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By William A. Everett
Yale University PressCopyright © 2007 Yale University
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Chapter OneSigmund Romberg: The Man and His Music
Sigmund Romberg possessed an intriguing array of cultural backgrounds. Firmly planted in the European tradition, he made his mark on American soil. The gifted composer integrated the fundamental principles of pre-World War I Viennese operetta with post-World War I American musical styles and tastes. He bridged two musical worlds, providing a direct link between nineteenth-century European musical theater and the twentieth-century Broadway musical.
But what do we know about the man behind the music? The conventional wisdom about Romberg comes largely from his own personal reminiscences given on radio and television interviews and from a handful of articles by or about the composer. Most of this knowledge, whether fact or fiction, was promoted in two places: first, in the pseudo-biographical book Deep in My Heart: A Story Based on the Life of Sigmund Romberg by Elliott Arnold, which appeared in 1949, two years before Romberg's death, and second, in the 1954 MGM biopic based on Arnold's book, also called Deep in My Heart, but without the subtitle. Because of the nature of its medium and its subsequent broaderaudience, the film was more influential than the book in creating an enduring image of Sigmund Romberg.
The film, dedicated in the opening credits "To all those who love the music of Sigmund Romberg," is a lavish spectacle with performances of Romberg's music by some of MGM's greatest stars, including Ann Miller, Rosemary Clooney, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, and Howard Keel. Romberg, as played by José Ferrer (1909-1992), is a lovable, slightly exotic, and mildly eccentric composer, pianist, singer, and dancer. He possesses an uncanny ability to delight everyone he encounters, whoever they may be. The film's basic plot is like that of an operetta: a poor yet very talented young man finds fame and fortune along with true love. Of course, in order to make an interesting story line, he must overcome numerous obstacles on his journey to success. A somewhat chronological offering of songs from selected shows is performed throughout the film, and each is preceded by a marquee with the show's name and creators before the theatrically (or at least sound-stage) conceived performance of the song.
Biographical veracity was not the primary concern in MGM's series of popular songwriter biopics from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Deep in My Heart was no exception. As early plans were being made for the film, Romberg expressed his concern about the venture: "I don't like it; look what happened to Jerry (Jerome) Kern," referring to the Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). In reality, Romberg fared neither better nor worse than most of his contemporaries in this regard. The studio wanted to capitalize on name recognition of the songwriters and their tunes, and on its own singing and dancing stars. The primary purpose of Deep in My Heart was to give audiences who loved the music of Romberg the opportunity to see and hear some stunning performances of the composer's finest songs. Especially since the film appeared only three years after Romberg's death, it functioned not just as a biopic and lavish studio production but also as a tribute to the man and his music.
This is where the film succeeds, almost. All of the songs included in the film were written in the 1910s, '20s, and early '30s. However, the string-rich orchestrations and crooning style of many of the performances are characteristic of the 1950s film musical style, rather than the more legitimate, classically trained singing of the originals. Thus, the film's musical numbers are basically updated "remakes" of the originals, recast and re-envisioned for MGM's legendary star-studded treatment.
What the film does offer, and correctly so, is a picture of Sigmund Romberg as an artist simultaneously poised on three different yet related continua: 1) Old World v. New World; 2) low brow v. high brow; and 3) familiar v. exotic. These dualities form a large part of Romberg's persona, and are appropriately central to the film.
Throughout Deep in My Heart, Romberg finds himself at Café Vienna, a fictional restaurant run by the very Viennese Frau Mueller (a character created for the film and played by operatic soprano Helen Traubel [1899-1972]). "Rommy" is "discovered" at this Old World café, and Mueller hosts receptions for him in her garden after each opening night. After living and working in the New World of New York sophisticates, producers, and critics, Romberg consistently returns to the Old World of Vienna through Frau Mueller's café. He can function in the New World as long as he retains a footing in the Old. A nostalgic remembrance of the past gives him the strength and fortitude to live in the present.
In the film, as in real life, Romberg considered himself to be well above the average popular song composer of the day, the purveyors of "low brow" musical culture. His disparaging attitude toward ragtime, for example, is evident in one scene where he tells a publisher, "Baboons play songs like this." His wife, Lillian (played by Doe Avedon), confirms his "high brow" aspirations later in the film when she tells him, "You've graduated from Tin Pan Alley. I want to see you in Carnegie Hall. I want to hear your music at its peak. I want a symphony orchestra to play it." Romberg is not immediately drawn to Lillian's dream. He had significant self-doubts, an understandable result of his lack of formal conservatory training, a prerequisite, at least in Romberg's opinion, for a composer to be heard in Carnegie Hall. Lillian gets her wish, however, and the film's final sequence is a Carnegie Hall concert featuring Romberg, his orchestra, and his music.
