Ralph Benatzkys Hollywood-Operettensatire "Axel an der Himmelstür" auf CD

Gesamtaufnahme mit der Uraufführungssängerin Zarah Leander in der Hauptrolle

von Kevin Clarke

© Walhall
Ralph Benatzkys
"Axel an der Himmelstür"
auf CD erschienen -
mit Zarah Leander
Es hat ein paar Jahre gedauert, aber nun ist es doch soweit: Benatzkys Hollywood-Satireoperette aus dem Jahr 1936 ist endlich als Gesamtaufnahme auf CD erschienen - mit der Uraufführungssängerin
Zarah Leander in der Hauptrolle
Es handelt sich um eine Produktion des Östereichischen Rundfunks ORF von 1958, die nun beim britischen Label Walhall als Doppel-CD auf den Markt gekommen ist. (Nachdem dort kürzlich ebenfalls Benatzkys König mit dem Regenschirm in einer wunderbar restaurierten Fassung des RIAS erschienen ist.)
Die CD ist ab dieser Woche im Handel erhältlich. Sie enthält als Bonus-Tracks auch einige historische Aufnahmen der Uraufführungssänger Max Hansen und Leander, die zeigen, wie sich der 'Operettenstil' geändert hat, und wie fabelhaft Leander auch mit neuen Orchesterarrangements in den Fünfziger Jahren als exzentrische Filmdiva Gloria Mills war.
Nachfolgend der Text aus dem CD-Booklet:
"In Holly-Holly-Hollywood": Zarah Leander in her greatest operetta role – 1936 on stage and 1958 in the recording studio in Vienna
It might come as a bit of a surprise to operetta fans today to find a "Viennese Operetta" premiered in Vienna and written by some of the top Viennese specialists in the field to be set in Hollywood, of all places, and dealing with an eccentric film diva, ruthless paparazzi, studio bosses with lots of cash but limited brain capacity, hyperventilating film directors etc. etc. An operetta that contains only one real Viennese Waltz song which in turn celebrates the glories of US-films set in Austria, Mickey Mouse wearing Lederhosen and American tourists falling for dirndl fashion while visiting Salzburg. The rest of the score contains a languorous blues ("Gebundene Hände"), a slow waltz, a tango ("Gute Nacht"), foxtrots, and some totally mad cap yodel-numbers ("In Holly-Holly-Hollywood"). The piece in question is Ralph Benatzky's 1936 megahit Axel an der Himmelstür which he wrote together with cabaret stars Paul Morgan, Adolf Schütz (book) and Hans Weigel (lyrics), and which premiered at the Theater an der Wien with a superlative cast: Max Hansen as the Hollywood reporter Axel and newcomer Zarah Leander as film diva Gloria Mills. Miss Leander was such a sensation in the show that she became a real life film diva shortly afterwards when the German film company Ufa hired her and turned her into one of the brightest stars of Nazi-cinema, a successful substitute for Marlene Dietrich who had tuned her back on the Third Reich.
It was actually not unusual for Viennese operettas of the 1930s to be set in Hollywood or America in general. Operettas were still a commercial art form back then and authors always chose topics that where of general interest. Carl Millöcker's Der arme Jonathan had already dealt with America in 1890, as had Leo Fall's Dollarprinzessin in 1907, both shows premiered, like Axel, at the Theater an der Wien. Of course, film stars were just as popular in the 1920s and 30s as they are now. No wonder, that various famous operetta composers wrote shows dealing especially with the film world and behind-the-camera conditions – from Oscar Straus' Hochzeit in Hollywood, Emmerich Kálmán's Herzogin von Chicago, both 1928, to Paul Ábrahám's Märchen im Grand Hotel, 1934. But the most dazzling Hollywood-operetta of them all, and indeed also the most successful, critically and commercially, is Benatzky's Axel which offers an ideal blend of all that was fabulous about German language operetta before the Nazis turned it into the boring nostalgic 'fluff' we know it as today. In contrast, Axel is sharp, witty, and politically extremely topical. Apart from the main plot concerning the film diva Gloria (strongly modeled in Greta Garbo in the film Grand Hotel) and the reporter Axel, the operetta shows Viennese exiles working in Hollywood – due to political circumstances in Germany after 1933 a rather realistic subplot. What is special about Axel is that the authors – some of whom went to the US themselves after the "Anschluss" of Austria in 1938 (like Benatzky) or were deported and killed in concentration camps (like Paul Morgan) – deal with the exile topic in a light hearted and self-parodist way, that is so typical for 'Jewish Operetta' before 1933/38. And there is hardly anything more funny than the 'All Jewish' ensemble of the film crew arguing over how to handle the eccentric diva, an ensemble which was headed by Paul Morgan himself on stage as Cecil McScott, the "chief producer".
Originally, the role of Gloria Mills was supposed to have been played by Liane Haid, a German film star and operetta actress. (She had appeared in the silent movie version of Im weißen Rössl 1926, and later in various Benatzky shows and films.) When the charming but hardly eccentric Haid pulled out of the project at the last moment, the production team urgently needed a substitute. Max Hansen, Benatzky's original Leopold in Im weißen Rössl and by 1936 a superstar on stage and screen, recommended an unknown singer from Sweden whom he knew from one of his Scandinavian tours (Hansen was Danish). The authors invited Zarah Leander to Vienna and auditioned her. Benatzky wrote in his diary: "Zarah Leander is a grand, red-blonde, heroic contra-alto from Stockholm, she is what one might call a 'junoesque appearance.'" She was definitely different to Liane Haid, and though casting Leander meant that Benatzky had to re-write most of the score and transpose it down, Leander with her stunning looks and vibrant basso profundo-voice was an overnight sensation. Max Hansen described the opening night: "Zarah sang with a