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. Also at the hotel is Tom’s betrothed Edith who is traveling Europe with a group of friends from Vassar College; Artie, a British Lord looking for a wife; and Mrs. Crocker, a jolly American widow. The chorus also plays an important role. Ninety-five years ago, without theatrical unions and with lower production costs, there would be a singing and dancing chorus of approximately 50 members. We, of course, must bend to the economy of the 90’s, so our industrious group of 14 must do the work of 50. Although the women of the chorus appear in the singular role of Vassar girls, the men must portray a variety of characters, including waiters, students, gendarmes, naval cadets, and hotel employees.
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 research involved in reconstructing THE PRINCE OF PILSEN was, at once, simple and frustrating. I had a copy of the complete score and this was definitely a good start. To my surprise, all the songs were composed by Luders and Pixley, unlike most early musical comedies, which could include a variety of composers. And, unlike last year’s presentation of FLORODORA, this year I was able to acquire a copy of the script at the New York Public Library. So, tonight you will hear an adaptation of that script, which I have prepared. Hopefully, this shortened script will approximate the original theater experience without interfering with your enjoyment of the music. Actually, and I am quite proud of this, I whittled down the 190-page script to 27 pages. The loss of more than two thirds of Pixley’s book did not damage the play’s structure or plot development, and I was somewhat helped by the fact that the script was missing the next to the last page. This at least guaranteed a quick ending.
Once I began to compare the musical score to the script I began to notice discrepancies. Although both were copyrighted 1902, the year before the Broadway production, there were many places where the two disagreed. The vocal score followed the musical numbers in the script with two major departures: In Act I of the script, where the song “Artie” falls in the score, another song lyric entitled “Walk, Walk, Walk” is provided for the character. Although the lyric does express Artie’s quest to find a bride, it is none the less cumbersome and at times unsingable. In it, Artie sings,
I’m bored by billets—doux both night and day
They all agree that Artie’s quite au fait—
. . .
When I start making love—away they run.
While I’ve got you down so patly
I’ll just put it to you flatly—
I want a wife—now which will be the one.
In Act II of the script, Hans has a solo number entitled “Imagination.” Unfortunately, the title is not at all prophetic for there is little imagination in the lyric. For example, he sings,
What makes a pretty girl consent to be a fellow’s bride?
You cannot say that it’s because she fears race suicide,
Of all the love upon earth she thinks there’s none like his,
The girl don’t love the man himself, but what she thinks he is.
A girl may think she likes the men—
For when she’s married once or twice she’ll guess again.
Once again it was obvious that the authors discarded this song for the one published in the vocal score. That song, “Didn’t Know Exactly What To Do,” although not a complete success, is at least an improvement on “Imagination.” But it did present an additional problem since the script did not provide a dialog lead into the new song. I apologize for any awkwardness in the text at this moment, which is due to my tinkering and not the author’s.
The remainder of the discrepancies between the script and the score had to do with the assignment of vocal parts between the characters and the appearance (or rather disappearance) of two roles. Overall, the score was logical in its assignment of songs and vocal lines for the principal characters: Edith was a youthful coloratura; Mrs. Crocker, a mature soprano; Francois, a comic tenor. The script, which I assume was drafted before the score was published, reassigned some of characters’ vocal lines based on what the character was singing about and not by vocal type alone. For example, in the large ensemble numbers, Edith’s and Mrs. Crocker’s vocal lines were often switched, which made better sense textually, but extended the overall tessitura of those roles. The script introduced the character of Jimmy who is not listed in the vocal score, but here in the script he was assigned material that was previously assigned in the score to Francois. And, the musical score listed in its cast of characters the role of Juinnie, originally played by Zella Frank. Curiously, this role is not mentioned in the script, nor did the score assign the character a note of music.
Throughout my research, it became apparent to me that additional scripts and scores must exist for THE PRINCE OF PILSEN. Gerald Bordman, in his extensive study of musical theater, American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, makes reference to three Princes: both Tom and Hans are mistaken for the Prince, whom Bordman refers to as Carl Otto. The New York Public Library script makes no mention of a triple mix up, nor does it ever refer to the real Prince as anyone but Herr Niemann. Bordman also notes that several of the choral numbers, notably the stein song, were sung without instrumental accompaniment. In our score, only the chorus of “The Message of the Violet” contained any a cappella singing. Oddly, we later decided to accompany this section, but to drop the accompaniment to sections of the stein song. The noted historian Richard Traubner, in his definitive opus Operetta, A Theatrical History, mentions “a sextet entitled ‘Song of the Cities’” similar to FLORODORA’s “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden.” “Song of the Cities” is the subtitle to “The American Girl,” but this number is a solo for Mrs. Crocker with chorus rather than a sextet and is nothing like “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden.” Obviously, other source documents must exist.
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. Today, this “business” continues to survive through film and sound recording, and, I hope, that through the Musical Theater Research Project that legacy continues to be passed on to our students.