It’s worth noting that for the first time, in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, a genre of lightweight sub-opera like Singspiel had actually gained enough traction to stick around and carve out an identity for itself. To be precise, it was actually several genres in several different countries, but they were close enough to each other to be grouped around a single term: Operetta. It’s also worth noting that while most of the Operettas produced in America were reasonably serious romantic fantasies, the early European operettas were nearly all satirical comedies. The giants of this form at this time were the French composer Jacques Offenbach, the Germans Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar, and the British team of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
The first major figure in this new field was a Parisian musical satirist by the name of Jakob Eberst, now better known by his adopted name of Jacques Offenbach. Offenbach’s first Opera-Bouffe, as he called his Operetta burlesques of traditional Opera tropes, took a ‘fractured fairy tale’ approach aimed at the Orpheus myth. Obviously, given that it does deal with the story of a preternaturally gifted musician, the Orpheus myth is rather an obvious choice for Opera, and after two of Opera’s keymost figures, Monteverdi and Gluck, produced famous versions, the subject became so overused that writing an Orpheus opera was practically a rite of passage for composers.
Offenbach’s wickedly satirical subversion of the original myth, Orpheus in the Underworld, was not only hilarious, but also full of sparkling tunes, including an Infernal Can-Can theme that I guarantee everyone reading this would recognize. He would continue with several more works in the same vein, and while his only “serious” Opera, Tales of Hoffman, gets the most respect of any of his works from the music establishment, his real legacy will always lie in his pioneering what would become the modern theatre musical.
Meanwhile, in Vienna, Operettas featuring gentler, less biting attempts at satire were catching on like wildfire. This model was initially pioneered by Franz von Suppe, a talented and prolific composer who is sadly known today more for the excerpted overtures to his shows than the Operettas themselves. That said, the two premeire giants of this genre were Johann Strauss, Jr. (known to his contemporaries as ‘The Waltz King’) and Franz Lehar, who took Suppe’s genre model and added some of the greatest then-current Pop melodies of their day, and their respective Magnum Opuses Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow represent the pinnacle of the Viennese branch of this form.
There was also a related genre, dubbed ‘Light Opera’, that showed up around the same time, which was essentially Viennese Operetta without the spoken dialogue; while it may have been structured more like a traditional Opera, it featured the same preference for lighthearted topics and frothy, then-popular music idioms that its Operetta peers did.
It wasn’t the most distinguished of Musical Theatre genres, generally speaking; even most of the major hits it produced are either completely forgotten or barely hanging on to the edges of the repertoire. Flotow’s Martha and Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been highly popular in their day, but the former is mostly remembered now for popularizing an Irish folk tune that it “borrowed” for its most prominent aria, and the latter seems utterly redundant now that Verdi’s Falstaff exists. Michael William Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl is even more obscure today: apart from one still-famous individual aria, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls”, it is remembered mostly as the basis for a Laurel and Hardy movie vehicle that is itself half-forgotten by this point. Puccini also made an attempt at an Italian version of Light Opera with the musically attractive but dramatically underpowered La Rondine, but even it has proven to be the least popular of his mature works by a considerable margin.
Even Antonin Dvorak, one of the greatest Classical composers of his time (and the aforementioned prophet of the advent of African musical influences) never really accomplished much in the Light Opera field. Dvorak, who had studied under Johannes Brahms, was a marvelous melodist, a bit like Tchaikovsky if Tchaikovsky had had access to antidepressants, but he had an unfortunate tendency to choose such appalling librettos that even his genius could not redeem them. That said, he did produce one minor classic in Rusalka, a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid with the various fantasy elements repurposed to reference local Czech mythology (e.g. The titular mermaid becomes a Rusalka, or water nymph). This one successful work has managed to hang around the edges of the Operatic repertoire, but with this plot now so closely associated with the Disney musical version, its days may be numbered as well.
In spite of all that, it must be admitted that Light Opera did produce two genuine enduring masterpieces…Bedrich Smetana’s jolly celebration of Czech culture and Folk music The Bartered Bride, and Englebert Humperdinck’s exquisite children’s Opera Hansel and Gretel. Both owe much of their ongoing popularity to their incredibly optimistic and ebullient dramatic content: it’s just virtually impossible to hate a show as irrepressibly happy as these two are.
The Hansel and Gretel Opera is even nicer than the fairy tale: here, Hansel and Gretel have a happy family with two loving parents, the previous victims of the Witch are set free of their enchantment and sent home to their families, and even the Witch’s infamous death in the oven is comical rather than gruesome, as she transforms into a gigantic sweet pastry. This sweet ingenuous innocence, combined with a sparkling collection of simple, Folk-flavored numbers somewhere between operatic arias and children’s songs, have assured this Opera’s enduring popularity even as the subgenre from which it rose almost disappeared.
