History of The Musical Stage
1900-1910: Part II
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2008)
(The images below are thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
Born in Ireland and trained in Europe, Victor Herbert was already musical director of the prestigious Pittsburgh Symphony by the time he started composing for Broadway. His scores graced more than forty musical comedies and operettas, making him one of the most acclaimed songwriter of his time.
Despite melodic sophistication worthy of Europe, Herbert's scores had a distinctly American sound. Herbert was the first Broadway songwriter to successfully insist that no changes be made in his scores without his permission -- a precedent that did much to end the age of "interpolations," and thereby reshape the role of composers in the American theatre.
Herbert's musicals, written with various collaborators, involved simple American goodness triumphing over Old World ways. His most famous works include
Herbert was the driving force behind the formation of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), an organization that to this day protects the rights of composers and lyricists. He continued composing until his death in 1924, and his music remained popular for decades to come. By expressing contemporary American sentiments with an Old World level of musical refinement, he set a course that would be followed by Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and other great Broadway composers.
The Merry Widow
Although Broadway audiences took increasing pride in homegrown musical shows, in the early 1900s a European import became the biggest cultural phenomenon since H.M.S. Pinafore -- an extraordinary fate, considering that this show's original Viennese producers expected it to fail.
In 1905, unknown Hungarian composer Franz Lehár convinced Vienna's prestigious Theatre An der Wein to premiere his new operetta Die Lustige Witwe. With librettists Victor Leon and Leo Stein, Lehar had created a seamlessly integrated musical masterpiece, with every number and bit of dialogue contributing something crucial. This melodic and amusing tale of a rich young widow re-igniting a lost love with a playboy nobleman was not getting a first class production. Uncertain producers used left-over sets and costumes to minimize their losses, but the public soon embraced the show. Only when the show reached its 300th performance did the producers finally invest in a lavish new production.
Die Lustige Witwe was translated into more than a dozen languages as it waltzed its way to every theatrical corner of the world. And its success kept confounding the experts. London producer George Edwardes was surprised when his staging of The Merry Widow (1907 - 718) became a runaway hit.
The first Broadway production of The Merry Widow at The New Amsterdam Theatre (1907 - 416) delighted Americans with its romance and refined sensuality. When the dashing Donald Brian whirled Ethel Jackson around the stage in what became known as "The Merry Widow Waltz" ("I Love You So"), they ignited a cultural firestorm. Several companies toured the USA, a full length parody version ran profitably in New York, and the waltz itself was heard everywhere.
Sample scene: The Merry Widow, Act I
All sorts of unauthorized products tried to cash in on the show, releasing "Merry Widow" hats, cigars and corsets.
Lehar's success set off a new international craze for romantic Viennese operettas, including Leo Fall's The Dollar Princess (1909 - 288) and Oskar Strauss' The Chocolate Soldier (1909 - 296). These works did well on both sides of the Atlantic right up to the onset of World War I, but no other work quite equaled the lasting popularity of The Merry Widow, which continued to have long-running revivals through the 1940s.
As the new century revved up, Broadway balanced the influence of European works by developing fresh theatrical trends. From African-American rhythms to "the glorification of the American girl," there was fresh excitement brewing on the street that (thanks to the invention of electric light) was coming to be known as "the Great White Way."