Presented in two acts, the story concerns Abu Hasan, an intrepid merchant-pirate who masquerades in various extravagant disguises (including that of a Hebrew Damascene and a Grecian prince), so that he and his forty brigands can plunder and humiliate the wealthy despots of the East, enriching Hasan's already overflowing and legendary cave. For this particular adventure, he becomes the great Chu Chin Chow of China as a means of gaining access to the palace of Kasim Baba. A secondary theme concerns the two lovely slave girls (Zahrat and Marjanah, the latter in love with Nur-Al-Hudra) who are determined to win their freedom. Zahat discovers Abu Hasan's true identity after 'Chu Chin Chow' kills Kasim, while Marjanah stumbles on the secret password for his hideout ('Open sesame'). She is then able to set in motion the opportunity they need. The women counter Chu Chin Chow's cunning with feminine guile and create the opportunity they need by bargaining with the brigand chieftain. Abu Hasan attempts to overcome their plan by attending the wedding of Marjanah and Nur disguised as a wealthy oil merchant, whose forty jars of 'oil' actually hold forty brigands. Zahat discovers both his identity and evil plans, and kills his men by pouring boiling oil over them. She then finishes the job by stabbing Abu Hasan to death.
The Saturday Review wrote of Chu Chin Chow's London closing in 1921:
'He came, like another Eastern, King David, to a good old age, full of riches and honour. But none can ever reign in his stead. There is left a gap in the life of London, and indeed of the country, which nothing can adequately fill, for Chu Chin Chow had become in truth part of the national life. Country cousins set out upon the desperate adventure of their first visit to the metropolis with the firm determination to see it come else what may. It had supplanted in their hearts the place usually reserved for the Abbey or the Tower. It had become a tradition which nothing can adequately fill' (qtd in Brisbane Courier 24 September 1921, p.13).
A burlesque of Chu Chin Chow, which had recently closed in Melbourne after a three-month season at the Tivoli Theatre.
Inspired by the Brisbane season of Oscar Asche's famous musical extravaganza Chu Chin Chow, which had closed the previous week.
A film adaptation of Oscar Asche's spectacular stage musical.
Produced from the ABC's Melbourne studios, Chu Chin Chow was a radio adaptation of the long-running and highly successful stage play by Oscar Asche.
Seemingly a distinct adaptation from the ABC's radio version of Chu Chin Chow (which had been broadcast in 1932), this version was adapted for radio by British script-writer Henrik Ege, and included Oscar Asche in the role that he had originated.
The second film adaptation of Oscar Asche's Chu Chin Chow.
One of multiple BBC radio adaptations of Chu Chin Chow, this one credited to theatre historian W. Macqueen-Pope.
One of several BBC radio adaptations of Chu Chin Chow, this time adapted by script-writer Desmond Davis.
An adaptation of the musical play Chu Chin Chow. Chu Chin Chow ... on Ice ran for three months, and was aired on the BBC as part of its Sunday-night theatre programming.
One of several adaptations of Chu Chin Chow to BBC radio, this one credited to Harold Neden.
One of several BBC versions of Chu Chin Chow, this adaptation was credited to Alastair Scott-Johnson.
Generally described as an 'oriental extravaganza', Chu Chin Chow remains arguably the greatest overseas theatrical success written by an Australian. Although never achieving the same level of critical acclaim for its narrative and dramatic sensibilities as Asche's previous success, Kismet, the production was viewed on both sides of the Atlantic (and in Australia) as having set a new benchmark as spectacle and as entertainment. Two of the clauses in the contract between Asche and English producer Sir Herbert Beerbolm-Tree (who ended up owning 25 percent of the show) stipulated that Chu Chin Chow could remain at His Majesty's indefinitely on two conditions: that the receipts did not fall below £2500 for two consecutive weeks and that Asche continued to play the lead role.
Even during the World War II air raids on London, the production never fell below the minimum box-office take, while Asche presented the character of Abu Hasan on stage for all but a couple of weeks of the London run. During his absence, which came about on his physician's orders, the role was taken up by E. Lyall Swete, who subsequently went on to direct the American production (starring Tyrone Power as Abu Hassan/Chu Chin Chow). Chu Chin Chow ran for five years in London (2,238 performances), a record that lasted almost forty years. It also opened for six months on Broadway in 1917-18, and was successfully staged in Australia. The royalties alone made Asche a millionaire. The New York season and Asche's 1920-23 Australian tour were essentially replicas of the London show, with the scenery and costumes made by the original producers and transported by ship.
The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote of Chu Chin Chow:
'While not possessing the melodramatic intensity of Kismet, [it] has more the character of a pageant - a pageant which now suggests grand opera, now a rich fantasy, now a musical comedy... but a pageant with such a bewildering succession of scenes and variety of characters as only a hurried trip through the Orient could bring' (qtd Green Room January 1918, p.15).
