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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: "Katinka"


A Guest Blog by Project Co-Director, William Everett

A scene from Katinka (photograph by White Studios)A scene from Katinka (photograph by White Studios)Orientalism* and propaganda were common themes in American musical theater and popular song during the years surrounding World War I. Revues frequently included scenes set in the Middle East, and some of Broadway’s most famous composer-lyricists wrote music in direct response to the conflict. Orientalist manifestations include Irving Berlin’s “In My Harem” (1913) and the Omar Khayyam sequence in The Passing Show of 1914, while wartime messages infuse George M. Cohan’s “Over There” (1917) and Irving Berlin’s Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1918). These twinned themes also appeared in book musicals of the era, an example of which is the current Musical of the Month, Rudolf Friml and Otto Hauerbach’s Katinka (1915).

Katinka was the third collaboration of composer Friml, lyricist-librettist Hauerbach (who later changed his surname to Harbach), and producer Arthur Hammerstein. The show opened on December 23, 1915 at the 44th Street Theater, where it played for 220 performances. The story takes place in the years just before World War I in Yalta, Old Stamboul, and Vienna. (The libretto below indicates that act two takes place in Old Anzali, Persia, and act three at the Café Parisienne in Paris.) Katinka, whose name means “pure,” is forced to marry Boris Strogoff, the Russian ambassador to Austria, though she really loves Ivan, Boris’s attaché. Thaddeus Hopper, an American friend of Ivan’s, helps Katinka escape and secrets her to Turkey for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Boris’s servant, Petrov, and Ivan have also gone to Turkey in search of Olga, Boris’s first wife, who chose to live as a slave in a harem rather than remain with her boorish husband. If Olga can be found, Boris’s marriage to Katinka would have to be annulled on grounds of bigamy. Mrs. Helen Hopper also arrives on the scene, much to the surprise of her husband, who is protecting Katinka under his roof. Mr. Hopper has arranged for Arif Bey to come during the night and take Katinka to a harem for protection, but when Arif arrives, he takes Mrs. Hopper by mistake. (This is musical comedy after all, a genre in which mistaken identities are commonplace.) Herr Knopf, who is opening a Turkish café in Vienna, comes to the harem looking for girls to employ at his establishment, and Mrs. Hopper is among those who leave with him. In act three, which takes place at Knopf’s Turkoise-in-Vienna café, Olga appears and reveals her true identity as Boris’s first wife. The romantic entanglements quickly untangle and all ends happily for everyone except Boris.

Friml’s captivating score includes character-defining music in a variety of styles. Katinka and Ivan, the romantic leads, generally sing lush, flowing music such as their soaring and emotive waltz duet near the end of act one, “’Tis the End.” Katinka possesses highly cultivated tastes, as her nearly operatic music tells us, but she must also show a lighter side when she sings the comic number “Rackety-Koo,” a love song about pigeons during which a flock of birds is released on stage.

While much of the music fits comfortably into early twentieth-century popular styles, with songs in verse-refrain form and recognizable tonal, phrase, and formal structures, several numbers include prominent Orientalist musical identifiers. Were they authentic? No. Were they exotic and appealing? Most certainly.

Olga’s “Allah’s Holiday” is one such number. It establishes the atmosphere of Old Stamboul. In the song, the Russian-born Olga wants us to think that she has spent her entire life in a harem, and does not yet want to reveal her true identity. The refrain displays familiar Orientalist musical tropes of the era, including a predominantly pentatonic melody generated through repetition and characterized by ascending sweeping motifs, cascading parallel fourths in the accompaniment, and a relatively static harmony that includes an alternation between scale degrees five and six. Instrumental identifiers, namely the pronounced use of percussion, are referred to in Hauerbach’s opening lyric: “Sounds of silver cymbal, tambourine and timbal.”

“Allah’s Holiday” became one of Katinka’s most famous songs. It was recorded many times, arranged for various solo instruments and ensembles, and enjoyed tremendous popularity outside its original theatrical context. A foxtrot version from 1917 performed by the Jaudas’ Society Orchestra is available at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project.

