ON THE RECORD: Operettas from Herbert and Romberg

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Operettas from Herbert and Romberg Take heart, operetta fans, of whom there are apparently still quite a number (and I'm not one of them). Decca Records — back in the days when they almost single-handedly created the field of Broadway original cast albums and topped the Broadway charts with titles like Oklahoma! and Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I — saw fit to embark on a series of studio recordings of famous old operettas. Decca Broadway is transferring eight of these relatively brief recordings onto four CDs (released individually). These are indispensable for operetta fans, I suppose, as most of these songs are unavailable elsewhere. For non operetta fans like myself, they are — well, operetta. Not without interest, but operetta.

Take heart, operetta fans, of whom there are apparently still quite a number (and I'm not one of them). Decca Records — back in the days when they almost single-handedly created the field of Broadway original cast albums and topped the Broadway charts with titles like Oklahoma! and Carousel and Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I — saw fit to embark on a series of studio recordings of famous old operettas. Decca Broadway is transferring eight of these relatively brief recordings onto four CDs (released individually). These are indispensable for operetta fans, I suppose, as most of these songs are unavailable elsewhere. For non operetta fans like myself, they are — well, operetta. Not without interest, but operetta.

What we generally classify as Broadway operetta came in several distinctly different phases, which we need not go into here and now. The Dublin-born, German-trained Victor Herbert (1859-1924) more or less established American operetta, setting the standard for "class" American musicals of the 1890's and 1900's. Rudolf Friml (1879-1972) took up the mantel, replacing Herbert as operetta king. Friml literally replaced Herbert, as it happened; the latter turned down The Firefly (1912) due to temperamental problems with Emma Trentini, who had starred in Herbert's 1911 smash Naughty Marietta. (At a benefit performance, Trentini snubbed Herbert — on the podium — by refusing to sing an encore of "Italian Street Song.") Friml — a student of Dvorak, with no Broadway experience — was given the assignment for The Firefly. Herbert never again had a comparable hit.

Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951) came to prominence in the early twenties, vying for the crown in a seesaw battle of hits with Friml (from Prague). What nobody realized at the time was that Broadway's newest operettas — though monumentally successful — were almost instantly outmoded. Young upstarts like George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans and Richard Rodgers were already writing irrepressibly jaunty tunes in modern rhythms. By the end of the decade, operetta was finished; the last of the superhit operettas, Romberg's The Desert Song, came in 1926. The final hit operetta of this period, as far as I can tell, also came from Romberg, The New Moon (1928). Broadway has seen occasional operettas over the last seven decades, but these were far removed from Herbert and Friml and Romberg.

THE DESERT SONG / THE NEW MOON Decca Broadway 440 01 730
Herbert and Friml were classically schooled. The Hungarian-born Romberg was a musical theatre guy, soaking in the sounds of Vienna in the days of Strauss and Lehar. The latter's 1905 operetta The Merry Widow was the Cats of its day, arguably the most popular musical theatre piece ever until Oklahoma! came along 40 years later. Romberg made his way to New York in 1909, becoming a bandleader in a popular society restaurant. The Shuberts hired him as their house composer in 1914, and he proceeded to write and write and write. Hackwork. Al Jolson, the Shuberts' star attraction, regularly halted his shows to sing popular song hits instead of the official score. Romberg wrote four of the most important Jolson shows, including Sinbad and Bombo; he was the guy who wrote the songs Jolson threw out in favor of "Swanee," "April Showers" and "California, Here I Come." And not without reason.

The Shuberts rarely gave Romberg the opportunity to write in his favored style. In 1921, though, they assigned him to adapt a successful Viennese operetta. This was one of those pseudo-biographical operettas about a famous composer named Schubert — not Shubert — who is so unhappy in love that he writes the Unfinished Symphony. Blossom Time was an immense success, the second longest running book musical of the century until it was ousted by the next Romberg-Shubert hit, The Student Prince (1924). These shows remained in the second and third slots — behind Irene — until Oklahoma! came along. (Decca Broadway will reissue their studio cast recording of The Student Prince this month.) Blossom Time was Romberg's twenty-sixth Broadway score. Three years and 12 shows later — he turned them out like cheap cigars — came The Student Prince. This made Romberg successful enough and wealthy enough to choose his own assignments. The Desert Song was a hit on the level of The Student Prince; The New Moon was somewhat more moderate. Romberg continued to turn out operettas long past the death of operetta; eight of his last nine shows were quick failures, although he lived happily on those four big hits. All told, he wrote more than 60 musicals, of which at least 56 made it to Broadway. The Student Prince and The Desert Song still turn up from time to time; shoestring revivals were produced — under the musical stewardship of Lehman Engel — as twin pre-Broadway tours in 1973. Only the latter made it to town, where it collapsed in apathy at the Uris after 15 performances. Romberg's work, long a staple of stock and amateur groups, has by now pretty much disappeared — although The New Moon is said to be on the horizon at City Center.

