‘The First Kiss’ -
Pablo Luna’s English Musical

an article by
Andrew Lamb and
Christopher Webber

The First Kiss (vocal valse)

This is a resumé of the full-length article
'De Madrid a Londres' - Pablo Luna's English Operetta, 'The First Kiss'
published on academica.edu

El asombro de Damasco
From Madrid to England
The West End and Beyond
The Libretto
The Music
The First Kiss and Benamor


‘El asombro de Damasco’ in London
Maestro Luna has triumphed in London with the score of El asombro de Damasco, which work, translated and with certain modifications to the libretto, has just been premiered at the Oxford Theatre. El asombro de Damasco has been entitled in English The First Kiss, and according to the telegraphic messages we’ve received the score especially, besides being enthusiastically applauded, is being highly praised by the periodicals’ music critics. We cordially celebrate the triumph of this Spanish work. (ABC, 12th November 1924)

Thus the Madrid press reported on a rare event – the staging of a zarzuela outside Spain’s borders. And thus most music critics and biographers after 1924 let it lie. For example Ángel Sagardía’s biography ‘Pablo Luna’ allows it just one phrase, to the effect that El asombro de Damasco was ‘much performed at the Oxford Theatre, in London’. The ‘Diccionario de la Zarzuela’ muddies the water a little: Emilio Casares’s article on El asombro does not mention the London production, while Luis Iberni’s entry on the composer mysteriously states that it was the 1923 zarzuela Benamor which London saw in 1924. Iberni may have been reflecting verbal anecdotes, suggesting that The First Kiss was indeed padded out with music from sources other than El asombro, including the ‘Danza del fuego’ from Benamor.

So what was The First Kiss? How successful was it? How extensive were the ‘modifications’ to the libretto mentioned by ABC? Did the score contain any additions from Benamor or elsewhere? Those questions have provided some surprising answers.

El asombro de Damasco

Nerman: Gregory Stroud and Desiree Ellinger in The First KissA close study of Luna’s 1916 original reveals some intriguing links with contemporary London theatre. In a nutshell, it emerges that El asombro is not – as previously thought – based directly on a particular tale from the Arabian Nights, but takes its ambience and many theatrical situations from Kismet, the 1911 London hit play by Edward Knoblock (and which itself later provided the book of the popular 1953 musical of the same name.) This, taken with several unusual features of the score – a paucity of género chico musical forms, the Anglo-French ambience of several numbers, some lightly popular ‘music hall’ percussion scoring not found elsewhere in Luna’s zarzuelas – suggests that the composer may already have had London in mind while writing the score. During the First World War it was of course impossible for England to mount operetta imported from Vienna or Berlin, so perhaps Luna and his librettists felt that neutral Spain might assuage London’s need for escapist operetta in the Arabian Nights style popularised by Kismet

In the event, any plans Luna and his librettists might have hatched to transfer their Madrid success straight to London foundered. Unluckily for them, just one month before El asombro opened in Madrid, another colourful Kismet-related musical took London by storm. This was Chu Chin Chow (August 1916), the Arabian Nights musical with a score by Frederic Norton to a text by the Australian actor/impresario Oscar Asche, who’d also been the star of Kismet. The new musical was lavishly set and dressed by Percy Anderson, responsible for the later productions of Gilbert and Sullivan as well as Kismet, and the most esteemed stage designer of his time. Hugely popular with soldiers returning from the French front, the escapist fantasy of Chu Chin Chow went on to break box office records, running for five years and clocking up well over 2000 performances.

Harrogate Theatre (formerly Opera House)

From Madrid to England

By that time the war was well over, and Great Britain was once again open to Viennese and German imports. Yet Luna did not give up on his plans for El asombro; and on 1 January 1923 – the best part of two years before it finally reached the West End – The First Kiss, with book and lyrics by Boyle Lawrence ‘based on the Spanish of Paso Y. Abati’ (evidently considered to be a single individual!), opened at Harrogate in Yorkshire, for a pre-London tour under the management of the American entrepreneur William J. Wilson. He had booked a top-notch cast led by Désirée Ellinger, a famous Madam Butterfly for Thomas Beecham’s opera company, and one of the hottest properties in musical theatre. The tour lasted three months, visiting many cities including Dundee, Liverpool, Nottingham, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, doing good business and attracting positive reviews, especially for the music, stage settings and performances. The anonymous reviewer for the Aberdeen Journal had this to say about the music:

It has a score like, and yet unlike, to the Viennese and French operas which we borrow so freely in these days. The music has something of the sentimental fervour of the former, together with a good deal of the brilliancy of the latter. It is equal to either in the distinction of its style, and the writing for the orchestra is always charming. There are half a dozen numbers in ‘The First Kiss’ that will compare favourably with a similar number selected from any of the Austrian or French operas that have reached us during recent years.

Yet although Wilson quickly announced in the theatre newspaper The Era that The First Kiss was ready for the West End, for some reason – perhaps the unavailability of a suitable theatre – the venture was put on hold after about three months.

Désirée Ellinger in The First Kiss (c. National Portrait Gallery)By August 1923 a second tour was in progress, which visited towns in the North of England including Manchester, Oldham and (again) Harrogate. By early 1924 the show was attracting good houses in Gloucester and Plymouth, but once again it failed to reach London: by May, Désirée Ellinger was starring in a Wilson tour of Kálmán’s The Gipsy Princess.

At last, however, an announcement appeared in The Era (5 November 1924) that “The First Kiss will be presented by Mr. Charles Gulliver at the New Oxford on Monday”, and on 10 November 1924 Luna achieved his ambition of having his show performed in the West End of London, with a stellar cast including the faithful Ellinger, handsome leading baritone Gregory Stroud, and (perhaps Wilson’s greatest coup) the legendary tenor Courtice Pounds, creator in his youth of roles for Gilbert and Sullivan – and more to the point, the comedy lead of Ali Baba in Chu Chin Chow, which he’d played throughout that show’s record-breaking run.

The West End and Beyond

The First Kiss - London castAs ABC in Madrid reported, the critics praised the score by ‘Pablo Luna, the Spanish Lehár’ (as an announcement of the sheet music publications from the show proclaimed) in addition to the settings and the excellent cast. Joaquín Turina – rather a favourite in England during the 1920’s – saw his colleague’s show, praising the English comedians and the handsome production in his diary. The Era’s review noted a likeness to Puccini:

For a moment in the overture we were led to hope that pleasant reminders of Bizet were in store, but that failed. Later Puccini was the favoured model – or one of the favoured models. Pablo Luna has not aimed at originality in his music, but at effect, and this he achieves in some well-built ensembles, in the waltz, and notably in the delicately scored dances in the second act.

Lawrence’s libretto did not go down so well. Sad to say, London audiences voted with their feet, and the West End run was curtailed on December 20 after a mere 43 performances. Perhaps The First Kiss was just too reminiscent of Chu Chin Chow to succeed, especially given Courtice Pounds’s involvement. Perhaps the Spanish boat simply missed the tide. At all events, after a further national tour from January to April 1925, The First Kiss vanished from sight. Ironically, it was replaced at the New Oxford Theatre by a revival … of Kismet.

Cariacatures of the London cast

The Libretto

Examination of the typescript of The First Kiss which was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (for potential ‘blue pencil’ censorship) prior to its Harrogate opening on New Year’s Day of 1923, reveals that Boyle Lawrence’s play had already gone beyond simple adaptation of the Spanish original. Though still in two acts, the setting is changed from Arabian Nights Damascus to Tunis and the Moorish kingdom of An-Andalus Seville. Lalila (equivalent to the original Zobeida) has come to Seville to obtain money lent by her deceased father to the rascally doctor, Ben Ib-ben. She also attracts the attention of the bibulous Cadi; and of the Caliph’s son Nurriden, from whom she receives that sensual First Kiss:

"Love I’m wanting your kiss
And my heart is a flame
With a fever enthralling"

Aimée Bebb in The First Kiss (c. National Portrait Gallery)After much adventure involving pirates and a copious amount of the cross-dressing comedy familiar from El asombro, the happy pair are finally united. The character of Fatima (the original Faheema) was expanded, as a vehicle for the comedienne Aimée Bebb. There is a sub-plot involving the pirate chief Zu-far (‘too far’) and his mother, a Gilbertian ‘mature’ lady. The cast list is very much longer than for El asombro, including several named dance stars, and it is clear that The First Kiss expanded the theatrical requirements of the Spanish show very considerably.

A number of ballet sequences (mostly for the popular danseuse Lolita Hamilton) are indicated in this script, but although some of the song lyrics are included others are merely inserted as loose sheets. Some appear as titles without texts: others are indicated generically (e.g. ‘musical ensemble’). At least one passage for the Prince and Lalila looks like prose melodrama, words over music. Another – a Trio enjoyed as ‘Rollicking’ by the Dundee Courier (January 8 1923), sung by the Cadi ‘in his cups’ and two girls – is not mentioned at all. But more of that crucial number anon… In sum, this typescript shows every sign of hasty preparation for the Lord Chamberlain’s approval, while the show was very much in process of development, with new numbers being added during final rehearsals.

Courtice Pounds in The First KissBy the time The First Kiss reached London, nearly two years later, there had been many changes, additions to and subtractions from the pre-Harrogate ‘urtext’. Many of these seem likely to have been made before the show’s second provincial tour. Unfortunately we do not have the West End script, though we can be sure – thanks to the first night programme, and comments in the London reviews – that the show had moved even further away from El asombro in several important respects. The heroine, now a Princess and kidnapped by pirate slave traders, is purchased by Prince Nurriden, who turns out to be the childhood sweetheart who whom she was betrothed in infancy. Her name has been changed from Lalila to Mariposa (‘Butterfly’), perhaps a nudge to remind audiences of Désirée Ellinger’s most famous operatic role – though the notion of changing the show’s title to The Butterfly was dropped. Fatima becomes Fateema, ensuring a less vulgar pronunciation, and she has a new job as the ‘Duenna of Marketable Slave Girls’. The Pirate Chief has acquired a pair of Slave-trading, ‘comic heavy’ henchmen.

Several numbers have disappeared, notably a comic song for Ben-Ibhen (‘When the doctor appears and is earning his fee / Leave him quite alone so that his mind is free’) and a Trio for him and the two female leads (‘Oh the Ladies’). Major additions include a ‘dazzling’ Waltz Finale to the first Act, ‘Hope in my Heart’, which provided Ellinger with her major display opportunity; a Foxtrot duet for Ben Ib-ben and Mariposa (‘To the Palais de Danse I will take you’), and a proper climax to Act Two – the love duet ‘A Thing of Dreams’. The dance sequences are now given descriptive titles such as ‘Allurement’ and ‘Resentment’, and though both versions are notably rich in ensembles, the total number of musical numbers in the London show has been expanded to twenty-two, against eighteen or so in the 1922 Lord Chamberlain’s text.

As to the quality of Lawrence’s writing, there is no reason to dispute the negative press judgement. The dialogue is prolix, the comedy wafer-thin. Of the lyrics, the anonymous reviewer of The Times says:

One wonders how closely the translation follows the Spanish. It may be that even in Spanish, love is spoken of as something which translates legitimately into “life’s anodyne” and demands that it be rhymed with so insipid a word as “benign”.

In truth, Lawrence ‘follows the Spanish’ occasionally as to situation, hardly at all as to plot, and still less as to verbal felicity. Here, for example, is his rendition of the Guards’ couplets in the Cadi’s entrance song:

"He is the chief
Great past belief
He does not know all his worth
The greatest on earth
None knows it as well as he."

Even here, where the meaning certainly approximates to the original, the hapless librettist has turned Paso and Abati’s elegant lines into something all but unsingable, as well as banal. As the reviewers indicate, the charms of The First Kiss lay rather in its scenic splendours (the ‘Square of the Crooked Streets’ in Seville was especially admired), in its performers, and in Pablo Luna’s music.

Valse "Hope in my heart" (from piano selection)

The Music

As to that music, we are in the frustrating position of not having a complete musical score for either the 1923 Harrogate premiere or the expanded, 1924 London production of The First Kiss. However, we do have access to those lyrics included in the 1922 script, and – mercifully – two complete songs published by Metzler and Co. during the show’s short London run, plus an informative Selection medley, a ‘One-Step’ and an ‘Intermezzo’ (all for piano solo) issued after it had closed. It is therefore possible to establish with some certainty most (though by no means all) of the facts, as to what came direct from El asombro de Damasco, what might have been imported from other Luna scores, and – most interestingly – what seems to have been original music composed especially by Luna for his English operetta.

We can certainly say that nearly all of El asombro’s music found a place in The First Kiss, although some of it must have been adapted and/or simplified to fit the new libretto. Interleaved with this material – in both the 1922 and London versions – is a substantial group of vocal solos, ensembles and dance numbers which can owe nothing musically to El asombro. One of these is easily identified: the duet ‘A Thing of Dreams’ which crowns the West End’s second act, is nothing less than Alberto’s celebrated waltz song ‘Yo he pasado la vida en un sueño’ from Molinos de viento, simplified harmonically and extended for its new context. Other music appears to have been specially written for the English show: certainly the upbeat Waltz song ‘Hope in my Heart’ has no known source in Luna’s other works, although – as Enrique Mejías García has spotted – it does bear a striking thematic resemblance to the dúo ‘Ya la ilusión con que soñé...’ from Guerrero’s 1923 zarzuela La montería, which coincidentally or not, happens to have an English setting.

The First Kiss and Benamor

Of greater potential significance is the ‘One-Step’, a jaunty comedy number listed in the London programme as ‘I love them all’, which uses precisely the same thematic material as a dúo (No.13) in Luna’s 1923 famous zarzuela Benamor, although the English version is shorter, and reverses the sectional order. This number (mentioned as the ‘rollicking’ trio by reviews early in the 1923 tour) was certainly written for the English show before being radically reshaped for the Madrid zarzuela, and the proven appearance of at least one number prior to its insertion in Benamor provokes an important question: did any other music written for The First Kiss find its way into the later, famous score?

The First Kiss, poster (V&A Museum)Unless a complete score of The First Kiss turns up, we are dealing with hypothesis: although we can say that both works are unusually rich in trios and quartets, and both require dance sequences. Several other numbers in the Lord Chamberlain’s typescript could well have featured new material reused later for Benamor. After all, why not? Given that Luna did write at least one, new number for The First Kiss (‘Hope in my Heart’), what was to stop him reshaping and refining other music written for the English show once he turned to his next, major Spanish zarzuela? Although Teatro de la Zarzuela might have to be kept in the dark about it, for contractual reasons, why waste perfectly good material on a show across the water which Madrid would never see?

To take one possible, intriguing example: the opening lines of Zu-far’s swashbuckling song ‘A Buccaneer!’ fit very neatly the opening of the celebrated, patriotic number ‘¡País de Sol!”, as sung by the noble Spanish hidalgo Juan de León in Benamor (No.5 bis.) The modal, Hispanic intensity of the music would equally fit both contexts, and it is amusing to contemplate that what ended up as a Patriotic song for Madrid may have started life as a Piratical one for Yorkshire!

Examining the large amount of dance music required, it is clear that there isn’t enough such material in El asombro to satisfy the needs of The First Kiss. The celebrated ‘Danza del fuego’ (No.11 from Benamor) has long been linked anecdotally to Luna’s English operetta. It is significant that the material Luna put together for the zarzuela is both longer and structurally more complex than the familiar orchestral ‘lollipop.’ What’s more, it contains brand new thematic material involving vocal soloists, and a substantial choral element – the main theme is sung in unison by the full chorus. In contrast to such epic treatment, the punchy and compact orchestra-only ‘Danza’ sounds more like a first thought than an afterthought. What is more, the music’s character – an earthily Hispanic main theme, contrasted with the surprisingly flippant ‘English light music’ scoring and two-step rhythm of its middle section – seems better tailored to the Al-Andalus Spanish setting and English musical taste of The First Kiss than to the Persian-Zoroastrian, operatic ambience of Benamor. In the absence of a 1923 Harrogate score, we cannot of course be certain; but given the internal evidence of the short, orchestral version and the elaborate complication of the Madrid expansion, as well as the importance of dance to The First Kiss, it is possible that the famous ‘Danza del fuego’ started life as a balletic showpiece in the English operetta, five months before it was amplified and rerouted to Madrid for the premiere of the Spanish zarzuela.


London, New Oxford TheatreThere’s a sense in which our research into The First Kiss has raised more questions than it has answered, especially as to the exact provenance of its musical content. However, we can say for certain that the operetta graced the English musical theatre scene (and occupied its composer) periodically over the two years and more between early 1923 and spring of 1925. We can also say that its success in the provinces more than justified the decision to bring it into the West End, where unfortunately it failed. We can also say that it was a major financial undertaking, with no expense spared on a large and stellar cast, notably high production values and – most certainly – a large quantity of music with few if any reprises, a considerable number of ensembles and at least four dance sequences. Its producer William J. Watson and his star performer Désirée Ellinger, who stuck with the show throughout, never lost faith in its musical quality and potential.

We can also say that the many expansions and departures from the original Spanish libretto – not to mention the quantity of music either specially composed or drafted in from Molinos de viento – distance The First Kiss very far from its primary source, which was indeed El asombro de Damasco. The relationship of Luna’s score with Benamor is intriguing; and given that the ‘One-Step’ conclusively predates Benamor by five months, it seems likely that at least some other traffic flowed from England to Spain, too, with the ‘Danza del Fuego’ a particularly likely candidate. In summary, we feel that there are many reasons to consider The First Kiss an independent stage work, an operetta deserving of an honourable place in Pablo Luna’s list of compositions in its own right, rather than as the simple zarzuela adaptation which history and the critics have previously believed it to be.

© Andrew Lamb, Christopher Webber, zarzuela.net 2016

Full article on academia.edu
Pablo Luna