Sigmund Romberg (b Nagykanizsa, Hungary, 29 July 1887; d New York, 9 November 1951)

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

Romberg studied the violin in his youthful years in Hungary, but he was set at first towards an adult career in engineering. However, during his technical studies in Vienna he doubled as a member of the house staff at the Theater an der Wien and the attraction of the musical theatre won out over the more practical career. He moved on to London and then, in 1909, to New York where he took work as a pianist and an orchestra leader in a city restaurant whilst making his first attempts at breaking into the songwriting world. His first theatrical songs were interpolated into Adolf Philipp’s English version of his Das Mitternachtsmädel in 1913, and he got his first title credit when he provided enough replacement music for Delbert Davenport’s production of his own Little Mary Mack to merit a co-composer credit.


The composer Sigmund Romberg, in 1949.

The composer Sigmund Romberg, in 1949.

Romberg’s earliest published works caught the eye of Jake Shubert and as a result the young composer joined the Shubert staff to take over from the resigning Louis Hirsch the task of providing the musical piece-work the management required for their heavy turnover of revues and musical plays. He made his entrée on to Broadway as the composer of the score for the 1914 revue The Whirl of the World and then in quick succession sputtered out several years’ worth of melodies for the splendiditious Shubert revues at the Winter Garden Theatre (The Passing Show, Dancing Around, Maid in America, A World of Pleasure, The Show of Wonders, The Passing Show of 1917, 1918 and 1919, Doing Our Bit), as well as for a bundle of soi-disant book musicals, most of which had more than a little of revue about them (Hands Up — replacing the tryout score by the young Cole Porter, Al Jolson’s Robinson Crusoe Jr, Justine Johnstone’s Over the Top, Jolson’s Sinbad, and the cheekily titled Monte Cristo Jr). He also contributed to the odd play with occasional songs (Ruggles of Red Gap) and, more and more frequently as the fashion turned, supplied made-to-order interpolations — often considerable enough to leave little place for the melodies of the original composer — to be stuck into American versions of such Continental musical shows as Eysler’s Ein Tag im Paradies, Leo Ascher’s Was tut man nicht alles aus Liebe, Winterberg’s Die schöne Schwedin, Kálmán’s Der gute Kamarad, Straus’s Die schöne Unbekannte and Kollo’s Wie einst im Mai, or even a home-made piece, such as Zoël Parenteau’s Follow the Girl.

A number of these shows were distinctly successful and in several it was Romberg’s part of the music which produced the tunes that Broadway’s audiences favoured. Wie einst im Mai, rewritten thoroughly as Maytime, produced the composer’s first significant hit song, `Will You Remember?’ (better known by its first line, `Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart’, as performed by Jeanette MacDonald), but it brought him no improved commissions as a composer from the Shuberts and he therefore departed their employ and attempted to produce his own work himself. Teamed with Max Wilner, he offered as his first production a very Maytimeish work called The Magic Melody at the Shubert Theater. It lasted 143 performances, displayed little of enduring character, and did not make money, but it had at least the merit of bringing its composer forward as having the potential to be more than the virtual hack he had been used as heretofore.

The producing venture, however, did not bring sufficiently immediate fruits of the green and pocket-sized kind, as the partners found problems first with a non-starter called Oh! Pat designed for Pat Rooney then with another musical, The Three Kisses, which actually went into rehearsal, with Vivienne Segal as star and Hassard Short directing, but which was abandoned without even opening in Springfield (January 1921).

While the two then tried their hand at producing rather less expensive non-musical plays, Romberg took a composing assignment, from Lew Fields, to provide some interpolations into an apparently only partly satisfactory score for a show called Poor Little Ritz Girl by two young writers called Rodgers and Hart.

He returned to producing his own work with Love Birds, but the show (105 performances) did not even come up to The Magic Melody and Romberg found himself obliged to fold up his managerial activities and turn back to the Shuberts and to hack work.

His first adaptation during part two of Romberg’s Shubert career turned out to be his most successful to date. The Franz Schubert pasticcio biomusical Das Dreimäderlhaus had been hugely successful wherever it had been played, and the version which Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly concocted from the dismembered parts of the previous versions and named Blossom Time confirmed that success in America, becoming a hardy annual of the touring circuits and a Broadway regular. Bombo, the new Al Jolson vehicle, for which Romberg provided the basic score, was also a fine success, and even the rag-bag revusical The Blushing Bride won a run and some praise for the composer, who had replaced the show’s songs between its tryout and its Broadway outing.

However, when the Shuberts went as far as to water down Leo Fall’s outstanding score for Die Rose von Stambul with gobbets of Romberg, the limits of that praise were displayed.

