After 15 years of construction, the Sydney Opera House is dedicated by Queen Elizabeth II. The $80 million structure, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and funded by the profits of the Opera House Lotteries, was built on Bennelong Point, in Sydney, Australia. Famous for its geometric roof shells, the structure contains several large auditoriums and presents an average of 3,000 events a year to an estimated two million people. The first performance in the complex was the Australian Opera’s production of Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace, which was held in the 1,547-seat Opera Theatre. Today, the Opera House remains Sydney’s best-known landmark.
Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, debuts in Milan. The premiere was held at La Scala, Italy’s most prestigious theater. Oberto was received favorably, and the next day the composer was commissioned by Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario at La Scala, to write three more operas. In 1842, after some personal and professional setbacks, the opera Nabucco made Verdi an overnight celebrity. He would go on to compose such classic operas as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Aída, and Otello.
Giuseppe Verdi was born in Le Roncole in the former duchy of Parma in 1813. His father was a tavern keeper and grocer, and Verdi demonstrated a natural gift for music early. He studied music in the neighboring town of Busseto and at the age of 18 was sent to Milan by a sponsor to enter the Milan Conservatory. He was rejected for being overage but stayed in Milan and studied under Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and former harpsichordist at La Scala. In 1834, Verdi returned to Busseto and became musical director of the Philharmonic Society.
Five years later, Verdi, at 26 years of age, saw his first opera debut at La Scala, the finest theater in Italy. Oberto was followed by Un giorno di regno (King for a Day, 1840), a comic opera that was a critical and commercial failure. Verdi, lamenting its poor reception and also the recent deaths of his wife and two children, decided to give up composing. A year later, however, the director of La Scala convinced him to write an opera based on the story of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II. Nabucco (1842) was a sensational success, followed by I Lombardi (The Lombards, 1843) and Ernani (1844).
Rigoletto (1851) is considered his first masterpiece, and Il Trovatore (The Troubadour, 1853) and La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853) brought him international fame and cemented his reputation as a major composer of opera. Verdi’s melodic and dramatic style was further developed in Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball, 1859) and La forza del destino (The Power of Destiny, 1862). Aída (1871), commissioned by the khedive of Egypt and first performed in Cairo, is his most famous work.
Late expressions of his genius are Otello (Othello, 1887), completed at age 73, and Falstaff, which premiered in 1893 when Verdi was 80. Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera and is considered one of the greatest comic operas. Verdi died in Milan in 1901. He was greatly honored in his lifetime and is credited with transforming Italian opera into true musical drama.
On September 26, 1957, West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein, opens at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. For the groundbreaking musical, Bernstein provided a propulsive and rhapsodic score that many celebrate as his greatest achievement as a composer. However, even without the triumph of West Side Story, Bernstein’s place in musical history was firmly established. In addition to his work as a composer, the “Renaissance man of music” excelled as a conductor, a concert pianist, and a teacher who brought classical music to the masses.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1918, Bernstein began piano lessons at his own insistence when he was 10. He immediately demonstrated an instinctive talent for music and by age 12 was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. He studied piano and composition at Harvard but was encouraged by the American composer Aaron Copland and others to become a conductor after they observed Bernstein’s intuitive grasp of classical music and his unusual ability to play complex orchestral scores on the piano.
He studied conducting with Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky and in 1943 was hired as an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic. In the history of the orchestra, no assistant had been called on to conduct, but on November 14 fate smiled on Bernstein when guest conductor Bruno Walter fell ill. The night before, Bernstein had heard a singer perform one of his compositions and then, in typical Bernstein fashion, had stayed up late drinking and playing piano at the post-recital party. With three hours of sleep, a hangover, and no rehearsal, Bernstein was asked to conduct a complex program of Schumann, Strauss, Rosza, and Wagner that was going to broadcast from Carnegie Hall across the nation by CBS radio. The concert was a sensational success, and The New York Times published a front-page article the next day announcing the arrival of a great new conducting talent.
For the rest of his life, Bernstein was an internationally sought-after conductor. He toured the world many times over and in 1953 became the first American to conduct at La Scala in Milan, Italy’s foremost opera house. He had an animated and flamboyant style, and on more than one occasion Bernstein actually fell off his conducting podium in his enthusiasm. A respected classical pianist, he sometimes conducted from the piano stool. Charismatic and good looking, Bernstein was a popular idol known to people who never listened to classical music.
Refusing to restrict himself to conducting, he composed acclaimed symphonies, operas, and scores for ballets. He was also deeply interested in American popular music, and jazz influences can be found in many of his classical pieces. His best-known works were for Broadway, and the musicals he composed include On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957).
For West Side Story, a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transposed onto New York’s West Side, Bernstein worked with the brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins and the lyricist Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story tells the tale of a love affair between Tony, who is Polish American, and Maria, a Puerto Rican, set against an urban background of interracial warfare. With its gritty story and volatile dance sequences, West Side Story was the antithesis of traditional American musicals. Bernstein’s exhilarating, semi-operatic score runs throughout the play and keeps the tension and emotion high.
When it opened on September 26, 1957, West Side Story received a mixed critical response. Debuting one day after the forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, the musical’s story of racial conflict was discomfiting to some. West Side Story won just two Tony Awards, for choreography and set design, but made an impressive maiden run of 732 performances. In 1961, a film version starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno and Richard Beymer was an enormous hit, and took home 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The stage version of West Side Story was soon revived, and the musical is still performed today.
Leonard Bernstein was also a talented educator who taught America about classical music with the television programs Omnibus and Young People’s Concerts. In 1973, he was invited to Harvard to lecture on linguistics and music. He died in 1990 at the age of 72.
At the height of the Great Depression, thousands turn out for the opening of Radio City Music Hall, a magnificent Art Deco theater in New York City. Radio City Music Hall was designed as a palace for the people, a place of beauty where ordinary people could see high-quality entertainment. Since its 1932 opening, more than 300 million people have gone to Radio City to enjoy movies, stage shows, concerts and special events.
Radio City Music Hall was the brainchild of the billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who decided to make the theater the cornerstone of the Rockefeller Complex he was building in a formerly derelict neighborhood in midtown Manhattan. The theater was built in partnership with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and designed by Donald Deskey. The result was an Art Deco masterpiece of elegance and grace constructed out of a diverse variety of materials, including aluminum, gold foil, marble, permatex, glass, and cork. Geometric ornamentation is found throughout the theater, as is Deskey’s central theme of the “Progress of Man.” The famous Great Stage, measuring 60 feet wide and 100 feet long, resembles a setting sun. Its sophisticated system of hydraulic-powered elevators allowed spectacular effects in staging, and many of its original mechanisms are still in use today.
In its first four decades, Radio City Music Hall alternated as a first-run movie theater and a site for gala stage shows. More than 700 films have premiered at Radio City Music Hall since 1933. In the late 1970s, the theater changed its format and began staging concerts by popular music artists. The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, which debuted in 1933, draws more than a million people annually. The show features the high-kicking Rockettes, a precision dance troupe that has been a staple at Radio City since the 1930s.
On February 17, 1904, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly premieres at the La Scala theatre in Milan, Italy.
The young Puccini decided to dedicate his life to opera after seeing a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in 1876. In his later life, he would write some of the best-loved operas of all time: La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904) and Turandot (left unfinished when he died in 1924). Not one of these, however, was an immediate success when it opened. La Boheme, the now-classic story of a group of poor artists living in a Paris garret, earned mixed reviews, while Tosca was downright panned by critics.
While supervising a production of Tosca in London, Puccini saw the play Madame Butterfly, written by David Belasco and based on a story by John Luther Long. Taken with the strong female character at its center, he began working on an operatic version of the play, with an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Written over the course of two years—including an eight-month break when Puccini was badly injured in a car accident—the opera made its debut in Milan in February 1904.
Set in Nagasaki, Japan, Madame Butterfly told the story of an American sailor, B.F. Pinkerton, who marries and abandons a young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly. In addition to the rich, colorful orchestration and powerful arias that Puccini was known for, the opera reflected his common theme of living and dying for love. This theme often played out in the lives of his heroines—women like Cio-Cio-San, who live for the sake of their lovers and are eventually destroyed by the pain inflicted by that love.
Perhaps because of the opera’s foreign setting or perhaps because it was too similar to Puccini’s earlier works, the audience at the premiere reacted badly to Madame Butterfly, hissing and yelling at the stage. Puccini withdrew it after one performance. He worked quickly to revise the work, splitting the 90-minute-long second act into two parts and changing other minor aspects. Four months later, the revamped Madame Butterfly went onstage at the Teatro Grande in Brescia. This time, the public greeted the opera with tumultuous applause and repeated encores, and Puccini was called before the curtain 10 times. Madame Butterfly went on to huge international success, moving to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1907.
