Back to Before: Part III – Stout-Hearted Men and a Mysterious Lady: Homegrown American Operetta
We left off with our epic journey through the history of musical theatre having just explored British composing team Gilbert and Sullivan’s influence on the evolution of the art form. Their popular operettas crossed the Atlantic and took America by storm. It wasn’t long before American composers got on board with this trend and began churning out their own operettas, a trend that would hold on for decades, well into the 1930s. In the early part of the 20th Century there were several homegrown operettas entertaining the Broadway audiences. The Wizard of Oz (1902) and Babes in Toyland (1903) were both enormous successes on Broadway, on the road, and overseas. The family-friendly nature of their plots, as well as the popularity of the sheet music in conjunction with lavish spectacle soon made operetta a hot ticket.
In general, there were three composers who did most of the heavy lifting where operetta’s success was concerned: Rudolf Friml, Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. Though none of the three men were born in America, all three were immigrants in a glorious time where America still celebrated being a melting pot and left its doors open to the “tired, poor and tempest-tossed.” The American Musical Theatre owes a great deal to these men for shaping the direction that the art form would take, especially in the area of popular music, which, through the surge of sheet music sales, took-off in this country. Herbert, Friml and Romberg, along with many others, would keep Broadway well-stocked with the glorious melodies of operetta. They worked with a wide range of of lyricists and librettists and often, they would return to the same writing partners, but the world of composing teams that loyally stuck together hadn’t quite established itself yet.
Victor Herbert was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1859 and was involved heavily with music for most of his childhood. He studied music at university in Stuttgart (composition and instrumental) before immigrating to America in 1886. Working in both opera and operetta, his first great success in the latter was Babes in Toyland (1903) which continues, over 110 years later, to be a holiday favorite of theatre and opera companies. Other substantial successes include Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906), Naughty Marietta (1910), Sweethearts (1913) and Eileen (1917). Stylistically, Herbert comes closest to emulating the musicals styles of composer Arthur Sullivan, but he never found a lyricist with the cleverness or the pointed wit of W.S. Gilbert. Outside of Babes in Toyland, his operettas haven’t had the longevity that Gilbert & Sullivan (or even Sigmund Romberg) have enjoyed, but his melodies are rich, lush and intoxicating.
Rudolf Friml was born in Prague, Czech Republic in 1879 and his musical interests found him studying the works of Dvorak (who was one of his inspirations). His study and training were formalized at the Prague Conservatory where he excelled at composition and playing musical instruments. He came to America permanently in 1906 and worked as both a composer and an instrumentalist. His first major composing success for theatre was in 1912 writing the score for The Firefly, a job he inherited when Victor Herbert refused to write for a temperamental star for whom the production was being written. His most well-known piece continues to be Rose-Marie (1924), a musical that featured one of the biggest song hits of the day. “Indian Love Call” was one of the most performed love songs of the 1920s, and it was made all the more popular by Nelson Eddie and Jeannette MacDonald with the film version of Rose-Marie (1936). Other popular operettas by Rudolf Friml include The Vagabond King (1925) and The Three Musketeers (1928). He would also be a major contributor to two installments of The Ziegfeld Follies. Many historians and critics are critical of Friml, citing an over abundance of sentimentality and flowery simplicity to his compositions, but it cannot be denied that he was an important force in operetta. Sadly, the popularity of operetta had mostly died out by the 1940s, and Friml lived into his 90s, unwilling (or perhaps unable) to adapt to how musicals changed with the advent of Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, The Gershwins, and Cole Porter. In the last third of his life, he turned to his talents as a concert pianist and art music composer, proving successful with both. Friml’s work (and operetta in general) were spoofed and pastiched in the Off-Broadway musical Little Mary Sunshine (1959).
Sigmund Romberg was born in Hungary, of Austro-Hungarian descent. At age 8 he could play the violin and by 10 he had mastered the piano. In Vienna, he studied both engineering and music, with a penchant and talent for the latter that would eventually become his focus. He moved to America in 1909, finding work in a factory and then as a pianist in a café. Romberg funded his own orchestra, a move that placed him in the sights of The Shubert Brothers. The producing team hired Romberg to adapt some European operettas such as Maytime (1917) and Blossom Time (1921) for American audiences. He was also commissioned to contribute a handful of songs for musicals including Sinbad (1918) and Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920). It was, however, three important operettas that would demonstrate Romberg at his finest: The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928). These three titles would become the epitome of what the American operetta looked and sounded like: a love story, usually with a swashbuckling style hero, exotic or Old World locales, and one or two songs that featured an all-male, rousing chorus number such as “The Drinking Song”, or “Stout-Hearted Men.” His music would prove to be bold, infectious and most-indicative of the American attitude of perseverance and pluck. When people think about operetta, it is undoubtedly the Romberg model they most associate with the genre.
