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Victorian Lyric Opera Company Revives Victor Herbert’s ‘The Red Mill’ 6/6-16 by Felicity Ann Brown

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The show that made theatrical history in 1906 with Broadway’s first moving electrified sign is now bringing its cheery flair to Rockville, MD for the first time. The Red Mill bridges the gap between The Victorian Lyric Opera Company’s usual Gilbert and Sullivan fare and the modern American musical. This rarely performed, vaudeville-inspired show will be playing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in the Rockville Civic Center, in Rockville, MD June 6-16th.

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The Red Mill is a vibrant spectacle that is sure to please audiences of all ages. Best known for his musical Babes in Toyland, composer Victor Herbert’s work has received recent local attention from the Library of Congress in the form of a comprehensive exhibit featuring his life’s work last fall. This revival of The Red Mill features a cast of lovable characters and rousing ensemble numbers expertly guided by maestro Joseph F. Sorge, Music Director.

In the show, two American vaudevillians, “Kid Conner” and “Con Kidder,” who have been touring Europe, find themselves broke and stuck in Holland.  They are attempting to dodge their lodging bill and evade their innkeeper, whose daughter, Tina, longs to become an actress on the stage. In the meantime, the local Burgomaster plans for his daughter, Gretchen, to marry the Governor of Zeeland — but she is in love with Christian, a lowly ship’s captain. Furious, the Burgomaster locks Gretchen in the allegedly haunted “Red Mill.” Con, Kid, and Tina band together to help Gretchen escape, in exchange for passage back to “Old New York.” With a cast of artists, models, and aristocrats, this charming operetta is not to be missed.

I am thrilled to be directing the production for VLOC. The Red Mill shows just how important Victorian-era operetta was in setting the stage for the modern American musical. Our company has had such great success with our previous Victor Herbert concert performances – Naughty Marietta and Mlle. Modiste – that we are thrilled to have the opportunity to present The Red Mill fully-staged, with vibrant costumes and dance numbers that elicit memories of the early years of Broadway!

When Artisic & Music Director, Joe Sorge, first suggested The Red Mill as a potential show for VLOC, few of the VLOC Board members had heard of it.  As he went on to describe this gem of an operetta, explaining that it was more musical theatre than light opera, it became clear that this show was an opportunity to bring something fresh to our audiences, and I was sure I wanted to be a part of it.  I believe I might have actually grabbed the score out of his hands to start flipping through it before he was finished telling us about it.

The Red Mill was first produced on Broadway in 1906, as a vehicle for Vaudevillian comedians, David Montgomery and Fred Stone. The show made Broadway history, when Harry Somers, the manager of the Knickerbocker Theatre, decided to advertise the show by putting up a sign in front of the theatre in the shape of a revolving red windmill, powered by electricity and lit by red lights.  It was the first sign of its kind to light the Great White Way. The advertising must have worked, for the show ran 274 performances in its first run. The Red Mill found success again in 1945, when Fred Stone’s daughters revived the show with Michael O’Shea and Eddie Foy, Jr. in the roles of Kid and Con, which ran for 531 performances.

It has often been said that Victor Herbert was a Sullivan, without a Gilbert, but Henry Blossom was among the best of the librettists Herbert worked with. This job was particularly difficult when working with Montgomery and Stone, who were used to improvising their own comedy routines. One of these routines was a choreographed boxing match, put together with the help of boxer and performer, Jim Corbett.  We’ve incorporated a taste of this into the song “Whistle It.”

Due to Stone and Montgomery’s substantive adlibbing, there is not a definitive performing edition of the script in existence. For our production, we’ve relied on a performing edition provided to us by Quade Winter, which he based on the archival copies at the Library of Congress. He was originally commissioned to write this edition for the Ohio Light Opera Company in 2001, but he has provided us with a new revision of the libretto to work from, that differs quite greatly from the version the Ohio Light recorded. Even with the re-worked script, we still found the need to make tweaks here and there, the main decision being to set the entire show “By the Side of the Mill” and outside the Sign of the Red Mill Inn, rather than moving Act II indoors at the Burgomaster’s house.

Those familiar with the show will notice we have dropped one of Kid and Con’s songs from Act II. When I first listened to the recording, the song “Good-a-bye John” stood out from the rest of the score, and it bothered me. I found the answer in Gould’s biography Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life. The story goes that David Montgomery wanted the song, written by Harry Williams and Egbert van Alstyne, interpolated into the show. Montgomery went to Herbert and hummed the song for him, pretending he had thought up the tune himself, and Herbert wrote the song down and integrated it into the show. In the meantime, Producer Dillingham struck a deal with the publisher and authors of the song, and bought all 1000 copies of the music that had been printed, and hid them in the basement of the Knickerbocker Theatre. Herbert was furious when he stumbled upon the hidden sheet music several months later, but it was too late, the score for the show was already published and song was already associated with his name. After this incident, Herbert demanded in all of his future composition contracts that the only music in the show would be his and his alone. It is no wonder that he went on to testify before Congress, influencing the formation and development of the Copyright Act of 1909, which helped to secure the rights of composers to charge royalties on the sales of sound recordings. He also worked closely with composers such as John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin in founding the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1914, becoming its vice-president and director until his death in 1924.

Another story that made The Red Mill seem like perfect fit for our company was that Fred Stone was a huge fan of baseball, and at the time The Red Mill, his Red Mill team, and George M. Cohan’s team were rivals. “Both companies had funny looking male chorus members but they were all good baseball players.”  When a man showed up to audition for the chorus, Stone would take him outside to see if he could play ball, and if he could, he’d send him back in to sing for Herbert with his recommendation. Victor Herbert got exasperated when he realized these “recommended” men weren’t the singers he was looking for:

Herbert: My God, Fred, that man can’t sing a note! He has absolutely no
voice.

Stone: Please, Victor. He’s the best short stop I ever had!

Herbert: What have we got here, a baseball team, or a musical comedy?

What the Victorian Lyric Opera Company has here is a cast and crew of many talents, both on the stage and off. If you look down the cast list and the production staff list for this show, you’ll see a lot of names in both places. I am forever indebted to these multi-talented folks who have spent countless hours creating our beautiful set, pulling together props and costumes, and the hundreds of other little, and not-so-little tasks that go into creating a production like this. I’d like to say “thank you” to everyone who has “stepped up to the plate” to make this production a great one.

Enjoy the show!

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The Red Mill plays at The Victorian Lyric Opera at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre -, 603 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. Adult tickets are $24, senior tickets are $20, students tickets are $16, and all tickets for a special June 6th preview are $12. Sunday, June 9th is a community outreach matinee, including backstage tours and a craft project for kids starting at 12:45 pm. A talkback session will follow this performance as well. Performances on June 6, 7, 8, 14 & 15, are at 8 pm. Matinees are on June 9 & 16 at 2 pm. Purchase your tickets online or at the box office. For more information, please visit www.vloc.org.

LINKS

Here is the complete cast and list of designers of The Red Mill.

 For further reading on Victor Herbert:

Gould, Neil. Victor Herbert : A Theatrical Life. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Kaye, Joseph. Victor Herbert : The Biography of America’s Greatest Composer of Romantic Music. New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1931.

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