Once a hall for operettas, pantomime, political meetings, and vaudeville, the Folies Bergère in Paris introduces an elaborate revue featuring women in sensational costumes. The highly popular “Place aux Jeunes” established the Folies as the premier nightlife spot in Paris. In the 1890s, the Folies followed the Parisian taste for striptease and quickly gained a reputation for its spectacular nude shows. The theater spared no expense, staging revues that featured as many as 40 sets, 1,000 costumes, and an off-stage crew of some 200 people.
The Folies Bergère dates back to 1869, when it opened as one of the first major music halls in Paris. It produced light opera and pantomimes with unknown singers and proved a resounding failure. Greater success came in the 1870s, when the Folies Bergère staged vaudeville. Among other performers, the early vaudeville shows featured acrobats, a snake charmer, a boxing kangaroo, trained elephants, the world’s tallest man, and a Greek prince who was covered in tattoos allegedly as punishment for trying to seduce the Shah of Persia’s daughter. The public was allowed to drink and socialize in the theater’s indoor garden and promenade area, and the Folies Bergère became synonymous with the carnal temptations of the French capital. Famous paintings by Édouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were set in the Folies.
In 1886, the Folies Bergère went under new management, which, on November 30, staged the first revue-style music hall show. The “Place aux Jeunes,” featuring scantily clad chorus girls, was a tremendous success. The Folies women gradually wore less and less as the 20th century approached, and the show’s costumes and sets became more and more outrageous. Among the performers who got their start at the Folies Bergère were Yvette Guilbert, Maurice Chevalier, and Mistinguett. The African American dancer and singer Josephine Baker made her Folies debut in 1926, lowered from the ceiling in a flower-covered sphere that opened onstage to reveal her wearing a G-string ornamented with bananas.
The Folies Bergère remained a success throughout the 20th century and still can be seen in Paris today, although the theater now features many mainstream concerts and performances. Among other traditions that date back more than a century, the show’s title always contains 13 letters and includes the word “Folie.”
Did the young Austrian nun named Maria really take to the hills surrounding Salzburg to sing spontaneously of her love of music? Did she comfort herself with thoughts of copper kettles, and did she swoon to her future husband’s song about an alpine flower while the creeping menace of Nazism spread across central Europe? No, the real-life Maria von Trapp did none of those things. She was indeed a former nun, and she did indeed marry Count Georg von Trapp and become stepmother to his large brood of children, but nearly all of the particulars she related in her 1949 book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, were ignored by the creators of the Broadway musical her memoir inspired. And while the liberties taken by the show’s writers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and by its composer and lyricist, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, caused some consternation to the real Maria von Trapp and to her stepchildren, according to many later reports, those liberties made The Sound of Music a smash success from the very night of its Broadway opening on November 16, 1959.
With a creative team made up of Broadway legends and a star as enormously popular and bankable as Mary Martin, it was no surprise that The Sound of Music drew enormous advance sales. But audiences continued to flock to The Sound of Music despite sometimes tepid reviews, like the one in TheNew York Times that said the show “lack[ed] the final exultation that marks the difference between a masterpiece and a well-produced musical entertainment.” Reviewer Brooks Atkinson did, however, single out the “affecting beauty” of the music from The Sound of Music as saving it from a story verging on “sticky.”
Sticky or no, The Sound of Music was an instant success, and numerous songs from its score— including “Do Re Mi,” “My Favorite Things” and “Climb Every Mountain”—quickly entered the popular canon. Indeed, the original cast recording of The Sound of Music was nearly as big a phenomenon as the show itself. Recorded just a week after the show’s premiere on this day in 1959 and released by Columbia Records, the album shot to the top of the Billboard album charts.
Hailed by many critics as Eugene O’Neill’s finest work, The Iceman Cometh opens at the Martin Beck Theater on October 9, 1946. The play, about desperate tavern bums clinging to illusion as a remedy for despair, was the last O’Neill play to be produced on Broadway before the author’s death in 1953.
Like many of his other works, the play drew on O’Neill’s firsthand experiences with all-night dive bars and desperate characters. Although his actor father sent him to top prep schools and to Princeton, O’Neill dropped out of college after a year. He went to sea, searched for gold in South America, haunted the waterfront bars in Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and New York, and married briefly. He drank heavily. In 1912, when O’Neill was nearly 30, he came down with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in Connecticut. While recovering, he wrote his first play and decided to devote himself to drama. He began churning out gritty, realistic plays about lives on the margins of society. He wrote nine plays from 1913 to 1914, six from 1916 to 1917, and four in 1918. In 1917, a Greenwich Village theater group, the Provincetown Players, performed his one-act play Thirst. The group became closely associated with O’Neill’s future work. In 1920, his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced on Broadway.
