The First English Language Danilo in “The Merry Widow”: US-Comedian Joseph Coyne (1867-1941)

Kurt Gänzl
Encylopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

Joseph Coyne was a light comedy actor-who-sings who moved from silly-ass rôles in his native America to stardom as Britain’s Danilo in The Merry Widow. He was born inNew York on 27 March 1867 and first appeared on the New York stage at Niblo’s Gardens in the Kiralfy Brothers’ Italian dance-and-drama spectacular Excelsior at the age of 16. But he spent most of his earliest years touring in vaudeville as half of the act ‘Coyne and Evans’.

Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne in 'The Merry Widow', 1907. Elsie and Coyne are playing the parts of 'Sonia' and 'Prince Danilo' respectively.

Lily Elsie and Joseph Coyne in ‘The Merry Widow’, 1907. Elsie and Coyne are playing the parts of ‘Sonia’ and ‘Prince Danilo’ respectively.

He played in the variety farce-comedies Rush City (1895, Washington Chumley), The District Attorney (1895, Corrigan), The Star-Spangled Dollar (1897), The Good Mr Best (1897, Marmaduke Mush), A Stranger in New York (1898, Stranger), A Dog in the Manger (1899, A Jackson Bright) and The Girl in the Barracks (1899, Paul Roland), featured as Willett Work in Star and Garter (1900), a vaudeville farce constructed for the benefit of the Agoust family of jugglers, and in The Night of the Fourth (1901), most of which passed briefly through New York. On the opening night of the last-named piece, he deputised at the last minute for star J Sherrie Mathews in the leading rôle of Keenan Swift. He made his first appearance in a regular musical as Bertie Tappertwit (the name of the character speaks for itself) in Charles Frohman’s London production of The Girl from Up There (1901) a piece basically constructed as a vehicle for Belle of New York star Edna May.

Returning to America, he got his Broadway break in the George Grossmith rôle of Archie in the Gaiety musical The Toreador (1902) and he followed up with a range of more or less goofy gentlemen in The Rogers Brothers in London (1903, Harold Harvey, ‘It’s Awfully Hard to Shop’), In Newport (1904, Percy van Alstyne), The Rollicking Girl (1905, Panagl, ‘Won’t You Be My Lovey Dovey?’), the comedy Abigail, The Social Whirl (1906, Artie Endicott, ‘Love Among the Freaks’) and as the American version of Lady Madcap’s Trooper Brown (My Lady’s Maid, ‘They Handed Me a Lemon’), originated by G P Huntley, before returning to London for Frohman, this time to play leading man to Edna May in a palpable, but weak, attempt to clone The Belle of New York called Nelly Neil. However, his personal success in the rôle of the loose-limbed, comic-aristocratic Billy Ricketts sparked something in the mind of rival producer George Edwardes and Coyne found himself offered a rôle rather different to the upper-class dopes he had been accustomed to playing – the part of Count Danilo Danilowitsch in Edwardes’s English-language version of Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe. (For the full background story of Die lustige Witwe, click here.)

Joseph Coyne as Danilo in London, 1907. (Photo: Foulsham & Banfield Studio)

Joseph Coyne as Danilo in London, 1907. (Photo: Foulsham & Banfield Studio)

Coyne’s success in The Merry Widow made him an enormous London star and led him into a whole series of major light comic-romantic leading rôles for Edwardes, first opposite his Merry Widow co-star Lily Elsie in The Dollar Princess (1909, Harry Condor), then with Gertie Millar in The Quaker Girl (1910, Tony Chute) and The Dancing Mistress (1912, Teddy Cavanaugh), and with Ina Claire in The Girl from Utah (1913, Sandy Blair). During the war he appeared in several plays, in London’s production of Irving Berlin’s revues Watch Your Step and Follow the Crowd, and in the local revue The Bing Girls Are There, but he returned to the musical theatre to play opposite Winifred Barnes in the Grossmith and Laurillard version of the Belgian musical Arlette (1917, Prince Paul) and to star, successively, in the Gaiety Theatre’s long-running production of the American musical Going Up (1918, Robert Street), in Charlot’s version of the French musical comedy Dédé (1922, André La Huchette), and in the London production of Friml’s Katinka (1923, Thaddeus T Hopper).

Joseph Coyne as Tony Chute with Gertie Millar as Prudence in "The Quaker Girl," London 1910. (Photo: Ellis & Walery Studio)

Joseph Coyne as Tony Chute with Gertie Millar as Prudence in “The Quaker Girl,” London 1910. (Photo: Ellis & Walery Studio)

He had another huge success when, knocking sixty, he was cast in the rôle of Jimmy Smith in Clayton and Waller’s triumphant British production of No, No, Nanette (1925), followed by the London version of Queen High (1926, T Boggs Johns), but his last appearances in a musical — in the disastrous Open Your Eyes (1929) and in the unsuccessful London version of Benatzky’s Meine Schwester und ich (1931, Meet My Sister, Filosel) — were less memorable.

Joseph Coyne in "The Dollar Princess" in London where he was the partner of Lily Elsie.

Joseph Coyne in “The Dollar Princess” in London where he was the partner of Lily Elsie.

Coyne was married (in his first essay at marriage) to Anna Boyd(d 5 June 1916), Broadway’s original Widow in A Trip to Chinatown and long a leading lady, then a character performer, on the American musical stage. She was seen during a full career as Gabriel in Evangeline 1887, Flirt/Clarence Lightfoot in Zig-Zag, 1888-9, in the star tryout of Overlook 1890, succeeding Fay Templeton as Hendrik Hudson 1890, The Dazzler, in the title-rôle of Aladdin Jr 1895, as Pearl Dodo in The Nancy Hanks (1896, ‘The Girl from the West’), Mlle Mirabeau in My Lady Molly 1904, Letitia Hemingway in The Tourists 1906, Donna Isadora in The Girl and the Governor 1907, Amelia Parling in A Skylark 1910, Mary Ann in Her Little Highness 1913 etc).

He died in Virginia Water, Surrey, on 17 February 1941.