The Vagabond King

Charles Rudolph Friml

The Vagabond King

About this work

Rudolf Friml was the successor to Victor Herbert as the master of operetta-like American musical theater. His earlier hits included Firefly, High Jinks, Katinka, Sometime, and Rose-Marie. He was at his best in European-style music. This play, set in fifteenth-century France, was ideal for that sort of music and gave Friml a chance to compose what many consider his best score.

The story originated in a hit 1901 drama, If I Were King, by Justin Huntly McCarthy. The play was filmed under in 1920 by Fox, starring William Farnum, and a sound remake was done by Paramount in 1938 starring Ronald Colman and Frances Dee.

The 1925 Broadway operetta had a book by W.H. Post and Brian Hooker. Hooker was also the lyricist. He was a scholar of French literature known for an outstanding English translation of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. The production was lavish, and used an unusually large pit orchestra.

The story romanticizes the poet François Villon as its hero. Villon is pictured as a braggart, beggar, thief, and cut-throat, but his daring Robin Hood exploits and poetry have made him a favorite of ordinary Parisians. At the time of the story, Paris is under siege by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy and popular support of King Louis XI is at a low point. Villon has sent anonymous love poems to the beautiful Katherine de Vaucelles, causing her to reject proposals from King Louis. She goes seeking the mysterious poet, but the King shadows her. Sitting inconspicuously in an inn, Louis is incensed to hear a rabble-rouser mocking the failures of his reign and saying what he would do instead "if I were king." The infuriated monarch reveals himself. As punishment for his treasonous speech, he gives Villon a hard choice: he must either shut up and give up courting Katherine or accept the position of Grand Marshal -- with all the powers of King -- for 24 hours during which time he must make good on his boasts and free Paris, and also win the heart of Katherine. If he fails, Villon will hang. Villon's dilemma is that he has promised himself to Huguette, his mistress, but now is deeply in love with Katherine.

The play had numerous hits, including, "Only a Rose," "Song of the Vagabonds," "Some Day," "Love Me To-Night," and Huguette's deeply touching "Love for Sale." The musical made a star of Dennis King as Villon. It ran 511 performances.

In 1930 Fox produced a sound film of the musical, in two-strip Technicolor starring King and Jeanette MacDonald. (In 1991, UCLA film restorers reclaimed the color version by laboriously photographing each frame of the one existing color print before it disintegrated.) Paramount remade the musical in 1956, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Kathryn Grayson as Katherine, Oreste Kirkop as Villon, and Walter Hampden as the King. The cast also had many talented newcomers, including Rita Moreno (as Huguette) and Harry McNaughton, Jack Lord, Phyllis Newman, and Leslie Nielsen in smaller roles.