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Musical of the Month

Naughty Marietta: A Production History


Oscar Hammerstein, on the way to his Victory Theater., Digital ID ps_the_cd77_1181, New York Public Library

A Guest Blog By Project Co-Director, Professor William Everett

In 1910 impresario Oscar Hammerstein sold his interests in his Manhattan Opera Company to his chief rival, the Metropolitan Opera, and agreed not to produce any opera in New York City for a decade. Instead, he turned his attention toward the related genre of operetta and commissioned the noted composer-conductor Victor Herbert to write a new work that would feature two of his Manhattan Opera Company stars, Emma Trentini and Orville Harrold. Hammerstein wanted a highly operatic operetta, and Herbert more than accommodated his producer's wishes.

Since Herbert was writing for opera singers, he produced a truly ambitious score filled with virtuoso solo passages, expansive ensemble and choral numbers, and a general sense of élan and finesse. Herbert, by this time, was an established figure on Broadway. Among his earlier successes was Babes in Toyland (1903), a previous Musical of the Month.

Rida Johnson Young was the show's librettist and lyricist. One of a handful of women creating Broadway shows at the time, Young, whose early career had been as an actress, collaborated with several leading composers of the day, including Jerome Kern (The Red Petticoat, 1912), Sigmund Romberg (Her Soldier Boy, 1916; Maytime, 1917) and Rudolf Friml (Sometime, 1918).[Clipping of Rida Johnson Young from unknown periodical.], Digital ID 3884244, New York Public Library

Naughty Marietta opened at the New York Theater on November 7, 1910. The venue, which Hammerstein had built years earlier as the Olympia, did not generate fond memories for the producer. This was the house that had indeed bankrupted him and from which he had to be forcibly evicted. For Naughty Marietta, he rented the renamed theater from Klaw & Erlanger (producers of The Pink Lady, a previous Musical of the Month) and was justifiably nervous when he reentered the house forNaughty Marietta, though it turned out to be a triumphal return. The comic opera, as it was called, played 136 performances before beginning its tour, the normal practice for musicals at the time.

Hammerstein heard Emma Trentini sing in a Milan cabaret and brought her to New York in 1906 to sing with his Manhattan Opera Company. The diminutive soprano (she was less than five feet tall) with a fiery temperament triumphed as Musetta in La boheme, Michaela in Carmen, and Olympia in The Tales of Hoffman. The producer also discovered lyric tenor Orville Harrold when he heard him sing in an amateur production in Indiana. Harrold's "day job" was as a hearse driver. Hammerstein brought Harrold to New York, ensured he received formal training, and cast him in roles such as the Duke in Rigoletto and Rodolfo in La boheme. Harrold received audience and critical accolades for his performances and later joined the company at the Met.

Part of the orchestra, the chorus, and some singers also came from the defunct Manhattan Opera Company, as did the conductor, Gaetano Merola. The Naples born and trained conductor led the premieres of not only Naughty Marietta but also Rudolf Friml's The Firefly (1912) and Sigmund Romberg's Maytime (1917). He eventually went to San Francisco, where he founded the San Francisco Opera in 1923 and was its general director through 1953. William Axt succeeded Merola on the podium ofNaughty Marietta. Like his predecessor, Axt ultimately ended up in California, not to lead opera in San Francisco but rather to create nearly 200 film scores in Hollywood, including Ben-Hur (1925), Grand Hotel (1933), and The Thin Man (1934).

 g98f719_001u)Casquette Girls (Image Id: g98f719_001u)Set in the late eighteenth century, Neapolitan Countess Marietta d'Altena (Trentini) escapes an unwanted marriage by going to New Orleans on a bride ship. (The brides-to-be are referred to as casquette girls, named after the small trunks they carried with them to hold their few belongings.) Travelling in cognito, Marietta comes under the protection of Captain Dick Warrington (Harrold), a frontiersman who is pursuing the pirate Bras Piqué (Edward Martindel), identifiable by a tattoo on his arm as his name implies (bras piqué = pricked arm [literally] or tattooed arm). Captain Dick and the lieutenant governor's son, Étiene, become rivals for Marietta's affections, but Marietta only wants to be with the man who can complete her "Dream Melody" (a.k.a. "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life"). The Governor's son turns out to be Bras Piqué and Captain Dick, as expected, completes Marietta's dream melody.

Naughty Marietta opens with an extraordinary sequence, one that establishes the general largesse that dominates the work. A church bell strikes five and the watchman announces that "all's well." Beggars, the Sacristan, and flower girls all begin to prepare for the day. The flower girls offer an effervescent ode to the morning before various vendors' street cries fill the aural space and the number concludes with general revelry. The quiet scene that morphs into a celebration prefigures the famous beginning of Bernstein's On the Town (1944) and the lively market setting anticipates that of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady (1956).