During the Carnegie Hall sequence, Romberg speaks to the audience, as he would have done in real life. (This was one way in which Romberg endeared himself to his fans.) In the film Romberg tells his audience something the real Romberg said repeatedly regarding his musical style, namely that his music was "middle brow-too high brow for jazz conductors and too low brow for symphony conductors."
Finally, there is the play between the familiar and the exotic. Romberg loved people, and savored the opportunity to talk about music, whether on radio or television, or to a live audience. He enjoyed telling stories and relished admiration from his fans. He wanted to communicate with people directly, something he accomplished through both music and the spoken (and occasionally written) word. However, he also enjoyed having an air of sophistication about him. Romberg was proud of his European heritage and intentionally maintained his Hungarian accent. He enjoyed being a showman, and used his personal charisma-a blend of the familiar and the exotic-to great effect. Romberg was in many ways an Everyman, but with added élan.
Although the film portrays Romberg as likeable and gregarious, it does not address and even negates several aspects of his life. No mention is made of his Hungarian nationality-he is assumed to be Viennese (which is still foreign). Ferrer does not attempt a Hungarian accent, though his speech is certainly affected. In reality, Romberg was proud of his Hungarian birthright, calling himself a Hungarian subject on his World War I registration card and listing his first language as Magyar on census reports. The suppression of his ethnic identity is almost certainly due to Cold War politics of the 1950s: Hungary was communist, and a hero from a communist country in a mainstream Hollywood film was simply intolerable. Neither is Romberg's Jewishness mentioned at all. As film scholar John C. Tibbetts asserts, the film set out to "whiten" Romberg's image. Romberg is made into a Western European. His Jewish identity is suppressed in order to make him less marginalized, and therefore in a position to be accepted more fully by Protestant America.
Furthermore, no mention is made (in either the film or the book) of Romberg's first marriage. He listed himself as married on his World War I registration card in 1917, and Romberg's entry in the 1920 Federal Census includes a wife, Eugenia, age twenty-eight, born in Austria and whose first language is German. The marriage presumably ended in divorce. By neglecting any mention of this marriage, two things happen in the film: first, Romberg becomes morally acceptable to mid-century mainstream America, since divorce was frowned upon; and second, it allows for the love story between Romberg and Lillian Harris to take center stage as the film's romantic tale.
In Deep in My Heart, the couple's early courtship appears in a version similar to that told by both Rombergs, but not identical to it. The scene was invented to give José Ferrer an opportunity to display his extraordinary solo talents. In the film, Romberg, along with two fictional associates, is writing a show called Jazzadoo. No such score by Romberg exists-Romberg, along with Al Jolson (who does not appear in the film) and Buddy De Sylva and Harold Atteridge (both of whom were also excised) were writing Bombo when the supposed events took place. Romberg gives a one-man performance of the entire Jazzadoo show, complete with Jolson impersonations (one of which is in blackface), for Lillian, her prim-and-proper mother, and Mr. Townsend, the fictional manager who represents the real Shubert brothers. (J. J. and Lee Shubert, owners of the Shubert Theatrical Corporation, were among the most powerful and influential Broadway producers in the first half of the twentieth century.) Jolson exists in the film only through Ferrer impersonating Romberg impersonating Jolson. Romberg was many things, but not a song-and-dance man. This was Ferrer's moment of glory.
Several characters were invented for the film, while many real-life ones had their roles either minimized or eliminated. Romberg's principal collaborators from his early years, as they appear in the film, were celluloid creations. Manager Bert Townsend (Paul Stewart), librettist Ben Judson (Jim Backus), and lyricist Lazar Berrison Sr. (David Burns) simply did not exist in real life. By inventing them and eliminating their real-life counterparts, people such as Harold Atteridge, Buddy De Sylva, Rida Johnson Young, and even Al Jolson, attention remained on Romberg rather than on his collaborators.