A Pall Mall Gazette critic described the production as 'a romantic drama founded... on the story of the Forty Thieves as it appears in Sir Richard Burton's authentic translation of the Arabian Nights' (26 August 1916, p.6). The same newspaper also noted that gossip suggesting that Asche had either planned an art-pantomime ('a great symbolic play with an important character embodying the principal of universal evil') or gone back to Burton's original were clearly inaccurate. 'There is not the remotest likeness between [Chu Chin Chow]', notes the Gazette, 'and anything farther off than the familiar stage-Chinoiserie of good old English musical comedy and comic opera. Chu Chin Chow as... played by Mr Asche is just the commander of the Forty Thieves disguised as a kind of Rutland-Barrington mandarin' (1 September 1916, p.6).
According to the New York Times, it cost producer Morris Gest more than $US150,000 to bring the production to New York. To the embarrassment of the New York producers, the premiere was cancelled twice: on the 15 October and again on the 17 October. The postponements were apparently due, firstly, to the late delivery of scenery and props from London and, secondly, to subsequent problems involved with setting up the massive spectacle in such a short period. The lighting design, for example, wasn't arranged until 16 October, the day after the originally scheduled premiere (28 October 1917, p.86).
The vocal score of the musical was published in 1916 by Keith Prowse and Co. (London) and in 1917 by Sackett and Wilhelms (New York). 'The Robber's March' and 'My Desert Flower' were both published in Australia by Allan and Co. (n.d.). Other songs have also been published separately. The score is not included in the French's Acting Edition (illustrated with set designs).
Frederick Norton's musical score was described by Asche as 'the most important feature of the production. It is not incidental music at all. In fullness and elaboration it is indeed, an opera score' (Pall Mall Gazette 18 August 1916, p.9). Songs known to have performed in the London production are 'I am Chu Chin Chow', 'I Love Thee So', 'I'll Sing and Dance', 'I Long for the Sun', 'Behold', 'Anytime's Kissing Time', 'The Cobbler's Song', 'Serenade', 'Song of the Scimitar', and 'I Built a Fairy Palace in the Sky.'
The play was novelised (as Chu Chin Chow) by Harold Simpson (London: Mills & Boon, 1916).
An HMV sound recording of Chu Chin Chow (n. yr.) features the vocals of Inia Te Wiata (Chu Chin Chow), Julie Bryan (Marjanah), Barbara Leigh, Charles Young, and the Williams Singers. The music is performed by Michael Collins and his Orchestra, to orchestrations by Brian Fahey. The 'vocal gems' presented are 'I am Chu Chin Chow', 'Here be Oysters', 'Cleopatra's Nile', 'When a Pullet is Plump', 'Corraline', 'I Love Thee So', 'I'll Sing and Dance', 'The Robber's March', 'I Long for the Sun', 'Behold', 'Anytime's Kissing Time', 'The Cobbler's Song', 'We Bring Ye Fruits', and 'Finale' (His Masters Voice, OCLP 1269).
Another recording (1961), released on the World Record International label and produced by Cyril Ornadel, features the Sinfonia of London (conducted by John Hollingsworth). The principal vocalists are Allan Hervey, Marion Grimaldi, John Wakefield, Edward Darling, Ursula Connors, and Ian Humphries.
EMI released a digital recording in 1994, which features Inia Te Wiata. Additional performers include those from the 1961 World Record Club release (Edward Darling, Ursula Connors, Marion Grimaldi, and Ian Humphries), plus Malcolm McEachern and some performances from the 1934 film.
Chu Chin Chow was also a popular choice for burlesque. Australian variety performer and revusical writer/director Billy Maloney (q.v.), for example, celebrated the closure of the extravaganza's Brisbane season with his own take on the story: Too Thin Chow (Cremorne Theatre, 25 June 1921). The character of Chu Chin Chow was also incorporated into the Elton Black/Frederick Whaite pantomime Robinson Crusue, which was staged at the Cremorne Gardens Theatre, Brisbane, in December 1919.
1916: His Majesty's Theatre, London, 31 Aug. 1916 - 22 July 1921 (2,238 performances).
1917: Manhattan Opera House, New York, 22 Oct. 1917 - 27 Apr. 1918.
1920: Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, 11 Dec. 1920 - 1 March 1921.
1921: Grand Opera House, Sydney, 26 Mar. - 1 June.
1921: His Majesty's Theatre, Brisbane, 4-18 June.
1921: Dominion circuit (New Zealand), ca. June-July.
1923: Theatre Royal, Sydney, 26 May - 27 June.
1928: Regent Theatre, London, 26 December 1928 - ca. 18 January 1929 [London Repertory Co.].
1940: Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, 7- 20 May.
1940: Palace Theatre, London, 3 July - ca. September (80 performances).
1941: Palace Theatre, London, 22 July-22 November (158 performances).
1950: Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, 16 September - 7 October.
1953: Empire Pool, Wembley (England), 13 July - 19 September (as Chu Chin Chow on Ice).
1954: Streatham Hill Theatre, London, 16 November.