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9.2: Early Musical Theatre- Entertainments and Genres

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  • Musicals throughout history can be said to represent many different generic designations; one way to study the musical is to look at them in terms of these categories. Genre names applied to the musical have come from various sources: some came from the creators themselves, others came from critics, and still others came from specialists who study the musical. Some of these genre names indicate important features of form and structure; others are tied to a work’s function in society.

    The musical’s origins lie in a fusion of different entertainment genres from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These are traditionally called precursors, forerunners, or antecedents of the musical. Such labels imply a bias toward an organic unity that is the result of an anachronistic view. Sometimes the “early genres” are described in terms of what they are not: they are not book musicals, the genre that eventually displaced all of them, and one that privileges a traditional, forward-moving narrative, usually serious in tone. Book musicals (also called musical plays) are shows generally based on some kind of literary source with a story line that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. This genre came to dominate the history of musical theatre and is still the most popular category today.

    Since the entertainments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not view themselves as forerunners to anything, we will not do that either. These entertainments represent a rich variety of generic types, the defining characteristics of which are not always clear. Many genres overlapped, coexisted with, and borrowed elements from one another.

    Perhaps one of the most difficult genres for us to understand today involved white performers “blacking up” —coloring their skin with burnt cork —and imitating black Americans. Over the course of its complicated history, blacks eventually performed it as well. The tradition of both groups is known as minstrelsy. What today seems like the pinnacle of prejudice and offensiveness was a form of entertainment that offered black performers an entree into what was then an all-white world. In fact, during its heyday, it was considered a source of pride.

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    An example of typical minstrel makeup, 1900. As late as 1978, blackface was used fora long- running BBC show titled The Black and White Minstrel Show. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-5698.

    Blackface minstrelsy started becoming popular around f843, eventually coming to rival melodrama in popularity. Early troupes comprised between four and six members who were all white males. Their eomie skits involved stereotypes of blacks, dealing with plantation life or other situations, and songs with accompaniments by a minstrel band, in what were essentially variety shows. The so-called golden era was the r840s to the T870S. Black Americans started performing in troupes regularly after the abolition of slavery; eventually the troupes grew larger and were transformed—some were all female; some were all black.

    In Dahomey ( 1903) by Will Marion Cook and Paul Dunbar is an early musical comedy drawing on the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. As we will see when we get to musical comedy, its elements are more integrated than in other genres and it has a more continuous narrative structure. An important black performer appearing in this work was Bert Williams. He was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld, an influential figure in the genre of the revue. Williams’s participation integrated the revue as a genre.

    Several genres in particular exhibit a great deal of overlap in their distinguishing eharaeteristies. They commingled and cross-fertilized each other during the second half of the nineteenth century. Pantomime refers to theatrical presentations that used gestures done in silence. It featured underscoring, or instrumental music that occurred during the performance of the gestures and that helped create a particular mood.

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    The 1903 production of In Dahomey. The musical tells the stor/ ota group of African Americans who deelde to travel to the African country of Dahomey (now Benin) and become governors after a generous donation of rum. The show only had fifty-three performances in New York but moved to London and became a sensation, ran for seven months, and then toured for a year In the British Isles. Bert Williams (fourth in line) later wrote, "The way we've aimed at Broadway and just missed it in the past seven years would make you cry.... I used to be tempted to beg for a fifteen-dollar job in a chorus for one week so as to be able to say I'd been on Broadway." Williams played in blackface for most of his career. Photo courtesy of the Jas Obreeht Music Archive.

    Ballet, in the early history of the musical, simply refers to classical dance with a story line. Spectacles featured dance, elaborate scenery and costumes, sets, and sophisticated stage machinery. Extravaganzas had all of those components in addition to elements of melodrama and fantasy.

    The Black Crook (1866) was an important extravaganza. Frequently cited as the first real precursor to the twentieth-eentury musical, it was a blockbuster hit. Lasting five and a half hours, it had little innovation but enjoyed great commercial success. With preexisting numbers by other composers (related to the operatic genre of the pasticcio), it offered lots of visual appeal and stage spectacle, complete with a chorus line with more than one hundred dancers. It ran for more than four hundred performances and was revived many times. Agnes de Mille made her debut as a choreographer in the T929 revival.

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    Illustration of The Black Crook (1866). The title refers to a sorcerer who makes a deal with the devil to deliver souls In exchange for everlasting life. The play was a tired melodrama; Its success was a result of Interpolated popular songs, dance numbers, and Immense spectacle. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-04512.

    Burlesque emphasized broad comedy and sexual content. Its texts were full of puns, innuendos, and topical references and spoofed aspects of contemporary society. Evangeline (4874) was the first burlesque for which the music was newly written. Based on a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, f847), it featured music by Edward Everett Rice and text by John Cheever Goodwin. This show is one of the first among several to be called a “musical comedy,” again reinforcing the general disagreement on this point as well as the overlap in eharaeteristies of the early genres. Extravaganza, burlesque, and spectacle in particular were terms used interchangeably or in combination in the midnineteenth century.

    Melodrama, popular by the last third of the nineteenth century, represents the use of short musical passages to heighten affect in drama, either in alternation with or underlying spoken dialogue. Coming from British popular theatre, it eventually developed into full-length melodramatic plays. Underscoring, a significant element in the later musical, grew out of this technique.

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    A burlesque theatre In Baltimore, one of many In the neighborhood called "the Bawdy Block."