The song’s distinctive Orientalist flavor is emphasized by its placement in the show, immediately after Helen Hopper’s “Your Photo.” Mrs. Hopper is an American, and for this reason, her music is generally in the style of American dance music of the era, with its jaunty rhythms and syncopations (the expansive and effusive act two finale being a notable exception). The refrain of “Your Photo” is as bouncy and American as “Allah’s Holiday” is evocative and exotic. Mrs. Hopper’s comic “I Want to Marry a Male Quartet,” which occurs in act three, was another of the show’s outstanding hits.

Jewish-Palestine Participation - Henry Morgenthau and Meyer W. Weisgal (Director, Jewish- Palestine Pavilion) inspect ancient scroll, Digital ID 1676397, New York Public Library

In Katinka, it is American intervention on the part of Thaddeus Hopper that allows goodness to prevail. He instigates Katinka’s escape from an unwanted marriage (“purity” is being wrongly treated), and is depicted as someone who promotes justice and human rights. His actions may allude to those of Henry Morgenthau (1856-1946), the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916. Not only did Morgenthau condemn the Armenian genocides, which are not mentioned in Katinka’s libretto, but he also arrived in the Ottoman capital without his wife. Turkish journalists suspected him of having a mistress, though this was not true (See Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response [New York: HarperCollins, 2003], 223). In Katinka, Thaddeus’s wife suspects her husband of harboring a mistress, Katinka. But, just as in Morgenthau’s case, this assumption is false.

Act two of Katinka is set in “Old Stamboul,” a carefully chosen descriptor. Although the action takes place in the recent past, the place name “Old Stamboul” creates distance between the play and its audience. It not only allows for the removal of all references to the Armenian genocides, of which discerning audiences in 1915 would have been aware, but also furthers the Orientalist notion of non-European locales being old, that is, underdeveloped, when compared to their European — and American — counterparts. The depiction in Katinka is more fanciful, and echoes Robert Hichens’ view of Stamboul that appeared in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine in 1913:

Romance seems brooding over it, trailing lights and shadows to clothe it with flame and with darkness. It holds you, it entices you. It sheds upon you a sense of mystery. What it has seen, Stamboul! What it has known! (Robert Hichens, “Skirting the Balkan Peninsula: From Tries to Constantinople. Fifth Paper: In Constantinople,” Century Illustrated Month Magazine 86 [1913]: 377-79.)

Katinka also reflects President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of neutrality and his interest in negotiating peace. It is an American, after all, whose peaceful, non-military interventions resolve the plot’s conflicts. Russians, Habsburgs, and Ottomans appear in the musical, all in relatively benign depictions, although Boris, the Russian ambassador, is the work’s villain. Russia’s real-life ambassador to Vienna, Nikolai Schebeko, was not a model for the musical’s antagonist, but Russia was fighting against both Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire at the time the musical appeared. If anything, the musical is more sympathetic to the Central Powers than to the Allies, for both Constantinople and Vienna are portrayed as places where Americans can travel safely and be welcomed. This depiction comes perhaps at least in part because the show’s composer, Prague-born Rudolf Friml, was a Habsburg subject. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1925.)

The musical opened in London on August 30, 1923, seven years after it closed on Broadway and nearly five years after the Armistice. It played at the Shaftesbury Theatre for a modest 108 performances. Friml’s delightful musical score, especially “Allah’s Holiday,” kept Katinka alive in revivals for decades.

Musical Score

Copes of the piano-vocal score are available at the Internet Archive and Google Books.

The Libretto

The text below was transcribed and encoded by Ann Fraistat with some additional encoding by Doug Reside from an unpublished typescript from the Otto Harbach papers at NYPL's Billy Rose Theatre Division. Because the text has not, until now, been published, it remains under copyright and is used with the kind permission of William O. Harbach. Unlike most of the texts published as part of the Musical of the Month series, this text cannot be adapted or performed without the consent of the rights holders. The score, however, was published in 1916 and is therefore in the public domain.

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* Orientalism, a term that refers both to the traditional academic study of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and to the tendency, on the part of scholars, writers, and artists, to romanticize or caricature those cultures. The label Orient was long used by Westerners to designate the area east of the Mediterranean, including the Near East, Far East, and Central and South Asia. Scholars who devoted themselves to the study of the languages, literatures, histories, religions, and philosophies of this broad region were known as orientalists; their field of study was called orientalism (or oriental studies). 

— Salman, Miguel D. "Orientalism." Encyclopedia Americana. Retrieved from Grolier Online:


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