“Roxy und ihr Wunderteam”: Abraham’s Football Operetta Finally Comes To Berlin

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
7 April, 2018

Why did it take so long, you might ask? And was it worth waiting all this time? In the case of Paul Abraham’s 1936/37 “vaudeville operetta” Roxy und ihr Wunderteam a serious re-thinking about the art form operetta had to fully establish itself first to make this bizarre show fully worthwhile for modern audiences. Because you are not going to get very far with Roxy with your typical “Renée Fleming sings Vilja, oh Vilja” approach. This impertinent little show needs a different style of singing, dancing and acting to make an impact, because it does not adhere to Richard Traubner’s nostalgic “ball gowns and champagne” ideal. Instead, it’s a sexually charged sports farce involving 11 football players and 11 ladies from the gymnastics team who go wild in a training camp: think A Midsummer Night’s Dream mixed with Debbie Does Dallas, and add to this some of the wildest “degenerate” music ever written, i.e. everything the Nazis tried to ban forever from operetta land.

The original Viennese "Roxy" team: Oscar Denes (l.), Rosy Barsony, and Hans Holt. (Photo: ORCA)

The original Viennese “Roxy” team: Oscar Denes (l.), Rosy Barsony, and Hans Holt. (Photo: ORCA)

I remember seeing the 1937 movie version of Roxy und ihr Wunderteam – starring the original stage sensation Rosy Barsony – back in 2004; there were only three people in the movie theater of Berlin’s film museum. No one seemed to care about this unknown Abraham title and the only surviving German language copy from Austria’s film archive. The film had originally been released in Austria in the spring of 1938, one week before the Nazi invasion. It disappeared immediately, and was forgotten: there is no music from Roxy on the otherwise superb Duophon Abraham album.

A year later, in 2005, we showed Roxy at the conference Operette unterm Hakenkreuz in Dresden. Again, most operetta people assembled didn’t care too much. Only a few critics immediately recognized to potential of a “football operetta,” since there are always football championships around the corner and something thematically fitting would be a way to show how “contemporary” operetta can be. If “contemporary” is what you’re looking for.

Various theaters tried staging Roxy, but it turned out there were copyright issues that needed to be solved first. This took a while. Then, in the course of the bigger Abraham revival – based on the reconstruction of scores by Matthias Grimminger and Henning Hagedorn – Roxy made its comeback, finally. The opera house in Dortmund staged it successfully (with opera singers), more nostalgic than naughty.

Then Augsburg did it recently, alas with a totally re-written story that eliminated the gymnastic team and turned Roxy into a gay liberation tale (with newly arranged orchestrations).

And now Berlin’s Komische Oper has announced a fully staged production starring the Geschwister Pfister this week. It will star Christoph Marti (of Clivia fame) in the title role; and if anyone can play a blonde bombshell à la Rosy Barsony convincingly it’s Mr. Marti.

When Roxy premiered in December 1936 in Budapest as 3:1 a Szerelem Javára the “miracle team” (“Wunderteam”) was not a football but a water polo team. Why? Because at the Olympic Games of 1936 the Hungarian water polo team had won a gold medal in Nazi Germany. This sensational victory inspired Hungarian authors László Szilágyi and Dezső Kellér to write their show, as a spoof of “Aryan” ideals.

Rehearsals started in Vienna in March 1937. And a new German version was created by Alfred Grünwald and Hans Weigel in which the story was slightly re-arranged. Now, you had a football team that lost a match in the opening scene and needs to gather its strength anew. They are sent off to a training camp on Lake Balaton to focus exclusively on the next match, which they must win to get ahead. In this camp there are to be no girls, no drinks, no nothing, just football.

The plan goes massively astray when Roxy runs away from her boring Scottish fiancé and hides on the team bus. The boys take her along as a mascot that might secure their next victory. Once they all arrive on Lake Balaton further chaos unfolds because there’s a double booking: the football players have to share the camp with the gymnasts, lead by butch Miss Tötössy who gives important advice to her girls: “You need to learn how to spread your legs properly; otherwise how do you plan to get ahead in this world?” (And all of this decades before the #metoo debates.)

When Roxy’s father and fiancé as well as the football team owner and his fiancé arrive the situation erupts. Until, in the end, the 11 football players team up with the 11 gymnasts, Roxy teams up with team captain Gjurka. And the footballers win the all important match in the finale of act 3. There’s a happy end, one that Abraham did not experience in real life. Roxy is his last operetta. His attempts at new shows back in Budapest never make it internationally, and eventually he himself has to escape, ending up in New York in a lunatic asylum.

