The Vagabond King is a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Friml, with a book and lyrics by Brian Hooker and W.H. Post, telling a highly romanticized tall concerning the 15th century poet François Villon. The production opened at the Casino Theatre on September 21, 1925, starring Dennis King as Villon and Caroline Thomas as Katherine and ran for a successful 511 performances. The production was lavish and used an unusually large pit orchestra. The operetta then had a successful run in London in 1927 (Winter Garden Theatre, 480 performances) and was frequently revived (including a 1943 Broadway revival) and extensively toured.
At the end of the 19th century, novelist R. H. Russell sentimentalized Villon's career in a plot that borrowed the king-for-a-day theme, allowing Villon to defeat France's enemies and win the hand of an aristocratic lady, all in under 24 hours. It was adapted as a Broadway play in 1901 by writer Justin McCarthy. In 1923, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart were at the beginning of their careers. They created a musical version of the McCarthy play for a Manhattan girl's school and then looked for a more prestigious venue for their collaboration. Broadway backers turned down the young team, but "borrowed" their idea and commissioned the more established Rudolf Friml to compose the piece.
A 1930 musical film was made with the same title (and remade in 1956), and a 1938 non-musical film was made under the title If I Were King.
Paris is under siege by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy and popular support of King Louis XI is at a low point. Poet, braggart, thief Villon, the darling of the Paris rabble, has sent anonymous love poems to the beautiful Katherine de Vaucelles, causing her to reject proposals from King Louis. She goes to seek the mysterious poet at an inn, but King Louis shadows her in diguise. Louis is incensed to hear Villon mocking the failures of his reign and saying what he would do instead "if I were king." The infuriated monarch reveals himself. As punishment for his treasonous speech, he gives Villon a hard choice: he must either shut up and give up courting Katherine or accept the position of Grand Marshal -- with all the powers of King -- for 24 hours during which time he must make good on his boasts and free Paris. If he chooses the second but fails, Villon will hang. Villon's dilemma is that he has promised himself to Huguette, his mistress, but now is deeply in love with Katherine.