Musical theatre is the one genre of live theatre that is arguably a part of popular culture in America today. Although centered on Broadway in New York City, Broadway musicals tour all major urban centers in the country, giving the larger population a chance to see Broadway hits within a few years of their opening. Many people who have never seen a Shakespeare play or a new straight play by a contemporary author have seen a Broadway musical, whether a Broadway tour or a summer stock production.
Origins in Nineteenth Century Popular Entertainment
Musical comedy is the one theatrical genre we will study this semester that is an American creation. Early influences, like variety shows, originated in other countries, but the particular synthesis of many different influences is original to the United States.
Antecedents of musical comedy include minstrelsy, vaudeville, and revue/follies shows, all of which are American forms of variety shows. Also important are the evolution of ragtime and jazz music, which are the original musical styles of musical comedy. Both ragtime and jazz grew out of the melding of European music of the 19th century with African American music. Irving Berlin (left) is often said to have popularized ragtime for general audiences with his song "Alexander's Ragtime Band". As a composer, Berlin played an important role in the transition from older musical entertainments of the 1900's, 10's and 20's to musical comedy in the late 1920's. The dance style of musical theatre, which we often loosely refer to as jazz, developed from the popular dance style of African American nightclubs in the 1910's and 20's. The popularity of the music and dance styles on the early Broadway stage provides an important contrast with today's musical theatre. The earlier forms of variety shows all included comedy, music, and dance to varying degrees.
Minstrelsy was the earliest forerunner of the American musical. Beginning in 1828, Thomas D. Rice, a white man, presented a comic caricature of a lame black man singing and dancing. He named his character "Jim Crow", and Jim became an immediate favorite of white audiences. It is important to note the historical difference between audiences of the 19th century and audiences today: 19th century audiences were highly entertained by racial and ethnic stereotypes and also laughed at physical disabilities. Not only Jim Crow, the slow, drawling character on an antebellum plantation, and also Zip Coon, the blackface "city-slicker" character who was fast talking and clever; but also other ethnic stereotypes such as a drunken Irishman, the American Yankee named Jonathan, or the Jewish street ruffian Mose. As more immigrant populations became citizens in larger numbers, more stage stereotypes appeared. Just as we are less likely to laugh at ethnic stereotypes today, we are unlikely to find jokes at the expense of the disabled funny, like Jim Crow's limp while dancing or a blind man walking into objects. On the other hand, we, like 19th century audiences, tend to make light of things in our culture that are continuing problems. Consider the rash of jokes that appeared in the wake of Bill Clinton's affairs or that follow a serious plane crash or natural disaster.
The minstrel shows that arose in the 1830's were made up of three parts: a first section with the whole company on stage, the olio, and a comic afterpiece. In the first section, the minstrel company sat on the stage in a semi-circle, with the MC "Mr. Interlocutor" in the middle and the two musicians, Tambo (who played tambourine) and Bones (who played pig's rib bones) on either end. All minstrel performers were white men in blackface, which they achieved by rubbing burnt cork on their faces. A few black performers rose to prominence as well, but African American minstrelsy did not really take off until after the Civil War. Women were never members of white or black companies, thus all female roles were men in drag. This first section included comic patter among the Interlocutor, Tambo, and Bones, along with songs and comic skits. The second section was called the olio, and it consisted on specialty acts -- songs, dances, and comic speeches or dialogues. The olio of different companies varied substantially according to the talents of each company's members. Finally, an afterpiece was performed, which was a short, farcical play on antebellum plantation life, usually featuring the characters Jim Crow and/or Zip Coon.
