Encylopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001
Donald Brian was the bright-eyed and boyish star of more than 20 years of Broadway operettas and musicals, among them the sensationally successful first Merry Widow production in New York City at the New Amsterdam Theatre. He was born in Newfoundland on 17 February 1877.
Brian made his earliest professional singing appearances as a member of a glee club, but played for a while in the straight theatre before taking on his first musical rôles in touring productions of Three Little Lambs and The Chaperons (1901, Tom Schuyler, still as ‘D Brine’). He made his first Broadway musical appearance at the Winter Garden Theater, on the roof of the New York Theater, in a couple of slapdash pieces called The Supper Club (1901, Castor Beane) and The Belle of Broadway (1902, Tom Finch), as well as taking over as Captain Donegal in Florodora when it played the same theatre, a performance which led to his succeeding Cyril Scott in the same rôle in the principal tour company.
He followed up in Scott’s rôle of Berkeley Shallamar in The Silver Slipper, and played on the road alongside Chauncey Olcott in Myles Aroon, before coming to his first major Broadway creations: the juvenile lead rôles of Henry Hapgood in George M Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones (1904) and of Tom Bennett in his Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906).
Brian appeared again for Cohan in Fifty Miles from Boston, but then shot to the upper fame level in 1907 when he was cast as America’s Danilo alongside Ethel Jackson in Henry Savage’s production of The Merry Widow.
Thereafter, for more than a decade, his remained a bankable top-of-the-bill name, appearing in the leading rôles of a run of imported musicals with unbroken success: as self-made Freddy who is out to win The Dollar Princess (1909), the spy-master Marquis de Ravaillac in The Siren (1911), Jack Fleetwood, the backwoods hero of The Marriage Market (1913), Sandy Blair who sets out to rescue The Girl from Utah from the polygamous Mormons (1914) and the Grand Duke who finds himself with a delightful if phoney wife in his arms in Sybil (1916).
In each of these last four shows he co-starred with the beautiful Julia Sanderson. In between the last two, he took time out to make a debut as a film actor in the ‘crook play’ The Voice in the Fog.
He found less joy in Victor Herbert’s Her Regiment (1917, André de Courcy), but two other wartime musicals, the French comedy and Ivan Caryll music of The Girl Behind the Gun (1918, Robert Lambrissac), and the sentimentally winning Buddies (1919, Sonny) gave him two further Broadway successes. After a long and successful tour with Buddies, Brian reappeared on Broadway as Bumerli in a revival of The Chocolate Soldier (1921), but he walked out of the starring (and vocally demanding) rôle of Achmed Bey in The Rose of Stambul (1922) prior to the Broadway opening and, instead of appearing as the romantic poet of Fall’s Operette, came back briefly to New York as the sweetly prosaic Albert Bennett of the Tierney/McCarthy Up She Goes.
Alternating plays and musicals, he appeared on the road opposite Alice Delysia in The Courtesan (1923, The Vicomte), as Billy Early in No, No, Nanette (1925) and opposite his wife, Virginia O’Brien, as take-overs in the Chicago hit Castles in the Air (1926). He also started out playing opposite Edna Leedom in Ain’t Love Grand (1927, Prince Paul de Morlaix) but he was replaced by Guy Robertson before the troubled show reached Broadway as Lovely Lady.
In a career which thereafter mostly embraced light comedy plays he was seen on Broadway as a takeover in Yes, Yes, Yvette, as a rather older Danilo on the road (1930) and at Broadway’s Erlanger Theater (1931 and 1932), as Bumerli (1934) again, as a replacement Bruno Mahler in Music in the Air and, finally, in his sixties, in Very Warm for May (1939, William Graham).
An occasional songwriter, Brian interpolated his ‘Mendocino Stroll’ in The Marriage Market.
Brian died in Great Neck, NY, on 22 December 1948.