Three operettas from Max Liebman’s spectacular-for-their-time television spectaculars dating back to 1955 have been released on DVD. They have been taken from black-and-white kinescopes and cleaned up quite acceptably, especially when it comes to the soundtrack which is presented in the original monaural with no attempt to “simulate” stereo.
Take a time trip back with the likes of Alfred Drake, Nelson Eddy and Patrice Munsel (not to mention Bert Lahr, Keith Andes, Gale Sherwood and John Conte) and immerse yourself in lush musical romanticism of the highest order.
There’s Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta which finds Drake as an American adventurer in Napoleon’s New Orleans falling for Munsel as a countess masquerading as a “casquette girl” – one of the women imported from France to provide wives for the men in Louisiana. From “Tramp Tramp Tramp” to “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (At Last I’ve Found You)” the score is marvelously sung. Drake displays a charm that softens some of the overtly macho aspects of the role while Munsel is attractive and lively, giving “I’m Falling In Love With Someone” and the title tune a lovely lilt. The original operetta dates to 1910 which means it was already a forty-five year old “classic” when Liebman adapted it for television.
Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song doesn’t go back quite that far, having debuted on Broadway in 1925, but it has a plot line no less outlandish. Eddy plays a role that could be a Zorro or a Superman – a masked protector of the poor who masquerades as a milquetoast when not vanquishing the evildoers. This version is set in Morocco where the locals are oppressed by the French and their hero seems like a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and Valentino’s Sheik, but his secret is that he is really the son of the French military commander. The book and lyrics were by Otto Harbach, Frank Mandel and none other than Oscar Hammerstein II.
Nelson Eddy seems a bit old for the role of the dashing “Red Shadow.” In his “secret identity” it is a bit hard to accept him as the son of the general played by Otto Kruger. Perhaps that’s because Eddy was in his fifties by the time this version of the operetta was telecast. He had been a major star for nearly twenty years by this time, having made his first big splash in movies with none other than “Naughty Marietta” opposite Jeanette MacDonald in 1935. Still, he displays some personable charm and is in good voice.
The third release is of The Great Waltz, that early example of what we might today call a “juke box musical.” Like the version that opened on Broadway in 1934, this new-in-1955 version uses the melodies of both Johann Strauss Senior, who is generally credited with popularizing the Viennese waltz, and his son Johann Strauss Junior, who bested his father in the popularity of works in the same genre becoming known as “The Waltz King.” The operetta’s story is built on the jealousy of the father for the talent of the son.
Heading the cast as the young Strauss is Keith Andes, a solid leading man who had replaced Alfred Drake in “Kiss Me, Kate” and would go on to co-star with Lucille Ball in Wildcat. Patrice Munsel is the daughter of a pastry store owner who convinces the younger Strauss to lend his music to her father’s establishment turning it into a successful nightspot on the Vienna scene. Her father is played with good humor by Bert Lahr who even warbles his way through a comedic “I Hate The Waltz.”
To view a sample from “The Great Waltz” with Jarmila Novotna and Keith Andes singing “Your Much Too Close” which segues into a scene between Andes and Munsel, click here.
It may be heretical coming from someone so addicted to completism in collecting all things theatrical, but the fact that these are all “tab” versions of the originals works to their benefit for anyone wanting to dip a toe into the operetta pond. Each was created for a ninety minute time slot and, leaving room for commercials, that meant each actually runs about seventy-six minutes. This is long enough for you to understand how these songs work in the genre without taxing your patience unduly.
If you find you like them, you can delve further either through videos of other productions or thru audio recordings and printed scripts or descriptions.