Laye, Evelyn (1900–1996)

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Laye, Evelyn (1900–1996)

British star of musical comedy. Born Elsie Evelyn Lay on June 10, 1900, in London, England; died in February 1996, in London, England; only child of Gilbert Lay (an actor and composer) and Evelyn Stuart (a singer and actress); attended school in Brighton and Folkestone, England; married Sonnie Hale (an actor), in 1926 (divorced 1927); married Frank Lawton (an actor), around 1934 (died 1969); no children.

Selected theater:

made stage debut as walk-on in Mr. Wu (Theater Royal, Brighton, 1915); London debut in Honi Soit (East Ham Palace, April 1916); appeared as Pyrrha in Oh Caesar! (Lyceum, Edinburgh, December 1916), Madeline Manners in Going Up (Gaiety, May 1918), Dollis Pym in The Kiss Call (Gaiety, October 1919), Bessie Brent in The Shop Girl (Gaiety, March 1920), Mollie Moffat in Nighty Night (Queen's Theater, London, March 1921), Mary Howells in Mary (April 1921); appeared in The League of Nations (Oxford, August 1921), Fun of the Fayre (London Pavilion, October 1921), as Sonia in a revival of The Merry Widow (Daly's Theater, May 1923), in the title role in Madame Pompadour (Daly's Theater, December 1923), as Alice in The Dollar Princess (King's Theater, Glasgow, December 1924), as Betty in Betty in Mayfair (Adelphi, London, November 1925), as Molly Shine in Merely Molly (Adelphi, September 1925); succeeded Winnie Melville as Princess Elaine in Princess Charming (Palace, March 1927); appeared as Lili in Lilac Time (Daly's Theater, December 1927); had leading role in Blue Eyes (Piccadilly, April 1928); appeared as Marianne in The New Moon (Drury Lane, April 1929); made New York debut in Bitter Sweet (Ziegfeld Theater, New York, November 1929); appeared as Belinda Warren in Sweet Aloes (Booth Theater, New York, March 1936), Princess Anna in Paganini (Lyceum, London, May 1937), Natalie Rivers in Between the Devil (Majestic Theater, New York, December 1937), Prince Florizel in the pantomime The Sleeping Beauty (Theater Royal, Birmingham, England, December 1938), Violet Gray in The Belle of New York (Piccadilly, August 1943), Katherine in Three Waltzes (Prince's Theater, March 1945, and tour); toured as Laura Kent in Elusive Lady (1946); toured as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal (1948); appeared as Prince Charming in Cinderella (Palladium, Christmas 1948), Marina Verani in Two Dozen Red Roses (Lyric, May 1949); toured as Stella in September Tide (1950); appeared in The Domino Revue (Wimbledon, July 1953), as Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan (The Scala, Christmas 1953), as Marcelle Thibault in Wedding in Paris (Hippodrome, April 1954), as Lady Marlowe in Silver Wedding (Cambridge Theater, July 1957), as Lady Fitzadam in The Amorous Prawn (December 1959); succeeded Joan Bennett as Edith Lambert in Never Too Late (Prince of Wales, January 1964); appeared as Lady Catherine in The Circle (Ashcroft, Croydon, April 1965), as Annie Besant in Strike a Light (Alhambra Theater, Glasgow, April 1966), as Mrs. Fitzmaurice in Phil the Fluter (Palace, November 1969), as Eleanor Hunter in No Sex Please—We're British (Strand Theater, June 1971); toured as Leonora Fiske in Ladies in Retirement (1976); toured in Pygmalion (1978); appeared in Glamourous Nights at Drury Lane (1992).


Luck of the Navy (1929); One Heavenly Night (US, 1931); Waltz Time (1933); Princess Charming (1933); Evensong (1934); The Night is Young (1934); Make Mine a Million (1939); Theater of Death (1966); Say Hello to Yesterday (1971).

Britain's "Queen of the Musical Comedy," Evelyn Laye graced the London stage for over 70 years, from her 1916 debut in an obscure revue, Honi Soit, to her appearance in the nostalgic Glamourous Nights at Drury Lane, at age 92. "I have never been able to give up the theater," she said drolly when she was well into her 80s. "I like the smell of it, the smell of the stage door, my dressing room, applying my make-up and of course, my audiences."

