05 Jan 2016

The Merry Widow Lesson: Adaptations galore…

The Merry Widow was premiered at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien on December 30 1905 and has been very successful ever since. The operetta is an adaptation of L’Attaché d’ambassade, an 1861 play by Henri Meilhac that ultimately became quite popular in Vienna under the title Der Gesandschafts-Attaché. The circumstances of The Merry Widow’s 1905 premiere turned out to be rather fortuitous, as the Theater an der Wien was in a bit of a rut and the leading figures of 19th century operetta like Johann Strauss and Franz von Suppé were conveniently deceased. This situation opened the door for the younger Lehár to be given the opportunity to prove himself. The choice of Der Gesandschafts-Attaché as a source was at heart a conservative one, though, given that the play was well-known and the last major success of the Theater had been the similarly French-themed Der Opernball (1898) by composer Richard Heuberger and librettists Victor León and Heinrich von Waldberg. When León and Leo Stein presented this to the Theater an der Wien’s director Wilhelm Karczag, they apparently also had Heuberger on board but Karczag wasn’t satisfied with his musical settings. In any case, Franz Lehár was auditioned as a possible composer and won the position, although Karczag was apparently a little unnerved by the lushness of Lehár’s score. As a result of his misgivings, Karczag was loathe to risk much on the production, so when one of the other productions in the season flopped, The Merry Widow was hurriedly produced with little in terms of either budget or confidence. Apparently Karczag even offered Lehár money if he would withdraw the production. Yet The Merry Widow caught on and remained in production throughout the spring at the Theater an der Wien, was transferred to other theaters in the summer, and returned to the Theater an der Wien in autumn.
Within several years of its premiere The Merry Widow had been translated into Italian, Croatian, Czech, Russian, Norwegian and Swedish. In 1907 it was adapted in an English version for the London stage by Basil Hood, a veteran of the London Savoy Opera and a former librettist for Arthur Sullivan. This English version of The Merry Widow was a smash hit, logging over 750 performances in London. The London production was also augmented with more comedic elements in order to allow the comic George Graves to ham it up as Zeta (now called Popoff), and Lehár himself was commissioned to compose a few additional numbers, notably “Quite Parisien” from the third act. The Merry Widow’s premiere in London also provided the break-out role for the actress and singer Lily Elsie, who became one of the major stars of the stage during the Edwardian era. In addition to the numerous stage versions The Merry Widow has been adapted multiple times for the cinema and for the ballet stage.
All of these adaptations have resulted in a number of different versions of the operetta. In particular, the names of the characters and locations have often been changed according to local whims or circumstances. In the case of the 1907 London production, some of the original character names were changed due to the protests of the royal family in Montenegro, who were apparently unamused by the coincidental inclusion of both their royal surname Njegus and the name of the crown prince Danilo in the original German libretto. The plot also changes somewhat in different versions of the score. The most notable change is that in the French version and some English versions the action in the third act takes place in the real Maxim’s in Paris rather than in a mockup of the restaurant in Hanna’s ballroom.
Under some circumstances, subjecting a musical work to such revision might be seen as a rather callous disregard for the fidelity and authority of the original score. After all, one can’t imagine that Wagnerites would react kindly to a production of Tristan und Isolde in which the title characters were renamed Trevor and Irene and the director decided that the whole Liebestod thing at the end needed to be trimmed a bit. In the case of The Merry Widow, however, one might consider the gusto with which opera companies in various countries set about adapting the operetta to be a testament to the massive popularity of the story and Lehár’s music. It was treated as a living and fluid artistic entity rather than as a sacred relic. As much as audiences and listeners might want to imagine clear distinctions between music’s existence as both an artform and as a commercial entity, this is rarely the case, perhaps especially so for works of musical drama. The Merry Widow is no exception.
The popularity of The Merry Widow also spawned a number of other attempts to cash in, including plenty of unauthorized sequels, burlesques, and parodies. Lehár even provided his original orchestrations for the 1908 Broadway production of The Merry Widow Burlesque, as both he and the producers knew that its success would only add to the ticket sales for the original operetta. The “Merry Widow Waltz” became ubiquitous enough in the United States to inspire the 1907 comedy parody “I’m Looking for the Man that Wrote the Merry Widow Waltz,” in which a man swears revenge on the waltz’s composer. Bartenders in New York also birthed the Merry Widow Cocktail, a variation on a gin martini (Perhaps the bartenders at Bambara or The Red Door would be able to whip one up?). The Merry Widow’s influence even extended to fashion when the massively popular run in London inspired a craze for the feathered hats worn by Lily Elsie during the production.
© Ross Hagen