An Evening with Benny Green & Denis King

First performed at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, 27 February 1983

“Compared to the wedding of composer and lyricist, ordinary matrimony is a breeze. Why this is so remains a mystery, but ever since W.S. Gilbert discovered that Sir Arthur Sullivan was less congenial than Mrs. Gilbert, or indeed anybody, it has been clear that collaboration between songwriter and lyricist has been fraught with danger. The problem was neatly sidestepped by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and, in the prime of his life by Frank Loesser, all of whom hit on the convenient device of collaborating with themselves, although there still remained a serious danger that one half of the partnership might take issue with the other, as occurred on one famous occasion when Irving walked out on Berlin. For the rest it was a case of making do with a partner, and it is from this unsatisfactory arrangement that many of the tensions and most of the laughs have arisen, and from which much of this evening’s material has been drawn.”  Benny Green 1983

Kings Comment


Benny Green, Denis King, Elaine Delmar, Toni Kanal
Musicians: Denis King, Lennie Bush, Bobby Orr


“Words & Music - An Evening with Benny Green and Denis King and Friends" was everything you've ever wanted to know, and more, about songs and songwriters before 1960. Written by Benny, who rated almost no songs written after 1960, and performed by Benny and Denis, singer Elaine Delmar, and actress Toni Kanal, Benny’s wife. The role of the composer’s girlfriend was less well-defined, but it started out me just having to make sure Den’s tuxedo was back from the cleaners and a new zip put in his black dress boot, but next thing you know, I’m doing the set, because when I asked who was doing it, everyone said “The set?” like it hadn’t occurred to them, which it clearly hadn’t. This was five days before opening.

The show had already had a number of successful one-nighters up at The Stables, Wavenden--Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s live music venue in Buckinghamshire--Burgh House in Hampstead, someone’s school somewhere, and it wasn’t an unduly complicated show, set-wise, only requiring three places to sit and a piano, but for the West End I thought we could do better than our two old kitchen stools and the one with the dodgy seat from Benny’s garage, so I met with a Theatre of Comedy financial type who gave me about twenty pence to spend (because this was the big time) and for the next four days it was all rush rush rush and “Not tonight, honey, I'm making throw pillows!”

I was aiming for a little art deco-ey living room. No walls, just blacks and good furniture and perhaps a vase of calla lillies on a pedastal. All this racing down to Putney south of the river to find furniture rental places (not to mention Putney) and getting them to bleach the wood on the chairs so they matched the settee, and to re-upholster everything in some not-perfect-but-cheap fabric I cabbed over to them from John Lewis, and raiding everyone’s house for anything onyx or vases and ice buckets I couldn’t live without--was complicated by my being unable to stop directing the show as well since they didn’t have anyone doing that either (or catering rehearsals).

Finally, on the afternoon of, I arrive at the Ambassadors Theatre with my glue gun and a car full of set dressing and about six miles of shiny silver tape for taping art-decoey stripes on borrowed onyx vases etc., and I've got maybe half an hour to create this perfect set because some snotty actor in “Loot” which is rehearsing there won't let us have the stage before then--and I notice right off the playing area is smaller than I'd figured (God forbid I measure) what with a grand piano eating up a lot of art decoey settee, chair, and pedastal space--but I roll out the big rug I rented anyhow and shove furniture around and no one screams “Jesus, does that ever look awful!" so I leave it.

Benny's chair isn't where the lighting man thought it would be (half hidden in the wings? Where'd they get this guy?) and this throws him into a deep depression and he takes off for a sandwich, so I sweep his gels off the floor and tell the piano tuner to step on it and ask everyone if we could have a run-thru at some point because it would be nice to see this show of mine that opens in three hours, at least once.

For the past week of the one-week rehearsal period, see, the new paint fumes in Den's office had been making singer Elaine's throat close up, so she'd only been mouthing the words, and everytime we'd come to a Benny bit, which is about every six seconds, Benny would say "So then here I'll talk about the Hollywood moguls, ta da ta da ta da, and into P.G. Wodehouse, into Blue Moon and so on and so on.." and we’d move to the next part, the result being we’d never actually run through the entire show from beginning to end because no one except Benny knew exactly what he was going to say, plus he changed it every time.