More revusical pieces followed – The Passing Shows of 1923 and of 1924, Artists and Models, the Winter Garden shows The Dancing Girl and Innocent Eyes (for Mistinguett) – along with musicals such as the slim-booked Marjorie, but, apart from Springtime of Youth, an americanized version of Walter Kollo’s Sterne, die wieder leuchtet, the Shuberts took a reef in their production of botched Continental shows. In fact, they would shortly have no need of imported operetta, for by the end of 1924 they had at last discovered that they had an American, or at least a naturalized American, operetta composer very near to hand who was capable of turning out scores which there was no excuse for botching. Romberg, who had just knocked off a considerable part of the score for Florenz Ziegfeld’s production of Annie Dear, a musical version of Clare Kummer’s Good Gracious Annabelle, for November, supplied the Shuberts with The Student Prince in Heidelberg in December.

It had taken a decade, but was swiftly evident that the producers finally had that original operetta hit that Romberg had been trying so long to provide.

Poster for the first film version of "The Student Prince", directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1927.

Poster for the first film version of “The Student Prince”, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1927.

The Student Prince was an enormous success and its songs `Golden Days’, `The Drinking Song’, `Deep in My Heart, Dear’, `Just We Two’, `Come Boys, Let’s All Be Gay, Boys’ and the celebrated Serenade became a part of the heart of the American classic operetta repertoire.

Of Romberg’s 1925 pieces, neither the musical comedy Louie the 14th, a vehicle for Leon Errol, nor the Ruritanian operetta Princess Flavia, based on The Prisoner of Zenda and all too obviously intended to be as much like The Student Prince as possible, came up to the expectations aroused by The Student Prince and further whetted by Friml’s The Vagabond King, but with his next work Romberg confirmed thoroughly. The Desert Song teamed him with Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein, who had been responsible for the libretto to Friml’s Rose Marie, under the management of Frank Mandel and Lawrence Schwab and the result was a second huge and enduring hit and a second bundle of classic songs (`The Desert Song’, `The Riff’s Song’, `One Alone’, `Romance’).

The next year’s bundle of shows were less successful. Cherry Blossoms mixed reminiscences of Die schöne Galathee, The Geisha, David Garrick and Madame Butterfly with a utilitarian score; the Barbara Frietchie musical My Maryland was a huge hit in Philadelphia but, in spite of a 312-performance Broadway run, left little mark on the musical world beyond the patriotic song `Your Land and My Land’; whilst the too-routine My Princess and The Love Call (an adaptation of Augustus Thomas’s Arizona) both went under thoroughly.

However, Romberg had proven on previous occasions that he could turn out the most mechanical of music one minute, and then follow it up with a truly fine score the next. He did just that again the following year when, whilst supplying Ziegfeld with some unexceptional numbers to set alongside some rather better Gershwin ones for Rosalie, he joined with Oscar Hammerstein for a third grand show and a third great score in The New Moon (`Lover, Come Back to Me’, `Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise’, `The Girl on the Prow’, `One Kiss’, `Stout-hearted Men’). This third great hit was, however, to be his last of real and enduring value. A further collaboration with Hammerstein produced the by no means unsuccessful South-American-romantic Nina Rosa, whilst Rose de France, a piece written for Paris, where Romberg’s works had proven highly popular as fodder for the kind of opérette à grand spectacle stagings then beloved in the French capital, had a good career at the Théâtre du Châtelet. At the same huge house, a French adaptation of his Forbidden Melody, played as Le Chant du Tzigane, subsequently proved more popular than its American original. There was success, too, with the 1945 Broadway production of Up in Central Park, but the piece was not on the same level as the three works for which Romberg had become famous, and its 504-performance run did not preface the same kind of afterlife those shows have enjoyed.

Romberg proved his considerable worth with the scores of his trio of outstanding shows, a threesome which, along with Friml’s Rose Marie and The Vagabond King and Kern’s Show Boat, made up the nucleus of the Broadway-bred romantic operettas of the 1920s.

Although his music was solidly founded in the Continental Operette tradition, it yet had a flavour to it which marked it out as being distinctly not of Hungary nor of Vienna. As early as The Blue Paradise, Romberg’s interpolated pieces, set alongside of those of Edmund Eysler, showed a manner and a tone which identified them from those of that most warmly Viennese of Viennese composers. It was, perhaps, a measure of his knowledge of his audiences that, although his numbers had not the quality of Eysler’s, it was one of his which turned out the popular success of the show. After his and its peak in the 1920s, the fashion for the American romantic operetta passed, and Romberg duly had less success. He attempted to adapt to contemporary tastes in some of his later works, but he was never as happy as in the richly lyrical Americo-European idiom which he had employed in the three shows by which his name endures.