Abraham being escorted off the airplane on this return to Germany, after WW2. He was taken directly to a hospital to be treated for syphilis.

Abraham being escorted off the airplane on this return to Germany, after WW2. He was taken directly to a hospital to be treated for syphilis.

For opening night in Vienna at Theater an der Wien in 1937 the Austrian national football team was present; Abraham conducted, later Anton Paulik took over. And then the show disappeared. The film version is all that survives. It gives a very good idea of what makes Roxy und ihr Wunderteam work. The sight of these 11 football players in black bathing costumes, horsing around in Lake Balaton, is priceless. As is the scene in which the 11 men chase the 11 girls around the garden and into the bushes. Not to mention Rosy Barsony supervising everything with a small ukulele in her hand, serenading Gjurka who plays hard to get.

The other asset of the movie is Oscar Denes as the manager/owner of the football team who has to deal with his crazy girlfriend who constantly threatens to kill herself if he doesn’t marry and make a respectable lady out of her. It’s very Guys and Dolls!

The musical highlight of the film – and indeed one of the glories of this eclectic vaudeville score – is a black-walk that Denes and Barsony sing. It makes no real sense in terms of story line. But when these two actors let lose, you don’t care what this black-walk has to do with the story line. You just sit back and enjoy.

For the new Berlin production, conductor Kai Tietje and stage director Stefan Huber will re-arrange the score, as they already did with Clivia. It will probably mostly involve dance sequences (choreography: Danny Costello), and these dances of the footballers and gymnasts are one of the key elements for success.

The production will open in May 2019 and play for six performances until the end of June. Miss Tötössy is played by Andreja Schneider, Tobias Bonn plays captain Gjurka.

Promotional photo for "Roxy und ihr Wunderteam" at Komische Oper Berlin. (Photo: Jan Windszus Photography)

Promotional photo for “Roxy und ihr Wunderteam” at Komische Oper Berlin. (Photo: Jan Windszus Photography)

Earlier that season there is another Abraham: Viktoria und ihr Husar is given two concert performances at Christmas 2018, with Stefan Soltesz conducting. You kind of know what that will sound like, certainly not “Roaring Twenties.” But of course there are many ways of performing Abraham. Tenor Johannes Dunz will get a chance to strut his stuff as Stefan Koltay, and Vera-Lotte Bocker is his Viktoria. So far, only Alma Sade as O Lia San has been announced. We hope there will be a bit more “modern” casting in the remaining roles to make this overdue return of Viktoria to Berlin more than a pure nostalgic “big sing” experience.

On 24 November 2018 there is yet another new operetta production coming up at Komische Oper: Bernstein’s Candide, directed by Barrie Kosky himself, conducted by Jordan de Souza and choreographed by Otto Pichler. This production will get 12 performances and star Nicole Chevalier as Kunigunde and Anne Sofie von Otter as The Old Lady.

Considering that Abraham’s Ball im Savoy also returns next season for 8 performances from March to June 2019, Offenbach’s Barbe-Bleue comes back from October to December 2018 (8 performances) and Oscar Straus’ Die Perlen der Cleopatra is revived for 7 performances in December 2018 and January 2019, you could say: it doesn’t get much better than this.

But wait, there is also Eine Frau, die weiß was sie will starring Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp. Plus My Fair Lady starring Katharine Mehrling, if you want to count that as an operetta.

All we can say is: bring it on! Frau Luna at the Tipi am Kanzleramt also returns in 2019 (starring the Geschwister Pfister) and if Spoliansky’s Alles Schwindel stays in the repertoire of Gorki (with a superlative young cast) then Berlin can surely claim to be the operetta Mecca of the world.

Jonas Dassler and Vidina Popov as Tonio and Evelyne in "Alles Schwindel" at Gorki Theater, Berlin. (Photo: Ute Langkafel)

Jonas Dassler and Vidina Popov as Tonio and Evelyne in “Alles Schwindel” at Gorki Theater, Berlin. (Photo: Ute Langkafel)

Perhaps one day, in the best of all possible operetta worlds, the stars of Alles Schwindel will transfer to Komische Oper too and spice up the next Abraham. The arrival of stage director Christian Weise and his slap stick “comic book” style would certainly fit Mr. Kosky’s house style perfectly.

For the full 2018/19 season brochure with all the performance dates click here.