Waltzing Around the World
During 1906, as Die Lustige Witwe won ovations in most of
Austria's provincial theatres, it also began to travel
across central Europe --
- Hamburg - Neues Operetten-Theater, 3/3/1906
- Berlin - Berliner Theater, 5/1/1906
- Budapest - (A vig Ozvegy) Magyar Szinhaz, 11/27/1906
German speaking countries used the original text, and the Hungarian translation
(A vig ozvegy) kept the original plot and song order. But despite
its popularity, Lehar's Lustige Witwe was doomed to suffer
revisions as it swept the world.
English and French translators added new songs, changed character names, and
even tweaked some plot points. Translations were popping up everywhere. On a Saturday in
1907, Buenos Aires had no less than five productions, each in a
different language, giving two performances a piece.
(Sonia) and Joseph Coyne (Danilo) in the original London production of
The Merry Widow.
George Edwardes was Britain's
successful stage producer. Best remembered primarily as
the creator of British musical comedy, he had no aversion to importing a
continental hit, particularly one as acclaimed as Lehar's Die Lustige Witwe.
Edwardes commissioned lyricist Adrian Ross and librettist Edward
Morton to create the first English version of The Merry Widow
(1907). When Morton's dialogue proved disappointing, the prolific Basil
Hood was brought in to re-write the entire script -- but he was not
credited until years later, supposedly out of respect for Morton's
feelings. The West End production opened at Daly's Theatre on June 8,
This was a fresh adaptation of the text, not an exact translation. The
resulting dialogue had the easy flow of conversational
English, rather than the stilted sound of strictly translated German.
There were also several diplomatically motivated name changes. The
original German libretto had angered officials in the Balkan kingdom of
Montegnegro, where the royal family's surname was Njegus, and the real
crown prince was named Danilo! So the English version turned Pontevedro
into Marsovia, promoted Count Danilo to the title of Prince, and
rechristened Njegus as Nish.
The final scene was moved into the actual Maxim's, to further capitalize
on international interest in that famous Parisian nightspot.
Diplomacy does not explain all the changes. Hanna Glawari became
Sonia Sadoya, ambassador Zeta became Popoff, Valencienne became Natalie,
and Camille's last name was changed to Jolidon. These new names were
just as difficult to sing as the originals, so we can only attribute the
changes to the whims of the English authors. A great deal of
irrelevant chatter and stage business was added to accommodate popular
comedian George Graves, who was such a sensation as Baron Popoff
that he played the role to ongoing acclaim for decades. Most of his
custom-designed shtick was deleted from future productions.
In an unusual move, British producer George Edwardes brought
Lehar to London to compose several additional songs --
"Butterflies" (rarely heard today) for the lead Grisette, and
"Quite Parisien" (still often used) as a third act solo for Nish.
Soprano Lily Elsie played Sonia, and comedian
Joseph Coyne was Danilo. Although
this was the most memorable and acclaimed success of Coyne's career, he
loathed the role. The Merry Widow opened at Daly's Theatre on
June 8, 1907, where it lasted for 778 performances. The same translation
played in Australia, opening at Her Majesty's
Theatre in Melbourne on May 16, 1908.
Jackson (Sonia) and Donald Brian (Danilo) headed The Merry Widow's original
Henry Savage was not the most successful producer on Broadway, but he
somehow secured the American rights to The Merry Widow.
His production used the British translation, minus most of the clowning added
for London's Popoff. Adrian Ross was still credited for the lyrics, but
the book adaptation went uncredited.
The American premiere took place at Manhattan's sumptuous New Amsterdam
Theatre on Oct. 21, 1907. Critics and audiences were delighted with
every aspect of the lavish production, particularly the cast.
Ethel Jackson played Sonia, and
handsome baritone Donald Brian
was America's first Danilo. This duo's on-stage chemistry
became legendary, and for decades to come, those who saw the
original New York cast insisted that no other leads ever offered quite
the same magic. Jackson left the cast after just five months, and never had a
comparable success -- Brian, who was already a popular stage star, remained
one of Broadway's top leading men into the 1920s.
