“Since the turn of the century, ‘The Merry Widow’ has been theatre’s most sought after lady,” we’re informed at the very start of “The Merry Widow”—the much sought after 1955 musical teleplay starring Anne Jeffries and Brian Sullivan that has recently been released onto DVD from “Video Artists International” (a.k.a. “V.A.I. Music.) “She first captivated ‘The Continent’ and it was not long before her charms enraptured the world! The story of this fabulous Beauty has had many variations, but the music of “The Merry Widow” never changes—it is music that lives forever…” Based on Composer Franz Lehar’s time-honored 1905 Operetta, “Die Lustig Witwe”, this small-screen adaptation from Pioneering Television Impresario Max Liebman features all of Lehar’s unforgettable music with lyrics by Caroline Leigh (based on the original by Victor Leon.) The book for this translation was similarly adapted from Leo Stein’s traditional and widely-used libretto by William Friedberg, Will Glickman and a then up-and-coming young writing talent (and future Tony Award Winner) named Neil Simon! Initially telecast live from New York City on Easter weekend (April 9th , 1955 to be exact,) it was then broadcast using the brand-new and revolutionary (at the time) ‘’RCA Compatible Color Television System”, essentially meaning it could be seen on both black-and-white sets (which were the standard of the day,) as well as those progressive few who could pick up color transmissions such as this was. Featuring a script that is crisp and frequently witty, this fast-moving and supremely tuneful reminder of how thoroughly delightful the “Golden Age” of Network TV could be, was (and remains) rather an ambitious undertaking for 1955; and while this shot-on-video version has been simplified somewhat with many of the songs having been, in effect, re-ordered, all of the appeal that has made Lehar’s beloved “Opera Buffa” the very stuff of musical farce that has been beguiling audiences for over a century now, remains–and even shines—through!
The tale is as illustrious and clever as the music that enlivens it: Elegant and strikingly attractive “Sonia Glovaska”—the young widow of the court banker of the small Balkan kingdom of “Marsovia” (whom, we learn, was the wealthiest man in the entire state) comes to Paris seeking romance such as only the fabled “City Of Lights” can offer. However, seeing as she controls most of her native country’s finances, Marsovia’s government—represented in Paris by the blustery “Ambassador Zetta” and his frisky wife, “Valencienne”, aim to make extra sure her second marriage does not take her vast wealth and holdings away from their “beloved” homeland. Their choice for her is the debonair (albeit a tad womanizing,) Marsovian “Count Danilo”; trouble is, “Madame Sonia” and he had once been involved back when she was but a simple country peasant girl, whom the dashing nobleman spurned to, as she accuses him, “follow a Diplomat’s career.” Not only that–the Ambassador’s wife is herself engaging in a clandestine fling with “Georges”–a handsome Gallic Gigolo, under her husband’s very nose! (Nothing like being away from one’s home country to fire up the blood!) Produced and Directed by Max Liebman and narrated by iconic NBC announcer “Don Pardo” (commonly hailed for his voice work during the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live) this “Merry Widow” was originally presented by Oldsmobile (in fact, the DVD extras include all the authentic “Oldsmobile” commercials which were shown to separate the various “Acts” of the program!)
Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver, small—or any—screen, Anne Jeffries stars “Sonia”—the “Merry Widow” of the title. As the subject of just about every single scene, Ms. Jeffries carries this responsibility with superlative grace and even a subtle sort of authority. So too, being an operetta, naturally Ms. Jeffries has plenty of golden opportunities throughout to show off her exquisite singing abilities—and she absolutely mesmerizes in numbers like “I Love ‘Love’ In Paris” and the climactic “Merry Widow Waltz”. Undoubtedly though, one of Jeffries crowning moments in this role occurs in Act Two, when, invigorated by the Gypsy Dancers who re-launch the proceedings, “Sonia” herself recalls (through song) an old Marsovian folk tale, which gives rise to as she sings the rapturous and ethereal “Vilia”. “It’s one of our foremost beloved legends,” she explains to their host (and it’s an all-around breathtaking number!) “Guest Star” Brian Sullivan of the Metropolitan Opera is also riveting as “Count Danilo Danilovich”—the dashing (and just this side of Roguish) nobleman. Whether handling some humorous descant or a heavier lyric-driven aria, Sullivan triumphs in just about every way possible. His opening ode to “Maxims” sets a fun-loving (if not the most responsible) tone of this character, and he has a Top-Flight follow-up titled “Come To The Patio With Me”.
