An immortal icon

Where’s his new bio?


Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho

How are Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and George Balanchine, father of American ballet, linked to the longest-running operetta on Broadway?

Easy peasy. Ibsen is a character in it and Balanchine did the choreography. The operetta? Song of Norway, featuring musical adaptations from the works of Edvard Grieg and English lyrics written by Robert Wright and George Forrest.

Ibsen is a character in Song of Norway because he came to Grieg and asked him to write music for his play, Peer Gynt. The result is music known around the world, in particular, the opening, “Morning Mood,” and later on, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” These have both been featured multiple times in movies, TV shows, and even video games.

George Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, came to the U.S. in 1933, where he transformed American dance and created modern ballet. He co-founded the New York City Ballet and was its artistic director for 35 years. He said, “I don’t want people who want to dance. I want people who have to dance.” In his lengthy and fruitful career, Song of Norway was Balanchine’s most successful Broadway show.

First staged in California at Edwin Lester’s Los Angeles Civic Light Opera early in 1944, Song of Norway had already evolved from a play by Homer Curran turned into a book by Milton Lazarus. On August 21, 1944, it opened on Broadway where it enjoyed an 860-night run.

Still under German occupation in 1944, Norway was not a potential production site. Song of Norway opened in London in the West End at the Palace Theatre in 1945, running for 526 performances in the city where Norway’s king and crown prince had waited out the war. It was the first Broadway show to cross the Atlantic after the end of World War II.

Set in and around Troldhaugen and Bergen, the story fictionalizes the lives of three childhood friends, Edvard Grieg, Nina Hagerup, and Rikard Nordraak. Edvard’s dreams of being a great composer are shared by his sweetheart Nina and his friend Rikard.

Along comes “the Big Bad Wolf,” fictional opera singer Louisa Giovanni, who persuades Grieg to accompany her to Italy and tour as her pianist. But Grieg is distracted by the glitter and excitement and discovers he must return to Norway and to Nina to write the music of his country.

A lavish recording of seven 78 rpms on 12-inch discs was produced in 1944 by Decca Records with most of the original cast and snippets of dialogue in between the songs. Later Decca made a 33 1/3 rpm LP.

A revival occurred in 1958 at the James Beach Marina Theatre on Long Island where Guy Lombardo was the artistic director. “Strange Music” was a favorite of his and he decided to present the full show, reprising it in 1959 as well. At that time a new album was also cut by Columbia Records featuring the James Beach cast.

Inevitably, a movie was also produced in 1970 starring Florence Henderson, with the hope it would follow the same path to success as Sound of Music. It didn’t happen. Despite adding fabulous scenery to already fabulous music, this loose adaptation of the operetta and book fell short of its potential.

Still another version of the operetta was produced at Carnegie Hall in 2013 as a one-night event by the 170-voice Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra. Formed in 1941 under megaconductor Robert Shaw, the chorale, recently renamed MasterVoices, is still going 17 years after his death.

A small cast of six dancers and seven soloists were the key performers for this production, including Santino Fontana as Grieg. He was already well known for his role as the Prince in Cinderella. Another was Judy Kaye as the countess. Her role in Phantom of the Opera garnered her a Tony. This show’s soundtrack is also available on a CD.

Edvard Grieg, born June 15, 1843, “is to Norway what George Washington is to America and William Shakespeare is to England: his country’s most celebrated human icon,” according to one online source, “Classic FM, the World’s Greatest Music.”

The extensive use of his music in movies includes the famed tenor Mario Lanza singing a few lines from “I Love Thee, Dear” (“Jeg Elsker Deg”) in the 1958 film For the First Time. This is but the tip of the iceberg. List after list can be found documenting the ways Grieg’s music has been incorporated into modern media.

Another film that attempts to capture the feel of Grieg’s compositions is Edvard Grieg: Immortality at What Price? This 2001 production features concert pianist Stephan Schea portraying Grieg, including complete performances of two major works. Reviews rave about the music and Schea’s portrayal of Grieg but are not complimentary about the quality of the storyline itself, much the same as the criticism leveled at various stage and film versions of Song of Norway.

It remains for someone still out there to develop an updated film about this worldwide icon whose Norwegian folk music has endured for nearly two centuries. Isn’t it time for a new Song of Norway?

Barbara Rostad, a North Dakota Norwegian, has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2014. A versatile writer with degrees in journalism and sociology, Barbara has published articles and poems, edited newsletters, compiled a book about Ski for Light, and received writing awards from Idaho Writer’s League. A 45-year member of Sons of Norway, she’s often both newsletter editor and cultural director.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.