From the White Studio photographs of the original cast (keysheet image id: g98f719_001)A Guest Blog By Ellen Peck
To music historian Richard Traubner, operetta evokes “gaiety and lightheartedness, sentiment and Schmalz” (Traubner, Operetta: A Theatrical History, revised edition, 2003). If any song in the history of American musical theatre has earned a reputation for schmaltz, it would have to be “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” from the 1910 Victor Herbert and Rida Johnson Young operetta Naughty Marietta.
Its purple expressions of finding the greatest gift known to humanity, the love to end all sorrows, have subjected the song to perennial ridicule. (Mel Brooks infamously used it as a post-coital anthem for his 1974 film Young Frankenstein.) But as we must not judge a book by its cover, nor should we judge Naughty Marietta solely on its most famous song over a hundred years later. When its first audiences left the New York Theatre on November 7, 1910 humming the tune, Herbert and Young (and producer Oscar Hammerstein I) had a major hit on their hands. Naughty Marietta would be each writer’s most enduring work and lead to a film in 1935, a television special in 1955, and enter the repertories of light opera companies all over the United States.
In 1910, the up-and-coming playwright Rida Johnson Young had garnered attention not just for her successful plays Brown of Harvard and The Boys of Company ‘B,’ but also for the incidental songs she had written for them. When Hammerstein hired Young to write the lyrics and libretto for the new Victor Herbert operetta, she had little knowledge of the challenges inherent in the form. Although no stranger to songwriting – she had spent two years as a staff lyricist at Tams-Witmark – operetta required a different dramaturgical approach than her non-musical plays. For Naughty Marietta, Young had to tie the songs to the action and emotion of the scene and characters, yet still make them able to stand on their own, outside the context of the show, in order to sell sheet music (still a booming business in 1910). Other matters of practicality intervened as well, such as following the conventions of operetta. The form that had taken Vienna by storm in the 19th century spawned a wave of American imitators eager to cash in on its increasing popularity in the United States. When Herbert and Young began working on Naughty Marietta, New York was still buzzing about the American premiere of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow only three years before. The Viennese style of operetta featured lush, romantic music, dashing characters, popular dance forms (including the ultimate expression of romantic love, the waltz), and a palpable sense of nostalgia for a fairy-tale past. Fortunately, Herbert and Young were experts at their respective crafts.
From the White Studio photographs of the original cast (keysheet image id: g98f719_001)The setting for Naughty Marietta fulfilled one basic requirement, that the operetta take place in a remote time and locale that never really existed. (The term “Ruritania” had often been applied to European operetta settings: an Eastern European mountain village or kingdom, populated by beautiful ladies and handsome men, and bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia.) But this being an American operetta, the locale – New Orleans around 1780 – had a decidedly raw feel to it. And this New Orleans was populated entirely by French settlers, not the Spanish ruling class who actually occupied it in the 1780s. Thus, although Herbert and Young did not invent New Orleans, they fictionalized it to create a world that could only belong to Marietta D’Altena (runaway Italian countess) and her dashing hero, Captain Dick Warrington (American commander of a band of rough-and-ready rangers).
Marietta, played by the fiery Italian soprano Emma Trentini, has escaped from a life of familial servitude on a French ship headed for New Orleans, full of casquette girls bearing gold and land deeds from the French king to present to potential husbands in the growing colony. Marietta yearns for the man who will finish the tune spinning in her head (the “Dream Melody,” which is the basis for “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”), and greets every man she meets by singing it. Meanwhile, Captain Dick has two missions to fulfill: return Marietta to France and capture the pirate Bras Pique, who has been terrorizing the high seas. Marietta convinces him to harbor her in New Orleans. The two bicker and protest any romantic feelings toward each other, but there is no doubt from the beginning that Dick will be the man to finish Marietta’s song. Etienne Grandet, the son of the Lieutenant Governor, has his eyes on Marietta and a secret: he is Bras Pique. Etienne plans to take over New Orleans, but his attraction to the feisty Marietta and trouble with his quadroon slave, Adah, interrupt his schemes. Another subplot features the comic character Silas Slick, a servant with lofty ambitions, and Lizette, a casquette girl who cannot get a husband and latches onto Silas. (This character originated as Simon O’Hara, a broad ethnic stereotype; Hammerstein toned down the character and renamed him in the second year of the run.) When Etienne threatens to kidnap Marietta, Dick allows him to escape with his secret as long as he leaves Marietta behind. The show ends with Dick professing his love for Marietta in the song she has been singing throughout the show, proving that he is the only love for her. Several other songs from the show became hits, including “I’m Falling In Love With Someone” and “Italian Street Song.”
The 1935 MGM version of Naughty Marietta put Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy together for the first time and their onscreen chemistry led to seven more pairings in films of operettas. Unfortunately for Herbert and Young – and for musical theatre purists – much of the original script and score were excised for the sake of film conventions. Only five of Herbert’s songs remained and two of Young’s three plots were axed to put all the focus on MacDonald and Eddy. But the movie’s success also produced a trend of beloved operettas on film, including Maytime (Young and Sigmund Romberg) and The Student Prince (Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly). The 1955 television version starred Patrice Munsel and Alfred Drake. In 1959, a revision penned by Phil Park and Ronald Hanmer replaced the previously licensed version. The Ohio Light Opera Company’s complete recording of their 2000 production is available from Albany Records.
Ellen Peck is Assistant Professor of Drama at Jacksonville State University. Additionally, she has worked as a freelance Stage Manager for several theatres and opera companies around the country, including Michigan Opera Theatre, Goodspeed Musicals, Spoleto USA, and Utah Opera. She has been a member of Actors Equity Association (AEA) since 2000 and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) since 2001. As a historian, Ellen specializes in Musical Theatre History, with an emphasis on the early twentieth century. She has presented at several national theatre conferences, published an article in Contemporary Theatre Review, and has two forthcoming articles for Studies in Musical Theatre. She is also contributing entries to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, as well as an essay in a forthcoming book on female artists of the early twentieth century.
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Transcribed by Ann Fraistat from a typescript in the Morton Da Costa papers at NYPL
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