Pure Operetta continued to get made throughout this period, but it almost invariably flopped, as audiences had lost almost all patience with its more dated conventions. Song of Norway, a musically lush but dramatically vacuous Grieg pasticcio in the Blossom Time vein seems to have fluked its way into success in the Forties, despite having virtually no story. Grieg was no doubt a wonderful composer, but he was not a great biographical subject for a musical, having led a decidedly undramatic life. This forced the musical to make up some frivolous plot about a love triangle between Grieg, his eventual wife, and a temperamental Opera singer who tries to manipulate him into selling out.
The show was essentially carried by second-tier Opera star Irra Patina’s performance as the villainous Opera diva, some wonderful choreography by the great George Balanchine, and above all the glorious score. “I Love You” was taken directly from Grieg’s famous love song of the same title, and his ultra-famous Piano Concerto was used whole-cloth for the final ballet, but the rest of the score was heavily adapted by the team of Robert Wright and George Forrest. By developing themes and adding quite a bit of their own music to Grieg’s melodies, Wright and Forrest transformed Grieg’s instrumental music into such ravishing vocal songs as the haunting musical fairy-tale “The Legend”, the rhapsodic trio “Hill of Dreams”, the tempestuous “Now”, the sprightly “Freddy and His Fiddle” and “Bon Vivant”, and the glorious first-act finale “Hymn of Betrothal”. They even created a massive hit ballad, “Strange Music”, supposedly created by some complicated process of extracting notes from a Grieg composition but to all intents and purposes a Wright and Forrest original.
Still, the show’s success is an anomaly, given that other Operettas with equally fine scores flopped around this time, and it’s worth noting that no-one ever revives it these days. Even the movie version was an utter trainwreck, and while it was certainly poorly adapted, with the music in particular being butchered, its incompetent storytelling and cloying sentimentality were largely inherited from its source.
But apart from that one anomaly, there are really only two Operetta success stories to speak of in this period, and neither is exactly a traditional example of the genre model. One is Kismet, which tried to modernize the operetta model with broad comedy and open sensuality. The book is hardly a paragon of sophistication…it’s pretty much an old-school burlesque comedy set in Arabian Nights-era Baghdad, and when performed today it comes off as rather dated and tiresome. Still, it features some decent laughs in places, and is a sizeable improvement on the stilted, overly earnest books that most previous operettas featured.
The show’s real draw, and what has helped it stick around and become pretty much the most successful American Operetta of all time, is its utterly ravishing score. Adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin by the aforementioned team of Wright and Forrest, it has ironically become far more famous than any of Borodin’s actual compositions, producing at least four enduring standards: the haunting opening, “Sands of Time”, the rhapsodic love duet “Stranger in Paradise”, the lyrical ‘Jewel Song’ “Baubles, Bangles and Beads”, and the exquisitely delicate quartet “And This Is My Beloved”. But those songs, fine as they are, are still exactly the kind of material one expects from an Operetta; the groundbreaking nature of the show is really displayed in earthier numbers like the explosively sexy showstoppers for belting Prima Donna Lalume, “Not Since Ninevah” and “Rahadlakum”, or the evil Wazir’s genuinely witty villain song “Was I Wazir? I Was!”.
The other great subversion of the Operetta model in this era, which was a commercial failure at the time but has succeeded impressively in revivals, is Leonard Bernstein’s career showpiece Candide. Based more on European comic Operetta than the romantic fantasies favored in America, it resembled to a certain extent a far more ambitious version of an Offenbach Opéra Bouffe. With Bernstein’s glorious score and lyrics by a large stable of the Twentieth-Century American intelligentsia, it is probably the best of all American Operettas from an artistic perspective, in spite of its obvious, gaping problem that has never really been successfully fixed.
That problem is that Voltaire’s novel is a dry, cerebral, deliberately shocking fable acted out by stock characters, a sort of intellectual cartoon, and is not remotely suited to be a Musical. The creators gave it their best shot, and they definitely broke some impressive ground in finding music where no music would seem to be possible, particularly in a brilliant musical scene depicting an Auto-de-fe, and in two separate songs about the supposed upside of syphilis, one creepily beautiful (“Dear Boy”) and one blackly comic (“Ringaroundarosy”).
But even if Bernstein and his collaborators had stuck to pure satire, like a lighter version of Brecht’s Musical works, the sheer density of Voltaire’s content would have made it extremely difficult. Compounding this initial problem, Bernstein, apparently unable to resist including some lyrical melodies, wrote several numbers obviously designed to make you feel for these characters, and however glorious the music, it just doesn’t work. Adding emotional moments like “It Must Be So”, “The Ballad of Eldorado”, “Nothing More Than This”, and the epic final ensemble, “Make Our Garden Grow” mostly just served to confuse the audience, since outside of these numbers the characters tended to act exactly like the caricatures they were portrayed as in the original novel. Apparently Bernstein and original librettist Lillian Hellman saw the novel’s invocation of the Spanish Inquisition for one sequence as an opportunity to take on McCarthyism, but the honest truth is that they wasted some of the best theatrical music and lyrics of all time on what was, quite frankly, a bad idea from the beginning.
