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CTC Blog: Behind the Curtain

One Man, Two Guvnors Dramaturgy: Skiffle & The Rise of the Beatles

One Man, Two Guvnors, directed by Andrew Borba, is playing July 26–August 11 at Bratton Theater, as part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s 2019 season. Tickets are available here.

One Man Two Guvnors features a number of standard farce elements — slamming doors, mistaken identities, aggressive horseplay. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is that it features a live four-piece skiffle band. In fact, the plot centers on the show’s protagonist, Francis, looking for work after he’s booted as the band’s trombone player. If misery loves company, Francis is in good hands as Pete Best was famously fired from the skiffle band that went on to become The Beatles. But what is skiffle anyway.

The Origins of Skiffle

Skiffle is a genre of music influenced by jazz, blues and American folk. Skiffle originally developed from African American jazz culture in the American South in the 1920s and often included homemade instruments such as washboards, jugs and kazoos. After the popularity of skiffle faded in the U.S., the genre had a revival in England in the 1950s coming out of the British post-war jazz scene and led by Lonnie Donegan.

Skiffle appealed particularly to working class Brits, as instruments could be purchased cheaply and/or made out of improvised materials. At the height of the skiffle craze, it is estimated that Britain had 30,000–50,000 amateur skiffle groups. Most famously, John Lennon’s skiffle group, The Quarrymen, transformed into the legendary band we know as the Beatles.

Photo: John Lennon playing with his skiffle band, The Quarrymen, in the 1950s

Skiffle in One Man

The music in Act One of One Man, Two Guvnors is inspired by late 50’s British skiffle. Music Director Tommy Crawford says: “Skiffle music was like the punk music of its era. It appealed to a disaffected post-war British youth and thrived on a do-it-yourself ethos that suggested anybody could pick up a guitar — or a broom handle — and start a skiffle band. The songs in Act One are inspired by skiffle classics of the era, which combine rockabilly, folk, and country western blues aesthetics, and riff on themes and characters in the play.”

The Founding of the Beatles

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Photo: The Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Show

In 1957, 16-year-old John Lennon formed a skiffle band with some friends from high school. That summer, 15-year-old Paul McCartney joined the group as rhythm guitar player. A year later, 15-year-old George Harrison successfully petitioned his pal McCartney to join the group as lead guitarist. By 1959, John Lennon’s high school friends had left the group and the three guitar players, who called themselves Johnny and the Moondogs, were on the lookout for a drummer. Pete Best (on drums) and Stuart Sutcliffe (on bass) joined the group in 1960 and they booked a residency in a night club in Hamburg, where they played for nearly two years. Manager Brett Epstein discovered the group in Hamburg and famously molded the group into what we now know as the Beatles. After Sutcliffe passed away unexpectedly and Pete Best was fired, Ringo Starr joined the group as drummer and final member of the fab four. In 1962, George Martin recorded the group’s first single, Love Me Do, and Beatlemania erupted.

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Photo: Tommy Crawford, Alexander de Vasconselos Matos, Sofia Bunting Newman and Drew Brunson in rehearsal for One Man, Two Guvnors (photo by Alex Morf)

British Rock in One Man

In Act Two, our skiffle band plugs in and the songs take on a distinctive rock drive. Tommy says: “The music in One Man mirrors the revolutionary progression from skiffle music to British Invasion rock music. In Act Two, you hear a full drum kit, electric bass, and rhythms and riffs that are distinctive to the early 1960s. Several of the songs are modeled directly on early Beatles hits such as Love Me Do and Please Please Me. Listen close and you might catch a couple of references.”

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