Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The singer was tired of the song: Jesse Bartlett Davis and "Oh Promise Me"

Jesse Bartlett Davis. Photograph by NYC theatrical photographyer, Benjamin J. Falk.

Jessie Bartlett Davis was tired of "Oh Promise Me." She had sung it thousands of time during the run of “Robin Hood,” a light opera production which debuted in Chicago, 1890. While the contralto enjoyed playing the character, Alan-a-Dale, one of Robin’s merry men, she was definitely getting tired of performing that song. It had become so popular that audiences usually demanded the song as an encore – sometimes a double encore -- meaning that Ms. Davis was often forced to sing “Oh Promise Me” three times in one evening.

One night she decided she would sing something different during the production’s wedding scene. The audience “wouldn’t have it” she said. “I had no sooner commenced singing [the other song] than there were shouts from all over the house of ‘Oh, Promise Me!’ We want ‘Oh Promise Me’! This threw her into a fit of hilarity: “I managed to struggle through one verse, and then ran off the stage laughing.”

The orchestra began the introduction to “Oh Promise Me” and Ms. Davis dutifully returned to the stage, ready to sing the audience’s request. “It’s an awful fate to become identified with a single song” she said later.

Perhaps the song stood out from the other numbers because it had been interpolated into the score and not written at the same time or by the same musical team (same composer, different lyricist), but because it was the most popular song in the production, it became the primary reason for the longevity of “Robin Hood” and the reason the musical had so many revivals, well into the mid-20th century. The song also was also a popular choice for generations of American weddings.


"All the Years of American Popular Music," by David Ewen, 1977.

"Prima Donnas and Soubrettes of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America," by Lewis Clinton Strang, 1900. Jesse Bartlett Davis quotes taken from page 101.

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