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The Firebrand of Florence: An Appreciation

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by Mark N. Grant

In celebrating the landmark integrated musicals of the early 1940s like Lady in the DarkPal Joey, and Oklahoma!, theater historians sometimes have overlooked the continuing popularity of old-fashioned operetta on Broadway–and in American pop culture–at the same time. Only 15 or 20 years earlier, Blossom TimeRose MarieThe Student Prince, and other operettas by the likes of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml had enjoyed long runs, while Hollywood operettas with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy remained extremely popular. World War II apparently increased public yearning for escape to a Ruritanian past: The Merry Widow was revived three times between 1942 and 1944; even Reginald DeKoven’s 1891 Robin Hood was disinterred. Die Fledermaus, retitled Rosalinda, opened in October 1942 and ran 521 performances. The corny Edvard Grieg pastiche, Song of Norway, ran from 1944 to 1946. Other operettas based on the tunes of Victor Herbert, Tchaikovsky, Fritz Kreisler, and Chopin had shorter runs.

Actually, the 1940s brought an end to the era in which operetta seemed “cool” rather than “retro.” Oscar Hammerstein adapted Bizet’s Carmen as the all-black Carmen Jones in 1943, and even Lorenz Hart (after his breakup with Richard Rodgers) began a project with Lehár’s rival Emmerich Kalman. In this environment, Kurt Weill saw an opening for an ambitious Broadway operetta (he may also have hoped to redeem the failure of his one European venture into the genre, Der Kuhhandel). Operetta was in his blood: in 1920, Weill had conducted any number of them in the small German town of Lüdenscheid. He wrote to his family that he felt “up to his ears” in operetta and that “after every performance the director assures me that whatever operetta it was has never sounded better.” Years later in America, Weill wrote that Lüdenscheid “was where I learned everything I know about the stage.”

After the success of Lady in the Dark in 1941, Weill pursued several operetta projects for Broadway. One Man’s Venus became the mainstream musical comedy One Touch of Venus. A chance to recycle Caribbean musical elements from Der Kuhhandel into The Pirate (1942) faltered due to artistic differences with the Lunts and S.N. Behrman. He and Ira Gershwin went so far as to sign an agreement with producer Russell Lewis to write an operetta about Nell Gwynn (the 17th-century English actress/courtesan). That didn’t pan out, but Gershwin brought in screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer, who went on to write the book for Firebrand. And although Weill passed up an offer in the fall of 1942 to work on a Broadway version of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, it was only a year later that he and Ira Gershwin were working on the songs for the film Where Do We Go From Here?, including an operetta scene even longer than Bernard Herrmann’s Salammbo in Citizen Kane.

The movie whetted their desire to create a “great American operetta” that could also succeed abroad. They came up with the idea of adapting Mayer’s 1924 comedy, The Firebrand, a dramatization of incidents from The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Mayer’s play had been a big hit on Broadway in 1924, with Joseph Schildkraut as Cellini, Frank Morgan as the Duke, and Edward G. Robinson as Ottaviano; the 1934 film version, The Affairs of Cellini, featured Fredric March, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, and Frank Morgan, with music by Alfred Newman.

Weill worked on Firebrand with Gershwin and Mayer in Los Angeles through the summer and early fall of 1944. Some of Gerswhin’s working titles suggest the tone they were striving for: “Malice in the Palace”; “He, She, and the Duke”; “Laid in Florence”–a tone that unfortunately eluded the finished product. The collaboration did not always go smoothly, especially after Weill and Gershwin disagreed sharply over who should play the Duchess of Florence; Weill insisted on his wife, Lotte Lenya, and eventually wore Gershwin down. Weill wrote that he conceived the piece as an “intelligent, intimate operetta,” but signing Max Gordon to produce ensured the opposite. Gordon was known for lavish spectacles such as Roberta (1933), with its onstage fashion show, and The American Way (1939), a pageant with a cast of 250 and a staggering 2,200 costumes. Director John Murray Anderson also was known for vast spectacles (JumboZiegfeld Follies). Their staging proved inimical to Weill’s intentions, despite the best efforts of George S. Kaufman, who acted as play doctor during the Boston tryout.