Laye was the only child of Gilbert Lay (she added the "e" later), an actor and composer, and Evelyn Stuart , a singer and player in Victorian pantomimes. As a baby, Laye slept in a cot in her mother's dressing room and, as a little girl, she began dreaming of her own stage career. When Laye was 13, her father, who at the time was managing the Pier at Brighton, wangled her the role of a ballet dancer in a charity show. At 15, accompanied by a chaperon, she toured the country in Mr. Wu, playing a mute Chinese servant. Her break came in 1916, when Robert Courtneidge cast her in his musical comedy Oh Caesar!, which also starred his daughter Cicely Courtneidge and her husband Jack Hulbert. Two years later, Laye debuted as a "Gaiety Girl," portraying the second lead in Going Up, which ran for 574 performances. She then starred in a revival of The Shop Girl (1920), literally stopping the show with a lively rendition of "Here Comes the Guards Brigade," which she sang while marching across the stage with a troop of bona fide guardsmen loaned out by the army for the occasion.

With her career on the rise, Laye was lured away from the Gaiety by impresario Sir Charles Cochrane who starred her The League of Nations and Fun of the Fayre (both in 1921). Around this time, she began a long courtship with actor Sonnie Hale, whom she married in 1926, despite her parents' disapproval. The couple divorced a year later when Hale fell in love with one of his co-stars, Jessie Matthews .

By 1929, Laye was the most prominent musical-comedy star in England and had also made her first film, Luck of the Navy. That year, she crossed the Atlantic to make her New York debut at the Ziegfeld Theater, appearing in Noel Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times found her nothing short of perfection. "What makes Evelyn Laye so rare a presence in the leading part is not merely her fragile beauty but the daintiness with which she acts and sings in the precise spirit of the play," he wrote. "As an actress she catches the ardor of the romantic love scenes of the first act, she trips through the dramatic episodes with a skill equal to Mr. Coward's composition. She has, moreover, a voice sweet in quality and full in tone." Producer Flo Ziegfeld was also impressed with Laye, so much so that he broke with tradition and put her name in lights on the theater marquee, even placing it above the show's title.

Having been devastated by the break-up of her marriage, Laye was more cautious about her relationship with actor Frank Lawton, whom she had met in 1928, but did not agree to marry until 1934. The couple were both in California at the time, working on films, and they eloped on a day off. Before returning to England in 1937, Laye revived her role in Bitter Sweet at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, and made another visit to Broadway, appearing in Sweet Aloes.

During World War II, when new stage productions were limited, Laye toured in variety shows and entertained soldiers at various military bases across the country. After the war, she found it difficult to rekindle her career, and she spent the greater part of the next ten years touring variety halls in the provinces. She finally scored a comeback success in 1954 as Marcelle Thibault in Wedding in Paris. "How delightful it is to have Evelyn Laye back with us!," exclaimed Frank Granville-Barker. "Once more she is in her rightful place as leading lady of British musicals, sweeping gaily across the Hippodrome stage with her usual vivacity, poise and assurance."

In 1959, Laye enjoyed a two-year run in The Amorous Prawn and then in 1965 generated another burst of acclaim from the critics for her portrayal of Lady Catherine in W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle. "Miss Laye, whom I have never seen before, must be a dream to play with," wrote Hugh Leonard. "Her timing is faultless, she never hogs the stage … and she is that rare thing: a comedienne who doesn't try to be funny." Laye opened a new musical, Phil the Fluter, in 1969, but the show lasted only a few months. Her last West End performance was in No Sex Please—We're British, which won as much praise for the costumes as for any of the performances.

During her long career, Laye continued to make occasional films, notably The Night is Young (1934), a musical co-starring heartthrob Ramon Navarro. The Sigmund Romberg score contained the haunting ballad "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," which over the years became Laye's signature song. She went into production of her last film, Say Hello to Yesterday (released in 1971), shortly after the death of her husband in 1969.

Evelyn Laye continued to perform up until four years before her death. She was awarded the CBE in 1973 and was feted at the Strand Theater on her 80th birthday. To mark the occasion, her friends endowed the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art with an Evelyn Laye Award, an annual prize for the best performance in a musical. Laye spent her final years in a nursing home in the West End, near so many of the theaters in which she had performed. She died there in February 1996.


Bickerdyke, Percy. "Stars of Yesterday: Evelyn Laye," in This England. Summer 1996.

Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars. London: Angus and Robertson, 1986.

suggested reading:

Laye, Evelyn. Boo, To My Friends, 1958.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts