The story of composer Paul Abraham is one of the most intriguing in the history of operetta. Once considered the heir-apparent to the great Franz Lehar, Abraham took the operetta world by storm in the late 1920’s and early1930’s with his jazz-infused operettas Viktoria und ihr Hussar, Die Blume von Hawaii, and Ball im Savoy. Indeed, Abraham was the biggest operetta star of Weimar Germany, and drew international attention with his whimsical musical style. One critic wrote:
‘Abraham’s harmonic handling of themes was beyond the usual repertoire of the light music of the interwar period, particularly borrowings from jazz music are often to be noted; the same applies for the mostly complicated rhythmical structure of his contrapuntal part writing. These are opposed by rather unique tunes and the ability to invent crooning. … His Instrumentation is more exuberant than in most operettas of his age; enforced brass instrumentation, one to three pianos, banjos, extended drum kit and a vocal ensemble in the orchestra adopt contemporary trends of popular as well as high-class music.”
By early 1932, Abraham had two of the most celebrated operettas in all of Germany with his Viktoria und ihr Hussar and Die Blume vom Hawaii. The opening of Ball im Savoy in December 1932 was what one critic called the last major cultural event of Weimar Germany. The opening of Ball im Savoy was attended by dignitaries, ministers of government, and many of Berlin’s most prominent celebrities who turned out to see beloved operetta singer Gita Alpar and the popular comic duo of Rosy Barsony and Oscar Denes. The show ended well after midnight and only after Miss Alpar had given several encores of the hit song “Toujours l’amour” – at several different locations in the auditorium! The success, however, would not last long. By 1933, with the rise of Adolf Hitler, many of the finest Jewish artists and musicians were forced into exile, or to remain at the mercy of the state. Soon, with Nazi thugs continually disrupting performances, Abraham fled - first to Vienna, then to Budapest, Paris, and eventually Cuba, where he made a modest living as a pianist. By 1941 he was in New York. Alas, America was not the paradise he had dreamed of. Those composers and librettists who were fortunate enough to reach the safety of America were faced with a public that had largely moved on from the style of music at which they excelled. Theatrical producers had no use for their talents, since the American public didn’t want to see anything they associated with the German enemy. These frustrations were insharp contrast to the meteoric success Abraham had enjoyed in Europe. Over the next few years, Abraham was overcome by mental illness. Perhaps the difficulty in gaining a professional foothold in his adopted country played a role in his descent into madness. In 1945 Abraham was found standing in the middle of Madison Ave. in New York City, conducting an imaginary orchestra. The incident led to his being institutionalized in 1946, first at Bellevue Mental Hospital and eventually at Creedmoor Hospital in Queens, New York. Abraham remained at Creedmoor until 1956, when a group called The Paul Abraham Committee brought him back to Hamburg. Sadly, his condition never improved. He lived in a Hamburg mental hospital, where he eventually died in 1960.
Synopsis Ball at the Savoy
For Ball at the Savoy, Abraham worked with Fritz Löhner-Beda and Alfred Grünwald, two of the greatest librettists of Viennese operetta. (Both men were later persecuted by the Nazis - Grünwald fled to America and Beda perished in the camps.) The story follows Marquis Aristide de Faublas and his wife Madeleine, who have just returned to their villa in Nice from their year-long honeymoon. The Marquis receives a telegram from the dancer Tangolita, a former lover of his to whom he had promised an intimate supper on a night of her choosing, no matter the circumstance. Tangolita wants him to take her that very night to the annual Grand Ball at the Hotel Savoy. Calling on his old friend Mustafa Bey, the Marquis persuades his wife that he has to go to the Savoy to meet the famous and secretive jazz musician José Pasodoble. Madeleine cannot go because the suitcase with her ball gown has not arrived. Pasodoble, however, is the pseudonym of Madeleine’s American cousin, Daisy. Madeleine now knows she is to be deceived. Seeking revenge, Madeleine decides to go to the Ball using a veil to keep her identity hidden. She flirts with the charming Celestin Formant, a young man looking for adventure, while Mustafa takes aim at Daisy. Madeleine and Celestin and the Marquis and Tangolita each withdraw to separate rooms for dinner. The Marquis decides to call his wife at home, and a very alert waiter diverts the call to Madeleine’s table. Realizing that the Marquis is still keeping up his ruse, she succumbs to the charms of her young suitor - or at least that’s what she tells the Marquis. Daisy reveals herself to be Pasodoble, and Madeleine reveals her betrayal to the public. The Marquis calls a lawyer to file for divorce: the lawyer, however, is none other than Celestin, who refuses to confirm that Madeleine betrayed her husband. Mustafa proposes to Daisy, and they agree to marry if Aristide and Madeleine reconcile. Daisy reveals the truth to the Marquis, and the couple is re-united.