Granted, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate does resemble a kind of comic Operetta with its Shakespearean source material and lush romantic music, but these elements are blended heavily with the Musical Comedy tropes of Porter’s early years, in effect creating an Operetta/Musical Comedy fusion very different from the one found in the Rodgers and Hammerstein-style Musical Play.
The show is an archetypical retelling of Shakespeare’s classic farce The Taming of the Shrew, told through a ferocious duel of passions between two ex-lovers who are in the process of performing in a musical production of the original play. This was probably a wiser idea than trying to do a straightforward adaptation, since the gender politics of Shakespeare’s play were uncomfortably dated even by 1940s standards. Unfortunately, the show’s book really has no more dramatic integrity than Porter’s Musical Comedies from the Twenties and Thirties. The song cues are often completely unmotivated, and there are several blatantly extraneous characters who exist for no other reason than to deliver musical numbers. The show takes every opportunity it can to recite passages of Shakespeare’s dialogue word for word, probably because this gloss on the original plot isn’t really substantial enough to fill out a two-hour show on its own and the play-within-a-play scenes are a convenient source of filler.
However, despite all these flaws, the show still managed to attain the ranks of the top-level theater classics. It’s almost impossible for a Broadway Musical’s score to overpower a book this inadequate, but this one manages it. Some of the music sounds virtually indistinguishable from what one might hear in a traditional Operetta, such as the mock-Viennese waltz of “Wunderbar” or the breathtaking romantic ballad “So in Love”. Much of the material for the play-within-a-play even attempts a period-appropriate Elizabethan sound, particularly Petruchio’s three big solos “I’ve Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua”, “Were Thine That Special Face?”, and “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”, and Katherina’s ferociously trilling credo “I Hate Men”. On the other hand, several of the songs are pure Jazz, such as “Tom, Dick or Harry”, “Too Darn Hot”, and “Always True to You, Darling (In My Fashion)”.
Most of the score sticks to Porter’s standard formulas: comedic list songs, lush, sensuous ballads, hot Jazz showstoppers, and lots of highly risqué double-entendres (“Tom, Dick or Harry” actually got away with repeatedly using the word “dick” in what is clearly meant to be its modern context). The show’s most innovative moment was a highly original number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”, that managed to transform deliberate awfulness into comedy gold. This may have been the first prominent use of intentional camp on Broadway, and it would prove to have immense influence on everything from the “Baby June” numbers in Gypsy to such deliberately campy musicals as The Rocky Horror Show.
But overall, Porter had done almost everything he does in this score before, and usually just as well or even better. What made the show special is how much of that quality was now concentrated in one place. Porter has a reputation for consistent genius among those who only know him from his hits, but most of his theater scores are actually quite uneven. Nearly all of his Thirties shows, as well as his last two hits, Can-Can and Silk Stockings, consist of a handful of sublime hits surrounded by a lot of pleasant-but-undistinguished musical filler. Even Anything Goes, before it was padded out with interpolations, had plenty of just-okay material in its original incarnation. The real thing that made Kiss Me, Kate different from earlier Porter was not any breakthrough in dramatic cohesion but the sheer consistency and quality control of the show’s score.
But even if Kiss Me, Kate’s Operetta leanings were given a pass because of that score, it’s worth remembering what happened to Porter’s follow-up work in the same vein, Out of This World. Despite having a score that very nearly matched Kiss Me, Kate’s in terms of brilliance and consistency, the show flopped because of a dated book and presentation…exactly the problem that was killing Operetta in general. The Girl in Pink Tights, a variation on the pasticcio formula developed out of an unfinished posthumous score by Sigmund Romberg, also tried to modernize Operetta but proved not to be modern enough for Broadway audiences. Neither did two more vehicles for Kismet star Alfred Drake. The first, Kean, was an attempt to make another intellectual Operetta in the Candide vein (this time based on Sartre rather than Voltaire). The second, Zenda, was a toned-down version of Anthony Hope’s novel The Prisoner of Zenda, which had been a progenitor of the kind of swashbuckling, exotic romance plot that American Operetta had always favored. Both works were smarter and more sophisticated than the Operettas of old, but still too formal and stodgy to be accepted on Broadway by this time.
Even Operetta on film was becoming discredited, with the last two Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicles, Bitter Sweet and I Married an Angel, being extremely poorly received. The former cut all of the sophisticated and subversive elements that made the show different from other Operettas; indeed, it bore little resemblance to the stage show beyond its use of a few of the more conventional songs from the score. This was partly because the MacDonald-Eddy film series had already essentially plagiarized the plot of Bitter Sweet for its film version of Romberg’s Maytime. Noel Coward reportedly wept upon seeing the final cut, and later complained that Bitter Sweet, which he had seen as a kind of retirement policy, could never be revived after this film destroyed its reputation…and indeed, though it has been recorded, the show has yet to see a revival in a major venue to this day.
