By Peter Filichia —
Long before one play by George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion) became a musical (My Fair Lady in 1956), there was another: GBS’s 1894 play Arms and the Man which became the Oscar Straus operetta The Chocolate Solider opened in his hometown of Vienna in 1908, on Broadway in 1909, and in London in 1910.
While some recordings made by the original London cast still exist, their sound is horrific. Think of your old transistor radio trying to pick up a station four hundred miles away on a rainy night, and you’ll get an idea of how these recordings snap, crackle and pop.
So in 1958, in honor of the show’s upcoming 50th anniversary, RCA Victor brought together an all-star cast to do justice to The Chocolate Soldier. The resulting two-LP set is now once again available via CD and digital download. The sound – in full-blown stereo – is glorious.
Considering that Risë Stevens played the lead in both the 1941 film version and the 1955 TV special, she was asked to once again portray Nadina, a sheltered Bulgarian miss. How sheltered, you ask? When her maid asks her if she’s going to wear that fetching new negligee on her wedding night, Nadina level-headedly answers, “This is too daring for a honeymoon! I’d have to wait five or six years before I wear it.”
The man to whom Nadina has been promised in marriage is Alexius, who becomes quite the military hero during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. On the recording he’s played by Peter Palmer, who’d made a name for himself in 1956 as L’il Abner. There Palmer captured the healthy ego of Dogpatch’s most famous resident. But Abner is a shrinking violet compared to the oh-so-vainglorious Alexius.
Into their life Bumerli, a Swiss mercenary, literally falls – as he bursts into Nadina’s bedroom while the Bulgarian army is pursuing him. While Nadina is of course scandalized by his being there, there’s something that intrigues her.
It could be his voice, for no less than Robert Merrill was playing Bumerli. This distinguished baritone who totaled 769 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in 21 roles was equally at home with light opera.
Nadina is shocked to see that Bumerli doesn’t carry ammunition in his pockets but chocolate instead. Bumerli has no problem admitting that he’s about as rugged as a butter cream whose bottom can be easily pushed in. This, of course, does not impress fair lady, who’s been brought up to think that every man should be belligerent. She brags about Alexius: “Do you know who led that charge?” Replies Bumerli, “Yes. A horse.”
Fans of Arms and the Man may well be scratching their heads at the characters’ names. Why was Raina renamed Nadina? Whose idea was it to rechristened Bluntschli as Bumerli? What was wrong with the name Sergei that he had to become Alexius?
That was Shaw’s decision. When librettist-lyricist Leopold Jacobson approached him to musicalize the work, Shaw, no fan of operetta, demanded that none of his characters’ names be used. So while the creators of Nine turned 8 ½’s Guido Anselmi into Guido Contini simply because they felt like doing so, Leopold Jacobson and his writing partner Rudolf Bernauer were contractually bound to rename the characters he was inheriting.
There was an inadvertent comic irony in the surname that Jacobson chose for Nadina and her family. Petkoff became Popoff – which would seem to be enough to make Shaw pop off in apoplexy. But there is so much more that had to rankle the great playwright as the years went on.
For Shaw had a second condition. In order to distance himself from the project, he demanded that he receive no monies from The Chocolate Soldier. Shaw may have been a great many things, but a shrewd businessman wasn’t one of them. The Chocolate Soldier would go on to be an international success; on Broadway alone, with English lyrics by Stanislaus Stange, it enjoyed seven productions in thirty-eight years (from 1909 to 1947). The first, in fact, ran two hundred and ninety-five performances, which at the time was enough to put The Chocolate Soldier in fourteenth place on the list of Broadway’s longest-running musicals, just inching past The Wizard of Oz’s two hundred and ninety-three. But all the while, Shaw didn’t profit by even half a sixpence.
He lived to regret it till his dying day, which didn’t occur for more than four decades after The Chocolate Soldier had its first success. So when MGM became interested in filming The Chocolate Soldier, Shaw suddenly got very monetarily demanding. He was so intractable that studio head L.B. Mayer made one of Hollywood’s most radical moves: he decided that he’d use the beloved Chocolate Soldier score for the upcoming film, but not the story. As a result, screenwriters Leonard Lee and Keith Winter shoehorned the songs into Ferenc Molnar’s play The Guardsman, which had an entirely different plot.
In a way, that had to make Shaw happy. Among his original demands was that not one line of his Arms and the Man dialogue should appear in The Chocolate Soldier. Now that The Guardsman was being used, he could be assured that the screenplay would be Shaw-free.
Give Shaw credit. Because he was no operetta fan, he could have entirely nixed the project before Jacobson could have finished the sentence “I’d like to make an operetta of your — ” On the other hand, he demanded that if the show were to play England (and it did, for more than five hundred consecutive performances), a disclaimer would be added that it was a mere spoof of his serious play.
But what a compliment to the score that such a deal would be made. Better to hear The Chocolate Soldier’s music under any circumstances. Granted, only a half-dozen songs were retained, but considering the routine decimation that Broadway musicals received in 1940s Hollywood, that was quite a bit of the score.
The 68-minute disc includes many a Viennese waltz, of course, which you’d expect from someone named Straus. Find out what song was one of the Top Ten Hits of 1909 when you hear Nadina sing “My Hero.” Don’t miss the delicious and insouciant title tune – in a time when operettas didn’t routinely have title tunes.
But that’s The Chocolate Soldier for you. In Mame, Vera Charles talks about appearing in an operetta that’s “terribly modern.” That adverb and adjective don’t immediately come to mind when we describe operetta, but a case can be made that The Chocolate Soldier was very indeed terribly modern. Wait until you hear what Nadina has to say to Alexius when he proclaims “Never Was There Such a Lover” as he. Stanislaus Stange’s lyrics show a woman far ahead of her time. Even George Bernard Shaw didn’t make his heroine this impressive.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com