A more sublime and seductive intermezzo, it’s also given a lavish delivery here, and once our “Sonia” joins in, they elevate it into a lovely, lilting duet, which dazzlingly shows-off Sullivan’s robust Tenor voice while allowing Ms. Jeffries to equally impress too! (This is also where we hear how wonderfully Sullivan and Jeffries voices complement one another’s as well.) The two leads also prevail in the second act with the buoyant “There’s Something In The Music”, furnishing the production with still another A-Plus duet, before helping to bring things to an affecting and satisfying close with both their parts in “The Merry Widow Waltz”. Veteran Hollywood Character Actor Edward Everett Horton (best known to generations of film-fans for his supporting roles in such cinema classics as “Top Hat”, “Lost Horizon” and “The Front Page”–or for being the wise-cracking narrator of Jay Ward’s venerable 60’s era “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons,) provides laudable support as “Baron Zetta”—‘Marsovia’s’ high-strung Ambassador to France. It is he who introduces the idea of Danilo’s marriage to Sonia in order to keep all of her money in their home county’s financial institutions, and true to form Horton demonstrated the practiced way he had with a great sight gag, double-take or droll throw-away line: : “Have you any idea how much money she has in our banks?! Millions! And the property she owns? HALF of Marsovia (–the good half!) She has steamship lines, railroad companies, real estate, dozens of factories—did I say steamship lines?”
By the same token, celebrated Soprano Helena Bliss shows off her comedic chops as the Baron’s less-than-faithful wife, “Valencienne”, while her lover on the side, “Georges” (a.k.a “The Marquis Du Fontanne”,) is also glowingly played by John Conte (himself already distinguished for other popular 50’s era TV re-workings of such hit musicals as “A Connecticut Yankee”, “The Desert Song” and “Naughty Marietta”.) “Valencienne’s” second act chanson with her “Husband”, titled “No One Thanks The Go-Between” has been repurposed utilizing a tune which, on-stage advances the verbal badinage between the Widow and Danilo. Here instead, it serves to deepen the plot while, combined with their fun and frolicsome little dance, points once more to the comical “secrets” these supposedly “devoted spouses” have between them. Together, Conte and Bliss share a terrific duet early on singing the praises of “Fidelity”, in which “Valencienne” insists she is “A dutiful wife” even as the pair expose (to the audience) their surreptitious—and very extramarital ‘arraignment’: “A husband you may discover, need not interfere with a Lover” she croons—also revealing her sumptuous Soprano voice in doing so. “For both of the men in my life, I’m all that a woman should be” she assures us, further asserting “I’m keeping my romantic status—status quo!” Meanwhile, “Georges”–a notorious “Fortune Hunter” in his own right, loses no time echoing this sentiment, candidly vocalizing at one point: “No matter what else is at stake, I swore at my Grandmother’s knee, to keep our credit substantial—in love and in matters financial!” Meanwhile, something of a staple in Liebman’s Television “Spectaculars” husband and wife dance team Rod Alexander and Bambi Lynn are also worth waiting for as the featured dancers in the light-hearted third act “Floor-Show” “Ballet” which takes place at “Maxim’s”. Moreover, “Guest” Danseur, Beatrice Kraft (–whom, it is noted at the show’s conclusion appeared courtesy of the Broadway Company of “Kismet” where she was a featured performer,) also does an astounding job with her twirling balletic exhibition that–quite literally–sets the second act in motion.