Captain Dick and his followers, the ubiquitous male chorus, enter to "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!," a classic operetta march in which the chorus extols its rugged masculine virtues through lyrics that today would be considered largely politically incorrect. Such marches—sung by a male chorus and generally extolling themes of justice—would become a mainstay of American operetta in classics such as "The Mounties" from Rudolf Friml and Otto Harbach's Rose Marie (1924), "Song of the Vagabonds" from Friml and Brian Hooker's The Vagabond King (1925), and "Stouthearted Men" from Sigmund Romberg, Harbach, and Oscar Hammerstein 2nd's The New Moon (1928).

Marietta has two character-defining songs in Naughty Marietta. In the first, a cavatina of sorts, she describes the two sides of her personality, one proper and one horrid. The lightly scored accompaniment for "Naughty Marietta" allows the character-defining lyrics to be easily understood. With Italian-born Trentini singing in a heavily accented English, this was an extremely important consideration. In the famous "Italian Street Song," with its difficult coloratura obligato passages and sustained high Cs, Marietta lets everyone know, through her music, that she is indeed of noble birth. Her sophisticated virtuosic music demands a singer who is operatically trained and this attribute sets her apart from her female compatriots.

Similarly, Marietta and Captain Dick share two duets, "It Never, Never, Can Be Love" and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." In the first, they declare that their relationship will only be platonic, implying that no romance will ever develop between them. The skipping dotted rhythms and light-hearted style place the song in the realm of musical comedy and keep the plot from becoming too serious and melodramatic. While in some ways it anticipates the almost love songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, in which characters sing something along the lines of "I love you, but…" (for example, "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma! [1943]), the overall spirit of the music and lyrics conveys a spirit of innocence. By contrast, "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" is a soaring duet. It too has dotted rhythms, linking it to the earlier duet, but this time, they cascade downwards after dramatically held high notes. The idea of a specific piece of music being integral to the plot, as it is here, is not unique to Naughty Marietta. In Romberg and Frederick Arnold Krummer's The Magic Melody (1919), a mother and son who have been separated for years recognize each other through knowing the same melody. Most famously, in Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart's Lady in the Dark (1941), Liza Elliot's "My Ship" is the tune for which the protagonist is looking for a duet partner.

 g98f719_001u)The pirates (Image Id: g98f719_001u)The score is filled with other delights. Among these is Adah's languid ballad "'Neath the Southern Moon." Adah, one of Etienne's former lovers, is a mezzo, making her vocal sound distinctive from that of Marietta in terms of range and timbre. These vocal differences accentuate the characters' differences in terms of personality and ethnic background, for Adah is described as a "quadroon," a historical term for a person of mixed race with three-quarters African ancestry. We must remember that Marietta is of noble Italian heritage. The gently oscillating thirds at the beginning of the refrain draw attention to the references to breezes in the lyrics and accentuate the timeless quality of the song. By contrast, "Live for Today" is a glorious concerted waltz for Marietta, Adah, Captain Dick, and Etienne in which they celebrate youth and the immediacy of love. Captain Dick's effusive "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" is also a waltz. Through subtle musical hints, such as slithering chromatic melodies and the famous leap of a ninth (an octave plus one note) in the refrain on the words "one girl," Herbert lets his audience know that this singing lawman has the musical fortitude necessary to complete Marietta's "Dream Melody."

Low comedy comes in the characters of Simon O'Hara, Captain Dick's servant (Harry Cooper) and Lizette, a casquette girl (Kate Elinore). These two reflect some of the ethnic stereotyping that, while troublesome today, was common in the era and which contemporary audiences would have found entertaining.

Naughty Marietta has an impressive legacy on stage and screen. Romberg and Hammerstein's The New Moon shares a similar setting—eighteenth-century New Orleans, complete with pirates and Frenchmen, though the city was in reality under Spanish rule when both shows take place. Much later, Mel Brooks included "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" to climatic effect in the film Young Frankenstein (1974) and subsequent Broadway musical (2007). In 1983, Naughty Marietta appeared in an episode of the star-studded television series Fantasy Island. In the "Naughty Marietta" storyline, a pushy mother (Jayne Meadows) wants her daughter (Dorothy Hamill) to become an actress. On the island, they encounter Richard Warrington (Lorenzo Lamas) and Governor Gaspar d'Annard (James Doohan).


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