The diva of the dudes, the belle of the guilded age, Lillian Russell [Helen Louise Leonard] was the definitive comic opera comedienne of the final decades of the 19th century. After straining her voice because of inadequate technique and overuse, Russell remade herself as an energetic physical comedianne working with Weber and Fields in their zany experimental burlesques at the dawn of the 20th century.
Blonde, buxom, beautiful, and blessed with a clear soprano voice, Russell embodied the golden girl of theatregoer's dreams. She rocketed from chorus to vaudeville solo act to a Gilbert & Sullivan lead, yet the ease with fortune and fame came to her inspired willfulness, laziness, and unreasonableness in equal measure. She double-booked engagements, leading the Savoy Theatre to jettison her, she plunged into and ran away from misconceived marriages on a regular basis, and she indulged her appetites so that her girth expanded with the years; from a curvy girl she expanded into a big woman.
Yet there is no doubting that no singing woman of the 1880s and 90s held the sway on the hearts of American audiences as Russell did. She had the kind of devil-may-care zest in her performing that made the nonsensical plots and outlandish situations of opera bouffe and comic opera seem free of the cause/effect reward/punishment plotting of 19th-century drama. Of the vehicles that she appeared in, only the Gilbert & Sullivan Savoy operas "The Pirates of Penzance," "Patience," and "The Grand Duchess" survive. The comic costumers in which she starred - "The Princess Trebizonde," "Olivette," "The Queen's Mate," "Polly," "Girofle-Girofla," "Nadja," and "The Mountebanks" - have all been mothballed for their passé manners and silly artifices. The Weber & Fields shows "Fiddle-dee-dee," "Whoop--dee-doo," "Twirley-Whirley" and "The Big Little Pricess" were too parodic, too immediately referential to contemporary theater, and too improvisational in spirit to be revived.
And so, the very terms of the art in which Russell stood preeminent have dissolved, leaving us only the splendid photographs, a few feet of silent film capturing a splendidly large matron, and some Edison cylinders to suggest her glory. David S. Shields/ALS