Musical of the Month: Florodora

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
July 8, 2011
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

For July’s Musical of the Month, we take a summer vacation to a tropical island in the Philippines: a place where the scent of a native flower perfumes the air and provides both the place, and the musical, with its name: Florodora. It is the South Pacific in 1900, before the ravages of the Second World War and the social conscience of Rodgers and Hammerstein caused audiences to consider it as anything other than an Edenic garden of delights. Every young man and woman in the piece is beautiful, and the most pressing concerns are not racism and war, but petty swindlers and a tyrannical but ineffectual aristocratic landlord.

The plot of Florodora is convoluted and, at times, incoherent. A wealthy British aristocrat, Cyrus W. Gilfain, stole the secret recipe for the perfume Florodora from the family of one of his farm girls, Dolores. He plans to marry her to remove any doubt about his ownership of the business, but Dolores has fallen in love with Frank Abercoed, Gilfain’s head clerk, who is actually a British aristocrat who fled to the island to avoid an undesirable arranged marriage. Into all of this arrives a comic mystic named Tweedlepunch, a kind of prototype of Oklahoma’s Ali Hakim, who uses the pseudoscience of phrenology to arrange marriages for all the men and women on the island based on the bumps on their heads. Gilfain bribes him to decree that Dolores should marry him, and his daughter, Angela, should marry Abercoed (thereby legitimatizing both his business and aristocratic credentials). Of course, Gilfain is the only one on the island happy with this arrangement, so nearly everyone (including, eventually Gilfain) flees Florodora for England, where all is finally resolved by some additional trickery by Tweedlepunch. 

The frothy inconsequence of this musical can be a bit difficult for modern audiences to appreciate. Much like The Black Crook, its primary attraction was not the plot but the chorus of beautiful women it presented on stage. The Florodora Sextet (sometimes called the "Florodora Girls") and their song (titled in the libretto “Tell Me Pretty Maiden”) became iconic and were frequently referenced and parodied in the first half of the twentieth century.  

Nesbit and Clifford. Image ID: y99f355_100

Unlike female chorus of The Black Crook, however, the "Florodora Girls" were not known for their sexually provocative costumes. Although the women in the first act seem to have worn somewhat revealing tropical clothing, photographs of the original production suggest that the famous Sextet was dressed, not in revealing tights, but in elegant gowns. The women were, nonetheless, sex symbols for their day. Many were courted by wealthy men, sometimes with unhappy results. Musical theater fans may be aware of the story of a replacement cast member, Evelyn Nesbit, who achieved notoriety when her abusive and jealous husband Harry Thaw shot her former boyfriend, Stanford White. The case is featured in the 1998 musical Ragtime and in its source material, E. L. Doctorow’s book of the same name.

All this, of course, only increased public interest in the musical and its cast. The original production ran for over a year in New York, toured extensively, and was revived in 1905 and again in 1920. Despite its early popularity, though, copies of the script have been very difficult to find. Today, you can read the script and the score yourself on the device of your choice by downloading one of the files below:

Libretto

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PDF
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Plain text
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TEI
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Program from 1900 Casino Theater Production (NYPL)

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Score

Harvard / Google Books
Harvard / Internet Archive copy 1
Harvard / Internet Archive copy 2
University of Illinois / Internet Archive copy 3

A note on the text of the libretto: This copy of the script is transcribed from a typescript dated labeled “Casino Theater, November 1900” in NYPL’s collection. This copy does not include lyrics to all of the songs and contains many typographical errors. For this edition, I have not included the missing lyrics, but have corrected many of the obvious typos. To check my work, I used the University of Virginia’s automatic collation program, Juxta, to compare my choices to those made by a Florodora fan named Karl Baecker in a transcript cached from Baecker's now defunct Geocities site. In some cases, where I am not sure what was meant, I have let the original error stand. For instance, upon Gilfain’s entrance he is described as wearing a “spaca” coat. Baecker corrects this to “an opera coat,” which strikes me as an odd thing to wear on a tropical island. Orchestrator Larry Moore and advisor to this project did some research and discovered Alpaca coats were common traveling clothes for British aristocrats at the time, but Broadway discographer Darrell C. Karl also pointed out that abaca is a light fabric made in the Philippines and commonly used to make clothing. I prefer "Alpaca," but, because I am unsure, I have let the original stand and left the decision to the reader.