The Merry Widow is one of those rare ballets that was a hit right from its opening night. Enter the world of this Belle Époque rom-com, and you'll soon see why. There are flashing eyes and frothing frills, champagne and tiaras, love lost and won, days saved and nights to remember. And what's more, there's some deep, relatable feelings and genuinely touching moments amid the high kicks and hoop-la.
The plot of The Merry Widow is full of double takes, double trouble and TWISTS! But despite the tantrums and heartaches, it all ends as sweetly as a Bombe Alaska. Before you waltz away with Hanna, check out this collection of titbits about the music, the costumes and the high-society history of this perennial favourite.
The Merry Widow is brought to you for free by our production partner Van Cleef & Arpels.
WHICH VERSION IS THIS?
“All theatre should be glamorous,” proclaimed Sir Robert Helpmann in the souvenir program for the 1975 premiere of The Merry Widow. And this cosummate Renaissance man made it so. An Australian by birth, Helpmann had conquered both the theatre and ballet worlds, pulling off the extraordinary feat of playing Oberon opposite Vivian Leigh's Titania at the Old Vic Theatre as beautifully as he danced Albrecht opposite Margot Fonteyn's Giselle at Sadler's Wells. As artistic director of The Australian Ballet, he brought a refreshing modernity, but also a glittering sophistication and a showman's sense for what would wow an audience. And wow them he did, by bringing the choreographer Ronald Hynd, the designer Desmond Heeley and the musical arranger Jack Lanchbery together to make theatrical magic in their adaptation of Franz Léhar's beloved operetta The Merry Widow.
Just as Murphy's Swan Lake was in the 2000s, The Merry Widow became The Australian Ballet's international calling card, an entrée to global attention; Fonteyn danced Hanna with the company in America, and Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Onassis attended the premiere. And as with Swan Lake, generations of stars have grown up with the ballet, working their way from waiters and ball guests to the main roles. So when we perform this ballet, it's a very special thing, like the keeping of a flame.
Watch out for: The moment in Act I when Count Danilo and Hanna are introduced in the ballroom. It's an emotionally charged scene, as they recognise each other from the romance of their young days. Don't miss the brilliant comic acting in the background from David McAllister and Steven Heathcote, as the Pontrovedrian officials who are eager for the two to wed, as it will save their country's fortunes.
Fun fact: When the ballet premiered at the Palais Theatre, the audience was so transported that towards the end of the ballet, some started to sing the words of the operetta along with the music. As people left the theatre, they were still humming the tunes.
Deep dive: Marilyn Rowe (the original Hanna), Steven Heathcote, David McAllister, and current stars Adam Bull and Amber Scott talk about what makes The Merry Widow so special.
Bonus Merriment: Keep waltzing all night long! This vintage 1993 recording stars Lisa Pavane and Steven Heathcote, with David McAllister as Camille and Rebecca Yates as Valencienne.Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photography Kate Longley
WHO DANCES THE LEAD ROLES?
Our principal artists Amber Scott and Adam Bull are the reunited lovers Hanna and Danilo. In real life, they're lifelong friends. Bull's princely bearing makes him perfect for the dashing, carousing nobleman nursing a secret sorrow. Scott's old-Hollywood beauty and lyrical lightness give extra wattage to the bright spell that Hanna casts over every room she enters.
Watch out for: In Act II, Hanna and Danilo slowly drop their prideful guards and admit that they still love one other. She ties the scarf she gave him as a girl around his neck ... he cradles her head ... not a dry eye in the house!
Fun fact: The first time Adam Bull performed Danilo, it was with former Principal Artist Olivia Bell, who let him in on a little secret just before they went on. When Bull went to give her a good-luck present, she confided that she was pregnant. "Those first shows with Olivia were quite special because we were dancing for three!"
Deep dive: Bull and Scott: they're the perfect partners.Photography Daniel Boud / Kate Longley
WHO WROTE THE MUSIC?
Franz Léhar wrote the original operetta, but the music was arranged for The Australian Ballet by the legendary Jack Lanchbery. His work was a masterpiece of embroidery, watercolouring and ventriloquy. Not only did he put the melodic lines of the voices into the orchestration, he wonderfully 'painted' with orchestral colours to make the score rich, full and lush; he also wrote connecting passages and whole numbers, working so sensitvely in the style of Léhar that it all makes a seamless whole.
Listen out for: The Pontevedrian folk dance for Hanna’s solo in Act II, which is a Lanchbery original.
Fun fact: The Australian soprano June Bronhill, a famed interpreter of Hanna, gave Lanchbery the tribute he always remembered best: “Oh Jack, you are so clever – all those **** lovely tunes, and none of those **** awful words!”
Deep dive: Ormsby Wilkins, musical director of American Ballet Theatre, discusses the Lanchbery score and why it's so special to him.Sarah Thompson and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Kate Longley
WHO DESIGNED THE SETS AND COSTUMES?
Desmond Heeley rose deliciously to the challenge of turning Belle Époque fashions into danceable costumes. Obviously the famous Merry Widow hat, wider than a woman's shoulders, was out; and the floor-length dresses had to be cut away at the front to allow the dancers to move, although they retained their sweeping trains, held elegantly in one gloved hand. Although Heeley captures the era's dapper diplomats' uniforms and swooshing ruffles to a T, the burnt orange of Chez Maxime and its can-can girls remind us that the designs were, after all, created in the 1970s.
Watch out for: The delicate tiaras Hanna wears in the ballroom and Chez Maxime scenes, embellished with a half moon and stars.
Fun fact: At the beginning of Act III, Hanna stalks into Chez Maxime like a queen, wearing a long ruffled white cloak. Heeley had wanted something like Marlene Dietrich’s famous swan's-down cloak, without the expense and fragility of real swan feathers. One day, in our costume department, he passed a pile of white net scraps left by cutters creating tutus and began pinning them together. Hanna’s knockout white cloak was born.
Deep dive: Take a languorous glide around the mannequins and compare the gorgeous detail to the costume on stage.Amber Scott. Photography Daniel Boud