ON THE RECORD: Two Long-Lost Musicals, Marinka and Arabian Nights

By Steven Suskin
21 Jul 2008

ON THE RECORD: Two Long-Lost Musicals, Marinka and Arabian Nights

This week's column discusses two rarely heard musicals, Emmerich Kálmán's 1945 operetta Marinka, and the 1954 Jones Beach Marine Theatre presentation of Arabian Nights.

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MARINKA [Operetta Archives OA-1021]
Certain obscure Broadway musicals remain mysterious even to those of us who collect obscure Broadway musicals. One of these has now come along on CD, courtesy of the California-based Operetta Foundation. Marinka's the name, Emmerich Kálmán's the composer, and the scandalous Mayerling affair is the subject. If you are not familiar with the Mayerling affair, you're not the only one. Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria and his teenaged mistress were found dead in the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling one fine day in 1889. Like the death of Czar Nicholas II (and the lingering mystery of his daughter Anastasia), this tale remained alive in the hearts and minds of the world for decades. It was a big deal at the time, though, with major historical implications; Rudolph was succeeded by his first cousin Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 set off that little skirmish formerly known as the War to End All Wars.

Kálmán (1882-1953), meanwhile, was a name to be reckoned with on Broadway. Between 1914 and 1927, anyway. The Hungarian-born composer reigned in Vienna for the first third of the century, fusing the Viennese waltz with Hungarian flavoring. Sari, The Countess Maritza, The Circus Princess and other operettas found favor on the world stage, including in the environs of Times Square. The composer fled the Nazis in 1938, attaining U.S. citizenship in 1942. His first home-grown Broadway attempt sounds fascinating, although it never got off the ground: after Larry Hart opted out of the musical that began the Rodgers & Hammerstein marriage under the title Oklahoma!, the self-destructing lyricist joined with Kálmán for something called Miss Underground. (The common bond: the leading role was written for Hart's close friend Vivienne Segal, who had starred in the 1922 Broadway production of Kálmán's The Yankee Princess and, more recently, Hart's Pal Joey.) Hart's death late in November 1943 ended that project, however.

And then came Marinka. A Broadway musical about Austrian-German intrigue might seem somewhat questionable subject matter for the middle of World War II; however, the story of Rudolf and Marie was at the time very much in the public consciousness, boosted by the Charles Boyer film version of the tale ("Mayerling"). Lyricist-librettist George Marion Jr. was not of the same pedigree as Hart — or, for that matter, Kálmán. He started out in silent movie days as a 20-year-old title writer; in 1929 he was a winner at the first Oscar ceremony, cited for Best Title Writing (a category that was retired immediately thereafter). Beginning in 1942, Marion wrote book and lyrics for a musical a year for five seasons; only one, Early to Bed (with music by Thomas "Fats" Waller), made much of a showing. Marion's presence on Marinka apparently came courtesy of his father George F. Marion Sr., who directed about 100 early musicals (including the original Broadway production of The Merry Widow and two Kálmán operettas). Marion Sr. is perhaps better known as the originator of the role of Chris Christopherson in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie: the original Broadway play in 1921, the silent version in 1923, and the first talkie version (with Greta Garbo) in 1930.



Marion Jr.'s hallmark was not, apparently, taste. The book, it seems, was not so classy. There was a bit of a twinkle-in-the-eye about the piece; they went so far as to suggest, in fact, that Rudolf and Marie were not in fact killed but escaped to Connecticut, where they became farmers! (Marinka is a flashback, beginning in 1937; the descendants of some of the characters are telling the story.) The humor seems to have been pretty much on the ripe side; the lyrics run along the lines of the song that goes "treat a woman like a drum, she'll be sounder if you pound 'er." The show's Continental air was typified by the presence of Joan Roberts (the original Laurey in Oklahoma!) and Harry Stockwell (the first replacement Curly in Oklahoma!, father to then-child actor Dean Stockwell, and the voice of Prince Charming in Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"). As Marie and Rudolf, they came off as if they hailed from — well, Oklahoma! The show had a sub-par pair of comedians as well, which made the entertainment that opened at the Winter Garden on July 18, 1945 less than indispensable. With Oklahoma!, Bloomer Girl, On the Town, Carousel and the operettas Song of Norway and Up in Central Park still on view, Marinka was lucky to make it through 20 weeks.

All of which makes this CD of Marinka something of a surprise, not only in terms of its very existence but in entertainment level as well. This is Viennese-based operetta, yes; but Kálmán — who had last been heard hereabouts a good 20 years back — provides a reasonably tuneful good time. The "big" songs, "One Touch of Vienna" and "Sigh by Night," both do their job nicely. A third number, "The Cab Song" — sort of a Hapsburgian version of "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" — does well enough, although they give us enough refrains to make us want to get out and walk. On the minus side come some comedy numbers that ain't funny, including the aforementioned drum song and another in which the comedienne tells us about "When I Auditioned for the Harem of the Shah." (She got the job, but the Shah — it turned out — flunked.) Enough said, although mention in passing should be made of something called "Old Man Danube" which — so help us — humorously (?) incorporates some of Kern & Hammerstein's ditty about totin' barges and liftin' bales on de Mississippi.

Marinka was reconstructed by Steven Daigle for a 2006 concert version in Los Angeles featuring a two-piano reduction of the score; it is this production of the Operetta Foundation (Michael Miller and Nan C. Miller) that has been recorded. Peter Halverson and Robin Farnsley sing the lovers, with Julie Wright and Peter Nathan Flotz performing the comedy roles. All combine to present a fair hearing of the work; twin pianists Adam Aceto and Patrick Johnson do an especially good job of injecting life and humor into the score. For those who wish to actually see Marinka, with full orchestra no less, your day — surprisingly enough — has come. The Ohio Light Opera will present the show in repertory in Wooster, OH, with the opening scheduled for July 23.