    The revue emerged in the 1890s and remained popular to late 1930s. A style of entertainment that had become popular in Paris, the revue featured elements loosely related by an overarching theme. It had elements of vaudeville, with which it coexisted, but those elements were more integrated. They combined the components of the extravaganza—fantasy, ballet, spectacular scenery and costumes, and sophisticated stage machinery—with an emphasis on beautiful girls performing skits, solo numbers, and choruses. Tableaux vivants — still bodies (usually scantily clad and sometimes partially nude) arranged in attractive formations —lent the revue a sensuousness not seen in other genres from around the same time. Important composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen ( who wrote “Somewhere over the Rainbow”) got their start in the revue. Flexible in types of presentation style, revues could be either single-shot (performed just once) or multiple, annual editions on Broadway. The Passing Show (1894) was the first successful American revue. Recurring revues had consistent visions that were determined by an impresario —a producer, director, or theatre manager—and were named for that person; the Ziegfeld Follies, for example, was a series of revues sponsored by the great impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Members of his chorus lines were known as Ziegfeld showgirls and represented a romantic model of the ultimate in femininity.

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    Sheet music for a song included in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917. The theme of Flo Ziegfeld's revues was "glorifying the American girl," and this was often accomplished through seminudity. Unlike the women in burlesgue shows frequently raided by police, Ziegfeld girls did not sing or dance. Instead, they paraded in expensive costumes with dispassionate expressions. Although Ziegfeld spent extravagantly on his productions, all made a profit.

    Variety, emerging around the T850S, had little of the luxury and romance of the revue. Featuring skits, gags, and specialized acts, it was entertainment that was considered highly disreputable. Concert saloons were important venues for variety in the first decade of the genres popularity. They were patronized exclusively by men who bought drinks and watched the entertainments. Variety theatres began to develop during the t88os and rSços; these became the central venues for vaudeville.

    Vaudeville might be thought of as variety without alcohol, in a theatre rather than a saloon. Theatre managers invented the term, changing the name of the entertainment in an attempt to attract family audiences (in other words, women) and, in general, to clean up the form and render it more professional in tone and content. (Vaudeville was a term long used in French popular theatre, which bore close resemblances to variety.) Vaudeville shows featured skits, gags, and specialized acts like those found in variety but placed a greater emphasis on individual performers and independent acts, with no plot tying things together. Its heyday was the decades of the rSços and rçros.

    George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones (1904) is considered the first American musical. Cohan’s vaudeville roots led to his rise to stardom. Coming from a family of vaudeville performers, Cohan was the composer, lyricist, producer, director, and choreographer of his shows. His songs, such as “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” became emblematic of vaudeville. Jimmy Cagney immortalized Cohan in the film Yankee Doodle Boy in the r94os, and the vaudeville world forms the backdrop for the musical Gypsy, one of the most popular shows in the late r95os.

    Tin Pan Alley is neither a genre nor a real place, but it is important for understanding the musical side of the early musical theatrical genres. It is a nickname both for the area around 28th Street in Manhattan, where many early sheet music publishers were located from the r88os to the r95os, and for the type of music they published. Tin Pan Alley songs were the popular songs of America, and many were big hits. Tin Pan Alley helped to publicize the music of American musical theatre in two important ways: people either wanted the music that they heard at the shows they saw, or they heard the songs and then wanted to see the shows from which those songs were drawn.

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    George M. Cohan in one of his patriotic musicals.

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    Cast and dedicated in 1959, this Times Square statue of George M. Cohan came into being through a memorial committee that included composers Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein II. Photo by Stephanie Lynge.

    In music stores, song pluggers, musicians who worked for a publishing firm, played songs on a piano to interest customers in buying the sheet music. Many composers of early musicals became known to the general public thanks to their talents. George Gershwin and Irving Berlin both started out as song pluggers. In terms of general form and structure, most songs took the form of AABA, with a repeating section, followed by a contrasting section, and a return to the familiar material, over the course of thirty-two measures, yielding what came to be known as song form.

    European opera was of great significance in the development of the musical. American audiences at the end of the nineteenth century loved opera, and elements of opera’s music and dramatic language gradually carried over into operetta, or light opera. The first of the American musical’s great creative teams were the British creators of some of the world’s best-known operettas: William Schwenk Gilbert (lyricist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer). Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas feature comic stories that spoof nineteenth-century British society’s morals and behavior. Their H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885), to name a few, are considered staples of the musical theatre repertory and are still widely performed today. Pinafore in particular took America by storm, becoming immensely popular. In Г879, Gilbert and Sullivan traveled to the United States with the D’Oyly Carte company, and their performances influenced later ones by American companies. The colorful film Topsy-Turvy tells the story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s long and sometimes difficult collaboration.

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    The 2009 production of The Pirates of Penzance, Hirsch Theatre, Jerusalem. Presented by Encore! Educational Theatre Company (directed by Robert Binder). Photo by Brian Negin.

    Operetta in America was also strongly influenced by Americans’ passion for the Viennese waltz. Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (1907) and Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta (1910) with its romantic song, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” (famously parodied in the film Young Frankenstein), recreate a glamorous world with lyrical waltzes as an important element. These and other works evoke the sights and sounds of Viennese operetta, such as Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, known as “the waltz king.” Other important contributions to operetta are Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (4926), and The New Moon (4928), as well as Rudolf Friml’s Rose-Marie (1924). The continuous narrative that would become an integral part of the book musical is central to the operetta and is possibly among that genre’s most important contributions to the development of the American musical.

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    Sheet music from Victor Herbert's operetta The Fortune Teller.

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