Wolfgang Jansen’s New Book About Musicals Vs. Operetta: An Interview With The Author

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
12 December, 2020

Wolfgang Jansen has published many books: on the history of revues and revue operettas in the Weimar Republic, on Broadway musicals conquering the West-German theater scene in the decades after 1945, but also most recently on Operetta Under Socialism & Communism. His latest book is simply called Musicals (“Geschichte und Interpretation”) and a collection of essays looking at various aspects of how US-American musicals pushed aside older operetta traditions in Germany and Austria, while at the same time merging some traditions in a way that did not happen elsewhere. We spoke with Mr. Jansen about his new book.

Wolfgang Jansen's "Musicals: Geschichte und Interpretation." (Photo: Waxmann Publishing)

Wolfgang Jansen’s “Musicals: Geschichte und Interpretation.” (Photo: Waxmann Publishing)

Your new “History of the Musical” starts with a chapter on “Operette – Musicalette – Musical“ and the changes in popular musical theater in the 1950s. Which country are you focusing on, and how did operetta and musical comedy co-exist in the Fifties? Was it a peaceful co-existence or a war zone?
The essays I have collected in this book focus on German theatre from 1945 to 1970. In the 1950s, local theaters learned about the “new” genre, primarily through media coverage. With the exception of Kiss Me, Kate, which had its German premiere in 1955, there was not a single musical that aroused enthusiasm with German audiences. Until 1960 only 16 U.S. shows were performed. In this respect, the repertoire of local German theatres was still dominated by European operetta. Admittedly, there were increasing attempts by German authors to “modernize” the traditional narrative operetta forms. In doing so, they used many American developments from the realm of Broadway musicals.

Theater historian Wolfgang Jansen, who also teaches at the UdK in Berlin. (Photo: UdK)

Theater historian Wolfgang Jansen, who also teaches at the UdK in Berlin. (Photo: UdK)

Before 1933 the German language operetta scene was closely linked with other international centers of musical entertainment: the West End, Broadway, and Hollywood in the English speaking world. The Nazis put a stop to such transatlantic business; composers who had gone into exile tried to reconnect after 1945, bringing Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to Europe, or composing modern “Wild West” operettas such as Arizona Lady, closely modeled on Oklahoma! How were such efforts greeted by post-war audiences in Germany, Switzerland and Austria?
All the so called “remigrants” faced considerable difficulties when they tried to find a way back to working in their former home countries. Not only had numerous theatres been destroyed, but the theatrical landscape in general had changed fundamentally as a result of the Nazis having turned all private venues into state subsidized theaters. There were almost no more stages left for large, spectacular commercial novelties. The enforced “silence the Nazi years – which those who had stayed in Germany imposed on themselves – affected the remigrants. They, too, were forced to not ask too insistently about what their “new” colleagues had done during the years of the Nazi regime. Except for composer Robert Stolz and librettist Robert Gilbert, no returnee was able to achieve success with new works. Stolz became the epitome of what might be termed “Austrian nostalgia”, and Gilbert unexpectedly became the most important translator of the musicals for German stages. Generally speaking, remigrants and the ones who had stayed in the Third Reich had to work together, side by side, for example Max Colpet and Lotar Olias.

The big operetta movie hits of the 1950s in Germany were Schwarzwaldmädel and Im weißen Rössl –celebrations of “Heimat”, showing a country untouched by war and destruction. How did this trend affect the operetta scene?
I do not deal with operetta movies in my collected essays. But it was undoubtedly important for the general development that the operetta movies visually and thematically supported the trend towards the formation of a “classical” operetta repertoire. The genre, after all, was driven less and less by novelties. Instead, directors turned to older pieces whose melodies were known and loved by audiences. The risk of a flop was thus minimized, but for the authors and composers it meant that they could hardly place their new works anywhere.

In the USA, “musical comedies” developed out of operetta in the 1920s, forthwith musicals were for contemporary stories with an American background, with new syncopated music by American composers, while operetta became “nostalgic” with a European tint. Was there a similar divide in Germany in the Weimar years? How did this continue after 1933 and after 1945, in the decades you analyze in your book?
In the 1920s, all German operetta composers were forced to deal with the influences of new American popular music: “jazz”. Ignoring the new music was not an option; it was simply too successful. But the character of jazz did not fit well with the traditional milieus of operetta, be it the fun-loving aristocratic world or the contemplative country life. Emmerich Kalman even made this theme the focus of his operetta Die Herzogin von Chicago in 1928.

During the Nazi era, the preoccupation with American music largely came to a halt. Jazz was not directly banned, but it was branded “undesirable”. In keeping with this, the operettas that did not fall under the ban on “Jewish” works were often re-orchestrated for new productions. Jazz elements were eliminated, and the works were acoustically brought “home into the Reich”. It was precisely this cleaned-up “sound” that became the signature sound of operetta in general after the war. The musicals that came after 1945 offered not only a different sound, but also different scenic milieus. In this way, they indirectly pointed to a future beyond operetta.

You deal with Broadway musicals in Germany in the 1950s and 60s: did Germans get to see the big Hollywood versions of these musicals, in cinemas or on TV?
The 1960s finally brought the breakthrough for the US-American musical. My Fair Lady, first performed in West-Berlin in 1961, was the big door opener.

