Certain capable performers sometimes happen upon a role that so suits the skills and person that it becomes something more than a signature, it becomes one of the defining roles of an era or a genre. One thinks of Rex Harrison playing Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" or Yul Brenner as the King in "The King and I." English soprano Ethel Jackson vaulted from a solid career as a musical comedy heroine to fame when she played Hana Glawari the beautiful, graceful, and splendid-voiced protagonist of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow." In the crucial waltz scene, Jackson opted for serenity in motion rather than virtuosity, setting her apart from the energetic styles of Bessie Clayton and Adelaide. She showed a generation of women how to be physically winning with simplicity of gesture, relaxation, and atunement to the musical pulse.
Jackson learned her stagecraft as a Savoyard in London, and was brought to America in 1898 to star in "Little Miss Nobody" by Charles Frohman. Her ability as a performer became generally recognized when she played in Augustin Daly's "A Runaway Girl." She played briefly in a work that anticipated her later triumph in operetta, "Vienna Life," and enjoyed success in "Miss Bob White."
In 1904 she married producer J.F. Zimmerman, Jr., and enjoyed a two-year hiatus from performing as she reveled in married life. The Shubert Brothers enticed her back on the stage to star in the musical "The Blue Moon" in 1906. She used the vehicle to train her voice to project into large halls, but was no great admirer of the vehicle in which she had been cast. Manager Henry W. Savage in autumn of 1907 secured for her the role that would make her famous in America.
Ethel Jackson played "The Merry Widow" as a woman, not a girl, the creature who dominated the action of American musical comedies. She singlehandedly supplied the template of the operetta heroine, a creature who would thrive from 1907 through the 1930s. Stage life after "The Merry Widow" proved anticlimactic. She inevitably toured vaudeville, played in multiple revivals of her smash hit, and took occasional side roles. Her personal life suffered equally as her marriage eventually fell apart. David S. Shields/ALS