About this Recording
8.120879 - GRIEG, E.: Song of Norway (Recording with Original Cast members) (1944-1945)

Song of Norway
Music of Edvard Grieg
Adaptation and lyrics by Robert Wright & George Forrest
Original Cast Recordings 1944–45


One of the fascinating things about the history of musical theatre is how the show that people initially set out to produce often bore little relation to the one that finally opened. That frequently happened to Edwin Lester and one of the most striking examples was Song of Norway.
Who was Mr. Lester? He was a lover of operetta who had stars in his eyes, schmaltz in his heart and—most importantly—money in his pocket. In 1938, he founded the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and two years later, added an affiliate in San Francisco. The two theatres combined had a powerful subscription base and were capable of generating giant audiences. But Lester also had dreams of conquering Broadway and he felt that he had a singular vision of how to do it. He believed that what audiences needed were the themes of great classical composers bent into the format of operetta-style songs, all wrapped up in a big, lavish package that would feature glorious costumes, endless dances, groan-inducing comedy and lots of romance.
In the middle of World War II, he decided that what would cheer the people of America up the most would be the story of author Hans Christian Andersen set to the music of Edvard Grieg. The fact that Andersen was Danish and Grieg was Norwegian seemed to have slipped right by Lester, or else he lumped them together in his mind under the heading of ‘Scandinavian Culture’. What he wasn’t able to ignore, alas, was film producer Samuel Goldwyn who was working on his own life story of Andersen. He threatened a lawsuit and Lester withdrew. (The Goldwyn project would finally emerge in 1952 as Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye, with a screenplay by Moss Hart and a score by Frank Loesser.) Undeterred, Lester decided instead to use the music of Edvard Grieg to tell the life story of…Edvard Grieg.
It made perfect sense except that, well, there really wasn’t much of a life story to tell. Certainly not enough of a one to support a full-scale operetta. Except for the tragic death of his only child in infancy, Grieg lived a simple, drama-free life, devoted to his wife and his music. But that didn’t stop Lester. He turned to his friend, fellow producer and sometime playwright Homer Curran, to concoct a story about Grieg, his childhood friends, and a scheming Italian opera diva who nearly wrecks all of their lives. The fact that it didn’t contain a word of truth wasn’t of much concern to anyone, and away they went, with author Milton Lazarus turning it into a juicy libretto which they christened Song of Norway. Lester’s next—and most significant—stop was to Robert Wright and George Forrest. This team had just ended a ten year contract as songwriters with MGM, where their speciality had been the operetta. Back in 1937, in fact, for the Jeanette McDonald/Nelson Eddy version of Maytime, they had started adapting themes from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and other classical works into popular songs. At liberty, and used to putting words where none were meant to be, Wright and Forrest sprang to the challenge of turning a lifetime of lush Grieg melodies into a full-fledged score.
They would repeat the assignment several times in the future for Lester, most successfully with his 1953 Arabian nights hit, Kismet. But for now, Norway was the thing and titles poured out of them such as Hill of Dreams, Freddy And His Fiddle and Strange Music.Just to hedge his bets, Lester hired the ballet master George Balanchine to provide the choreography and gave him full rein. So Balanchine brought along the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, headed by Alexandra Danilova. There was so much choreography, in fact, that one critic described it as ‘a dance piece interrupted by theatre’ and another one noted that it had ‘all the choreographic staples of operetta, from peasants dancing in the marketplace to fashionable folk waltzing in a ballroom’.
And Lester wasn’t finished yet. To make sure there would be sufficient low comedy, he hired Sig Arno, the veteran of over fifty films (such as Pardon My Sarong), where he specialized in playing what he himself later called ‘funny Europeans’. But the final touch was provided with the casting of Irra Petina as Louisa Giovanni, the home-wrecking Italian diva.
At the time, Petina was a well-regarded performer of the Metropolitan Opera, although never considered a star of the first rank. Russian-born, she made her Met debut in 1933 and was most highly acclaimed for her performances as Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro and Berta in The Barber of Seville. But by 1944, she was being used for touring companies and she seized onto Lester’s offer as the possible start of a new career and scored a personal triumph in the role. She later went on to play similar rôles in less successful ventures (which would be christened ‘floperettas’) such as Magdalena and Hit the Trail, but she did have one more solid success, creating the role of the Old Lady in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which won her a Tony nomination.
All of Lester’s ministrations paid off and after a successful run on the West Coast, Song of Norway came to Broadway where it lasted for 860 performances. It was revived (usually at giant outdoor summer theatres) through the 1950s, but a wildly unsuccessful 1970 film version starring Florence Henderson helped to put an end to its popularity.
This recording represents two distinct versions of the score which came out on 78s in 1945, a result of the bizarre artist contracts of the period. Decca had the rights to record the show and so it did, using almost all of the original cast members such as Lawrence Brooks, Helena Bliss, Robert Shafer and Sig Arno. But the leading attraction, Irra Petina, was signed with Columbia at the time and so she was replaced with the much-loved Kitty Carlisle. Not to be outdone, Columbia recorded an album of six songs featuring Petina and fellow Met star, Robert Weede (later famous as the star of The Most Happy Fella).
This recording allows you to hear both and—between them—to get a crystal-clear picture of a show that was an enormous hit over sixty years ago, but was so much of its time and place that it will probably never know that popularity again.
Unless, of course, a second Edwin Lester comes along.

Richard Ouzounian

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