By Peter Filichia —
More often than not, when the leads of a studio recording get into the recording booth, they’re meeting for the first time. Their lack of chemistry is far too obvious when one listens to them together in song.
That’s certainly true of many recordings of The Merry Widow – but not the one made in 1964, for it’s a genuine cast album.
Granted, it’s not an original cast album; when Franz Lehár’s famous operetta opened in 1905, the cast album concept was still decades away. This recording of The Merry Widow, now again made available, represents the production that Richard Rodgers, the President and Producing director of Music Theater of Lincoln Center, sponsored that summer at the State Theater.
So Patrice Munsel and Bob Wright had weeks of rehearsal and performance time before they entered the recording studio. But better still, they had already performed The Merry Widow in a 1961 production that played Los Angeles and San Francisco; they followed that with a Pittsburgh mounting in 1963. Better still, a few months before they were to this third Merry Widow, they also did Kiss Me, Kate, so that didn’t hurt (although Ms. Munsel’s derrière did, from having been spanked by Wright eight times a week).
One needs a scorecard to keep track of all the names that The Merry Widow’s characters have had during the 106-year history of the piece. This version has Baron Popoff (Mischa Auer) as the nervous official of Marsovia who wants to make sure that merry widow Sonia (Munsel) and her considerable fortune stay in that country. Thus, he plans to have her fall in love with and marry a Marsovian; the dashing Prince Danilo (Wright), he believes, is his best chance.
Of course, every other man at this ball in the Marsovian embassy is interested in Sonia, too. When she’s just about to enter, we hear them exclaim “The widow’s coming!” with almost the same excitement that the teenagers exude in Bye Bye Birdie when “Conrad Birdie’s coming!”
The men get down to brass tacks quite quickly. “She’s worth twenty million francs!” is said immediately before “She’s beautiful!” Yes, to the men, there are twenty million reasons why the former statement is more important than the latter. So when the guys first spy her and go “Ahhhhhhh!” you can decide if her wealth or beauty is more responsible for their response.
Actually, Sonia and Danilo have a romantic history; he was once her suitor, and now that they’ll meet again, they’ll play quite a bit of cat-and-mouse. Act Two ends with Danilo’s telling Sonia, “I’m going off to Maxim’s, and you can go to –” before he of course interrupts himself lest he say a word that passed for profane in the early twentieth century. Ever the gentleman!
Oh, Danilo’s still attracted to Sonia, but he doesn’t want her to think that he’s a mere fortune-hunter; she, of course, wants to be loved for herself and not for her millions. So Sonia leads him to believe she’s actually penniless in order to see if he’ll still be interested; once Danilo hears she’s broke, he’s thrilled, for he’s now free to woo her without fear that people will think he has mercenary ulterior motives. You won’t be surprised to hear that the last words heard on the recording are both Sonia and Danilo singing “I love you so.”
It wouldn’t be an operetta without a subplot, and The Merry Widow has a quite saucy one. The Baron is so consumed with his nation’s financial woes that he doesn’t even notice that his wife Natalie (Joan Weldon) is consorting with Captain Pierre Jolidon (Frank Poretta). By play’s end, however, Natalie returns to her husband and the Baron is never the wiser. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what operetta means.
Well, operetta was all about the music, anyway. Perhaps the reason that so few of today’s Broadway musicals have overtures is because the creators know that they don’t have enough good music to showcase and not enough musicians to play it; thus, they want to spare you the songs with their watered-down orchestrations until you absolutely have to hear them. But The Merry Widow was proud to show off the wealth of melody that was to come: the overture that rang in at more than six-and-a-half minutes and was played by dozens of musicians.
The other forty-three-and-a-half minutes of this recording are dominated by our lovers Wright and Munsel. While Danilo can be sung by either a tenor or a lyric baritone, Wright, who fit in the latter category, was a wise choice. Broadway came to know him when he succeeded Alfred Drake as Petruchio during the original Broadway run of Kiss Me, Kate. For those who are old enough to remember when cigarette commercials saturated the television airwaves, Wright was the erudite and distinguished-looking man who hawked Kent cigarettes.
Munsel was quite the crossover artist. In 1942, when she was a mere 17, she started her career in opera – doing Mignon, Tales of Hoffman and Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera; that made her the youngest singer ever to be hired by the Met. That she later segued to operetta, doing Rose Marie and Song of Norway, isn’t so surprising. But would one expect that such a diva would be a frequent visitor to television once that new medium caught on in the ‘50s? If appearances on such legendary series as Your Show of Shows, The Colgate Comedy Hour and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show in the ’50s weren’t enough, The Patrice Munsel Show debuted in 1957 on ABC and lasted two seasons.
What’s more, the woman who sang Lucia di Lammermoor, Musetta and Violetta would also do Mame, Dolly and even Margo Channing. So audiences at the State Theater in 1964 weren’t so surprised to see their Sonia do what so few others had done before: she joined in on the can-can that shows up deep in the show.
This Merry Widow became the highest-grossing attraction that the State Theater box-office had yet amassed. Not bad from a show that was nearing its sixtieth birthday — and one that was originally expected to be a titanic failure.
Much is made of the fact that the smash-hit Oklahoma! was based on a play (Green Grow the Lilacs) that had only run sixty-four performances, but the just-as-big smash-hit The Merry Widow (neé Die Lustige Witwe) was spawned from a play than ran but fifteen times before shuttering: L’attaché d’ambassade (The Embassy Attaché) by Henri Meilhac.
So the original producers of the 1905 Viennese production of The Merry Widow were likely half-expecting their new operetta wouldn’t run half that long. They wouldn’t even spring for new sets and costumes, but recycled them from old hits. Nevertheless, original stars Mitzi Gunther and Louis Treumann so believed in the show that they paid for new costumes with their own money. Not until the show had passed 300 performances did management decide that they didn’t have a dud, and bought new duds and settings.
Lehár wasn’t even the first choice to write it, but most operetta fans were grateful that he eventually did. In addition to good ol’ fashioned musical declarations of love, there are robust songs delivered by the male chorus and insouciant ones by the female chorus. (Try to hear a just-starting-out Dixie Carter among the women.)
Most of all, there are swirling waltzes, including the most famous one: “The Merry Widow Waltz.” It was even an important component in Shadow of a Doubt, a 1943 Alfred Hitchcock film. In it, Joseph Cotten was “The Merry Widow Murderer” who had the waltz constantly running through his head. Maybe if he’d heard this entire 1964 cast album of The Merry Widow and not just that one selection, he would have straightened out.
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.