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Musgrove, George (1854–1916)

by Jean Gittins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

George Musgrove (1854-1916), theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 21 January 1854 at Surbiton, England, son of Thomas John Watson Musgrove, accountant, and his wife Fanny, née Hodson, an operatic star loved by audiences and related to Myra Kemble and the Sarah Siddons. One sister married W. S. Lyster and another was a well-known London actress. George went to Victoria at 12 and after education at Flinders School, Geelong, Lyster gave him a post as treasurer. At All Saints Church, St Kilda, on 1 August 1874 he married Emily Fisk Knight.

In 1879 Musgrove visited London where theatrical circles were gripped by intense excitement; Gilbert & Sullivan had begun their popular operas. Musgrove had seen Williamson's successes in the 1870s and determined to better him. In December 1880 at Melbourne with the rights of Offenbach's La Fille du Tambour Major and a full company, Musgrove leased the Opera House. Christmas and the exhibition had drawn many visitors to Melbourne. The production was a sensation the like of which had never been seen. It swept audiences off their feet and ran for 101 nights.

Musgrove was a new sort of producer. Unlike the old actor-manager, he never played a part although he allegedly once dashed across the stage on roller skates. In 1882 a partnership was formed and Williamson, Garner and Musgrove became known as 'The Triumvirate'. They acquired theatres in Melbourne and Sydney, scoring successes. In the 1880s managers had remarkable material. They found real talent not only in imported artists but among the Australian born or trained players. In November 1883 with Nellie Stewart as the drummer boy, Tambour Major appeared in a Sydney theatre with the first use of public electric light. A tour of New Zealand with Gilbert & Sullivan operas followed in 1884. In 1884-85 the Comic Opera Company was formed, alternating light musicals with drama. Melbourne's Princess Theatre was rebuilt in 1886 and in 1887 The Mikado was produced in a benefit for Nellie Stewart before she sailed for London with Musgrove and his mother and aunt. They returned to Australia in August.

Friction dissolved the partnership in 1889 and Musgrove left for London where he had reverses. On return to Australia he managed a successful season of Paul Jones with Marion Burton and Nellie Stewart in leads. In December 1892 he and Williamson formed a new partnership which lasted for seven years. Musgrove spent much time in London. He introduced Nellie Stewart in Blue Eyed Susan at the Prince of Wales Theatre and at the Drury Lane in Forty Thieves. At first The Belle of New York failed in America but he imported the entire American cast including chorus girls whom he allegedly changed every fortnight and played it in 1897 to capacity houses at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London for two years. It was a consistent money-getter for a decade but he split with Williamson over sending it to Australia.

Musgrove continued on his own with dogged faith, boundless energy and imagination. After a show was chosen in London he sent most of the costumes and equipment to Australia. He carefully studied the taste of audiences before introducing new ideas. Sometimes brusque he was kind-hearted and always just and considerate to his players. His aim was good production; money was a secondary matter and he is said to have made and lost half a dozen fortunes. In 1900 he kept productions at the Shaftesbury in London and leased the Princess in Melbourne simultaneously for a season of grand opera. He opened with Sweet Nell of Old Drury with Nellie Stewart in 1902. In 1903 he presented (Dame) Nellie Melba; in her first and most successful concert tour of Australia and New Zealand she was responsible for one of the finest all-round productions of opera ever heard in Australia. A tour of the United States in 1906 was disappointing but his company from Berlin in 1907 gave a fine season of grand opera to the Australian public, though the National Opera Company brought out in 1909 failed to please. In a 'smalls' tour of New Zealand with a full company headed by Nellie Stewart in 1910-11 they visited thirty-two towns in Maoriland and a tour of country towns in eastern Australia followed. Financial worries and ill health dogged his later years. In 1914 his career as a producer ended with Madame Du Barry at the King's Theatre in Melbourne. On his sixty-second birthday he died at his home in Sydney on 21 January 1916. He bequeathed six-tenths of his estate to Nellie Stewart and, after mention of several small legacies covering the balance, explained that he did not provide for his daughter Rose because against his often expressed wish and 'in defiance of her father's desires she adopted the stage as a profession and having done so she is providing for herself'.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Stewart, My Life's Story (Syd, 1923)
  • P. McGuire et al, The Australian Theatre (Melb, 1948)
  • V. Tait, A Family of Brothers (Melb, 1971)
  • Australasian, 16 Feb 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 5 Mar 1908, 25 Apr 1912
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22, 24 Jan 1916.

Citation details

Jean Gittins, 'Musgrove, George (1854–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/musgrove-george-4284/text6931, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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