THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER
Musical Theater Research ProjectFebruary, 2002
Good Evening, and welcome to the 7th presentation of the Musical Theater Research Project. This year we are pleased to bring to you Oscar Straus’ 1908 operetta, “The Chocolate Soldier.” Oscar Straus was born in Vienna in 1870. He died there in 1954 after living many years abroad in France, New York, and Hollywood. Oscar Straus was a distant cousin of the famous Strauss clan, but early on he dropped the final “s” of his family name to avoid any confusion and comparison with the prolific operetta dynasty.
Straus had achieved an enormous success with his “Waltz Dream” in both Germany and New York in 1907 before he embarked upon adapting George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 comedy “Arms and the Man” into “The Chocolate Soldier.” Interestingly enough, the creation of “The Chocolate Soldier” had an indirect bearing on the writing of “My Fair Lady” almost 50 years later.
One of Straus’ librettists, Leopold Jacobson (the other being Rudolph Bernauer), approached Shaw’s German agent to negotiate the rights to adapt Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” as an operetta. Shaw, a very opinionated critic, failed to recognize the talents of Jacobson as a writer (“a putrid opera bouffe in the worst taste of 1860,” wrote Shaw), but none the less he gave his permission with three very unique caveats: none of his dialogue or his characters’ names could be used; the libretto was be advertised as a parody; and he would receive no compensation. This last stipulation was a great blunder on Shaw’s part for “The Chocolate Soldier” went on to international success. Shaw so abhorred the operetta that he vowed to never again release the rights to any of his plays for musical adaptation. Shaw must have weakened in the case of “The Chocolate Soldier” because he thought that no one would pay attention to a German-language adaptation of his work in operetta form. And, for at least a short while, that was the case. “The Chocolate Soldier” was only a moderate success in Vienna, but the following year American impresario Fred C. Whitney commissioned Stanislaus Stange to write an English translation of the operetta. The work opened at the Lyric Theatre and took Broadway by storm in 1909. It was an even bigger success in London the following year. So, try as he might, Shaw was unable to disassociate himself from the work.
In 1940, MGM decided to make a film version of “The Chocolate Soldier” starring Nelson Eddy and Risë Stevens. But, Shaw set his price too high, obviously trying to regain a bit of what he had given up over 20 years ago. Louis B. Mayer had the last laugh, though. He purchased the rights to the music alone and used the plot from Molnar’s “The Guardsman” instead. MGM already owned the rights to Molnar’s play and had presented a filmed version 10 years before.
So, how does “My Fair Lady” fit into all of this? Well, in 1921 Shaw got wind of Franz Lehar’s desire to set his play “Pygmalion” to music. Shaw quickly contacted his German translator in Vienna and asked him to pass on his desire that no one adapt any of his plays for any circumstance. He wrote, “My French translator says that it is announced that Lehar (composer of “The Merry Widow”) is making an operetta of “Pygmalion.” Lehar is a fellow citizen of yours, is he not? Can you warn him that he cannot touch “Pygmalion” without infringing my copyright and that I have no intention of allowing the history of “The Chocolate Soldier” to be repeated?"
But, as history shows us, Lerner and Lowe eventually musicalized “Pygmalion” in 1956. How was that possible? Well, by then Shaw was long gone and the property that they set to music was really the film screenplay, written by Shaw, but controlled by the producer of the movie. Therefore, Lerner and Lowe were able to be a part of music theater history without litigation brought on by Shaw or his estate.
The differences between Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” and “The Chocolate Soldier” are both minor and major. The librettists were obligated to change the names of all the characters, but they also created some new incidents, glossed over the pacifist message, and dropped most of Balkans bashing. They completely dismissed Shaw’s socialist significance. For the version you are about to see tonight, I stole five lines from Shaw’s original to clarify the abrupt ending of the operetta. Even with the addition of these lines, situations still seem to be tied up rather quickly. But, Shaw’s play ends in a similarly abrupt fashion.
We are using the original score as published in 1909 after the success of the Broadway production. This includes the charmingly antiquated lyrics provided by the American translation. Our script, I suspect, is not the original used in the Broadway or London productions of almost 100 years before, but quite possibly from a 1940s revival of the show. I acquired it through an estate sale of the personal effects of opera singer Hilda Kosta who performed the role of Aurelia throughout the 1940s and 50s. I have no idea of its authorship, because it arrived minus its first few pages, including any credits that might divulge the name of its author. But, it is a brilliantly funny script that we have enjoyed working with over the past 3 weeks.
I had to do a little re-arranging of some musical numbers, because the script dropped a song or two and substituted others from various Straus operettas. (Straus continued to sharpen “The Chocolate Soldier” throughout his lifetime, even adding a ballet for a revival by the San Francisco Light Opera.) Musically, I have gone back to the original score and have reinstated a few songs that, for one reason or another, were dropped over the period of the last 100 years. This includes a duet for Alexius and Mascha and a solo for Bumerli with the unfortunate title of “Why Is It Love Makes Us Feel Queer?”
The most renowned song from the score is the beautiful waltz “My Hero.” And, if you don’t know it already, I guarantee that you will by the time you leave the theatre, most likely whistling it. Straus, obviously recognizing a hit, chose to reprise the song in each act. And, if that isn’t enough, I have tacked it on to the brief bow music at the end.
Once again, Dr. Nicolas Catravas ably supports us at the piano, never once making us long for the sounds of a full orchestra. Ms. Maureen Codelka joins us again, after an absence of three years, as music director. She’s once again accomplished the impossible by performing her magic with the score in three weeks. Erin Henry, a senior music theater major, has provided the refreshing choreography. And, I especially want to thank a truly talented cast of actors who I have had the infinite joy to direct. I also thank Dean Marilyn Neeley and the School of Music at The Catholic University of America for supporting this important musical research project. Without their help, we would be unable to bring these historical plays to the public.
Thank you and enjoy the show!