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Open Features: The Guv’nor And The Merry Widow

In this imaginative and original story/play Jacqueline Finesilver tells what went into the first London production of perhaps the greatest of all operettas, The Merry Widow.

May 1st 1906

The Guv'nor:
This new thing by Lehar – they've gone mad for it in Vienna. And now Berlin. But would they go mad for it in London? I need a winner. Got to recoup losses on the last one. That drained the coffers.

The Actress:
He told me to collect my things and my wages. He'd had enough of silly young ladies, he said. He wasn't prepared to employ girls who didn't know how to behave. There would be no difficulty in replacing me, he said. (Well, I knew that.)

I tried to tell him most earnestly that it wouldn't happen again, that it was only that some of us had got the giggles. But he wasn't in a mood to listen. And then I suppose I lost my temper a little.

He wished me well and walked off.

And I thought, how am I to find another job in the West End, or anywhere in London, if people know I've been dismissed by The Guv'nor?

Now he's brought me here. I'm taking you to the opera, he said. In Berlin.

These are very expensive seats. Everyone is looking very elegant, very sophisticated. And I'm sure everyone's being witty and amusing. I just hope nobody's being witty about me, the little nobody, sitting next to the most important man in British theatre.

Now the overture's beginning. I won't understand a word.

The Guv'nor
Can't tell yet. First act was a bit of a jumble.

The Actress:
What is he thinking about? Surely not about putting on an opera? Not at Daly's? Certainly not at The Gaiety. Supposing he did? There'd be nothing in it for me. Or would there be?

I wish I could be witty and amusing right now.

The Guv'nor:
It might do. With changes. The story will do, more or less - love lost, love regained. Shenanigans in Paris. The music will do very well - good tunes for singing, good tunes for dancing.

Costumes. Mrs Field will do her stuff. Amazing woman.

Scenery – embassy, nightclub, gardens - got some sets in store we can use and Joe Harker can come up with something impressive.

Casting. Not a Mizzi Gunther. She's very good. But. Too forceful, too energetic, too mature. Not the type for my audiences. This little girl here, little Elsie, very pretty, nice little voice. If she can hit the top notes, she'll do.

The Actress:
'Oh no, I couldn't do that', I told him. I can't sing opera. And I 'm just not.... I can't....

He just waved his cigar at me. You can start rehearsing as soon as we get back home.

The Guv'nor:
The male lead. I've spoken to Joe Coyne. Surprised him. Why me, Mr Edwardes? Surely it's a part for a tenor or a baritone or some such? You must know I can't sing a note? Dancing - Yes. Singing - Not a chance. And I'm American. Don't reckon I'd be convincing as some Prussian Count.

I said, not Prussian, Joe. Ruritanian. Or something. And in London, we'll be turning him into a Prince. Fancy being a prince, Joe? Foreign and romantic?

I'm not known for romance, he said. I do comedy.

I told him, for what I have in mind, you're the man. You've got the right style. And don't worry about the singing, Joe.

The script. Lots of changes. Bill Berry and old George will sort it all out. They know what goes down well at Daly's. Plenty of funny business. Bit of spark and wit. Poking fun. Pompous officials, devious diplomats.... Troublesome women. Oh yes, they'll have to write a song about troublesome women.

Plenty of those. On and off stage.

The Actress:
It's very hard. Sometimes I know I can do this. And everybody like me. Sometimes I feel I'm no use at all and I want to hide in the dressing room and never come out. With Mother guarding the door..

Joe Coyne's very easy going and pleasant to work with, though I not sure what he really thinks of me. You can never be sure with men.
We've just heard that Mr Lehar is coming! He wants to see how the production is going. He won't like me.

The Leading Man:
The composer's coming to town. Oh my! We're heading into a storm.

The Guv'nor:
This might need some handling. No worries about the orchestra. Daly's has one of the best. But other matters...

The Composer:
Why all this clowning? Why the 'funny foreigners'? Why all these jokes? Why is the Widow – a mature witty woman - being played by a skinny girl?
That is the Count? Reciting his words! He cannot sing! The leading man in an opera and he cannot sing? This Edwardes, he is calling out, 'Save your voice, Joe!' Telling me that this Coyne has a cold. Does he think I am a complete fool? I will not have this.

The Guv'nor:
Well, after all, he's an artist but he's a practical man, a man who knows the way the world works. Comes from a miltary background. So I told him how things stand.

