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Merry Widow (The)

Musique: Franz Lehar
Paroles: Christopher Hassall

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George Edwardes was Britain's most successful stage producer. Best remembered primarily as the creator of British musical comedy, he had no aversion to importing a continental hit, particularly one as acclaimed as Lehar's Die Lustige Witwe. Edwardes commissioned lyricist Adrian Ross and librettist Edward Morton to create the first English version of The Merry Widow (1907). When Morton's dialogue proved disappointing, the prolific Basil Hood was brought in to re-write the entire script -- but he was not credited until years later, supposedly out of respect for Morton's feelings. The West End production opened at Daly's Theatre on June 8, 1907.

This was a fresh adaptation of the text, not an exact translation. The resulting dialogue had the easy flow of conversational English, rather than the stilted sound of strictly translated German. There were also several diplomatically motivated name changes. The original German libretto had angered officials in the Balkan kingdom of Montegnegro, where the royal family's surname was Njegus, and the real crown prince was named Danilo! So the English version turned Pontevedro into Marsovia, promoted Count Danilo to the title of Prince, and rechristened Njegus as Nish. The final scene was moved into the actual Maxim's, to further capitalize on international interest in that famous Parisian nightspot.

Diplomacy does not explain all the changes. Hanna Glawari became Sonia Sadoya, ambassador Zeta became Popoff, Valencienne became Natalie, and Camille's last name was changed to Jolidon. These new names were just as difficult to sing as the originals, so we can only attribute the changes to the whims of the English authors. A great deal of irrelevant chatter and stage business was added to accommodate popular comedian George Graves, who was such a sensation as Baron Popoff that he played the role to ongoing acclaim for decades. Most of his custom-designed shtick was deleted from future productions.

In an unusual move, British producer George Edwardes brought Lehar to London to compose several additional songs -- "Butterflies" (rarely heard today) for the lead Grisette, and "Quite Parisien" (still often used) as a third act solo for Nish. Soprano Lily Elsie played Sonia, and comedian Joseph Coyne was Danilo. Although this was the most memorable and acclaimed success of Coyne's career, he loathed the role. The Merry Widow opened at Daly's Theatre on June 8, 1907, where it lasted for 778 performances. The same translation played in Australia, opening at Her Majesty's Theatre in Melbourne on May 16, 1908.

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