Savage sent touring companies to cities all across the United
States, so Widow-mania spread quickly. It eventually seemed as if
Merry Widow Waltz" was playing on every piano and Victrola in
the United States. A wide range of
unauthorized "Merry Widow" merchandise soon appeared -- songbooks,
oversized hats, shoes, cigars and even a popular style of corset. There was
also a Merry Widow cocktail -- 1 1/2 oz. each of Gin & Sweet
Vermouth, with a dash each of Pernod & Bitters, served strained over ice
and garnished with a lemon twist.
1907 also saw the Widow and Danilo waltz their way to Stockholm. The
following year they traveled to Copenhagen, Milan and Moscow. Their
1909 itinerary included Madrid, and the one European city which met the
Widow with a palpable degree trepidation -- Paris.
Die Lustige Witwe was set in Paris, but the French were not exactly
clamoring to see how Austrians depicted their beloved capital. Curiosity
finally won out, and many attended the first night of La Veuve joyeuse at the
Apollo Theatre on April 28, 1909 with openly proclaimed intentions of hating the
show. As it turned out, the Paris production was well received and managed a
respectable run of 186 performances.
In this version, Hanna became "Missia," an American
raised in "Marsovie" -- and the French libretto specified that she be
played with a combination English-Slav accent. This was done on the
assumption that French audiences would have an easier time accepting an
American woman as a millionaire. Count
Danilo became a prince with gambling debts, which made his
feelings about courting a rich widow even more complex. The final act
was set in Maxim's -- not because the idea had already worked in London and New
York, but because Parisian audiences would not accept anything less.
In 1910, The Merry Widow made its way to Brussels. In the
years that followed, the show was produced in every city that made any
claim to a theatre-going public. In Gold and Silver: The Life and
Times of Franz Lehar (New York: David McKay Company, 1970, p. 129),
Dr. Bernard Grun estimates that The Merry Widow was performed
about half a million times in its first sixty years. Worldwide sales of
sheet music and recordings both ran into the tens of millions. No other
play or musical up to that time had enjoyed such a dazzling
In Vienna, Die Lustige Witwe has been revived numerous
times -- an appropriate fate for the most popular Viennese operetta of
all time. It remains a regular feature in the Vienna Volksopera's repertory, a
giddy echo of the city's Imperial heyday. However, no one can accuse the Viennese of treating their
most popular operetta as a sacred relic. The Volksopera released a
complete live performance of this classic on CD, interpolating
Offenbach's famous "Can-Can" from Orpheus
in the Underworld. For better or worse, this has inspired the same
interpolation in other productions worldwide.
London welcomed back The Merry Widow in 1923 for a 239
performance run, as well as further runs in 1924 and 1932. A 1943
revival racked up 302 performances. Most of these productions featured
George Graves, the original West End Popoff. Madge Elliott and Cyril
Ritchard starred in a 1944 staging, June Bronhill and Thomas Round
headlined in 1958, and Lizbeth Webb and John Rhys Evans topped the
short-lived 1969 London cast.
Kiepura and Marta Eggerth in the 1943 revival, which proved a major favorite with wartime
Broadway saw only one commercial revival, staged by the New Opera
Company in 1943. The perfect escapist treat for wartime audiences,
this vaguely updated Widow featured Polish tenor Jan Kiepura
and his wife Marta Eggerth
in the leads, colorful sets by Howard Bay, and choreography by George
Balanchine. Delighted audiences kept it running for 322 performances
in the same year that Oklahoma brought a spirit of change to the
With the appearance of long playing records in the mid-20th
Century, full length recordings of The Merry Widow appeared.
Mostly in German, these LP sets helped to re-fuel international interest
in Lehar's operetta. Major opera companies began adding the work to
their repertories. Several of the world's greatest sopranos were
delighted to find a role that allowed them to look glamorous, sing a
show stopping aria ("Vilja") and enjoy the rare luxury of a
On to:: Part III