Monday, September 9, 2019

How It All Began - Part II



The next day, Monday, March 4, 1901, Tietjens walked to L. Frank Baum’s downtown office to make his proposal, but Baum had vacated the premises six months earlier. Tietjens returned home and wrote to Baum, asking to pay a visit.

Baum was basking in the success of his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which had been published ten months earlier. He was writing at a furious pace. A new series of American Fairy Tales had begun national newspaper serialization on March 3, the very day Paul determined to ask Baum about a collaboration. Baum had two manuscripts to finish: one to be illustrated by Denslow called Dot and Tot of Merryland, and The Master Key, a young adult science-fiction novel. Both books were to be published before year’s end.

Tietjens would have to wait to hear back from Baum. He tried to read, but his eyes hurt. He wondered if his family had made it safely to the farm in Slater. “I can only hope that I may be able to do something to make things more pleasant for them. I hope the opera will be the means of doing this.”

Anxious to begin work on a comic opera, any comic opera, the young composer recalled a previous project—a libretto his friend, tenor Jim Rohan, had once given him to work on. Tietjens retrieved the old composition project and began revising it. He was so taken with the results he decided he “might employ it in my prospective opera.”

Thursday evening, March 7, Tietjens finally got together with Baum and presented his grand idea. “He did not accept my plan . . . at first. . . . He feared that I might not be able to write in a light enough vein, but I played the chorus which I had originally written for Jim Rohan’s opera, [and two of my other pieces] which [Baum] liked. It was then that he promised to write the libretto, with the restriction that if he did not think our effort good, he would not have it performed as he could not risk his reputation with a failure.”

L. Frank Baum with sons in his Humboldt Park home in Chicago.
 
The next morning Tietjens woke early and despite having no libretto from Baum, composed “a rattling good march . . . I think it will be a fine number to end the opera with.”

He immersed himself in comic opera. On March 11, he played through the piano score of Victor Herbert’s The FortuneTeller, which he loved, and went in search of any full scores by Herbert. He found none, but he did spend a precious $2.00 on a copy of Berlioz’ Art of Modern Instrumentation, as he planned to orchestrate the opera himself. Paul was hoping not only to get rich quick, but to compose a “respectable” comic opera in line with Herbert or Sousa. In his grander moments, he probably hoped to channel higher-brow composers like Lortzing or Humperdinck, too. His desire to get rich quick would battle his desire to make his mark with high art while he was writing The Wizard of Oz.

The afternoon mail brought a letter from Baum containing the idea for a comic opera called The Octopus.
[No script or scenario for The Octopus is known to survive. The following outline has been created by me from notes in Tietjens's diary and surviving lyrics. The comic opera was variously referred to as Miss Jinks and The Title-Trust. For the sake of clarity I only refer to it as The Octopus.]
Baum’s plot plunged into the then-current trend of the “Dollar Princess,” in which American heiresses married European (often British) nobility—the noblemen got much-needed cash, the ladies got much-desired titles. The show begins with the wealthy young ladies corresponding by mail with the strapped but titled young noblemen—the Opening Chorus even included typewriters in the music. The “octopus” is the aptly named businessman Gripem Harde, who decides he can turn the “Dollar Princess” fad into a business opportunity, singing “I am a Great Promoter.” Other character names are also puns, much like names will be in The Wizard of Oz, such as Mrs. Jane Pastover. The female lead is a young lady named Marion, or "Miss Jinks," whose first song is “Love is Love,” which Tietjens would eventually work into Wizard. The act featured two grand marches, one for the Heiresses and one for the Noblemen. Gripem Harde falls for wealthy young Marion, but alas, he is not a Nobleman. So he disguises himself as “Count Cronto Misty,” a dreadful sideways pun on Monte Cristo, and makes love to the girl. Complications ensue. While Gripem’s love life is now complicated, his business, “The Title-Trust,” is doing great. Act One ends in a finale in which the Noblemen are literally auctioned off—“Oh, he’s going, going, going for a million…”

Act Two opens with a “patter-song” sextet for the Newspaper Reporters covering the many new romantic engagements. A highlight of the act will be a Fancy Dress Ball (with ballet), not unlike the “Ball of All Nations” that would become the centerpiece of Act Two in Wizard. Some Hobos or Tramps join in the fun, getting a quartet. Character Dainty Dan gets an upbeat topical song, “I Know When I’ve Got Enough,” and, of course, there was a “Kiss Quartet,” with Act Three still to come. The Hobos perform “The Traveler and the Pie,” another song that will survive into Wizard. In the end Gripem Harde not only gets the girl, but gets a title of his own, becoming a Count.

Tietjens was pleased with Baum’s scenario. “It is one of the funniest things I have ever come across, but does not call for a very high order of music. I will try to get him to make concessions to me.” Tietjens wrote back to Baum, suggesting that the end be altered so that “the hero could marry the heroine without being obliged to become a Count. This would be more in keeping with the spirit of the story for it is directed against title worship.”

Tietjens tried to work on the comic opera, but it was “rather a futile effort . . . having no manuscript to work from.” He would have to wait for Baum.


Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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