I Married an Angel was even more of a disaster. Based on a very risqué satirical comedy with a score by Rodgers and Hart, it neutered virtually every aspect of its source. The original plot had been one long double-entendre, and once all the ribald elements were removed, virtually nothing of interest was left. The film also bowdlerized the four songs it retained from the stage show (including the now-legendary “Spring Is Here”) to the point where they were almost unrecognizable. The filmmakers didn’t even have the courage to present the fantasy elements straightforwardly, presenting most of the story as a dream on the part of Nelson Eddy’s character. Add the worst performances either star ever gave, and you have a definite entry on the shortlist of worst movie musicals ever made.
The only other Operetta film from this era that anyone actually remembers is the 1943 remake of the Phantom of the Opera film with Nelson Eddy and Claude Reins (technically the first musical made of the story). Fans of the franchise despise it today for its total lack of fidelity to the source material, but critics at the time didn’t like it much either. The musical portions, mostly drawn from actual operas, were pleasant enough, but they wound up dominating the film, leaving little room for the Horror elements that were supposed to be the movie’s primary draw. Even worse, this is the film that introduced the idea of the Phantom as a normal man disfigured in an accident rather than a naturally deformed lifelong outcast, a frankly stupid idea that has dogged the franchise ever since.
The Operetta film received a brief revival in the late Forties and early Fifties, but that was largely due to the emergence of a single performer…Mario Lanza. Probably the greatest singer in all of American Operetta, with a voice that would make Nelson Eddy weep with envy, and an expressive actor to boot, Lanza was the kind of talent that entire genres are revived in order to accommodate. What other Operetta singer would dare to portray legendary Opera Tenor Enrico Caruso on film? (And frankly, by all accounts, Lanza was a better actor than Caruso ever dreamed of being).
But today, Lanza’s best-remembered film is one that he didn’t, technically speaking, even appear in…the 1954 film version of The Student Prince. This underrated classic is subtler and more intelligent than your typical Operetta film like the Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy series. Based on the biggest Broadway hit of Sigmund Romberg’s career, it was already dealing with a plot more bittersweet and grounded in reality than the average operetta of the period. What the movie did was take this already unusually mature story for an operetta and drew it out into a far more relaxed and natural pace. Many have found the movie too slow-moving for this reason, but this unhurried pacing gives it what no operetta had yet had at the time…a believable naturalism of character. In the stage version, for all its improvements on the usual operetta formula, the lovers are still singing the rhapsodic “Deep in My Heart, Dear” almost as soon as they’ve met each other. In the movie, the Prince has time to gradually loosen up from an arrogant, uptight jackass to a nice, fun-loving young man, and he and Kathy have time to believably fall in love as they would in a higher grade of dramatic work.
The comedy is hit or miss, as in most operettas, with a couple of comic relief scenes that are almost wince-inducing, but the script is consistently literate and has its share of passably witty repartee. This movie offers ample rewards for those patient enough to sit through its gradual process of character development, and that’s having not even mentioned the music. Nearly every major number from Romberg’s score made it into the movie, including the still-famous standards “Serenade”, “Deep In My Heart, Dear”, “Golden Days”, “Drink, Drink, Drink”, and “Come Boys, Let’s All Be Gay, Boys” (the latter of which might provoke some snickers from more juvenile audience members today, especially as it features the chorusmen dancing arm-in-arm as they sing it). Three wonderful new songs were also written for the film, one of which, the soaring hymn “I’ll Walk with God”, has become an enduring standard and is still regularly recorded by standards-singers with sufficiently high tenor voices.
Originally, Lanza was the play the Prince, but while there are conflicting accounts as to exactly why, he ended up leaving the project. However, in exchange for his release from his contract, the filmmakers were able to retain his vocal tracks, and they are used to glorious effect in the finished film. The actual actor who plays the lead, Edmund Purdom, is a bit stiff and wooden, but he’s serviceable enough, and Lanza’s vocals do a lot to compensate for Purdom’s lack of emotional range. Fortunately, movie musical stalwart Ann Blyth is both a wonderful singer and a winning actress as Cathy, giving what is arguably the best performance of her career here. The rest of the cast give generally understated performances that suit the tone of the film, although there is a stereotypical Yiddish comedian playing an innkeeper who seems quite out of place in these surroundings, and is responsible for several of the weakest comic set pieces. This film isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than it’s generally given credit for, and in many ways has actually held up better than several more famous operetta films.
Unfortunately, the other Operetta films made around this time just continued to display the diminishing returns of the genre. The film versions of Kiss Me, Kate and Kismet, for example, were distinctly underwhelming, partly because the environment of Hollywood at the time forced the filmmakers to drain out all the risqué ribaldry that made the stage versions of those shows so delicious. The 1951 remake of the Show Boat movie, despite some fine performances by Ava Gardner and William Warfield, added a stupid new ending that completely ruined the original’s epic historical sweep. And the 1953 Desert Song film (the third time that property was adapted to the medium) featured a butchered score and a script that was significantly inferior to the original stage book…and believe me, when you come up with a story that makes the original Desert Song plot look good, you have failed on a spectacular level.