Between 1920 and 1943, O’Neill wrote 20 long plays and several short ones. His work was groundbreaking in its use of slangy, everyday dialogue, its dingy, run-down settings, and his experimental use of light, sound, and casting to set an emotional tone.
O’Neill’s family life had been very unhappy. His father became rich playing just one theater role, the Count of Monte Cristo, for many years and never succeeded in becoming a more serious actor. His mother used morphine, and his beloved older brother became an alcoholic. All three died between 1920 and 1923. O’Neill wrote several autobiographical plays about his family after they died, including A Moon for the Misbegotten (produced in 1957) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (produced in 1956). Other major works include The Hairy Ape (1923) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Although O’Neill was an outgoing host with an active social life during his second marriage, he became reclusive during his third. In the 1940s, he developed a degenerative nervous disease, and he died in Boston in 1953. Many critics call O’Neill America’s first major playwright.
The Globe Theatre, where most of Shakespeare’s plays debuted, burned down on June 29, 1613.
The Globe was built by Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in 1599 from the timbers of London’s very first permanent theater, Burbage’s Theater, built in 1576. Before James Burbage built his theater, plays and dramatic performances were ad hoc affairs, performed on street corners and in the yards of inns. However, the Common Council of London, in 1574, started licensing theatrical pieces performed in inn yards within the city limits. To escape the restriction, actor James Burbage built his own theater on land he leased outside the city limits. When Burbage’s lease ran out, the Lord Chamberlain’s men moved the timbers to a new location and created the Globe.
Like other theaters of its time, the Globe was a round wooden structure with a stage at one end, and covered balconies for the gentry. The galleries could seat about 1,000 people, with room for another 2,000 “groundlings,” who could stand on the ground around the stage.
The Lord Chamberlain’s men built Blackfriars theater in 1608, a smaller theater that seated about 700 people, to use in winter when the open-air Globe wasn’t practical.
The financial risk of mounting a Broadway musical is so great that few productions ever make it to the Great White Way without a period of tryouts and revisions outside of New York City. This was as true in the 1940s as it is today, and especially so during the war years, when the producers of an innovative little musical called Away We Go had real concerns about their show’s commercial viability. Even with lyrics and music by two of theater’s leading lights, Away We Go was believed by many to be a flop in the making. Indeed, an assistant to the famous gossip columnist Walter Winchell captured the prevailing wisdom in a telegram sent from New Haven, Connecticut, during the show’s out-of-town tryout. His message read: “No girls. No legs. No chance.” This would prove to be one of the most off-base predictions in theater history when the slightly retooled show opened on Broadway on March 31, 1943 under a new title—Oklahoma!—and went on to set a Broadway record of 2,212 performances before finally closing 5 years later.
What was it that made Oklahoma! seem so risky? For one, it was the first show undertaken by the already legendary composer Richard Rodgers without his longtime partner, Lorenz Hart. Hart’s drinking and other personal problems had rendered him unable to work by 1942, so Rodgers would undertake his next project with a new partner, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. While Rodgers and Hammerstein almost instantly clicked as a songwriting duo, the creative chances they were taking with Oklahoma! were significant. The show had no big-name stars involved in it, it was based on relatively obscure source material and it was an ambitious experiment in integrating music and dance in service of storytelling rather than spectacle. At a time when Broadway musicals always opened with a “bang,” Oklahoma! would open with a lone cowboy singing a gentle idyll about corn and meadows.
From the very first moment on opening night, however, Oklahoma! hit a nerve. The show’s choreographer, the legendary Agnes DeMille, later recalled the audience reaction to that opening number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’: “[It] produced a sigh from the entire house, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in the theater. It was just, ‘aaaahh…’ It was perfectly lovely, and deeply felt.” Of the reaction to the title song, “Oklahoma!,” actress Joan Roberts, the original Laurey, said, “The applause was so deafening, and it continued and continued. We repeated two encores, and we stood there, until they stopped applauding! And I didn’t think they ever would!” That famous number had been changed from a solo to a full-cast showstopper only weeks earlier, during the show’s final tune-ups in Boston before the beginning of its history-making Broadway run on this day in 1943.