I would be remiss if I did not also address two extremely popular instrumental theatre scores from around this time that no doubt had a role in popularizing the “play with music” model. Jean Sibelius, the premiere composer of Finland, was one of the most prolific creators of Symphonic Poems, setting a number of legends from Finnish mythology to intricately descriptive orchestral music. Unfortunately, his most prominent foray into actual theatre music, an incidental score for the play Kuolema that was very popular in its time, did not catch him at his best, with even its once-inescapable ‘hit tune’, the “Valse Triste”, being more of a subject of mockery than anything else nowadays.
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, on the other hand, was more of an heir to Brahms’ school than Wagner’s, specializing in traditional forms and simple, fairly conservative melodies. His music would later be the source of a Twentieth-Century Broadway Operetta, Song of Norway, but his most famous work for the theater came in his own lifetime, with his stage music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. This extensive instrumental score features such famous melodies as “Anitra’s Dance”, “Solveig’s Song”, and the instantly recognizable “Hall of the Mountain King”, and, along with his famous piano concerto (which would be turned into the setting for Song of Norway’s climactic ballet), constitutes Grieg’s primary musical legacy outside his native Norway.
Of all the creators of ‘Operetta’ and ‘Light Opera’ works, the English composer-lyricist team of Gilbert and Sullivan had the most influence on American musical theater, and many would argue that their shows were the first examples of what we now call ‘Musicals’. Certainly, of all the librettists and lyricists in the Operetta field, William Gilbert is the only one who invariably gets equal billing and attention as his composing partner, forsaging the dynamics of modern Broadway, where the great lyricists are often as important and celebrated as their composers.
Of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas based on the team’s standard model, the most popular have always been H.M.S. Pinafore (which produced one of the first true memes in the modern sense with its “What, never?/Well, hardly ever” call and response bit), The Pirates of Penzance (which probably holds the team’s record for the most recognizable ‘hit’ songs, including the Pirate King’s theme song, “Poor Wandering One”, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General”, the “Paradox” trio, and the thunderous burglar’s chorus that provided the melody for “The Gang’s All Here”), and their most iconic hit of all, The Mikado (the source of “A Wandering Minstrel I”, “Three Little Maids From School”, and two riotously funny musical complaints about various types of annoying people, “I’ve Got a Little List” and “My Object All Sublime”).
These works follow a fairly consistent formula, partially dictated by the fact that they were for the most part all written for the same cast. There was always a wily old codger who invariably received a patter-song showpiece, a male authority figure of intermediate age (practice varied as to which of these would be the main antagonist, but it was nearly always one or the other of them), a handsome and stalwart young hero who played the straight man to the insanity around him, a beautiful ingenue who was basically there to sing pretty love arias, an unmarried older woman who existed purely to be the butt of jokes, and a buffoonish, slapstick choral ensemble that presaged silent film comedy ensembles such as the Keystone Kops. Even the team’s last major success, The Gondoliers, which tripled the number of its heroes and ingenues, didn’t deviate significantly from the formula in any other way.
The plots to these Operettas were full of blatant holes and logical errors and at times virtually nonsensical, but this didn’t really matter since the stories were meant primarily as satirical cultural commentaries on the issues of the time. Some of these targets have aged better than others (the parody of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic principles in Patience now seems rather cheap and reductive, and Princess Ida, which is essentially supposed to be one long joke about how stupid the very idea of ‘feminism’ is, has for some reason fallen out of popularity in recent decades). However, the best of them still hold up: the dialogue and lyrics, despite containing a fair number of now-obscure references, can still get genuine laughs from a modern audiences, and several of the tunes are instantly recognizable to people who have never even been to a Musical.
By far Gilbert and Sullivan’s most ambitious work, however, and the only one to truly deviate from their usual formula, was The Yeomen of the Guard. It was wholly different from any of their other Operettas: it was an old-fashioned romance rather than a satirical commentary on British social mores, with even the humor functioning as romantic whimsy rather than satire. Its nominal hero, Fairfax, is revealed over the course of the show as a self-involved, caddish, unscrupulous jerk, and its real sympathetic focus is a middle-aged, deeply pathetic jester named Jack Point. Even many of the songs would have sounded wildly out of place in any other G&S work; instead of opening with an upbeat chorus, the curtain rises on a solo female singing a tearstained ballad of unrequited love, and the exalted nobility of “Is Life a Boon?” and the almost folklike quality of the indelible “I Have a Song to Sing, Oh!” are equally far removed from the usual G&S fare.
The two patter-song showstoppers here are less foreign to the team’s usual idiom, but they clearly have a personal significance to Gilbert this time, as he seems to have seen Jack Point as a reflection of himself. We see Gilbert boasting of his power to enlighten the minds of others through humor on “I’ve Jibe and Joke”, and complaining of his lot in life in “Oh, a Private Buffoon is a Light-Hearted Loon”. The latter is a plaint as old as comedy itself…the lament of the clown who must perpetually labor to make others laugh, even when his own heart is breaking.
