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London & New York

Anyone studying the reception of German operettas in the UK and USA is bound to recognize that the productions in the West End and on Broadway of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow mark a new phase. Before The Merry Widow, the last German operetta to successfully hold the stage in London and New York was Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler (Vienna and Berlin, 1891), given as The Bird-seller (New York, 1891; London, 1895). In 1906, George Edwardes, the manager of the Gaiety and Daly’s Theatre, was dissatisfied with the box office returns on a French operetta he was staging and turned his attention, instead, to German operetta. He brought Die lustige Witwe (Vienna, 1905; Berlin, 1906) to Daly’s Theatre as The Merry Widow in 1907 and it ran for a remarkable 778 performances. In New York, later the same year, it notched up 416 performances (runs of over 400 were rare in that city). The success of Die lustige Witwe opened up the possibility of a flourishing market for German operetta.

The changes made to German operettas when they transferred to London and New York were often striking. George Edwardes at Daly’s believed in “improving” the originals. He said, “It is in presenting a play that the English theatre can outrival the Continent.” He considered the British Merry Widow “much superior” to the Viennese original. Of The Dollar Princess, he boasted that he “bought it [and] altered it” (quoted in Traubner, Operetta, 287). Basil Hood who wrote the new “book” (i.e. the libretto) and Adrian Ross (author of the lyrics) gave it a new Californian Act 3, and wrote a comedy role for W.H. Berry, as well as including new songs. It did achieve 428 consecutive London performances, compared to 117 over a period of six years in Vienna. The libretto of the New York production was by the Gaiety star George Grossmith Jr. He chose to set Act 3 in London.

Despite the cessation of productions owing to the First World War (first in London, then in New York in 1919), interest was reawakened almost immediately the conflict was over and, from 1920, when Kálmán’s Das Hollandweibchen was produced at the Lyric as A Little Dutch Girl, German operettas held the stage once more. There was a liking for more songs in the British and American productions. Act 3 of Straus’s A Waltz Dream was re-written and extra songs were added by Hamish MacCunn for its 1911 revival at Daly’s. Lehár shows his amenability, or business sense, by being willing to compose new numbers for Gipsy Love in London (which succeeded The Count of Luxembourg at Daly’s in 1912). Leo Fall and his brother Richard added extra numbers to The Dollar Princess. In New York, Jerome Kern supplied two extra numbers. Leo Fall composed four new numbers for Princess Caprice. Sigmund Romberg and Al Goodman provided additional numbers for Kálmán’s Countess Maritza in New York. Romberg also added additional songs to Gilbert’s The Lady in Ermine, which, as The Lady of the Rose in London, had already been given an extra song by Leslie Stuart. The New York critic Alexander Woollcott, wryly remarks of the production of Fall’s The Rose of Stamboul that upon the original score “there seems to have fallen one Sigmund Romberg, a local composer, and now the piece is adorned at intervals with songs that Vienna has yet to hear” (New York Times, 8 Mar. 1922).

It was not always clear what extra contributions had been written and whom they were by. An unwary critic of the Daly’s revival of A Waltz Dream remarks that he doesn’t find the music as alluring as in 1908, and “the most individual and attractive things of all are in the third act, where we come to Princess Helena’s last song and it’s delightful introduction.” This song, “I Chose a Man to Wed,” was actually composed by Hamish MacCunn (who conducted the performance) as part of a re-written Act 3.

An American reviewer of Fall’s Lieber Augustin in 1913 is more cautious. He praises the “succession of very delightful melodies,” but adds: “It is getting to be a habit to praise Mr. Leo Fall’s music, and in some respects a bad habit, since a counter-claimant for a ‘song-hit’ is reasonable sure to bob up before many hours pass. Wherefore the announcement that Mr Leo Fall’s music in this piece is entirely charming and appealing must be taken to include any others who may have assisted” (New York Times, 7 Sep. 1913). Another reviewer has a suspicion, on hearing The Last Waltz, that some of the numbers are not by Oscar Straus: “There are several interpolated numbers, unidentified except by internal evidence. You suspect ‘Charming Ladies’ and ‘A Baby in Love’ of having been baptized in the East River rather than the blue Danube” (New York Times, 11 May 1921).

German operetta moved into a marketplace dominated by musical comedy. The Merry Widow was welcomed in New York as “the greatest kind of a relief from the American musical comedy,” and in London as a “genuine light opera” that is “not overlaid (yet) by buffoonery” (Times, 10 Jun. 1907). The implication is that it may soon acquire buffoonery to make it more appealing to the musical comedy audience. The urge to “liven up” an operetta with a comic routine was found in both London and New York. The production of Straus’s A Waltz Dream in New York had an interpolated number in the second act which the reviewer claims “savored of cheap American musical comedy,” and “was lugged in by the heels to provide a few moments of cheap comedy” (New York Times, 28 Jan. 1908). Crude humour was not the only problem with musical comedy. What had helped it appeal initially was the absence of a complex or ludicrous opera plot, but this lack of attention to plot was seen as a lack of attention to form. A London critic offers A Waltz Dream as an instructive model: “The shapely, tuneful light opera of Vienna is … better than our own gross and formless ‘musical comedy’; and A Waltz Dream is an example which the clever, but idle or, perhaps, hampered makers of English musical pieces might well take to heart.” The music “is not dropped in here and there to relieve the tedium of a senseless plot” (Times, 9 Mar. 1908). Above all, it was the romantic melodies and rich textures of the music that attracted British and American audiences. Here, too, however, there were difference of taste in evidence, as Oscar Straus pointed out to a journalist:

Your choruses are much bigger, and the ladies, I must admit, are much younger; and, too, you have many more songs than we are content with. Because of this I have had to compose five new numbers for London.(Quoted in Traubner, Operetta, 279)

At the first, the waltzes were the favourite numbers, and each successful operetta had it big waltz hit: The Merry Widow waltz, the Waltz Dream waltz (“Leise, ganz leise”), “My Hero” from The Chocolate Soldier, and so forth.

