Show History



Magdalena's title is often mistakenly assumed to be a reference to Mary Magdalene. In fact, the musical takes its name from a river in Colombia. Heitor Villa-Lobos' score, which he orchestrated himself, combines South American folk themes with a soaring Ravelian impressionism that has the lushness of movie music.

According to a New York Times article from 1987, 'the idea was to construct the most expensive scenery ever built for Broadway, Mr. Wright recalled. "Because Song of Norway [another show that Forrest and Wright had written] had made a fortune for everyone who had put money into it, there was no limit to what could be done."


Edwin Lester, president of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, commissioned Magdalena, and the show opened at Civic Light Opera on July 26, 1948. Arthur Kay conducted a cast that included Irra Petina, Dorothy Sarnoff, John Raitt, Hugo Haas, Gerhard Pechner, A. Garcia, Melva Niles, Henry Reese, Ferdinand Hilt, J. Arthur, Betty Huff, Christine Matsios, Leonard Morganthaler, John Schickling, Lorraine Miller, Gene Curtsinger, Patrick Kirk, Betty Brusher and Jack Cole. Jules Dassin directed, Jack Cole was the choreographer and the chorus was prepared by Robert Zeller. Broadway veterans, Howard Bay (settings and lighting) and Irene Sharaff (costumes), were also part of the creative team.

The show then opened at the Curan Theatre (San Francisco Light Opera) for several performances, beginning August 16, 1948.

The San Francisco production of Magdalena then moved to Broadway, where it opened at the Ziegfeld Theater on September 20, 1948. This production also featured staging by Jules Dassin and choreography by Jack Cole. Actors, John Raitt, Dorothy Sarnoff and Hugo Haas returned for this production, as well.  The show ran for 88 performances and closed on December 4, 1948.

After Broadway, Magdalena was not performed for nearly forty years. It was only with its concert revival (November 24, 1987, at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center) that performance rights once again became available.

More recent productions have occurred in Australia and Paris in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Cultural Influence

  • A symphonic suite of seven songs from the score of Magdalena, arranged by Andre Kostelanetz, is also available for rental.
  • The score for Magdalena is by Brazilian musical giant, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos was a Brazilian composer, described as "the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music." His music was influenced by both Brazilian folk music and by stylistic elements from the European classical tradition.
  • A recording of the score was made in RCA's studios in 1998 and issued by CBS (later Sony) in 1989. The cast of the recording differed slightly from the original concert cast, and included Judy Kaye, George Rose, Faith Esham, Kevin Gray and Jerry Hadley.


  • The Broadway production of Magdalena cost somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000. That made it the most expensive show ever produced up to that time.
  • There was an initial misunderstanding between composer, Villa-Lobos, and lyricists, Forrest and Wright. Villa-Lobos didn t understand that, when he signed his contract, he would not be writing an original score for the piece. When he discovered this reality, he went to the lyricists in tears, and they decided that they should write the score together.