Also note that while every other G&S show ended happily for all concerned, Yeoman ends with the heroine marrying the aforementioned jerk Fairfax, two highly sympathetic supporting characters being forced into marriage with people they detest, and Jack Point either unconscious or dead (the show deliberately leaves some ambiguity on that point).
It was around this time that the Broadway musical, as such, came into being. The earliest Broadway musicals were the ancestors of the Twenties Operetta models used by Romberg and Friml, with heavy use of spectacle, old-fashioned music that tried to sound ‘Classical’, and lyrics that would make a modern listener pound their head against a wall. Until the beginning of the 20th Century, the form had no compositional integrity whatsoever and was basically stationary vaudeville with a vague plot throughline running through it. Scores would be put together out of grab-bags of convenient interpolations, and the very few shows from this era that anyone remembers today (The Black Crook, Floradora, the original The Wizard of Oz musical), are remembered more for their historical niche than their stories and scores, which are practically forgotten.
The only American work from this era that you’re ever likely to see an actual production of today is not a Musical but a full-fledged Opera, albeit one from an unconventional source. This work is fascinating from a historical perspective, but there’s a reason it is usually revived only on those grounds. Called Treemonisha, it was written by the great American composer Scott Joplin, most known today for his famous ragtime compositions for piano like “The Entertainer” and “The Maple Leaf Rag”. It was his attempt to prove his credibility as a composer by writing an American opera, and is notable as the first opera in history to focus exclusively on Black characters (yes, even before Porgy and Bess).
The opera uses the old-fashioned Number Opera format, with individual set pieces connected by recitative, which even at the time was a rather outdated practice in the genre. Interestingly, only a few individual ‘numbers’ make use of the traditional Black musical idioms Joplin is usually associated with…a few Ragtime dances for the ensemble, the gospel-ish call-and-response number “Good Advice”, or the proto-bluesy harmonies on the finale, “A Real Slow Drag”, for example. The majority of the score simply sounds like an Italian opera, and a rather accomplished one, too.
So why don’t we see this piece get revived more often? Simple—the libretto is terrible. Actually, the story itself is sound, a fairly progressive (and surprisingly non-sexist for an opera) fable about education overcoming superstition, and would be fine with better execution. The problem is the wording. Every single character speaks entirely in simple-minded cliches, there is an abundance of groan-inducing lines, and many of Joplin’s rhymes are painful even by the standards of modern pop music (‘right’ with ‘advice’, for example, or ‘grateful’ with ‘thankful’). A modern audience that didn’t know about Joplin’s role in writing this would probably take these idiotic lyrics for minstrel-show stereotyping, which means that the show can only be feasibly marketed to people who come in already knowing its historical significance. Also, the centerpiece aria, “The Sacred Tree”, as lovely as it is, is unbearably tedious in performance because it stretches about a minute and a half’s worth of narrative into eight minutes of slow, static story ballad.
Joplin was a great composer, of that there is no doubt, but he clearly didn’t have the slightest idea how to write an Opera libretto, or even to pen credible lyrics, and he really should have found a collaborator for this effort. Treemonisha may be historically important and musically interesting, but it is simply not good theater, and for that reason will probably never be anything more than the historical curiosity it is today.
Victor Herbert, the first truly great Broadway composer to arise on the scene at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, was to some extent the musical’s salvation, writing music of actual consequence, introducing the idea that a musical’s score could be a work of art, and introducing a collection of distinct genres that would eventually taper down into what we now call Musical Comedy and the American version of Romantic Operetta.
But neither Victor Herbert nor the next legendary name to come along, George M. Cohan, were prone to using strong or sensible stories, or to ‘integrating’ their songs in the modern sense of the word. Also, both of them tended to rely too much on formulaic genre conventions.
Herbert did influential work in several genres, particularly early incarnations of the Romantic Operettas that would dominate Broadway in the 1920s (Naughty Marietta, Sweethearts), romantic comedies with songs like The Red Mill that were predecessors to the Musical-Comedy romances of the Sixties, and elaborate fantasy “extravaganzas” like Babes in Toyland (the closest counterpart today would be light-hearted, family-friendly spectacle shows like CATS or Starlight Express).
Still, all these genres were so bound by their own conventions that shows within the same genre were often all but indistingishable. This problem was even more pronounced with Cohan, who really only wrote in one genre…splashy, superficial star vehicles for himself, like Hello Dolly without the Thorton Wilder source material to give it substance.
So for all the classic and even legendary songs they wrote, there’s a reason why Herbert is basically known today for two shows that have classic movie versions but that no-one ever actually revives (Babes In Toyland and Naughty Marietta), and why Cohan’s best-known musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy, was a Jukebox-Musical biopic made years after his death. Both men certainly wrote a number of classic songs, but no-one was really writing classics shows for Broadway just yet.