1915 Little Mary Mack [of Hackensack] (w Newton Ashenfelder/Delbert E Davenport) Lyceum Theater, Scranton, Pa, 19 April

1915 The Dream Girl (Edwin T Emery) Rorick’s Theater, Elmira, NY 2 August

1915 Hands Up (w E Ray Goetz/Goetz/Edgar Smith) 44th Street Theater 22 July

1915 The Blue Paradise (Ein Tag im Paradies) part-score for revised American version (Casino Theater)

1915 Ruggles of Red Gap (Harold Atteridge/Harrison Rhodes) Fulton Theater 24 December

1916 Robinson Crusoe Jr (Atteridge) Winter Garden Theater 17 February

1916 The Girl from Brazil (Die schöne Schwedin) part-score for revised American version (44th Street Theater)

1916 Follow Me (Was tut man nicht alles aus Liebe) part-score for revised American version w Robert B Smith (Casino Theater)

1916 [Her] Soldier Boy (Az obsitos) part-score for revised American version w Rida Johnson Young (Astor Theater)

1917 My Lady’s Glove (Die schöne Unbekannte) part score for revised American version w Edward Paulton (Lyric Theater)

1917 Maytime (Wie einst im Mai) new score for revised American version w Young, Cyrus Wood (Shubert Theater)

1918 Sinbad (Atteridge) Winter Garden Theater 14 February

1918 The Melting of Molly (Wood/Marie Thompson Davies, Edgar Smith) Broadhurst Theater 30 December

1919 Monte Cristo Jr (w Jean Schwartz/Atteridge) Winter Garden Theater 12 February

1919 The Magic Melody (Frederic Arnold Kummer) Shubert Theater 10 November

1920 Poor Little Ritz Girl (w Richard Rodgers/Alex Gerber, Lorenz Hart/George Campbell) Central Theater 28 July

1921 Love Birds (Ballard MacDonald/Edgar Allan Woolf) Apollo Theater 15 March

1921 Blossom Time (Das Dreimäderlhaus) new arranged score for revised American version w Dorothy Donnelly (Ambassador Theater)

1921 Bombo (Atteridge) Jolson Theater 6 October

1922 The Blushing Bride (Wood/Edward Clark) Astor Theater 6 February

1922 The Rose of Stamboul (Die Rose von Stambul) part score for revised American version w Atteridge (Century Theater)

1922 Springtime of Youth (Sterne, die wieder leuchtet) part score for revised American version w Wood, Woodward (Broadhurst Theater)

1923 The Dancing Girl (Atteridge) Winter Garden 24 January

1923 The Courtesan (w Jean Schwartz/Atteridge/Atteridge, Harry Wagstaffe Gribble) Parsons’ Theater, Hartford 17 October

1924 Marjorie (w Herbert Stothart, Stephen Jones, Philip Culkin/Clifford Grey/Fred Thompson, Atteridge) Shubert Theater 11 August

1924 Annie Dear (Grey/Clare Kummer) Times Square Theater 4 November

1924 The Student Prince [in Heidelberg] (Donnelly) Jolson Theater 2 December

1925 Louie the 14th (Arthur Wimperis) Cosmopolitan Theater 2 March

1925 Princess Flavia (ex-A Royal Pretender) (Harry B Smith) Century Theater 2 November

1926 The Desert Song (ex-My Lady Fair) (Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein, Frank Mandel) Casino Theater 30 November

1927 Cherry Blossoms (H B Smith) 44th Street Theater 28 March

1927 My Maryland (Donnelly) Jolson Theater 12 September

1927 My Princess (Donnelly) Shubert Theater 6 October

1927 The Love Call (ex-Bonita, Love Song, My Golden West) (H B Smith/Edward Locke) Majestic Theater 24 October

1928 Rosalie (w George Gershwin/P G Wodehouse, Ira Gershwin/Guy Bolton, William Anthony McGuire) New Amsterdam Theater 10 January

1927 The New Moon (Hammerstein, Mandel) Chestnut Street Opera House, Philadelphia 22 December; Imperial Theater (revised version) 19 September 1928

1930 Nina Rosa (Irving Caesar/Harbach) Majestic Theater 20 September

1931 East Wind (Hammerstein) Manhattan Theater 27 October

1933 Melody (Caesar/Edward Childs Carpenter) Casino Theater 14 February

1933 Rose de France (Albert Willemetz/André Mouëzy-Éon) Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris 28 October

1935 May Wine (Hammerstein/Mandel) St James Theater 5 December

1936 Forbidden Melody (Harbach) New Amsterdam Theater 2 November

1941 Sunny River (Hammerstein) St James Theater 4 December

1945 Up in Central Park (Herbert Fields, Dorothy Fields) Century Theater 27 January

1948 My Romance (Rowland Leigh) Shubert Theater 19 October

1954 The Girl in Pink Tights (Leo Robin/Jerome Chodorov, Joseph Stein) Mark Hellinger Theater 5 March

Biography: (fictionalized) Arnold, E: Deep in My Heart (Duell, Sloane & Pearce, New York, 1949)