So now here we are, an hour before the grand West End opening, and Benny suddenly comes onstage with a saxophone around his neck, which he'll be playing, he says, which is news, and Elaine and Denis, for once off book, meaning no script to look at, suddenly have a new medley to learn and are maybe getting one lyric right between them (this is a show about words and music, remember). Toni, Benny’s wife, is word perfect but my throw pillows keep attaching themselves to the fringe on her backside and keep coming downstage with her to the mike.

"Smile at Elaine, honey, when you sing that! Benny don't forget to look up in the balcony now and then, they’ve paid too! Elaine, remember to leave the mike by the couch after "Clouds Roll By"! I like directing. No one’s telling me to take a hike so I keep doing it, and when the stage manager begs me if I can please, please give her a running time for the show, I estimate about twelve hours and thirty-five minutes, not counting intermission.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Lenny Bush, the bass player, hanging around watching so he'll know what to do when he takes over the next night, since his 'dep' will be playing for the opening night. When musicians can't make a booking, they send in a deputy (so why do they make the booking in the first place?). Then there's a session singer named Tracey Miller memorizing everything Elaine's doing (like forgetting lyrics) since Elaine can't be here on the Thursday and Friday. And Den's already been caught yawning listening to Benny anecdotes he’s heard a hundred times, and we haven’t even opened yet. The show's only running a week, Christ! I wondered how long we’d have Ben for. (Yoo- hoo! Is there anybody who knows anything about E. Y. Harberg or Jerome Kern in the house?)

So. Now. We’ve got about fifteen minutes before a packed house is going to be stunned by American glue-gun know-how, and, now lipsticked and heeled, I leap around onstage pouring Perrier (for "champagne") and giving a last minute boost to the calla lillies which keep dropping formation and grouping together on one side of the vase threatening to topple it over and finally stuff newspaper down between the stems, wipe the ace lightingman's fingerprints off the side of Den's shiny piano, safety pin the throw pillows onto the settee, tear back to Den’s dressing room to see what he looks like, cute as a button, but then add a rosebud to his lapel and a dab of powder and adjust his hair and pick off some lint while he grumbles "I thought you just said I looked fine!"

After which I hyperventilate out to the front of the theatre to see if Den’s brother Mike has arrived yet with their mother Win and to make sure hers is an aisle seat as requested and--YES! Whew. Finally. All done. On with the show, break a leg etc.

Then. I just happen to glance up and see the big sign hanging down from the Ambassador’s marquee that says "BENNY GREEN". That looks nice, I think, walk underneath, look up, and see on the other side it says “ELAINE DELMAR”. Also nice. Further along is another sign, it says “TONI KANAL”. Ah. So where might “DENIS KING” be? As in “An Evening with Benny Green and Denis King”?

Well, I’ll tell you where, on the reverse side of “TONI KANAL”, magnificently positioned so that only anyone approaching from the dead-end alleyway, like stagehands, will see it and dive right over to buy tickets. 

Seething, I grab the first guy I see in overalls and ask him to find a ladder and reverse “TONI KANAL” so that “DENIS KING” faces out, and made the guy swear on a program he'd never reveal who made him do this, then lived on edge for a week that I'd come in one night and find the sign switched back and a terrible feud would develop between Kings and Greens and it'd be all my fault.

Midway though the run (also known as Day Three), Denis was caught trying to sneak “Treasure Island” arrangements onstage to surreptitiously work on while Benny P.G. Wodehoused so had to be watched like a hawk for the rest of the week. “Words & Music” was, however, I am pleased to report, a great success, and played to full houses for its entire run.

You can lose eight pounds designing and directing, if you're interested.    - Astrid King

Fact of the Day
Denis wrote an album with and for Albert Finney in 1977 which was released, somewhat bizarrely, by Motown Records in the U.S.
Listening Post
Road To Plaistow