As an aside, let us point out that Rodgers & Hart fans might be startled to find the overture sounding strangely similar to those of On Your Toes and to some extent The Boys from Syracuse. The reason: Hans Spialek. His 1945 orchestration is not used in this two-piano version; the charts seem to have disappeared, and not unsurprisingly so. But the overture used on the recording seems to be a reduction of the show overture, which was presumably routined by Spialek. Typically, he would construct his overtures around so-called utility versions of the hoped-to-be popular tunes, writing a grand opening and several pieces of bridgework to take us from one to the other. The opening here sounds very much like On Your Toes (where he used the theme from "There's a Small Hotel"), and the final section of bridgework builds to the same dramatic pause he uses for his R&H overtures. Needless to say, the Marinka tunes themselves don't begin to compare. But this CD, which one might have expected to be difficult to get through, provides food — or at least music — for thought.

ARABIAN NIGHTS [Sepia 1116]
The musicals of George Marion, Jr. have been all but absent from cast album CD shelves since the first cast album CD shelf was built in 1982, and suddenly the postman has simultaneously brought two! (Since we are giving Mr. Marion so many bytes, let us add that his main claims to fame are the screenplays for "The Gay Divorce" and "Love Me Tonight," plus the lyrics for "The Ladies Who Sing with the Band," which were popularized by their inclusion in Ain't Misbehavin'. He also wrote, with Johnny Green, a song that I especially like called "The Steam Is on the Beam.")

New York State power broker Robert Moses built an 8,200-seat Amphitheatre at Jones Beach in 1952. (Jones Beach was a Moses-sculpted state park on the South Shore of Long Island, midway between Manhattan and what would in later decades become that popular playground known as "the Hamptons.") The state ran the thing for two summers, with a Mike Todd-produced epic called A Night in Venice. When this Johann Strauss operetta sunk into the man-made lagoon that separated the stage from the seats, Guy Lombardo — a popular bandleader based in the neighboring village of Freeport — was brought in to run the joint, producing shows and providing music for dancing after the show. He would also ride in on a speedboat before the show, to conduct the national anthem. After a decade of discouraging results, Jones Beach stopped producing original musicals and contented themselves with revivals of standard Broadway hits. (I am still recovering from a 1981 production of Damn Yankees starring Joe Namath as Joe Hardy, so help us! I have never seen anything quite like the "Two Lost Souls" dance, during which Broadway Joe plunked himself down in a chair and let the dancers drag him through the choreography.)

The Wright & Forrest operetta Kismet, a self-described "musical Arabian night," was a sizable hit when produced at the Ziegfeld in 1953. Lombardo apparently attempted to get the show — which started on shaky ground before building into a hit — to transfer to the Marine Theatre for the summer of 1954, but without luck. So he decided to produce his own Arabian Nights, signing Danish opera star Lauritz Melchior to attract audiences and assigning his favorite songwriters — his brother Carmen and his brother-in-law John Jacob Loeb — to write the score. And along came old George Marion, Jr. providing a haphazard libretto about Scheherazade and her ilk. (Marion had previously visited this territory in 1944 with the notorious Allah Be Praised!) The haphazard Arabian Nights seems to have served its purpose; the original cast album was preserved on Decca, and the show was brought back for a second summer in 1955. Then the Lombard-Loeb-Marion opus faded away, forgotten and unlamented.

The score, as might be expected, is less than deathless and pales in comparison to Wright & Forrest's Baghdadian operetta (which did have Alexander Borodin, who presumably never set foot south of Constantinople, providing tunes). There are a couple of pert melodies for what they describe as a teeny weeny genie, namely "It's Great to Be Alive" and — yes — "Teeny Weenie Genie." These are given spirited renditions by a sprite named Hope Holiday whom I've never come across elsewhere. (She was later a Dogpatch wife and understudy to Mammy Yokum in Li'l Abner.) "A Thousand and One Nights" and "How Long Has It Been?" are pleasing enough, though not exactly "Stranger in Paradise" or "And This Is My Beloved."

Rendering yeoman service is the stalwart William Chapman, who went on to the City Opera and — on Broadway — played supporting roles in Candide and Greenwillow, and in 1977 replaced John Cullum in Shenandoah. Helena Scott is the heroine, while Melchior has little to do and does so with a heavy accent. Ralph Herbert provides the comic relief — this is the sort of affair where instead of punishing offenders in boiling oil, they make them ride the Long Island Rail Road — in a manner that makes you pine for good old Henry Calvin, the wily Wazir of Kismet. There is also a song about a whale — the highlight of the extravaganza was a 70-foot floating whale (built over a motorboat?) which swam in between the audience and the stage — led by Chapman with an assist from a strong-voiced chorister called James McCracken.

Orchestrations are by Joe Glover, one of those guys who spent 25 years in the Broadway music room without ever quite making it to the top tier. His one important musical was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on which he had been lined up to assist Russell Bennett (who at the last moment proved unavailable). Glover generally performed sturdy work, with his assorted contributions to more familiar musicals include such numbers as "Ohio," "Drop That Name," and the imperishable "Chop Suey." The charts here are — well, muddy, as was the case with other Decca cast recordings of the time. The 12 tracks are supplemented by eight recorded as an album by Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (why Royal? why Canadian?) as well as a fine Margaret Whiting-Nelson Riddle single of the hoped-to-be-big ballad, "How Long Has It Been?"

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)