Johann to Victor to George
Above: Ethel Merman and dancing girls in the original Broadway cast of George & Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy.
In our second-to-most-recent thrilling blog post, we left our heroine, opéra-comique, tied to the railroad tracks of music history, about to be run over by the opérettes of Jacques Offenbach. Satirical, topical and downright silly, these refreshing new works emerged around 1850 as one-act farces presented several per evening, then grew over the next quarter-century into such pointedly political evening-length opéras bouffes as Orphée aux enfers ("Orpheus in the Underworld") and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, in the process leaving the escapist old opéra-comique in the dust.
Well, Paris wasn't the only musical capital laughing at Offenbach's farces. Viennese audiences also craved these French imports, translated into German. Problem was that Offenbach, whose works were initially presented in Vienna in pirated versions, eventually showed up to produce his works there himself. (Remember, the great "French" composer was actually a native of Cologne, and thus knew the language.) And neither Offenbach nor his opéras came cheap. So, the Vienna impressarios turned to their most famous native son, Johann Strauss, Jr., to provide a domestic alternative, even though the "Waltz King" had until then no experience as a theater composer.
While Strauss's first Komische Operette, Indigo und die vierzig Räuber ("Indigo and the Forty Thieves") scored a moderate success, it was the immense poplarity of a later Strauss operetta, Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") that ushered in a new era in music theater history, one whose heyday was a mere fifty years, but which defined its time, place and genre like few other art forms do theirs. Say "Old Vienna" to someone with a taste for classical music and music theater, and that person is likely to conjure up images and tunes from Fledermaus, or perhaps from Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe ("The Merry Widow'). Say "operetta" to the same person, and you'll probably inspire the same memories.
Graceful, tuneful and unabashedly schmaltzy, these operettas usually chronicled the amorous adventures of the rich and beautiful (cf. the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies), with the comedy provided by eccentric uncles, pompous military officers, country cousins and bumbling servants. Characters and settings of eastern European origin, real or imagined, were always welcome, as were, of course, Gypsies. And needless to say, any operetta worth producing needed at least one big waltz. While the names of Strauss and Lehár loom largest in any chronicle of operetta, there were plenty of hits to go around for such composers as Carl Zeller (Der Vogelhändler), Richard Heuberger (Der Opernball, source of the charming duet "Im chambre séparée"), Oscar Straus (The Chocolate Soldier), Leo Fall (Madame Pompadour), the Hungarian Emmerich Kálmán (Die Csárdásfürstin) and Robert Stolz (numerous stage and screen scores, including such songs as "Mein Liebeslied muss ein Walzer sein" and "Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt").
Above: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing "Im chambre séparée" from Richard Heuberger's Der Opernball. Be still, my heart!
You of course don't need a history lesson from me to understand one major reason why the curtain figuratively came down on the Viennese operetta by the 1930s. But speaking just musicially and theatrically, the form was pretty well exhausted by then, with jazzier works from Berlin like Kurt Weill & Berthold Brecht's Threepenny Opera capturing the attention of the smart young German-speaking audience, and the once-fresh operetta morphing into a nostalgic vestige of an old and disappearing world.
Something of the same transformation was also taking place, if anything more decisively, in a different theatrical milieu a continent away. Say "Broadway!" (with the exclamation point, please) to the same person you said "operetta" to before, and you're likely to invoke shows by composers ranging from George & Ira Gershwin to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Frank Loesser to Jerry Herman to Stephen Sondheim to Stephen Schwartz, many of which remain contemporary enough to revive without explanation or excuse. What you will likely not invoke are the shows that ruled the "Great White Way" when that term was popularized a little more than a hundred years ago. For before Broadway learned how to swing, it warbled, waltzed and warmed hearts with the domestic version of that European import, the operetta.
With plots poised between the Viennese model and the French opéra-comique, the Broadway operetta prevailed for about 30 years, from the earliest works by the genre's leading composer, Dublin native Victor Herbert (starting with Prince Ananias in 1894) to mid-1920s hits by the Czech Rudolf Friml (Rose-Marie, The Vagabond King) and the Hungarian Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song). You will note that all three composers just mentioned, like their genre, were of European origin. And you might be suprised to read the name of the most successful American composer of Broadway operetta — none other than the "March King," John Philip Sousa, whose El Capitan ran for 112 performances in Manhattan (pretty good in those days) in 1896, then also enjoyed similar success in London.
Above: Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the 1935 film version of Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta.
But as in Europe, so in America: New audiences by the 'teens and 'twenties came to crave new, more realistic story lines, with music that reflected the rhythms (read: jazz) of the times. So, out with the Mounties (Rose-Marie), the Foreign Legion (Desert Song) and Captain Dick (Victor Herbert's Naughty Marietta), in with the fun young Americans portrayed in such "Princess Theater" shows as Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton's Oh, Boy! , add a generous spoonful of syncopation, bring on the hoofers and, by George (and by Ira too), you get the modern musical comedy — a cultural treasure to put alongside jazz, baseball and, of course, listener-funded public radio as an expression of the American spirit. "I Got Rhythm" as the new national anthem, anyone?
Above: Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Tommy Dorsey with I Got Rhythm, from the 1943 film of George & Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy.