Lovelorn Tenors Anonymous

There was a time when tenors ruled the roost, a time when they would inevitably get either the girl or a glorious death scene with a stunning aria, a time when they would buckle their swashes, get the star dressing room and break hearts across the world.  That time was the time of opera.  When the musical came on the scene, the tenor was gradually ousted from his position, and the baritone became the leading man.  The tenors still got some of the best songs, but were relegated to subplots, with one defining characteristic – the tenor is in love with someone he cannot have.  Sometimes they try to stake a claim on a more substantial plotline, but Rodgers and Hammerstein showed everyone the way to deal with such demanding tenor characters – kill them!  Off stage. 

Between them, the most iconic lovelorn tenors have some of musical theatre’s most glorious songs.  Joe Cable in South Pacific sings ‘Younger Than Springtime’.  Lun Tha in The King and I has ‘We Kiss In a Shadow’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’.  Kismet‘s Caliph introduced us to ‘Stranger in Paradise’, while Freddy from My Fair Lady wants to be ‘On the Street Where You Live’.  Sweeney Todd‘s Anthony Hope gets passionate about ‘Johanna’ and The Phantom of the Opera sees Raoul join Christine for ‘All I Ask of You’.  And Gerald Bolingbroke in Me and My Girl gets ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’.  Poor Gerald, a British prototype for the role and he can’t even manage a soaring ballad to call his own.  He has to make do with a silly interpolation and a random tap break.

Each of these characters has a feature that identifies him from the others of his race.  Gerald is a posh nitwit, Joe Cable is in the armed forces, Lun Tha is an ambassador, The Caliph is Arabian, Freddy chuckles a lot, Anthony is naive and Raoul…  Actually, Raoul is just a terribly dull character.  Joe Cable and Lun Tha’s subplots both threaten to gain true poignancy and interest, so they both make off stage exits courtesy of a bombing raid and some zealous palace guards.  They stand as a warning to any tenor character who gets too big for their boots – quite how two tenors survive to the final curtain of Sweeney Todd is a mystery.

And these are just the examples from successful shows.  Imagine how many characters of this type have drifted through musical flops and also-rans over the years.  And imagine if they all got together…

HOPE: Hello. My name’s Anthony, and I am a tenor in love…

[Everyone applauds.]

HOPE: I’ve loved Johanna since I first laid eyes upon her, and now my whole life is dedicated to her as I watch and wait outside her window. I get all the best ballads, but I’m so far down the cast list, you have to squint to find me, and I’ll soon be overshadowed by Johnny Depp, of all people. I…I fear for my life. People are disappearing mysteriously, including several tenors. I don’t dare develop a true personality or take any interest in the main plot, lest I suffer the same fate…

CABLE: Oh, we hear you, brother. Our friend here, the Caliph, had to live in the shadow of Alfred Drake and Howard Keel and never even got a proper name. And love at first sight?  I’ve been there and done that.  I didn’t wear the T-shirt, though.  Just too hot on that island. 

EYNSFORD-HILL: I know exactly how you feel. I caught a terrible fever after spending several months sitting on the street where she lived.  I found out that they’d all been going in and out through the back door to avoid me.  Make sure you go home at night, won’t you?

LUN THA: You are right not to draw attention to yourself. The Lieutenant and I both tried to question the ways of our elders and betters, and we were written out without the dignity of a death scene.  Not even a scream.

BOLINGBROKE: Well, at least you lot all got bally ballads. I had to wait fifty years for a solo, and I just got to sing about the bally weather. Talked about dashed expectations. It’s just not fair! You know, I’d swap my happy ending for a decent love song with a long top note, any day… Hey, who’s that outside?

ALL (variously): It’s Frederic… Isn’t that Nanki Poo with him?  Get them! Gilbert and Sullivan types aren’t welcome around here!

  1. OK, that’s very good, except that nothing by ALW should appear in any list.

    Now please do a similar commentary with REAL tenor highlights: Questa o quella, Il mio tesoro, M’appari, Una furtiva lagrima…..

  2. Why do you think Raoul didn’t get a look-in in at the LTA meeting? He’s just too bland even for that! I thought I’d best include him as an example showing that the trend continues well beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein. I could, of course, have included other slightly less well-known non-characters like Charlie from Brigadoon and Hero from …Forum, though he is really a parody of the character type. I think Raoul’s duet is a highlight of Lloyd-Webber’s post-Rice work along with various bits of the less popular show The Beautiful Game.

    I love E lucevan le stelle (if that’s how you spell it) from Tosca, and Una furtiva lagrima is indeed gorgeous. However, my knowledge of operatic canon is fairly limited, so I really wouldn’t be doing it justice, I’m afraid

  3. Ahh, poor tenors! The idea of the LTA meeting is very funny, though.


    If I ever write a musical (something I realise is highly unlikely) I’ll write a lovely tenor part with personality, romantic success and everything! I would also try and write a decent, non-comedy alto role. There are probably lots of these already, but I don’t know enough about musicals to know about them.

  4. Raoul was there at the LTA meeting, he was just brooding.
    Then there’s Tony – also killed; Archibald Craven – wife dies in childbirth; Jean Valjean – has to let his daughter marry some baritone….

  5. Got a good laugh out of this one! Thanks. Just a note, I don’t know if you have ever read “Anna and the King of Siam”, but the story in that book that was translated into the romantic sub-plot of “The king and I” is chilling and rather horrible. Interesting how musicals do that.

    Joe Cable was killed. Whatever do you suppose happened to Blood Mary’s pregnant daughter after that?

  6. Liat was pregnant? Really? Gosh,must have missed that! Probably because the poor dear never speaks (so, to be fair, Cable gets a better deal than her). We’re probably not supposed to think about it.

    Janean, the ones you mention do suffer horribly, but they do at least get three-dimensional characters. Hmm, actually, now you mention it, Tony does veer worrying close to ‘I am a tenor and I am in love with a woman of the wrong race’ and of course Archibald is still in love with his deceased wife…

  7. Well, Rogers and Hammerstein don’t make that crystal clear in the musical. After all, they had already attacked racism and I guess they thought they had challenged their audience enough. But if you read Michener’s book “South Pacific”, you find Liat is definitely pregnant. I have to admit, I probably find it difficult to separate out what I know from reading books from what I see in the musicals derived from the books. I read the autobiographical book by Maria von Trapp before the Sound of Music came out, and the movie leaves out the most interesting part, which is what happened after they made it to America.

  8. I do keep meaning to read ‘Tales from the South Pacific’. Mind you, I tried and failed to read Runyon’s ‘Guys and Dolls’ once, though I do live the ‘Berlin Stories’ by Isherwood that ‘Cabaret’ is based on.

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