Although on-stage, the escapades begin at the Embassy Soiree, this time around Act One alternatively opens at the infamous “Maxim’s”, a world-renowned nightclub in Paris–and just the type of upscale hot-spot where you might catch a Roué’ sipping Champagne from a lady’s slipper (and if you keep watching–you surely will!) The year is 1892, as a horse-drawn handsome cab pulls-up allowing several top-hatted Parisian “Swells” withdraw and cross into the threshold of the nightclub. Once inside, we find a line of vivacious “Can-Can” girls ‘scandalously’ struttin’ their stuff–skirts-a-flying, giving viewers a stupendous, acrobatic dance-combination that serves as a kind of hyper-kinetic “Overture”—all before even one note is sung! Enter then “Count Danilo”— “First Attaché” to the “Marsovian Embassy” and a familiar face to all the inhabitants of the club: “Have I ever missed a night at ‘Maxim’s my pets?” he asks the girls playfully before launching into his inaugural solo, “There’s No Place Like Maxim’s”, calling each pretty young Miss by name in the process: “Lo-Lo, Do-Do, Jhou-Jhou, Clo-Clo, Margot, Frou-Frou-they’ll take your broken dreams and repair them at Maxims!” His ‘reverie’ is quickly interrupted though, by a Lieutenant from the Embassy calling him back there on ‘urgent’ business “Now?! Just when I’m meeting with my ‘Cabinet’?” he broods. Cut to the foyer of that same “Marsovian Embassy”, where all are anxiously awaiting the arrival of “Madame Sonia Glovaska”—a new arrival to Paris and the most-wealthy woman in the whole of “Marsovia”! “Madame Glovaska,” the Ambassador effusively greets her; “Welcome—all of Paris is at your feet!” “Then I shall have to step carefully” she coos in reply. Then, only too aware that a goodly number of those eager to attend to her include a crowd of money-hungry male ‘admirers’, She sings in her own opening salvo “I love ‘LOVE’ in Paris”—intoning: “I am from Marsovia—where customs haven’t changed. A Lady from Marsovia—where love is ‘pre-arranged’, but plainly you are gentlemen (as far as I can see,) and oh, what ‘sentimental men’ they fashion in Paree!” As her final refrain is sounded, “Danilo” breezing in, immediately spotting “Sonia” and it’s obvious there are still sparks between them: “I still have regrets for what might have been between us,” he confesses; “I should never have let you go Sonia.” “It took you four years to realize it?” she retorts (but persists in longingly looking at him anyhow.)
Subsequently he is approached by the Ambassador concerning the ‘urgent’ reason he was called for: “This concerns the welfare of Marsovia!” Danilo is told privately; “I don’t need to tell you that our financial condition is shaky…does the name ‘Sonia Glovaska’ mean anything to you?” When the young Count counters enthusiastically that it certainly does, Zetta continues, advising him: “It means everything in the world to Marsovia too–we CANNOT allow this wealthy woman to take all her fortune out of Marsovia and marry a ‘French Foreigner’! She has GOT to marry a Marsovian!” “I’m all in favor of that’ Danilo nods in hopeful agreement. “Then I must be telling it all wrong!” worries the Baron (–a disorder, we gather, he’s very familiar with.) “YOU must marry Madame Sonia! It’ll all be so easy for you,” he smiles formulating ‘his’ plan for the Count: ‘All you have to do is to ‘romance’ her a little bit—sing to her a little bit, dance with her a little bit–and keep those medals nice and polished!” “Baron, I’ll do my best,” Danilo assures him. All would be perfect save for the fact that unbeknownst to either of them, Sonia is nearby out of sight and ‘accidentally’ has overheard their entire plot, thus leading her to mistrust Danilo more than ever! “It seems the richest woman in Marsovia picked the poorest possible place to rest!” she fumes. Even so, when she tries to forget the incident out on the Ballroom floor, Danilo swiftly cuts in: “Romance is so dull when it’s hampered by Etiquette,” he quips. “You’re a horrible man,” Sonia purrs as the act comes to a close; “but you do dance divinely!”
