Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Born in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1860, Smith’s family moved to Chicago when he was still a child. His career ambitions in the Windy City initially bent towards journalism, and he was a theater and music critic before he started writing his own shows. He collaborated with composer Reginald De Koven on The Begum, a comic opera first performed in Boston. When the show moved to New York City in 1887, Smith followed.
Smith’s next New York collaboration with De Koven’s proved to be his most successful. Robin Hood follows the well-known adventures of the Sherwood Forest outlaw as he wins archery contests, falls in love with Maid Marian, and loses and regains his Earldom all while thwarting the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham. The operetta opened at the Standard Theatre in 1891 and proved such a hit that it has been revived on Broadway stages no fewer than seven times. After its New York debut, the show went on the road and for the next 20 years could be seen somewhere in the country or abroad. In 1929, Smith shared his thoughts on the show’s success with the New York Times. Oh, and Smith and De Koven wrote the entire work in less than three weeks.
In his 45-year career, Smith collaborated with all the major composers of his day including Sigmund Romberg, John Philip Sousa, Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, and Irving Berlin. He first collaborated with Berlin on Ziegfeld’s 1910 Follies show, and he wrote the lyrics and book for the composer’s first complete score, Watch Your Step. A ragtime revue, Watch Your Step, opened in 1914 at the New Amsterdam Theatre and enjoyed an initial run of 175 performances and starred the popular dance duo Irene and Vernon Castle.
Before he partnered with Oscar Hammerstein II on the landmark musical Show Boat, composer Jerome Kern worked with Harry B. Smith on nine different Broadway productions. The most successful of these collaborations was the 1917 Love o’ Mike, a light farce about a handsome English lord. Smith wrote the lyrics for the show’s songs, but the book was written by a Thomas Sydney, the combined name used by writers Augustus Thomas, Jr. and Sydney Reed Smith, Harry’s son.
Smith’s most frequent collaborator by far was the equally prolific composer Victor Herbert. Together Herbert and Smith worked on 17 musicals and operettas including The Fortune Teller, which introduced Smith’s incredibly popular “Gypsy Love Song.” The show opened in 1898 and has been performed as recently as 2011 by the Ohio Light Opera.So good at collaboration was Smith that he made it a family affair. In addition to working with his son, he often partnered with his younger brother Robert B. Smith, a fellow lyricist. Smith second’s wife, actress Irene Bentley (his first wife Lena Reed passed away), had already appeared in seven of Smith’s shows before they married. Bentley, seen seated below, wed Smith less than six months after divorcing her first husband in 1906.
At the turn of the century, comic operas and operettas were all the rage and Smith’s light wit in the use of stock characters sparked the popular interest. As the 20th century progressed and musical theater evolved, his work came to be viewed by critics as outmoded and irrelevant. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson panned Smith’s last original work, Marching By, which opened in 1932, calling the show “shoddy” and “dull.” Though a musical book or libretto by Smith hasn’t been performed on Broadway since 1947, light opera companies around the country continue to include his work in their repertoires. Perhaps Smith’s most enduring legacy is a song he didn’t write for any musical or operetta, the Tin Pan Alley hit “The Sheik of Araby.” The song has been covered by a wide variety of artists from Fats Waller to the Beatles, Harry Connick, Jr., the Everly Brothers, and somewhat disturbingly, the Muppets. In the popular imagination, it remains the single touchstone to the thousands and thousands of words put together by the indefatigable Harry B. Smith.