Early Musical Summary

Anne Caldwell in Theatre Magazine 1911

Anne Caldwell

Let us provide examples of librettists who wrote librettos for both operettas and musical shows.  We think it appropriate to note that the quality of librettos written for musical shows was significantly improved, compared with those written for operettas.

Anne Caldwell (1867-1936) worked on Lady of the Slipper with Victor Herbert (1912.39), and her operetta script was another uninspired retelling of the Cinderella story.  She also wrote the successful libretto for Jerome Kern in The Night Boat (1920.04) and wrote, in collaboration with R.H. Burnside, the well-received libretto for the Stepping Stones (1923.40).

Rida Johnson Young (1875-1926) wrote a stilted book for the masterful score in Herbert’s operetta,  Naughty Marietta, in 1910, but then wrote a greatly improved and more modern libretto for Ernest Ball (The Isle O’ Dreams, 1913.03), with two classic songs, “Mother Machree” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”  She wrote a more modern libretto to support Kern’s The Red Petticoat (1912.41); then, she went back to work with Sigmund Romberg on Maytime (1917.15).   She continued to work with Rudolf Friml and Romberg late into the operetta era.

When Herbert and Henry Blossom teamed up outside the ringed circle of operetta, they created a song for The Century Girl (1916.24) that was delightful and modern: “The Romping Red Heads.”  Somehow the two men seemed constrained only when it came to the librettos for operettas.  

Otto Harbach, American Librettist and Lyricist

Otto Harbach

Otto Harbach (1873-1963) wrote a lifeless libretto for Friml’s operetta The Firefly (1912.46) but then wrote a much improved one (with Oscar Hammerstein II) for Friml’s Rose-Marie (1924.28)

Justin Huntly McCarthy (1859-1936), an Irish author and Member of Parliament from 1884 to 1892, wrote the wildly popular novel, If I Were King.  McCarthy adapted it into a play in 1901, which was well-received when it appeared during the 1901-1902 Broadway season.  It was further adapted by Brian Hooker and W. H. Post for use in Friml’s The Vagabond King (1925.32); and still later, it was adapted by Preston Sturges (screenplay) for the movie If I Were King (1938), with Ronald Coleman and Frances Dee.

The Sturges screenplay is a delight; the operetta is hardly ever seen; and the difference is primarily attributable to the quality of the libretto.  

In the same year that The Vagabond King was produced, Kern created a wonderful score for the musical show, Sunny with a book by Harbach and Hammerstein.  Harbach and Hammerstein wrote modern, realistic lyrics for the song, “Who,” for Sunny but Harbach wrote a lifeless libretto for Song of the Flame (1925.52).

In 1917, Kern and Herbert teamed up together in a revue called Miss 1917 (1917.26), with sketches by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton.  Herbert was never provided with a chance to write a non-operetta score, even though he showed, in his songs, a fine ability to write popular music.  Was it Herbert or was this “oversight” caused by “type-casting” for composers? (Excellent examples that show just how good Herbert was outside of operettas are included on discs 3 and 4 in his Collected Songs—a 4 CD release by New World Records, 80726-2.)

Harbach, who mentored Oscar Hammerstein II at the request of Oscar’s uncle, Arthur Hammerstein, worked on both operettas and musical shows.

Oscar Hammerstein II Watching audition at St James Theatre, American Librettist and Lyricist

Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar Hammerstein II also worked in both camps; he wrote a wonderful libretto for Show Boat (1927.67); but he wrote stilted librettos with Harbach for Romberg’s The Desert Song one year earlier and for Romberg’s The New Moon, one year later.  He is the same man who would go on to write the books for the great Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, starting with Oklahoma!  (1943.04).

As we can see, there is a great divide between librettos written for operettas and those written for other types of musical shows.