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The Merry Widow in a nutshell

All you need to know about the history of The Merry Widow

The Merry Widow had an obstacle-filled road to success. 

Since its first performance 1905, The Merry Widow continues to be frequently revived and recorded. Originally a play, Leo Stein and Viktor Léon adapted the script to a libretto. A draft score was composed by Austrian composer Richard Heuberger, but Librettists, Léon and Stein, didn’t like his music so he gladly left the project.

At the suggestion of an employee at the Theater an der Wien, Lehár, who had not previously composed this kind of comic operetta was asked to compose an aria from the work as an audition. Within hours he enchanted the librettists with a bubbly galop melody for “Dummer, drummer Reitersmann.”


On 30 December 1905, in Vienna’s Theatre an der Wien, the curtain went up for the premiere of The Merry Widow. Mizzi Günther starring as Hanna, Louis Treumann as Danilo, Siegmund Natzler as Baron Zeta and Annie Wünsch as Valencienne.

The theatre could only afford recycled sets and costumes and offered little rehearsal time. But management did spring for two stars to play the leads. Thankfully Mizzi Gunther and Louis Treumann believed in the project enough to order and pay for their own costumes.

The initial performances earned some criticism but by 1909 The Merry Widow had been performed over 20,000 times becoming an international hit and world-adored classic.


The Merry Widow has now been adapted into five films that are based loosely on the plot of the operetta. 

  • Hungarian 1918 silent version by Michael Curtiz
  • 1925 silent version by Erich von Stroheim, with John Gilbert as Danilo and Mae Murray as Hanna
  • 1934 black-and-white version, by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald
  • 1952 version in Technicolor starring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas
  • 1962 Austrian version by Werner Jacobs

In 1975 it was transformed into a three-act ballet by The Australian Ballet, directed by Sir Robert Helpmann and choreographed by Ronald Hynd. The Production starred Dame Margot Fonteyn and two young ballet dancers, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

It seems only fitting that Graeme and Janet now sit side-by-side creating this new production of The Merry Widow that has been a huge success all around Australia.