II: 1902


On the Relative Widths of Oceans, the Importance of Height, and the Value of Publicity


1. Sextet from Florodora: “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden”

Okay, listen up. If there’s one thing we must get straight before going any further, it is this: musical theater at the turn of the twentieth century was massively important. Not the way it is now, where it’s very important to a relatively small number of people and a matter of indifference to the general culture unless it somehow relates to the movies, television, or pop music. But in 1902, movies were a mostly theoretical industry, television a dream undreamt, and pop music—well, pop music was show music.

There were sheet-music hits that found an audience without having been roared from the footlights by anyone in particular, and of course the majority of people didn’t live in large cities that could support theaters, and for them popular music was whatever came to hand, written or unwritten, sacred or secular. But we will not hear from them for many years: for now, the jaunty, made-to-order products of Broadway, the West End, and the variety stage is the highest pop can dream, until it dreams even higher.

Florodora was the great musical-comedy hit of the turn of the century. A somewhat diminished descendent of the Victorian comic operetta—Gilbert and Sullivan without the elaborate wit—it had begun life in London in 1899, with music by Leslie Stuart, lyrics by Edward Boyd-Jones, and book by Owen Hall. In 1900 it made the journey across the Atlantic, as did most shows in the days when New York seemed closer to London than Chicago. There it was the hit of the new century, breaking box-office records and setting the standard by which all future musical-comedy endavors would be judged.

That standard can be hard to hear now, especially since we don’t have the frame of reference that 1900 did; the newness and sparkle have lost something of their luster over the past century. But the double sextet (of which we hear only half here, three men and three women) was astonishing in its day, and when they sang “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” in overlapping harmony it was the electric high point of a generation’s theatergoing. Even today you can hear a hint of its bantering male-female flirtatiousness in something like “Promiscuous” (for I must love someone, and it might as well be you).

The show’s combination of silly farce and light romance would remain the basis of musical comedy through the 1940s, and if the show didn’t invent the tradition of the chorus line—pretty girls all in a row singing and dancing in unison—it certainly popularized it: the Florodora girls, chosen for their matching height and figures, were the toast of New York and would remain in the memory of popular culture for generations. Evelyn Nesbit, the most scandaled-about woman of the oughts, was a Florodora girl, and the show was so popular that it even broke out in technology: this is an extract from the first full cast recording ever made.


2. Enrico Caruso: “Vesti la giubba”

Saying that musical theater was massively important obscures the fact that the most important form of musical theater of the era was opera. We tend to separate them in modern cultural taxonomies, because we are products of the high/low cultural divide that has been part of our culture’s conversation about itself for over a century. But opera in 1902 was immensely popular, and not just among cultural élites: it was the music of ordinary middle-class aspiration, with something like the cultural cachet that jazz, or even classic soul, holds today.

In 1902, Wagner, Verdi, and Gounod were still in living memory, and Puccini, Massenet, and Debussy were alive and producing some of their greatest work. It was a transitional era in opera; after the cosmic immensities of Wagner and hypersensual melodramas of Verdi, composers were painting works on a smaller scale. The Italian verismo movement, which rejected historical and mythological settings in favor of ordinary people and naturalistic emotions, included Puccini’s La bohème, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalliera rusticana, and Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci; all three were immensely popular in Italy and around the world but perhaps especially in America, where a large Italian immigrant population kept the bel canto flame alive. We’ll encounter later developments in the tradition; but before there was a Frankie or Dino, there was Enrico.

He was born to a working-class family in Naples, and used music as an escape from following in his mechanic father’s footsteps. He sang at cafés, resorts, and provincial theaters, until in 1900 he was contracted to sing at La Scala. In 1902 he made his first recordings in a Milan hotel room, and within a year he was the most famous—and on his way to being the greatest—operatic tenor of the age.

Before Caruso there were great singers, of course; and among his contemporaries there were many who could be considered more technically perfect, possessed of a greater range and a deeper intellectual grasp of the meanings and implications of the music they were singing. Caruso became Caruso not because he was an eternal genius—though he was—but because he was a shrewd businessman, a Neapolitan hustler devoid of artistic pretension. Records were a way to make exponentially more money and receive exponentially greater publicity, and his sensitive artistic soul shrank from neither.

We will hear more from him in the years to come; but we begin here, with an aria from Leoncavello’s Pagliacci. “Vesti la giubba” is the Act I curtain, the song which the play’s protagonist sings to himself as he puts on his clown costume and makeup in preparation for performing—and laughing—although his heart is breaking due to his wife’s infidelity. Caruso’s shattering, mirthless laugh at the end of the first verse, and the wrenching emotion he tears out of himself as the piece peaks towards the end are clear even through the roar of surface noise; he had a voice exactly made for records, and the medium loved him back.