This program title page for The Pink Lady (1911) announces that complimentary pink parasols will be distributed to all ladies attending the 200th performance.
and were still turning out hits after 1910, but their scores were pretty much a continuation of the kind of work each had been doing since the start of the century.
From 1910 onwards, many Broadway producers inspired by The Merry Widow concentrated on importing musicals from Europe. Notable examples include
- Madame Sherry (1910 – 231), a Viennese operetta involving a bachelor who pretends he is married in order to wheedle some money out of his wealthy uncle. The New York production kept the original plot, but American librettist provided a new book and lyrics, with all-new melodies by Karl Hoschna. The waltz-laden score included the mega-hit “Every Little Movement (Has a Meaning All Its Own).”
- The Arcadians (1910 NY – 193) was a British operetta that had residents of an earthly paradise trying to teach modern Londoners the value of honesty. It ran for more than two years on the West End. Despite a tuneful score by Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot, it was only a moderate success in the US.
- British composer ‘s (1911 – 320) told the story of a young man stealing kisses in a French forest and a some other loosely related romantic shenanigans. It made a star and initiated an American craze for “pink lady” drinks and fashions. With its popular “Kiss Waltz, ” The Pink Lady set a box office record for Broadway’s massive New Amsterdam Theatre.
- The had the 1874 Johann Strauss operetta Die Fledermaus translated into into a vehicle for vaudeville’s popular Dolly Sisters, re-titled it The Merry Countess (1912 – 135) and reaped healthy ticket sales.
- Maid of the Mountains (1917) wowed World War I London with its old-fashioned tale of a country girl who loves a swashbuckling bandit, racking up a then-astounding 1, 325 performances. It made a star of soprano Jose Collins, who would play the role for decades to come. The heavily revised 1918 Broadway version was so clumsy that it closed in less than a month.
The coming of World War I stifled the demand for German-language operettas in both America and Great Britain. Luckily, an American was ready to step into the void, opening a new era in American musical theatre.
The American musical found a new creative direction thanks to Jerome Kern, a native New Yorker who got his start amending the scores of imported British musicals. Since British high society rarely arrived at a theatre before intermission, London musicals of the early 1900s often saved their best material for the second act and filled their early scenes with forgettable fluff. These shows had to be revised for New York audiences, who tended to arrive for the first curtain and leave at intermission if the first act was not up to snuff.
When producer Charles Frohman brought over the British hit (1914 – 120), the plot (an American girl flees to London rather than become a rich Mormon’s latest wife) proved amusing, but the British score was unremarkable. So Frohman hired Kern and veteran lyricist Herbert Reynolds to write five new numbers for the lackluster first act.
When Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian introduced Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me” in The Girl From Utah, they became one of the most popular stage duo’s of their time. These photos come from the original cast program.
Kern and Reynolds had added songs to previous imports. This time they demanded and got full program credit. Their delightful ballad marked a turning point in the development of popular music. The melody defies time. Forthright sentiment meets refined romance, and the resulting sound pointed to the Broadway musical’s future. Rejecting the stilted, flowery poetry found in most period love songs, the lyric captured the easy cadence of everyday conversation
And when I told them
How beautiful you are
They didn’t believe me.
They didn’t believe me.
Your lips, you eyes, your curly hair
Are in a class beyond compare
You’re the loveliest girl
That one could see.
And when I tell them,
(And I certainly am going to tell them)
That I’m the man
Who’s wife one day you’ll be,
They’ll never believe me,
They’ll never believe me,
That from this great big world
You’ve chosen me.
– Transcribed from sheet music
As Julia Sanderson and sang those words in the Knickerbocker Theatre on the night of August 14, 1914, it is doubtful that they or their audience realized they were part of an historic moment. As far as they knew, it was just great entertainment. But “They Didn’t Believe Me” eclipsed everything in the show’s original British score and made Kern the hottest new composer on Broadway. Musical theatre – in fact, all popular music – would never be the same.
Kern’s best melodies have a timeless, distinctly American sound that redefined the Broadway showtune. He made the most of his early popularity, composing sixteen Broadway scores between 1916 and 1920. The most memorable of these graced a series of innovative musicals for The Princess Theatre.
Ray Comstock leased the cozy 299 seat Princess to house a dramatic repertory company, but that soon folded. Agent Elizabeth Marbury suggested producing small, low-budget musicals as alternatives to the lavish songfests then dominant on Broadway. Comstock and Marbury joined forces, hired Kern and librettist , limited production expenses to $7, 500 (because of the small number of seats), and launched a series now referred to as . Kern and Bolton began by adapting the London operetta Mr. Popple of Ippleton. They replaced the book and most of the score, reduced the chorus to a minimum, and renamed the show Nobody Home (1915 – 135). The production barely broke even, but Comstock was encouraged enough to have Bolton & Kern attempt an original project.
This time, the team focused on settings and characters that would be familiar to Broadway audiences of that time – facing credible challenges. Very Good Eddie (1915 – 341) involved two honeymooning couples who get involved in some innocent misunderstandings while cruising on a Hudson River steamboat. Because of the Princess Theatre’s size, the production aimed for a naturalistic and seemingly informal style.
“With little or no space separating the players from the audience, Very Good Eddie depended upon the ease and credibility of the acting and characterization. Scarcely any previous musical comedy had been favored with a plot and dialogue so coherent, so nearly related to those of well-written non-musical plays.”
– Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1950), p. 212.