An additional career that is worth looking at in the realm of operetta was Dorothy Donnelly, one of the first important female voices to emerge in early American Musical Theatre. Donnelly was New York City born, perhaps the most home-grown voice of all in this article. She had an eclectic career in theatre, first as an actress, then as a playwright, a librettist, a producer and a lyricist. She worked on Blossom Time (1921), helping to adapt it from its German origins for American audiences. She wrote the book, lyrics and directed the 1923 musical Poppy which featured W.C. Fields in an early role before making his leap to Hollywood. Her most successful and enduring work would be her collaboration with Sigmund Romberg on the operetta The Student Prince where her libretto showed a sly sophistication and strength as a lyricist. Other musicals for which she provided book and lyrics include Hello, Lola (1926) and My Maryland (1927). The creation of musical theatre being predominantly and unjustly a man’s world in this time period, it is all the more important to point out that Dorothy Donnelly overcame these barriers and had a very successful career.
Operetta was/is seldom heavy in nature, usually a light-hearted frolic with romance, comedy and a happy ending. Its grand melodies, serviceable plots and opulent production values were in many ways precursors to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals of the 70s and 80s which relied heavily upon repetitive melodies and visual grandeur. Many people don’t bother with operetta anymore, and most recordings of them are a bit of a turnoff as contemporary cast recording listeners shy away from their tinny and full-on operatic sound. This is a shame, as the melodies are as wonderful as they ever were and deserve to be heard. A true musical theatre enthusiast should have a full understanding of the operetta period in history as it’s legacy lies in how it began to the lay the foundations for far more serious, game-changing works to come.
Songs to listen to:
“I Can’t Do the Sum” from Babes in Toyland (music Victor Herbert/Lyrics Glen MacDonough)
- “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” from Babes in Toyland (music Victor Herbert/Lyrics Glen MacDonough)
- “He Won’t Be Happy ‘Til He Gets Its” from Babes in Toyland (music Victor Herbert/Lyrics Glen MacDonough)
- “Toyland” from Babes in Toyland (music Victor Herbert/Lyrics Glen MacDonough)
- “The Isle of Our Dreams” from The Red Mill (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Henry Blossom and Forman Brown
- “The Streets of New York” from The Red Mill (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Henry Blossom and Forman Brown
- “Moonbeams” from The Red Mill (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Henry Blossom and Forman Brown
- “Mysterious Melody” from Naughty Marietta (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Rida Johnson Young)
- “It Never, Never Can Be Love” from Naughty Marietta (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Rida Johnson Young)
- “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life!” from Naughty Marietta (Music by Victor Herbert/Lyrics by Rida Johnson Young)
“Sapphire Seas” from The Firefly (Music by Rudolf Friml/Lyrics by Otto Harbach)
- “An American Beauty Rose” from The Firefly (Music by Rudolf Friml/Lyrics by Otto Harbach)
- “Indian Love Call” from Rose-Marie (Music by Rudolf Friml/ Lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein, II)
- “The Mounties” from Rose-Marie (Music by Rudolf Friml/ Lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein, II)
- “Rose-Marie” from Rose-Marie (Music by Rudolf Friml/ Lyrics by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein, II)
- “Song of the Vagabonds” from The Vagabond King (Music by Rudolf Friml/Lyrics by Brian Hooker and William H. Post)
- “Drinking Song” from The Vagabond King (Music by Rudolf Friml/Lyrics by Brian Hooker and William H. Post)
- “Love Me Tonight” from The Vagabond King (Music by Rudolf Friml/Lyrics by Brian Hooker and William H. Post)
- “The Drinking Song” from The Student Prince (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly)
- “Deep in My Heart, Dear” from The Student Prince (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly)
- “The Desert Song” from The Desert Song (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Otto Harbach)
- “French Military Marching Song” from The Desert Song (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Otto Harbach)
- “The Sabre Song” from The Desert Song (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Otto Harbach)
- “Stout-Hearted Men” from The New Moon (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II)
- “Marianne” from The New Moon (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II)
- “Softy, As the Morning Sunrise” from The New Moon (Music by Sigmund Romberg/Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II)