Act Two commences at a grand Garden-Party being given by “Georges” at his majestic Villa just outside of the city. To please his guests (especially “Guest of Honor”, Madame Sonia,) he has invited a band of Marsovian Gypsy Dancers who again opening the act in lively Terpsichorean fashion. “Cares are forgotten so easily in Paris” he fawns to Sonia (essentially making his play for her–and her vast Bank balance) much to the Ambassador’s dismay. We next learn that Georges has invited the entire staff of the Marsovian Embassy (—with one distinct exception.) When Danilo shows up regardless though, he takes the oversight in stride: “I don’t remember NOT getting your invitation” he breezes. This verbal sparring between him and “Georges” ‘drives’ much the action and inspires its share of smart word-play, not to mention sizable laughs. Toward the act’s consummation, the two men even bid for a dance from the Widow suggesting that the proceeds go to a charity of her choosing. Danilo, of course, wins (for the sum of 20,000 Francs,) but while waltzing, Sonia wistfully remarks, “I wish I didn’t know the REAL reason behind this sudden rush of romance.” “There is only one reason” he tries once more to reassure her. “Two!” she corrects him; “You love me a little, but you love my MONEY a little bit more!” To additionally assuage her doubts, he suggests they meet at the Marquis’ little summer-house nearby, but before they each arrive we find several other couples likewise looking for a secluded place whereat they may enjoy comparable assignations of their own. This leads to still another brilliant dance break—about which it’s safe to observe that Choreographer Rod Alexander categorically out-did even himself with this one ‘divertimento’ alone!) By its finale, there are plenty of complications and miscommunications needing to be worked through over the next act.
“The Girls Of Maxim’s” re-opens Act Three, sung by the collection of chorines of this famous establishment, as Danilo once again ‘pops in’ backstage to wish them all well with that evening’s performance. It’s a titillating, high-kicking and fancy-footwork filled’ prelude to the actual “Floor-Show’ sequence, which, interestingly enough, comprises the ‘bulk’ of this last act. Suitably grand and engaging, while it might not have much to do with the plot or moving it forward (and definitely wasn’t part of Lehar’s debut stage production,) it is nonetheless fairly entertaining to watch. Danced to the melody of “Tres’ Parisian” (which, for anyone familiar with “The Merry Widow”–even in its many incarnations, is probably well-aware that this pleasant, amusing novelty-number has remained one of the score’s more notable inclusions.) Much of this ‘show’-within-the-show play like an old silent movie showcasing the fleet-footed talents of Rod Alexander and Bambi Lynn. Immediately afterward, Baron Zetta catches up with Danilo after he’d stormed off from the party earlier that afternoon, and begs him to join he and his wife (along with the titular ‘Widow”) at their stage-side table. Seeing Sonia again (and so alluring at that) Danilo announces that he’s leaving the “Diplomatic Corps.” thus winning Sonia’s admiration anew. Then, to the haunting strains of the enchanting “Merry Widow Waltz” (arguably among the best melodies ever written for an Operetta) he escorts her to the dance floor, as the pair virtually float on air as they at last sing such near-rhapsodic verses as: “When I do the waltz with you, the sweet words flow; Darling, may I simply say I love you so…if somehow the music makes you love me too, let them play this magic waltz my whole life through.” You can bet by the time they are through, her reignited respect has turned into all-out love all over again (meaning a ride off into the sunset together is clearly in the cards for these two!) It’s powerful, romantic, and jubilant—what can be more satisfying?
Saved on Kinescope (meaning black and white film—which was the style for delayed or repeat airings back then,) this release has been lovingly restored to pristine digital precision—which guarantees a sharp, clean picture and impeccable sound quality, so even in Black-and-White the jewels still sparkle brightly and the songs still manage to thrill. (Indeed, Viennese Operetta seldom looked–or moved—so well!) Watching “The Merry Widow” is sure to have you thinking: “If only satellite or cable had such spell-binding presentations today!” (Even the curtain call/closing credits are beautifully choreographed!) Released through Video Artists International, this re-discovered vintage TV treasure enhances any home entertainment collection. To order a copy on DVD, log onto http://www.vaimusic.com/product/4590.html or call: (800) 477-7146 .
Special Thanks To Allan Altman And The Staff Of “Video Artists International” (www.VAIMusic.com ) For All Their Kind Assistance In Making This Story Possible