The French dancing sensation Gaby Deslys (1881-1920, played by Tamara Toumanova with the singing voice of Betty Wand), the star of Shubert revues who performs Romberg's music early in the film, was in fact on the Shuberts' artist roster, but Romberg did not write any music for her. He certainly did not create "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" for her. "Softly" came from The New Moon, which opened on Broadway in 1928. Deslys's role was created for the film; the dancer does not appear in Arnold's book. The frenetic performance by Deslys, complete with cascading falls off most notes, aggressive interjections from the orchestra, and a female chorus overdoing French accents, was intended to show a "poor" interpretation of a Romberg song, while the languidly emotive rendition by Mrs. Mueller (Traubel, the operatic soprano) shortly thereafter demonstrated the "proper" manner of singing the same number.
Dorothy Donnelly (Merle Oberon), who wrote words for Blossom Time, The Student Prince, My Maryland, and My Princess, was an important collaborator for Romberg, but their first meeting did not take place as early as implied in the film. She was not responsible for Romberg writing May-time, although another female lyricist and librettist, Rida Johnson Young, was Romberg's collaborator on that project.
Another of Romberg's significant lyricists was Oscar Hammerstein 2nd (1895-1960), who penned words for The Desert Song and The New Moon on Broadway and Viennese Nights and The Night Is Young in Hollywood. The role of Hammerstein (Mitchell Kowall) is minimized in the film, likely because the premier wordsmith was actively involved in his legendary partnership with Richard Rodgers when it opened. Any association with a composer other than Rodgers may have confused audiences and taken the spotlight away from "Rodgers and Hammerstein."
Along with these inaccuracies in plot details, songs from one show are billed as being from another (especially in the first part of the film). Moreover, because MGM failed to secure the rights to use music from Blossom Time, one of Romberg's biggest commercial and artistic successes is not represented in the film. (See Table 1.1 for a list of music in Deep in My Heart.) Deep in My Heart focused more on individual songs than on the shows from which they came.
The film provided a rosy public picture of Romberg for his fans. Like the characters in his operettas, Romberg finds personal happiness and professional success amid glorious music. He lives in a world that is real enough to be grasped yet imaginary enough to offer an inviting opportunity for escapism.
The book on which the film was based and whose title it shares is essentially a novel in the guise of a popular biography. It makes no pretense about this fact: on the title page the author, Elliott Arnold, even calls Deep in My Heart "a story based on the life of Sigmund Romberg." Arnold interviewed Romberg for the book in 1947, but exactly what Romberg told Arnold and what made it into the book and in what form is unknown. Like any good novel, many historical aspects are embellished or even invented in order to add to the book's readability and general interest level. Rather than telling of the hardships of a young Hungarian Jew in the final years of the Habsburg Empire, for example, we are treated to a rags-to-almost-riches story as fresh and heartwarming as an operetta plot.
The main narrative's creative license aside, the book's work list (though incomplete, since the book appeared two years before Romberg's death) and chronology provide limited documentary evidence for the composer's life. The work list is problematic, however, for the catalog of musical numbers that appeared under each individual show is often inaccurate. Where entries are correct, many songs appear under alternate titles, that is, ones that differ from what appeared either in the playbill or on the published sheet music. Fortunately, these variants are usually close enough to be recognizable. Titles are further complicated by the fact that what appears on the covers of popular sheet music from the first part of the twentieth century sometimes differs from what is given on the first page of the music itself. This is certainly the case for a significant amount of Romberg's music, especially his earlier works.
A Personification of Gemütlichkeit
So, who was Sigmund Romberg, the subject of Deep in My Heart? To begin with, Sigmund Romberg was not really Sigmund Romberg. He was born Siegmund Rosenberg on July 29, 1887, in Nagykanizska, Hungary, a town in the southwest part of the country. He spent his youth in the nearby village of Belisce and its closest city, Osijek, both of which were then part of the Hungarian part of the Dual Monarchy and today are in Croatia. After working as a coach-accompanist in Vienna and gaining practical experience regarding the methods and mechanics of operetta, he moved to New York to become a professional musician. References to his adopted name begin when he arrived on American shores. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1919.
Romberg's American career divides conveniently by decade, according to his areas of primary focus: 1910s-revues, musical comedies, and adaptations of Central European operettas (mostly for the Shuberts); 1920s-original operettas; 1930s-film scores; and 1940s-conductor of a traveling orchestra. Throughout his life, Romberg remained active as a Broadway composer and was acutely aware of the changes and transformations that were taking place in the American musical theater.
Excerpted from Sigmund Romberg by William A. Everett Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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