and better looks than either, and with a charm and personality all his own’ – that’s how Theatre World magazine summed up Cyril Ritchard when he hit London in 1925.
Ritchard achieved an international career that lasted for 60 years. He danced, sang, acted and directed on stage, film and television with a grace and charm that endeared him to audiences and to his fellow artists. He was as at home in revue as he was in Restoration comedy, as adept at beguiling youngsters as a jaunty Captain Hook as he was at directing the Metropolitan Opera. And he was for thirty yeas half of the most glamorous and most loved stage partnership Australia has produced.
Cyril Joseph Trimnell Ritchard was born on 1 December 1898 at Surry Hills in Sydney. His distaste for blood sent him scurrying from medical studies at Sydney University to Her Majesty’s Theatre where, in 1917, he debuted in the chorus of The Waltz Dream. For the next seven years J.C. Williamson’s cast him in increasingly important juvenile leads in a succession of popular musicals.
Leah Madeleine Elliott was born in London on 12 May 1898 and grew up in Toowoomba, Queensland, where she learnt to dance. She was a member of the children’s ballet in the Melba Grand Opera Company in 1911. She shot to stardom as a vivacious blonde dancer and singer in J.C. Williamson musicals. It was Williamson’s ballet mistress Minnie Hooper who suggested that young Cyril would make an ideal stage partner for her. Already a stage veteran, Miss Elliott declared, ‘I don’t dance with beginners.’ It took Cyril two years to make her change her mind. In 1919 they soared to popularity in the ‘aeroplane musical’ Going Up. Before long they were Australia’s answer to Vernon and Irene Castle.
In 1924 Ritchard made his New York debut in the revue Puzzles of 1925. Later that year he and Madge appeared in London in the revue Bubbly and went on to work together in a further half dozen frothy West End musicals. Cyril had the distinction of appearing in Britain’s last silent film, Piccadilly, as well as its first talkie, Hitchcock’s Blackmail.
In 1932 Cyril and Madge returned to Australia for J.C. Williamson’s. The public loved them. They were mobbed when they opened the nation’s very first milk bar – Mick Adams’ Black and White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place – on 4 November 1932. Crowds flocked to see them in musicals like Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce and Jerome Kern’s Roberta, which Cyril directed. They also appeared in the Australian musical Blue Mountain Melody (1934).
Their stay in Australia climaxed with their wedding – 15 years after they had first met. On 16 September 1935 a vast crowd – mainly women – gathered outside Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral to wish them well, ignoring the sectarian objections to the marriage: the bride was Protestant and the groom was Catholic.
Back in London they appeared together and separately in plays, musicals, pantomimes and revues. It was in the revue Up and Doing, in 1940, that Cyril introduced ‘The Oldest Chorus Boy in London,’ an endearing, show-stopping self parody: ‘I’m Cyril, the scourge of the stage – gosh I’m old.’ He and Madge had big hits with Gay Rosalinda, a reworking of Die Fledermaus, and with a revival of The Merry Widow which they toured for the troops.
After the war they starred in Noel Coward’s revue Sigh No More. In a reference to the famous American husband-and-wife acting team, Coward nick-named them ‘the singing Lunts’ – though, according to Ian Bevan, during the frequently bumpy rehearsal period, Coward ‘was heard to change the first consonant of the surname to telling effect.’ In 1942 Cyril scored in his first non-singing role: Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest with John Gielgud and Edith Evans.
In 1946 J.C. Williamson’s brought Cyril and Madge back to Australia to star in Tonight at 8.30, Noel Coward’s short play anthology. They made another trip in 1951, appearing in Sir Ben Fuller’s last production, Coward’s Private Lives. The following year Cyril co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in Shaw’s The Millionairess in London and New York. From then on he divided his time between the two capitals, especially after Madge’s death on 8 August 1955. Happily she lived to see him win a Tony Award for his delightfully playful portrayal of Captain Hook in the musical version of Peter Pan, and direct his first opera, The Barber of Seville, for the Met.
In New York Cyril championed the work of the young Australian playwright Sumner Locke Elliott. He directed Elliott’s play Buy Me Blue Ribbons, included some of his satirical material in the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, and starred in Elliott’s television musical The King and Mrs Candle.
In 1958 Ritchard directed the play The Pleasure of His Company on Broadway, starring in it opposite Cornelia Otis Skinner. Its enormous success was repeated when they brought it to Australia for J.C. Williamson’s in 1960.
The last 20 years of Ritchard’s life were his most productive. He directed many operas, appeared on television in plays, musicals and specials, starred on Broadway in hit plays and musicals including The Happiest Girl in the World (1961), The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (1965) and Sugar (1973), and co-starred with Tommy Steele in the film Half a Sixpence (1967). In 1977 he provided the voice of Elrond in an animated version of The Hobbit. In November that year he suffered a heart attack while appearing as the narrator in the touring company of Side By Side By Sondheim. He died on 18 December 1977 and was buried in St Mary’s Cemetery, Ridgefield, Connecticut. He was 79 years old.
Today, Madge and Cyril’s magic partnership has faded into history, but Cyril’s artistry survives, thanks to his many recordings and his film appearances. A large collection of his personal memorabilia has been acquired by the National Library in Canberra.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Ian Bevan: Theatre Royal, Currency Press, 1993
Alwyn Capern: ‘Madge Elliott’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Judy Harris: Cyril Ritchard: http://users.bestweb.net/
~foosie/cyril.htm John Rickard: ‘Leah Madeleine Elliott and Cyril Joseph Ritchard’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 14. Melbourne University Press, 1996
John Thomson: ‘Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott: A Glamorous Couple’, in National Library of Australia News, May 2006
Who’s Who in the Theatre, various editions, Pitman
John West: ‘Cyril Ritchard’, in Companion to Theatre in AustraliaCurrency Press, 1995