After that, the stage publishers were hardly interested in German authors and composers anymore, instead they wanted new pieces from the USA. The international novelties, perfect forms of the “integrated musical”, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Anatevka or Man of La Mancha, shaped the image that the genre gained in German cultural circles for a long time. Instead of good authors, the publishers were now looking mostly for good translators. It was were Robert Gilbert’s career took off, once more.

The quality of the performances, however, inevitably lagged behind that of their Broadway contemporaries. There was simply a lack of artistic know-how in all areas. Last but not least, there were no musical actors who could do justice to the role requirements (singing, dancing, acting). The normal German audience, however, hardly had the possibility to compare, so local audience were enthusiastic about what they saw as modern “musicals”.

A look at Broadway before the 2020 Corona lockdown. (Photo: Nicolai Berntsen / Unsplash)

A look at Broadway before the 2020 Corona lockdown. (Photo: Nicolai Berntsen / Unsplash)

As you said, in Germany the commercial theater scene was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933, and it never came back. In the 1950s and 60s we still have a state subsidized – and politically controlled – theater scene which performs the commercial works by Porter, Bernstein and Loewe. Which effect does that have on the choice of titles and the type of casting/production?
As mentioned above, publicly financed theaters usually had a repertoire that had to cover several genres. In addition, the local theatres had a permanent ensemble whose members had to be employed as universally as possible. Intendants thus had to take their personnel situation into account when selecting plays. A house with a chorus, for example, would not choose the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying because the chorus was not needed in it. In addition, new productions had to share the calendar with other productions in the repertoire, which meant that titles were only shown a few times a year. The cost of a production was thus inevitably kept within limits. And finally, there was a kind of “hierarchical system of thinking” that assigned the popular musical theatre primarily to bringing in money via high ticket sales, not because of artistic merit. The shows themselves were hardly taken seriously.

In the operetta glory days – pre-1933 – the theater scene in Berlin and Vienna was closely connected. What is the situation after World War 2?
Unlike Austria, Germany lost its cultural metropolis (Berlin) after 1945, to which one could look for as a role model. In this respect, the only decisive factor after the Second World War was the artistic quality of the piece and the production. The location, the theatre, no longer played a significant role. Frankfurt a. M., for example, was naturally not Broadway, nor could the city boast the reputation of an entertainment metropolis, and yet the German fame of Kiss Me, Kate originated there and travelled onwards to the last corners of the German theatre scene.

What about East-Germany?
I do not discuss operettas and musicals of the GDR in this book. The book collects essays on events in the “West”. However, I plan to publish my essays on GDR theatre and deal with the situation in the other half of Germany till 1989.

In2019 Sarah Whitfield edited a book called Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity. Do you consider your book a “reframing” as well, and do you touch on “new” topics such as race and identity?
No, these are not topics dealt with in these collected essays. But I would very much welcome it if we could have comparable reframing discussions in Germany as well.

Your narrative stops in 1970. Why?
The 50s and 60s are the decades of transformation: the decline of the original German popular musical theater and the simultaneous rise of the English-language musical as the genre of the future. In 1970 Lotar Olias, who had written the most successful German musical of the decade in 1962 with Heimweh nach St. Pauli, said that there was no longer any artistic future for him and his colleagues in the theatre. And he was right.

A slow change with regard to that situation did not occur until the late 1990s, when a new boom hit Germany.

You discuss the original German cast albums that came out in the 1960s in a separate chapter. Are they a documentation of the performance style of the 1960s in Germany? How does that style of presenting musicals compare to the operetta recordings of the era?
Based on the observation that today all new musicals are put on the market as sound recordings, I looked for the beginnings of cast albums in German theatre. Here, of course, the development of the vinyl-LPs was decisive, which made original cast recordings possible for the first time. The sound recordings functioned as an additional source of income for the theatres, as an advertising medium for certain productions, but also as a document of the respective musical and vocal quality. But the operetta sound of the recordings is striking, which the contemporaries themselves may not have noticed. For example, in the Hamburg Anatevka recording, Tevje’s daughters hardly sing with any understanding of their roles. Or in the Vienna Cabaret recording, the Kit-Kat girls are obviously cast with women from the opera chorus. They sing note-for-note, but the vocal character does not connected with the nightclub atmosphere.

Do you plan to publish a second volume on the 1970s and 80s? And third one on the 90s and 2000s?
Further volumes are planned to appear in the next few years. In principle, I will again mainly draw on my existing essays that have been published in various places previously. But I also have unpublished and new texts in mind. Which time periods these will cover, I cannot say yet.

You teach musical theater at UdK in Berlin. Do your students have any knowledge of these historic developments, do they know the cast albums, like many people in the English speaking world worship their cast albums of Broadway musicals or Hollywood musicals on TV/DVD?
My students naturally have varying levels of knowledge about the history of the musical when they begin their studies. My task as a lecturer is to familiarize them with the overall history. In doing so, I also teach them about the period before World War II. It is especially important to me that they develop an understanding for the differences between the genres operetta and musical.

Last question: You start with the “shift” from operetta to musicals in the 50s. Is there a current shift back to operetta, thanks to successful productions by Barrie Kosky and Christian Weise at Komische Oper and Gorki Theater and stellar performers such as Katharine Mehrling, Jonas Dassler, Max Hopp or Dagmar Manzel?
I find it quite amazing that the younger generations keep rediscovering the old pieces for themselves and present them to the audience in the aesthetics of their own time, for their knowledge and amusement. But whether a historical “shift” arises can only be assessed by the next generation, in retrospect.