Sometimes the British enthusiasm for German operetta outstripped the enthusiasm in Berlin itself: Gilbert’s Die Frau im Hermelin (Theater des Westens, 1919), which became The Lady of the Rose (Daly’s, 1921), ran for longer in London (514 performances) than it did in Berlin. It was a little less successful in New York, where it ran for 238 performances in all (beginning at the Ambassador in 1922 and transferring to the Century). It needs to be borne in mind that it was rare for any operetta to notch up 300 or more performances in New York (even The Chocolate Soldier only made it to 296). Gilbert went to New York in 1928, where he composed The Red Robe for the Shubert Theatre (it ran for 127 performances, then transferred to Jolson’s Theatre for a further 40).

One easily forgotten attraction of the operetta was costume. It was noted that Lily Elsie, as the merry widow, made “an unusually beautiful picture in Parisian and Marsovian dresses” (Times, 10 Jun. 1907), and the periodical The Play Pictorial was always sure to carry a number of photographs of the costumes worn in the various productions. In the production of The Count of Luxembourg at Daly’s, the “accessories in dresses and wearers of dresses were as sumptuous as ever” (Times, 22 May 1911). On the gown worn by Lily Elsie on her entry as the bride in the scene where she and René have the partition between them so that they cannot see each other: “This was in Miss Lily Elsie’s favourite blue. Most elaborately embroidered in silver and white, the lower part was a cascade of silver bugle fringes and little crescents of pink and blue flowers peeping in and out around the hem of the skirt. There seemed to be two or three transparent skirts, the overdress, just giving a tantalizing glimpse where I opened at the side” (The Play Pictorial, 18/108, 1911).

Spectacle and costume continued to be an attraction in the 1920s. One of the most lavish productions came earlier in the next decade. Ralph Benatzky’s White Horse Inn (Im weißen Rössl) was chosen for the reopening of the London Coliseum on 8 April 1931. The dresses for this production were designed by Professor Ernst Stein. The show made it onto the Times London Fashions page, under the heading “Dress on the Stage.” “The greatest dress spectacle of all is White Horse Inn, in which the unending change of scene provides a wonderful grouping of colours […] In this production constant use is made of greens, reds, yellows, and blues, and also of brown, a colour not much in favour with producers but which is introduced with excellent effect in the skirts of the women and the suits of the men.” (Times, 24 Apr. 1931). It was not until several years later that it was seen in New York, but on 1 October 1936 it opened at the Center Theatre “in a beautiful style that should endear it to the hearts of all good showgoers. For the genii of American spectacle making have done one of their handsomest jobs on this international holiday to music.” It involves “mountain scenery and hotel architecture, costumes beautiful and varied enough to bankrupt a designer’s imagination, choruses that can do anything from the hornpipe to a resounding slapdance, grand processionals with royalty loitering before the commoners, a steamboat, a yacht, a char-à-banc, four real cows and a great deal more of the same.” The cows were distinctly unreal in the London production, incidentally. The songs, by Benatzky and others are, “for the most part, simple things which are well-bred and daintily imposing.” Erik Charell, who was partly responsible for the libretto and well as being the director, is praised for “the general spirit of good humor that keeps ‘White Horse Inn’ a congenial tavern” (New York Times, 2 Oct. 1936). A report three days later claimed that the second night’s gross taking at the Center Theatre for White Horse Inn was $7,240, “a sum which smacks of success.” (New York Times, 5 Oct. 1936).

Operetta production began to decline after 1933; from late in that year it had to conform to the Goebbels regime. Kálmán, Straus, Gilbert, and Ábrahám all left Germany to avoid Nazi persecution. Benatzky and Stolz, neither of whom were Jewish, left of their own accord. Others were not unaffected: Künneke was to discover that the producer of his operetta Liselott (1932) had been murdered in 1933. The most successful operetta of the Third Reich era was perhaps Fred Raymond’s Maske in Blau (1937).

In London and New York, musical revues, the newer Broadway musicals, sound film (and film musicals), social dancing and dance bands, radio and records were all contributing to the demise of operetta in the 1930s. Also eating away at the German style were the syncopated African-American rhythms from the USA (the cultural threat of which surfaces in some operettas, for instance, Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago). Some composers of German operetta were adopting American elements (Künneke, Ábrahám), but at other times the influence from Broadway crept into the music in a less conscious way. It seems unlikely that Azuri’s Dance, “Soft as a Pigeon Lights upon the Sand,” from Act 1 of The Desert Song, was not lurking somewhere in Lehár’s mind when he wrote the final scene of Giuditta. A final blow for operetta in London came with the closure of Daly’s in 1937 and the Gaiety in 1938.