Nicely Done: Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Highlights
The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988
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Robert Maxwell Stern
Before The Merry Widow came Kukuska in 1896, Wiener Frauen and Der Rastelbinder in 1902, and Der Gottergate and Die Juxheirat in 1904. The titles of these Lehar operettas are probably unknown to all except
the truly dyed-in-the-Schlag Viennese operetta fan. Die lustige Witwe arrived at the Theater an der Wien on December 30, 1905, and its effect was captivating. Berlin had its company ready to go in early 1906, and in no time at all there was La veuve joyeuse, Den Glade Enke, Vesela Vdova, Vedova Allegra, and, in London on June 8, 1907, TheMerryWidow. The success of the British production was reflected in the fact that England's Edward VII attended the show four times before its closing on July 31, 1909.
At the beginning of the 20th century, George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert were the undisputed kings of Broadway's musical theater, and European operetta was not especially popular. But on October 21, 1907, at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City, The Merry Widow debuted starring Ethel Jackson and Donald Bryan. It's an interesting footnote to mention that Mr. Bryan was cast as the lead of a Cohan show named Fifty Miles from Boston and was released from his contract to go into rehearsals for the role of Danilo in The Merry Widow.
Bryan enjoyed remarkable success in this role, and history shows that he was among the very first matinee idols. He appeared in revivals of The Merry Widow in 1929, '31, and '32 and then opened a most fashionable school of dance for those who wished to raise their social standings by learning to dance as he did in "The Merry Widow Waltz." Miss Jackson, however, became so closely associated with her role (then called Sonia, originally Hanna, sometimes Anna) that she lost her identity completely and was known as ''The Widow" both onstage and off for the rest of her dreivierteltakt life.
Victor Herbert, Cohan, and Ziegfeld, too, kept going strong; but anything that smacked of the Thames, the Seine, or, best yet, the Danube was avidly being bankrolled by Broadway producers who were most inspired to cash in on the success of the Lehar piece. This made possible respectable Broadway runs for The Chocolate Soldier(Oscar Straus), The Gay Hussars (Kalman), and The Count of Luxembourg (Lehar), and Die Fledermaus revivals under various titles like The Merry Countess.
The initial run of The Merry Widow at The New Amsterdam ran an unheard-of 52 weeks, with 421 performances, and grossed over one million dollars. In the 1930s the revivals began. One of the most prominent was one in Central City, Colorado which starred Natalie Hall and Metropolitan Opera baritone Richard Bonelli. The year
1943 brought Wilbur Evans and Kitty Carlisle in a production at the Boston Opera House. The most famous Merry Widow ever opened at the New York City Center in 1944 with Jan Kiepura and the beautiful Marta Eggerth and seemed to run forever in theaters everywhere. Since then revivals have been presented at Lincoln Center in 1964 with Patrice Munsel, internationally with Joan Sutherland in the early part of this decade, and on several occasions at the New York City Opera with Beverly Sills.
In cinema, The Merry Widow has been given four treatments. There were two silents(!), one in 1913 with Alma Rubens and Wallace Reid and one in 1925 with Mae Murray and John Gilbert directed by Erich von Stroheirn. The talkies were made in 1934 with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier (filmed twice, actually; one version is entirely in French) and in 1952, in color, with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas (who did ALL the singing and looked mahvelous).
I personally own 15 different recordings of The Merry Widow, and I'm certain that there exist more than that. Of my 15, three are in German and 12 are in English with as many translations. Within that number, two are presented by the Sadler's Wells, one by the Old Sadler's Wells, and the one I should be discussing, newly released by MHS, with the New Sadler's Wells.
This release, with a new translation by Nigel Douglas, features Eiddwen Harrhy as Hanna-Anna-Sonia and baritone Alan Oke as Danilo; both acquit themselves rather nicely. Helen Kucharek as Valencienne runs away with the show in the Grisettes number, a perfect Offenbachian cancan. When The Merry Widow opened in New York in 1907, critic Theodore Dreiser predicted, "The world will have Merry Widow fever." More than 80 years later, he is still right.