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Donald Brian


Donald Brian (1875-1948)

For the first quarter of the twentieth century Donald Brian defined "husband material" in American musical theater. Whether you were the Girl from Utah on the run from Mormon polygamy or the Merry Widow reluctant to surrender her liberty, Donald Brian inspired women hesitant about "the institution" to agree to a life partnership. A tenor from St. Johns, he sang in a relaxed, approachable style, danced easily without any great virtuosity, had a way of focussing on his stage partners that was emotionally convincing, and radiated a saneness and purposefulness that made both male and female audience members approve. He was the male lead in a series of hit extravaganzas, musicals, and operettas from "Florodora" in 1901 to "No, No, Nanette" in 1926. In the great George M. Cohan vehicles "Little Johnny Jones" and "45 Minutes from Broadway" he played foil to Cohan, but as Prince Danilo in 1907's "The Merry Widow" recreated the stage prince into an attractive chap who combined Old World nobility with American irony. Critics dubbed him "The King of Broadway"--an odd sort of King, not too greatly concerned with impressing you with majesty, or the sorts of contemporary.regal projects that were turning the Belgian Congo into a forced labor camp. He followed this landmark operetta with the hit musical "The Dollar Princess" with its parodies of the popular fixation upon royalty and titles; in it, playing Tom Crowder, Brian sidesteps an amorous crowd of typewriter girls and tennis girls to woo and win The Dollar Princess. By 1913 Brian's familiarity with the song idioms of Broadway was such that he reckoned he could pen a hit tune or two himself. He and the young Jerome Kern supplemented Victor Jacobi score for "The Marriage Market" with songs that Brian performed. Brian's partnership with Kern would pay off in 1915 when Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me" was added to the imported London musical "The Girl from Utah." Brian's duet with Julia Sanderson cemented a partnership that would be Broadway gold for the next several years and establish Kern as the young American composing talent to watch. Whether playing Grand Duke Constantine (with his eyebrows arched) or Sonny (with an aw shucks smile), Brian was invariably the most convincing male performer on the stage. As Lt. Bumerli in Oscar Strauss's "The Chocolate Soldier," (1921) Brian created his second landmark role in operetta. As the 1920s progressed, Brian's voice began to suffer from overuse. In 1923 he tried his hand at comic acting in the face "Barnum was Right" and found that his impeccable timing, his vocal control, and his ability to pass on audience focus to other performers made him a natural comedian. He final appearance on Broadway took place in Jerome Kern's final musical for Broadway, "Very Warm for May." Neither Brian nor Kern was happy at the tepid response the show inspired and washed their hands of New York critics and audiences. David S. Shields