Forget what they like Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Florence. In London, this is what they will like. This is what will work. Believe me, it will pay off. If my 'Widow' works in London then I'll send it to the provinces, to Ireland, Australia, South Africa. And if they go for her in London, they'll go for her in New York. It will pay off.

He listened. He saw the sense. Even agreed to conduct the orchestra on the first night. Glad that's dealt with.

The Orchestra Conductor:
Like them or not, waltzes cast a spell. A giddying, whipping up sort of dance, it used to be. Now, here, Lehar's written a slower, smoother waltz. Plenty of time for posing and meaningful sighs and lingering glances and such. The melody is addictive. 'Love Unspoken' - it's magic. People will sup it up even if it's sweet enough to make a dog sick.

Of course, you need something to set against all that soft dripping romance. The music for The Grisettes, the Parisian good-time girls is hectic, frenetic. It will get the customers stirred up and kicking the seats. It's a can-can for mad cats. For the lovely young ladies of the chorus.

'Vilia', is a pretty song about a wood nymph. Pretty, but a little bit eerie. I must say, Lily Elsie does very well with it. It suits her.

The Leading Man:
The Prince and I are getting along just fine, after all. People will think I just stroll through the part. That's OK.

The Wardrobe Mistress:
Sometimes I wonder about that girl. She's been in the business since she was eight. Started out in a Salford music hall doing impressions. She must have worked hard to get this far. So she must be tough. Yet there have been times I've seen her looking as sick and scared as a half drowned kitten. Her eyes – when they're all wide and earnest – they're saying, Oh, I'm just sweet little Elsie. Just here to please. Other times there's a hard blue spark in them that signals trouble.

Her mother's always around. She would have you believe that she was an actress herself once. Not necessarily a good thing. (Never a mention of the father).

The Guv'nor came and had a chat with me. You know I have the highest regard for you Mrs Field, he said. You can conjure up any kind of costume I ask for. I couldn't manage without you. Well, that's true enough and he meant every word. I waited for him to carry on.

I've asked Lady Duff-Gordon to design some gowns, he said. For the Widow. Hoping to pique the interest of the smart ladies of London, you know.

Of course, I already knew about his little scheme, having a friend or two in 'Lucile's' workshop. 'Lucille' is her Ladyship's professional name. Very exotic, her designs are. Very dramatic. Very very expensive. I like them, but there are not many women can carry them off, however much money they've paid. If Lily Elsie can hold her own in them then she'll certainly hold the stage.

The Fashion Designer:
Marsovia – it exists somewhere in Operettaland, I suppose. And since no one can say what its national costume is, I've had a free rein. I'm really rather pleased with the results. One of the gowns in particular. Eastern European mixed with Oriental and a touch of the barbarian. A mongrel of styles but a thoroughbred 'Lucile'. Pure me.

I might say that, it wasn't simply a matter of producing gowns for Lily Elsie, I taught her how to wear them. How to lift her chin and sweep and swirl and drape herself about. If she marries into the aristocracy, like so many of these Gaiety Girls, she'll be quite an ornament to society.

I was surprised at first by how frisky she can be when the mask of shy sweetness is dropped. Some surprisingly sharp remarks issue from that rosebud mouth.

The Actress:
Lucy has designed the most terrible hat for me to wear. It's enormous and weighs a ton. A great cartwheel absolutely piled up with ruffles and roses. She says it will be all the rage and every woman will want one. It's a hat for photographs, I think. A hat for doing nothing but sitting. With your heavy head propped against a palm stand.

There is something else, though. More troubling than wearing the hat. There is a point in the story where I dance alone, drifting remotely, elegantly, back and forth, showing off my very expensive dress. That , I am happy to do. The difficult part comes when Joe Coyne, as the Prince, glides up and puts his hand round my waist. We drift around together for a few bars. Then he slowly slides his hand up to the back of my neck and we move closer. As the melody comes in we begin to waltz.

The Guv'nor thinks well of that scene. What will other people think?

June 8th 1907

The Guv'nor:
Opening night Well, I've bet heavily on this one. We'll see how it runs.

The Pit and Gallery:
‘Joe and El-sie! Joe and El-sie!’
‘Who do we love? We love Elsie!'

The Stalls and Boxes:
'Encore! Encore!' 'Give us the waltz again!'

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