Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN

Part of the fun of collecting these things is that you never quite know what you're going to find (like CHILDREN OF DREAMS). And then you research it, and you realize, wow, what a find. For example...

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN (1902) by Frank Pixley and Gustav Luders. The only copy of the libretto that I can find is at the Library of Performing Arts in NYC, so actually talking about that will have to wait until my next trip there. The last production I can find was mounted in 1997 by the Musical Theatre Research Project, led by Elwood Anaheim (who, sadly, cant locate the abbreviated script they used for that staging). His opening remarks, quoted here from the MTRP website:

Although unknown to us today, THE PRINCE OF PILSEN was extremely popular in its initial run 95 years ago. The musical comedy opened at the Tremont Theatre in Boston in May 1902, and had a considerable run there and on the road before opening in New York on March 17, 1903, at the Broadway Theatre, where it ran for 143 performances. It later enjoyed a run of 160 performances at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. And, for the next 20 years, the musical was often produced in revival on Broadway and throughout America.

Composer Gustav Luders was born in Germany in 1865. A conductor turned operetta composer, Luders was formally trained in Germany and came to the United States while in his twenties. Once teamed with librettist Frank Pixley, the two would eventually have a respectable musical comedy career ending with Luders’ premature death in 1913. Although their musicals may not be remembered today, they certainly were known by composers of the golden age of musical theater. Today’s audiences are sure not to miss the similarities between the students’ music of THE PRINCE OF PILSEN and Sigmund Romberg’s THE STUDENT PRINCE. (In fact, PILSEN opened in New York the same season as the U.S. production of ALT HEIDELBERG, which was later to form the basis of THE STUDENT PRINCE.) One of their earliest efforts, THE BURGOMEISTER (written in 1900) tells the tale of 17th century Peter Stuyvesant falling asleep and reawakening in the year 1900 (38 years before that same character appears in the Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill musical KNICKERBOCKER HOLIDAY). Although Pixley and Luders achieved success with their next musical, KING DODO (1902), THE PRINCE OF PILSEN produced on Broadway the following year was their greatest triumph. They went on to create THE SO-GUN, a MIKADO-like operetta set in Korea, and WOODLAND, a strange tale with a cast of birds, both in 1904. But nothing the pair subsequently composed approximated the fame or fortunes of PILSEN.

THE PRINCE OF PILSEN is a lighthearted tale with many familiar plot twists—familiar by even 1902 standards. Much like today, the turn-of-the-century audience for popular entertainment found comfort in familiarity. The plot concerns a case of mistaken identity: Hans Wagner, an American beer manufacturer traveling Europe with his daughter Nellie (and in Nice to meet up with son Tom, a naval officer) is mistaken for the Prince of Pilsen by a hotel concierge desperate to drum up business. Pilsen, by the way, is not only a city in Czechoslovakia, but also the root of the word “pilsner,” a light beer with a strong flavor of hops. And there lies the confusion. As can only be expected, the real Prince arrives with his friends from college, and decides to make the best of the opportunity by posing as a commoner.

Produced during this country’s greatest influx of immigrants, THE PRINCE OF PILSEN is a fine example of what I like to refer to as the “Ugly American” form of musical theater. Like many comedies and popular songs of the past century, the book and lyrics playfully poke fun at the accents and manners of foreigners and new U.S. citizens. Although not politically correct by today’s standards, this “Ugly American” device allowed an audience of mixed immigrants and new citizens to laugh at each other as they tried to assimilate American customs and language.

As was the custom, the dialog in THE PRINCE OF PILSEN was largely written in dialect, and it was up to our actors to decipher the hieroglyphics provided by author Frank Pixley. Make no mistake, the accents you will hear tonight were written to sound ridiculous. Strangely enough, for a story that takes place in Nice, there are no Italians in the plot, but the French, German, and British are lambasted for their accents and manners. In contrast, the employees of an Italian hotel and students from a Heidelberg university speak English without an accent, as does a Czechoslovakian Prince who, by the way, breaks into German from time to time. But, as is generally the case, the Americans never bear the brunt of the joke. The “Ugly American” device actually backfires because the story’s “real” Americans are stock characters, bland and boring, and can not possibly compete with their flesh and blood foreign counterparts.

The original authors of THE PRINCE OF PILSEN, along with other creators of early musical theater, did very little to assure that their material would be preserved for future generations. In fact, until the 1970’s, musical theater was not viewed as a serious art form that warranted research. Of course, much of that has changed today, but 95 years ago, no one thought that we would be interested in preserving a silly little musical. So, as was the custom in early musical theater, much of the scripted action was “suggested.” The script might state “whistling business” or “business with fountain” without defining the action. Since these scripts were developed for established performers, “business” refers to a routine that was part of that performer’s stock and trade. Somewhat like trying to put into words a physical routine of the Marx Brothers, the term “business” made it easier for future performers to adapt their own trademark shtick. Over the years, in lieu of an organized system, much of this material was passed on from performer to performer.

I have other scores from this period, all discovered by accident: an incomplete copy of Pixley and Luder's WOODLAND (cited above), MISS BOB WHITE (by Williard Spenser, who provided the score for THE LITTLE TYCOON, arguably one of the first truly American musical comedies, and who was considered by some to have been the Rodgers and Hammerstein of his time), THE CHINA SHOP (by Arthur Penn, whose ROSE OF THE DANUBE was the first work discussed here -- I'm hoping to get a copy of the libretto to his MAMZELLE TAPS in the near future: it looks like a fascinating little piece of WW1 theatre), THE PINK LADY (with music by the incomparable Ivan Caryll) -- all of whom were huge hits in the day and now are all but lost to us. Hopefully, someday, someone will give these another look and dust them off for another shot, even if as concert pieces. I realize that we cant save everything from our musical theatre history, but -- much like the little operettas I blog about -- there's still much to admire in these nearly forgotten works.

3 comments:

Doug said...

Just posted the Library of Congress version of the script here
http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/10/31/musical-month-prince-pilsen:

Sean Martin said...

Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!

Cathy said...

Many years ago in 1965 i had the lead in our high school play " The Prince of Pilsen"
I lost my script but remember fondly the play.
Thank you so much.
Cathy