voice that reached the last corner of the auditorium. I stood in the wings and watched the audience. People sat up and listened when she came on. What was this? A prima donna who wasn't a soprano, not even a mezzo? The first minutes went by with cautious waiting, but after a while people began to whisper among themselves, to nod and to exchange knowing looks. Soon Zarah had conquered her audience – people realized that she was something unusual and precious. That she was a real artist up there on the stage." The Neue Freie Presse appropriately labeled Leander the "Greta Garbo of operetta" and after 100 en suite-performances, a Viennese caricaturist rhymed: "Geschundene Hände, Beifall ohne Ende – Das ist der Clou der Saison! Schon 100 beinander! Zarah Leander spiel'n seh'n ist eine Passion!" ("Poor hands, applause without end. She is the highlight of the season. Already 100 performances. To see Zarah Leander perform is fulfillment.")
When Leander went onto her real life film career, she insisted on Benatzky as her composer, and he wrote her two of her greatest hits for her first film Zu neuen Ufern (1937): "Ich steh' im Regen" and "Yes, Sir!" Meanwhile, Axel was performed in Germany in an adapted Nazi-version that eliminated the names of the Jewish authors at the Gärtnerplatztheater Munich, among other places, with Johannes Heesters as the reporter, now no longer working in Hollywood but for a German newspaper in Germany, writing about German stars in German films for German audiences. There were even plans to turn the show into a film with Zarah Leander in the lead role, but she had retreated to Sweden by 1943 and the film Liebespremiere was instead made with Kirsten Heiberg as 'the diva', Franz Grothe wrote a completely new score and the film had very little resemblance with the original stage show.
After the war was over, Austrians and Germans were not particularly interested in promoting operetta as an international art form à la Hochzeit in Hollywood or Märchen im Grand Hotel, so instead of shows with flamboyant Hollywood-topics they rather played old-fashioned Viennese titles that did not touch upon anything remotely connected with National Socialism, "Entartete Musik", exile or similar unwelcome things. Viennese operetta after 1945 was nostalgic, schmaltzy, full of waltzes, violins and champagne. There was no room for a jazzy piece like Axel an der Himmelstür, not even in its toned down 'Arian' Gärtnerplatztheater version.  
But since Zarah Leander was still a superstar and adored diva in post war times, and since she still regularly performed songs from Axel in her concert programs, the show was not entirely forgotten. So in 1958 the Austrian radio station ORF decided to record the piece with Zarah Leander herself. An event, that sent Vienna into a flutter when Miss Leander arrived in the city for the recording sessions. Back in July 1936, only Max Hansen – the then star of the show – had recorded his numbers prior to opening night, after the success of Leander she herself made one recording in September 1936 ("Eine Frau von heut'"). And only a year later, while already under contract for Ufa, did she record "Kinostar" with the Ufa orchestra. On the Austrian radio in 1958 audiences nationwide had the first chance to hear a Leander recording of the entire score – and it must be said right away that she is simply sensational as Gloria Mills, probably even better than in 1936, because by now she was as mad and grand as the story demands. Operetta had turned into reality. Only listen to Leander melodramatically blasting out "Ihr habt ja aus mir eine Puppe gemacht" ("You've turned me into a puppet!") to know how unique Leander is in 1958.
What also makes this recording special is the fact that it is one of the rare examples where the new orchestral arrangement by Heinz Sandauer is as good, if not better, than the original one. Instead of the typical 'sweet' and 'lush' operetta orchestrations typical of the fifties, a splashier, more Ufa-kind of arrangement was chosen, that jumps out at the listener and is the second glory of this ORF-recording. These glories make one forget that Toni Niessner, though suave in his own right, is no match for the zany Max Hansen, but at least Niessner tries his best with the "Holly-Holly-Hollywood"-yodel. And the re-vamped waltz finale about the "Vienna Film" (now a duet) is superbly executed by Helli Servi as Jessie Leyland and Erich Dörner as Theodor Herlinger, the exile in Hollywood – the two of them also giving a rousing rendition of the "Taboo Foxtrot". Strangely, the entire opening sequence in Cecil McScott's Hollywood office is not sung but spoken in rhyme (without music). And the role of Dinah (a sort of black-face "Mammy" in the Gone with the Wind -tradition) is limited to some rather un-amusing side remarks. But who cares? Zarah Leander dominates everything and steals the show from everyone. She is indeed: "The Star!"
Considering the rewarding central role of Gloria, the hit song "Gebundene Hände" and the still wonderfully up-to-date Hollywood-story, and considering how many Zarah Leander impersonators tour Europe with her repertoire today, it is surprising that hardly anyone has performed Axel an der Himmelstür since. It would be an ideal vehicle for (drag) divas or countertenors like Tim Fischer, Ursli Pfister, Jochen Kowalski or Daniela Ziegler, Dagmar Manzel or Desirée Nick (not to mention Sunset Boulevard-stars like Glenn Close or Patti LuPone.) Perhaps this first ever CD-release of the entire show will remind theater directors of Axel and its potential. In any case, it is a unique document of Zarah Leander in her greatest and most successful operetta role, and it is one of her most fabulous performances on disc. That in itself is quite a treat.
© Dr. Kevin Clarke / Operetta Research Center Amsterdam