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Rudolf Friml and The Vagabond King

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Charles Rudolf Friml (December 7, 1879–November 12, 1972) was a Czech-born composer of operettas such as Rose-Marie and The Vagabond King, musicals, songs, and piano pieces, as well as a pianist, who moved to the United States after musical training and a brief performing career in his native land.  Born on December 7, 1879, in Prague, Bohemia, then part of the Austro Hungarian empire and now the Czech Republic, Friml showed aptitude for music at an early age. He entered the Prague Conservatory in 1895, where he studied the piano and composition with composers Antonín Dvořák and.Josef Jiranek.   Friml was expelled from the conservatory in 1901 for performing without permission.   In Prague and later in America he composed and published songs, piano pieces, and other music, including the prize-winning set of songs, Pisne Zavisovy.

After the conservatory, Friml took a position as accompanist to the violinist Jan Kubelík. He toured with Kubelik twice in the United States (1901–02 and 1904) and with the premiere of his first ballet, O Mitake San,  moved there permanently in 1906, apparently with the support of the Czech singer Emmy Destinn, settling in to New York City, NY. His first post in New York was as a repetiteur at the Metropolitan Opera. He had made his American piano debut at Carnegie Hall in 1904, and premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B major in 1906 with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch. He settled for a brief time in Los Angeles where he married Mathilde Baruch (1909). They had two children, Charles Rudolf Jr. (1910) and Marie Lucille (1911).  His second marriage was to Blanch Betters, an actress who had appeared in the chorus of Friml’s musical Katinka; his third was to actress Elsie Lawson (who played the maid in Friml’s Glorianna, and by whom he had a son William); and his fourth and final marriage was to Kay Wong Ling.

One of the most popular theatrical forms in the early decades of the 20th century in America was the operetta. It was announced in 1912 that operetta diva Emma Trentini would be starring in a new operetta on Broadway by Victor Herbert with lyricist Otto Harbach entitled The Firefly. Shortly before the writing of the operetta, Trentini appeared in a special performance of Herbert’s Naughty Marietta conducted by Herbert himself. When Trentini refused to sing “Italian Street Song” for the encore, an enraged Herbert stormed out of the orchestra pit refusing any further work with Trentini.  Arthur Hammerstein, the operetta’s sponsor, frantically began to search for another composer. Not finding any other theatre composer who could compose as well as Herbert, Hammerstein settled on the almost unknown Friml because of his classical training.

After a month of work, Friml produced the score for what would be his first theatrical success.  After tryouts in Syracuse, NY, The Firefly opened at the Lyric Theatre on December 2, 1912 to a warm reception by both the audience and the critics. The production moved to the Casino Theatre after Christmas, where it ran until March 15, 1913, for a total of 120 performances. After The Firefly, Friml produced three more operettas that each had longer runs than The Firefly, although they are not as enduringly successful.  These were High Jinks (1913), Katinka (1915) and You’re in Love (1917). He also contributed songs to a musical in 1915 entitled The Peasant Girl.  Another show, Sometime, written with Rida Johnson Young and starring Ed Wynn and Mae West, ran well on Broadway in 1918–1919.  In 1914 Friml became a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Friml wrote his most famous operettas in the 1920s. In 1924, he wrote Rose-Marie. This operetta, on which Friml collaborated with lyricists Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach and co-composer Herbert Stothart, was a hit worldwide, and a few of the songs from it also became hits including “The Mounties” and “Indian Love Call”. The use of murder as part of the plot was ground-breaking among operettas and musical theatre pieces at the time.  After Rose-Marie’s success came two other hit operettas, The Vagabond King in 1925, with lyrics by Brian Hooker and William H. Post, and The Three Musketeers in 1928, with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and Clifford Grey, based on Alexandre Dumas’s famous swashbuckling novel. In addition, Friml contributed to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 and 1923.

Friml wrote music for many films during the 1930s, often songs adapted from previous work. The Vagabond King, Rose-Marie and The Firefly were all made into films and included at least some of Friml’s music. Oddly enough, his operetta version of The Three Musketeers was never filmed, despite the fact that the novel itself has been filmed many times. In 1930, he wrote a new operetta score for film, The Lottery Bride.  Friml’s last two stage musicals, Luana and Music Hath Charms (1934), barely managed 20 performances each.  In 1934, Friml moved to Hollywood to work on film musicals. His filmography includes The Lottery Bride, Bachelor Bait, The Return of Chandu, One Frightened Night, Sunset of Power, Chandu on the Magic Island, Katakomby, Za Tichych Noci, Crazy House, Up In Arms, Jealousy, and Teenage Thunder.  During the late 1930s, Friml’s music fell out of fashion on Broadway and in Hollywood.  His last important song, “The Donkey Serenade” (composed with Herbert Stothart; words by Chet Forrest and Bob Wright), was interpolated into a film version (1937) of The Firefly.

Rather than trying to adapt to popular taste, Friml decided to focus on playing the piano in concert and composing art music, which he did into his nineties.  He also composed the music for the 1947 film Northwest Outpost, starring Nelson Eddy and Ilona Massey.  In 1967, Friml performed in a special concert at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. As he often did in his concerts, he began the concert with a piano improvisation, then played special arrangements of his own compositions as well as composers who had influenced him. He even played Dvořák’s Humoresque as a special tribute to his teacher. In 1969, Friml was celebrated by Ogden Nash on the occasion of his 90th birthday in a couplet which ended: “I trust your conclusion and mine are similar: ‘Twould be a happier world if it were Frimler.”  He also appeared on Lawrence Welk’s television program in 1971.  He was one of the original inductees into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.  Friml died in Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA, on November 12, 1972, and was interred in the “Court of Honor” at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Rudolf Friml had four aspects to his career: pianist, operetta composer, American-style musical composer, and finally as a film composer, though he also wrote instrumental works and songs. Showing strong European musical influences, his work suggested pre-World War I European lightheartedness.  Never an innovator, he was one of the most popular composers during his heyday, setting Broadway records for his time, and songs from his musicals and films are still often resurrected in recitals and recordings.  His two sons also worked as musicians. Rudolf Jr. was a big band leader in the 1930s and 1940s, and William, a son from Friml’s third marriage, was a composer and arranger in Hollywood.  In addition, he was the father-in-law of actor and director Douglas Fowley.

My collection includes the following works by Rudolf Friml:

Rose Marie: Highlights.

The Vagabond King: Highlights.

material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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