Canterbury Tales is a musical originally presented at the Oxford Playhouse in 1964, conceived and directed by Martin Starkie and written by Nevill Coghill and Martin Starkie. It was expanded into a full length musical and presented at the Phoenix Theatre, London on 21 March 1968. As late as in August 1971, the musical was still, or again, performed there. The music was written by Richard Hill and John Hawkins, with the lyrics by Nevill Coghill. It was considered to be very bawdy but appealed to the audiences. The Lord Chamberlain's censorship of the theatre had just ended, so it did not experience any censorship. There were two versions of this musical, each making up about half the story, so that if you saw only one there was a lot you missed.
The musical took five tales from the Canterbury Tales and told them with song and humour. These were; The Miller's Tale; The Nun's Priest's Tale; The Steward's Tale; The Merchant's Tale; and The Wife of Bath's Tale. In addition, Chaucer's Prologue and Epilogue were spoken. The purpose behind these stories was that Harry Bailey, one of the main characters, declares that each pilgrim should tell a tale on the way to Canterbury so that the ride would be more enjoyable.
"The Miller's Tale" is about a man named Nicholas, who studied astrology and the art of love at Oxford. Nicolas boards with a wealthy man named John who has a very attractive eighteen-year-old wife named Alisoun. John is highly possessive and very jealous of anyone who even speaks to his wife. One day, Alisoun and Nicholas meet while the husband is away. Nicholas grabs Alisoun and asks her to sleep with him, at first she is reluctant, but after she realises how sweet he is she agrees. However, Alisoun is afraid that her husband John might find out even though Nicholas acts like nothing bad will come of the affair. Unfortunately for Nicholas, he isn't the only one that fancies Alisoun. A very merry man named Absolon also desires her and serenades her and buys her gifts every day. Although Absolon showers her with gifts, Alisouns heart really belongs to Nicholas. So Nicholas devises a plan to get the husband and Absolon away from Alisoun. He fools the old man into believing that there is going to be a flood. However, when the time comes the old man makes a fool of himself and the whole town is there to witness.
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" is about 'What women most desire'. A poor, ugly, old widow saves the life of a young Knight and magically transforms back to a beautiful young wife after a kiss. This tale is very close to that of "The Frog Prince".
The Merchant's Tale is like a Fabliau. Here one can find Chaucer's most elaborate display of rhetorical art. The original production was notable for Nicky Henson's rendition of the ambiguously-entitled "I have a noble cock" (based on a real medieval lyric). The object of his affections, the Merchant's wife May, was played by Gay Soper.
The London production played for a record breaking 2080 performances with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton attending the premiere. There were many fine moments, including Billy Boyle's performance of "Where are the girls of yesterday?" (based on the medieval theme "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?" – "where are the snows of former times?", or "where is last year's snow?") and the Prioress's final declamation of "Love Conquers All" (based on her golden ornament with a crowned A, for Omnia Vincit Amor).
The show subsequently ran throughout the world in all English speaking countries and was translated for presentations in Hungary, Sweden, Germany, Prague and Norway. It ran for two years in Australia, an unheard-of run at the time.
The 1969 Broadway version only managed 121 performances. It was presented by Frank Loesser (Frank Productions Ltd) of Guys and Dolls fame, Hollywood Producer Jerry Weintraub and Martin Kummer (Management Three Ltd.). The high cost of keeping a show on Broadway at the time (80% to break even) contributed to a premature closure. However, the set designer Loudon Sainthill won that year's Tony Award.
In 1970, Jimmy Hammerstein, son of Oscar Hammerstein II, directed a highly successful US tour with choreography by Tommy Tune. The new, revised show included the very entertaining 'The Nun's Priest's Tale', included in the London, West End version, but not in the Broadway version. The tour was so successful, the show was scheduled to open on Broadway. However, the Producer Hal James died suddenly and the tour came to an end.
Martin Starkie was the first person to dramatise 'The Canterbury Tales' for the stage since it was written over 600 years ago. By working closely with Nevill Coghill and using a celebrated modern English translation of Chaucer's work, Starkie ensured that the completed text is a convincing interpretation of Chaucer's work.
Although the songs and music are dated, the libretto stands out as a timeless, fine example of dramatic and comic theatre.