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The Last Smash Hit Operetta

The Last Smash Hit Operetta

By Peter Filichia —

It was recorded in June of 1959, but stayed in print for only three years. And yet, most musical theater enthusiasts covet the recording of Song of Norway by the Jones Beach Marine Theatre’s revival cast. They feel that the score has been well served in both performance and sound on this disc.

Since it was cut from the catalogue in June, 1962, this album has been unavailable – until now. Here it is, just in time to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Song of Norway’s Broadway opening at the Imperial Theatre on Aug. 21, 1944.

Even in that post-Oklahoma era, the original production of this operetta – yes, operetta — would miraculously stay on Broadway for 860 performances. When it closed on Sept. 7, 1946, only two book musicals – Oklahoma! and Follow the Girls – had ever run longer. Ever.

Today, although 96 other musicals have surpassed it, Song of Norway remains the longest-running operetta in Broadway history. Given the profound changes in music over the past six decades, it’s certain to hold that record and distinction now and forever. (Its 526-performance run in London wasn’t too shabby, either.)

In the mid 1950s, the decision to mount a revival of Song of Norway was made by Jones Beach Marine Theatre’s producing artistic director. His name was Guy Lombardo — indeed, the same Guy Lombardo who led the orchestra that played at the Waldorf-Astoria every New Year’s Eve. (If you’d ever wondered what he did the rest of the year, now you can at least account for his summers.)

The Jones Beach Marine Theatre, located 27 miles from Manhattan, was built in 1952 with a semi-circular stage that sat in a lagoon. In front of it 8,200 could sit and watch productions of original musicals (Arabian Nights) and vintage ones, too (Show Boat).

For Show Boat Lombardo had a ship sail into the lagoon both in the 1956 and 1957 productions. Now in 1958, what would he do for an encore?

Lombardo remembered that Song of Norway had been a Broadway smash. The original production didn’t sport a Viking ship – but his production could have one sail into the lagoon. (And you thought those Andrew Lloyd Webber poperas were the first ones with dynamic special effects.)

At its heart, however, Song of Norway is a very simple story. Young Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg meets established poet Rikard Nordraak and sets one of his works to music. Nina Hagerup, Edvard’s distant cousin, comes to like both men, but the result is not a romantic triangle; Edvard and Nina marry without incident.

But then the plot is complicated by Countess Louisa Giovanni, an esteemed opera singer who seems to be coming between Edvard and Nina. She alleges to be only interested in Grieg’s music when she suggests he accompany her to sunny (and sexy) Italy, but Nina suspects that she’s interested in Grieg the man, too. Of course Nina doesn’t lose Edvard; this is operetta.

It’s not a truthful telling of Grieg’s life, but it was the best one that original writer Homer Curran could imagine. The real Grieg did suffer terribly when his one son died as a young child, but other than that, he didn’t have an event-packed life. Nevertheless, when Milton Lazarus was engaged to rewrite the book, he kept to Curran’s original template.

But any operetta, of course, is all about the music. As critic Wolcott Gibbs wrote in his review in The New Yorker, “Everything was all right with me as long as nobody talked.”

The non-dialogue sections came courtesy of composer-lyricists Robert Wright and George “Chet” Forrest; they adapted Grieg’s melodies into songs. Their doing that also supported a big point in Lazarus’ book – that Grieg fervently wanted Norwegians to experience genuinely Norwegian music.

Wright and Forrest started and ended the show with songs forged from Grieg’s A-minor concerto. Even musical theater mavens who are ignorant of classical music will recognize it – thanks to How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. After Finch realizes he’s in love with Rosemary and sings, “Just imagine if we kissed! What a crescendo!” the music that he and we hear is Grieg’s majestic A-minor concerto.

Classical musical aficionados will immediately notice that Wright and Forrest turned Greig’s “Norwegian Dance” into the fetching “Freddy and His Fiddle” and that they merged his “Waltz Op. 12, No. 2” with the “Violin Sonata No. 2” to make the more simply titled “Now.” Fittingly, Grieg’s “Ich Liebe Dich” stayed true to lyrical form when Wright and Forrest transformed it into “I Love You.”

Wright and Forrest even got a semi-hit song from Grieg. Bing Crosby and Kate Smith, big stars at the time, each recorded “Strange Music,” which reached the Hit Parade. The song was adapted from two Grieg pieces, “Nocturne” and “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen.” (Song of Norway has to be the only Broadway musical whose locales included Troldhaugen, wouldn’t you think?)

“Strange Music” was still showing up on 1950’s TV variety shows, so Lombardo decided there might still be an audience for Song of Norway. In addition to the Viking ship, he had director Leonard Ruskin add some fishing boats and an ice-skating rink on which there’d be a ballet. The production would also offer, if not a cast of thousands, then certainly a cast of hundreds.

Stephen Douglass starred as Grieg and Robert Rounseville was Nordraak. (Musical theater enthusiasts know them respectively as the original Joe Hardy and Candide.) Helena Scott portrayed Nina and Brenda Lewis played the diva who came between them – although she had her own husband, the fancifully named Count Peppi Le Loup, played by Erik Rhodes. (Lewis is making a big Masterworks Broadway comeback this year; Regina, in which she played the title role, was reissued last month.)

The opening night audience on June 23, 1958 (who paid as much as $4.80 to attend) went wild for the show, and word soon spread. John Hanc, in his book Jones Beach: An Illustrated History, pointed out that the July 19th performance played host to no fewer than 8,588 (including 382 standees). It was the highest attendance the theater had enjoyed in its six-year existence.

So the following summer, Lombardo decided to remount Song of Norway. This time, Columbia would record it. That would put two Song of Norways on the market, for the 1944 original cast album had never been out of print. But that one had been recorded in an era when sound was more primitive, when monophonic was the only option. Now Columbia could record it in stereo. Add in the cast under Lehman Engel’s baton, and you’d have an impressive sounding recording.

While Lewis and Scott stayed on in 1959, the men didn’t. John Reardon, who’d show up the following year on Broadway in Do Re Mi, played Edvard and William Olvis became Rikard. And this Song of Norway could boast an original 1944 cast member: Sig Arno who reprised his Count Peppi Le Loup.

In the early 1960s Song of Norway played a few summer stock engagements, but then it faded away. Miraculously, it had a renaissance in 1970, when not only was a film version made, but also when Royal Caribbean International named its new cruise ship Song of Norway. The title hasn’t seen much activity in the last 40 years, but here’s a rebirth thanks to Masterworks Broadway.

Just don’t look for Song of Norway to be revived again at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre – oops, the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater. It’s where Phish will play this week, albeit not in the lagoon.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at