Chu Chin Chow was a musical comedy loosely based on the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. The piece premiered at His Majesty's Theatre in London on 3 August 1916 and ran for five years and a total of 2238 performances, a record that stood for nearly forty years until Salad Days.
It was written, produced and directed by Australian Oscar Asche, with music by Frederic Norton. Asche also played the lead role of Abu Hasan, leader of the forty thieves (the "Chu Chin Chow" of the title is an alias of Abu Hasan). The show's American production in New York played for a 208 performances in 1917-1918 and subsequently had successful seasons elsewhere in America and Australia.
The well-known merchant Kasim Baba (brother of Ali Baba) is preparing to give a lavish banquet for the wealthy Chu Chin Chow, who is on his way from China. Abu Hassan wishes to add to his riches the property of Kasim and has installed the slave girl Zahrat in Kasim's house as a spy. Zahrat sends a message to Abu Hasan, lettin him know about the banquet. Hasan arrives at Kasim's palace in disguise as Chu Chin Chow. His gang of thieves rob and slaughter Chu Chin Chow while he is still traveling. Meanwhile, Kasim's brother Ali Baba discovers Hasan's secret cave and helps himself to some of the thieves' treasure. While Hasan impersonates Chu Chin Chow at Kasim's court, Kasim persuades his brother to tell him where his sudden wealth came from. Even as the greedy Kasim slips out to see what he can find at Hasan's cave, Hasan is plotting further violence and thievery. Zahrat gets her revenge on both Hassan and his forty thieves, lovers are united, and all ends happily.
Chu Chin Chow was described as a combination of musical comedy and pantomime. It was a big budget spectacular costing £5,300, with over a dozen scene changes, fantastic sets, big dance routines and exotic costumes. The design for the show was influenced by the English taste for all things connected with Asia which had originated with Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Scheherazade.
Theatre journal The Era said that Norton's music had "a touch of the East but for the most part it was on a level with the tender melody of musical comedy" and "hardly inspired". Nevertheless, many of the songs became hits, and "The Cobbler's Song" in particular entered the repertoire of ballad singers for at least three or four decades. Norton himself took the role of Ali Baba in some performances, although Courtice Pounds played the role almost continuously for five years.
One of the attractions for the on-leave soldiers was the chorus of pretty slave girls who, for the period, were very scantly dressed. Complaints, not by the soldiers, resulted in the Lord Chamberlain (the British theatre censor) viewing the show and requiring "this naughtiness" to be stopped -- at least for a while. The cast was large and included a camel, a donkey, poultry and snakes. Many troops returning on leave from the Western Front, during World War I, attempted to obtain tickets for Chu Chin Chow. A total of 2,800,000 people saw the show.
A film of Chu Chin Chow was made by the Gainsborough Studios in 1934, with George Robey playing the part of Ali Baba and Anna May Wong playing Zahrat Al-Kulub.
Chu Chin Chow was one of the three shows that are associated with the London musical stage during World War I (the others being The Bing Boys Are Here and The Maid of the Mountains), and music or scenes from these have been included as background in many films set in this period.