The Decca Broadway disc gives us eight selections (plus reprises) from The Desert Song and seven (plus overture) from The New Moon. The comedy material, such as it was, has been mostly omitted. These studio recordings were made in 1944 and 1953 respectively. It is unclear whether these are the original orchestrations; the folks at Decca Broadway were unable to find any information on what materials were used. The performing style doesn't help; this disc — The Desert Song, especially — sounds stilted and even more old-fashioned than need be.

Speaking of old-fashioned, how's this for a lyric: "My passion is not to crash in / and woo a maiden in modern fashion," sings the hero, continuing that "I'd not give you mad embraces / to tear your laces and make you frown, dear." The lady responds, "It is very clear you've never been a girl." This from Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach; Hammerstein also did lyrics for The New Moon, as well as one of Friml's biggest hits, Rose Marie (1924). Like Romberg, Hammerstein followed The New Moon with more than a handful of flop operettas. Unlike Romberg, he eventually found a new form in which to work.

The two scores include some of Romberg's biggest song hits, including "The Riff Song," "The Desert Song," and "One Alone" (in the earlier show) and "One Kiss" and "Stouthearted Men" in the latter. The disc reveals only one treat for a non-operetta fan like me: "Lover, Come Back to Me," from The New Moon. A marvelous song, with an intriguing main section — the melody playing on a four-bar figure — and a compelling, highly-dramatic bridge with a neat resolution. This easily gets my vote as Romberg's best song, of a total that must be in excess of a thousand. "Lover, Come Back to Me" is the only item in his catalogue that I put in a class with the likes of Kern or Gershwin or Rodgers.

Kitty Carlisle, Wilbur Evans and Felix Night head The Desert Song, under the baton of Isaac Van Grove; Thomas Hayward, Jane Wilson and Lee Sweetland top The New Moon, with Victor Young and his orchestra. Kitty Carlisle — back when she was just a singer, prior to marrying Moss Hart — displays a good deal of spirit. Everyone else sounds pretty stuffy.

Far more enjoyable, for me, is Romberg's posthumously produced musical The Girl in Pink Tights (which was recently released on CD [DRG 19019]). The score is not as strong as The Desert Song or The New Moon, and the show itself was highly problematic; but it's fun to listen to.

To reiterate what I said at the top of this column: these Decca Broadway reissues are indispensable for operetta fans, as they rescue these songs — many of them hits in their day — from near oblivion.

BABES IN TOYLAND / THE RED MILL Decca Broadway 440 01 729
Victor Herbert's work might be as dated as Romberg's, but there are important differences. Herbert was an innovator. When he was in his heyday, a generation before Romberg, his music (presumably) sounded as fresh and alive as Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady or Company did when they were written. So, yes, the style is on the old fashioned side and the lyrics are in some cases especially creaky; but this was quality work, making the Herbert infinitely more interesting than the Romberg.

Part of this has to do with the presentation. While, again, no information is available, I would guess that the 11 selections from Babes in Toyland and the six from The Red Mill use Herbert's original orchestrations. Or at least, what remained of the originals after forty years of cuts and adaptations and heavy usage. The routines, at least, pretty much match what is in the original vocal score (in somewhat abridged versions). Herbert holds a place as Broadway's first important composer, but he was also the originator of the standard Broadway orchestral sound existing when Kern and Russell Bennett joined together.

The Herbert disc also features two top-rate Broadway conductors, which no doubt makes a difference. Alexander Smallens, of Porgy and Bess, does Babes in Toyland; Jay Blackton, of Oklahoma!, does The Red Mill. Kenny Baker — who recorded One Touch of Venus for Decca in 1943 — sings all but one of the vocals on the 1944 studio recording of Babes; Karen Kemple joins in on the girl's parts. The Red Mill — recorded in 1946 — features Evans and Knight (from Desert Song) on two tracks each, with Eileen Farrell on three.

The strongest track on this recording is an instrumental, "The March of the Toys." Crisp, straightforward and strong, it sounds mighty fresh at 99 years old. I have not done a full survey of pre-World War One music, but I wouldn't be surprised if "The March of the Toys" holds up better than any piece of Broadway music of its time.

A second instrumental, "The Military Ball," is similarly interesting, if not in any way exceptional. The score's most familiar songs, "Toyland" and "I Can't Do the Sum," are, well, quaint. And Glen MacDonough's lyrics are tortured in places. (In "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep," the hero reassures the frightened heroine with phrases like "I can nothing see" and "soon will dawn the day.")

The Red Mill was a hit of the 1906-07 season. It was revived highly successfully in 1945, running 531 performances (which is to say, twice as long as the original — and longer than the 1944 Bernstein-Comden-Green Abbott-Robbins musical On the Town). The four song hits — "Moonbeams," "In the Isle of Our Dreams," "Every Day Is Ladies' Day with Me" and "The Streets of New York" — remain pleasant enough for songs written when Teddy Roosevelt was still in the White House. For those especially interested in Victor Herbert, a 2001 restoration of The Red Mill [Albany Records TROY 492-493] was reviewed in my column of January 27, 2002. Decca Broadway's operetta series will continue next month with The Merry Widow / The Student Prince and Roberta / The Vagabond King. The latter disc, featuring one of Kern's final scores and the voices of Alfred Drake and Kitty Carlisle, sounds promising.

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.