The Fab Four and Other Musical Reflections

  Jerome Shea       December 30, 2012      Weekend Wonk

No, not that Fab Four. Be patient. Hush.

The Sheas just got back from a typically wonderful week on Cape Cod, with a weekend family reunion on Great East Lake in Maine thrown in. Wish you all could have joined us. On the Cape we went to the Barnstable County Fair. More rides than last year, but short on animal stuff (cattle judging, draft horse pulling, etc.) and the entertainment wasn’t ready for prime time. But the Italian sausage sandwiches and curly fries and funnel cakes and deep fried Oreos were delectable. Fairs are for walking around while pigging out, after all.

The next evening we went, as we did last year, to Highfield Theater in Falmouth (where the World’s Greatest In-laws live) to catch the College Light Opera Company’s performance of Sigmund Romberg’s old warhorse, The Student Prince. CLOC is composed of juniors, seniors, and grad students from many colleges with good music programs. There’s a different production each week throughout the summer. These young folks have considerable talent and energy, and one week’s star might be in the chorus the next—utility infielders all of them. In this performance, the tenor playing Prince Karl Franz gave it a game try, but Kathie, the barmaid he falls in love with, was played by a soprano who could easily be heard down in Woods Hole. (“Never pick a fight with a soprano,” they say, and with good reason.)

Ah, but the music! Operetta thrived in what someone has called “the era of wonderful nonsense,” the 1920s. And the Fab Four that I have in mind are Sigmund Romberg, Franz Lehar, Rudolf Friml, and Victor Herbert, Europeans who invaded these shores just as, later, John, Paul, George, and Ringo would. In both cases, we would never be the same again. Operetta paved the way for the great Broadway musicals. Before there was Rodgers and Hammerstein, there were the Fab Four with their silly, schmaltzy, and gloriously tuneful confections. Before there was South Pacific, there was The Desert Song.

Just consider The Student Prince. Really hokey plot, royal duty trumping—or tromping– love just in time for the final act. Comic characters thrown in, rather like Shakespeare’s clowns. But—my God—the songs! “The Drinking Song,” “Serenade,” “Deep in my Heart.” Silly, guilty pleasures? Oh yes, but pleasures nonetheless. I found myself hopelessly croaking out “Deep in my Heart” this afternoon as I sat at a traffic light in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This is music that saves you, lifts you! All music eventually does, I suppose, but this music just whaps you upside the head and says, “It’s time to cry, or rejoice, or whatever!” “Gaudeamus Igitur,” ya’ll. Get with the program! Surrender your damn self!

Sorry. Lost myself a tad there. Anyway, I remembered having seen The Student Prince before, and it was the 1954 movie with Ann Blyth as Kathie and Edmund Purdom as Prince Karl Franz. You don’t remember Edmund Purdom? That’s ok; few do. He was a very handsome Brit whose flame flickered out shortly thereafter. He was the second choice for the role, which was supposed to have gone to Alfredo Cocozza. But Cocozza and the director butted heads and Cocozza stormed off the set. That was fine with the producers, because Cocozza was notoriously temperamental, so they fired him.

Sorry, again. You probably know Alfredo Cocozza better by his professional name, Mario Lanza. At the parting of the ways, he had already recorded all the songs for the movie, and MGM owned the rights to those recordings. So when the music keys up, you are looking at Purdom but listening to Lanza, to that arresting, thrilling voice (a pity that “awesome” has been so debased).

Mario Lanza was not the only famous tenor that America has produced (Richard Tucker, for another, comes to mind) but he was certainly the most flamboyant and may have been the most naturally gifted. He was born to Italian immigrant parents in Philadelphia in 1921. Hollywood handsome, he was a star by his mid-twenties. His tenor voice was rich, warm, passionate, and powerful. He had it all. But he was a mess, ambitious but insecure. He performed in only one serious opera (Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly), going instead straight to million-selling romantic recordings (“Be My Love,” “Because You’re Mine”), and movies like the biopic, The Great Caruso, which of course he was fated to star in. Crowds swooned over him, and yet he probably felt like a lightweight, a sham. More than once he was hailed as the new Caruso, the American Caruso, but he went on horrendous drinking binges, he was sensitive to any slight, real or imagined, and rage came naturally to him. He died in Rome at 38, his health wrecked.

But he did leave us that voice. All the great tenors that we have today—yes, like that Italian and those two Spaniards—have acknowledged a debt to him. Placido Domingo said this: “Lanza’s passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera thanks to a kid from Philadelphia.”

Gaudeamus Igitur.

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