When The Firebrand of Florence finally opened in New York on March 22, 1945, it had the biggest price tag of any Weill Broadway show, a good advance sale, 20% of its backing provided by 20th Century Fox–and all sorts of problems. Weill had wanted Metropolitan Opera baritone Lawrence Tibbett for Cellini but got a good-sing/no-act unknown, Earl Wrightson (the part was perfect for Alfred Drake, but he was busy in Sing Out, Sweet Land). The Angela, Beverly Tyler, was a no-sing/no-act unknown. Lenya wanted Walter Slezak for the Duke, but got British comedian Melville Cooper. The critical reception to the show was overwhelmingly unfavorable. A few supporting players got good notices, and all the critics liked Cooper, who did not sing well but was a wonderful comic actor. The critics weren’t content to pan the costumes and the script (“the book is listless,” “soporific,” “a slight commotion in the show rooms of a theatrical costumer”); Weill’s ambitious operatic score also took its lumps (“what the music lacks is character and variety; the songs do not rise above a tradition”). One reviewer astutely noted, “So much time has been allotted to songs and choruses that there is scant room for comic relief.” Nor did Ira Gershwin’s rhymes go over well; some were too cute in their cleverness, others bordered on doggerel. Lenya, still generally unknown on Broadway, attracted little attention from reviewers. Max Gordon cut his losses and closed Firebrand a month later.

As a composer Weill was like a great actor who can do any accent. When you’re listening to Firebrand, it’s a bit of a shock to remember that the same man composed the snarling Mahagonny and Dreigroschenoper. The orchestration is all velvet, with silky violins and the busiest harp book in any Weill show, used together with mandolin and guitar occasionally to simulate a Florentine renaissance sound. (Weill owned two volumes of Renaissance and Baroque Italian music, but seems in Firebrand to have borrowed more from Vienna.) The composer who was famous for orchestrating his own shows wound up asking Broadway orchestrator Ted Royal to take over a quarter of the score, because he simply ran out of time. Royal constructed a clever overture which plugs the tunes like a conventional Broadway show; Chappell Music’s house arrangers Jack Mason and Paul Weirick even made jaunty swing band arrangements of “Life, Love, and Laughter” and “Sing Me Not a Ballad.”

The score is a tour de force of through-composed ensemble writing, and there are some haunting numbers (“Love Is My Enemy“). Yet uncharacteristically for Weill, the music often seems factitious and without a rooted point of view, with faux-Florentine musical gestures and a feeling of forced gaiety, lacking his usual self-spoofing humor (except in “You Have to Do What You Do Do,” a revision of a number cut from Lady in the Dark). Even his orchestration, though gorgeous, is too consistently full-textured, swamping the story and characters. It needs more chamber music moments like “Entrance of the Duchess,” with piccolo and clarinet a tenth apart, supported only by glockenspiel, Chinese cymbal, guitar, and harp.

The closest artistic cousin to The Firebrand of Florence on Broadway was the 1948 operetta Magdalena. Scored by the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to a book and lyrics by Robert Wright and George Forrest that rival Firebrand‘s for ineffectiveness, Magdalena, like Firebrand, provided some magical musical moments but was overwhelmed by an elaborate production. But posterity seems to be rediscovering Weill’s Broadway operetta. A 1999 Ohio Light Opera Company staging was well received, and the BBC Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis presented a concert performance in January 2000 that was recorded and released on the Capriccio label. In March 2009, the work was heard for the first time in New York City since 1945, in concert, with The Collegiate Chorale under the baton of Ted Sperling. The reviews were glowing. Maybe The Firebrand of Florence‘s time has finally come.

Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).

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