By the time of the Civil War, minstrel companies had become quite large, often containg 40-60 members. The olio had become the most popular section and had grown quite long in large companies. Similarly, jokes centering on antebellum slave life were getting old, while much else in American culture cried out for humorous treatment by comedians. Vaudeville evolved out of the minstrel olios, and years after it separated from minstrely it still featured some blackface acts, betraying its origins. By the turn of the century, minstrelsy had all but died out. Vaudeville was at its height from 1880-1930. A second source for vaudeville was burlesque, which had begun as a series of comic sketches parodying current social trends or artistic trends or other plays to increasingly show off scantily clad females with a small amound of song and dance ability. Both the element of parody and the chorus of women became typical elements of vaudeville. A producer named Tony Pastor is usually credited with solidifying the genre in the 1880's. Vaudeville, like minstrelsy, was a touring art form. It consisted of songs, dances, and comic routines, each of about three minutes in length. Theatres were organized into circuits for either white or black vaudeville companies. Producers were centered in New York, and owned an entire circuit, on which they would send headliners and supporting entertainers. The Orpheum circuit was the most famous white circuit while TOBA (often refered to as "Tough on Black Actors") was the largest African American circuit. Like in most areas of American life, the theatre was strictly segregated until well into the 20th century. Local theatres often provided back-up dancers, generally 8-12 young women, who knew a few set routines that they performed behind any star's act. The Marx brothers and Fred Astaire began their careers touring in vaudeville.
Follies and musical revues were much like vaudeville in their organization, but they did not tour. They opened and closed in one city, usually in a large theatre, and tended to have large budgets that encouraged spectacle in scenery and costume. The Ziegfeld Follies is the most famous example of a follies style show. Florenz Ziegfeld staged a new follies show each year. Each one outdid the next in extravagance. Costumes were full of feathers and jewels and scenery shifted spectacularly. Flying effects were popular. And he hired an enormous chorus of dancing girls, who generally appeared somewhat scantily clad. Musical revues were essentially the same thing, but were not generally annual events put on by a big producer; instead, they featured the music or comic dialogue or one or more writers. Into the 20th century, some writers of follies shows or revues began to string together an evening's entertainment with a loose theme, location, a reappearing character, or a sketchy plot. This stringing together of what were diverse numbers in minstrelsy and vaudeville was a significant step toward musical comedy.
The first Broadway show to include a full plot, with music and dancing as relatively equal components was an historical accident. In 1866, the melodrama The Black Crook incorporated a stranded troupe of ballet dancers into the show, hoping to attract a larger audience with this novel presentation. It worked: The Black Crook ran for sixteen months, a tremendous success in the 1860's. These kinds of combination shows appeared again from time to time for the rest of the century, but never with the same success. With the evolution of follies and musical revues around 1900, these shows were the most popular on Broadway. Often these shows featured new music and dance trends evolving in popular nightclubs, like the cotton club. Ragtime and jazz music, and dances like "The Turkey Trot", "Charleston", and "Black Bottom", all of which originated in African American culture, were introduced to the larger American public through Broadway shows in the 1910's and 1920's. Some of these revues were all-black casts, and some all-white, because Broadway was still strictly segregated, but the music and dances became popular with all of America.
Development of the Book Musical
1927 was a landmark year in American entertainment for many reasons: it was the height of Broadway or the year in which the most plays opened in the most theatres in American history, it was the year of the first feature length "talkie" - The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, and it was the year musical comedy was born. Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a libretto by Edna Ferber adapted from her novel, opened late in 1927. It was the first book musical, the style that came to define and dominate the American musical theatre. The musical has a serious plot in which every character contributes to the story. Music is introduced when and where it is appropriate to character. If a chorus is needed, it is justified in the plot. The book musical reflects the Modernist value on unity, which had led to the development of the modern director about 30 years previously. The director's role evolved to bring unity to a play's text, staging style, acting style, and design elements in the late nineteenth century. Unity applies in a similar way to the ideal book musical: it should be a demonstrate a complete integration of plot, character, music, dance, and design.
In the case of Show Boat, the characters are mostly performers and workers on the showboat, loosely justifying their ability to sing and dance on cue. Show Boat is set in the reconstruction south, on a steamboat fitted out as a theatre that toured to cities up and down the Mississippi River. Show boats were in fact a kind of vaudeville serving cities on major rivers in the US through much of the 19th century. The major conflict of the play involves our definition of what makes a person "black" or "white" in America. Julie, a performer on the showboat, is discovered to be descended from a black person, but, to work on the white showboat, she is "passing" for white. By law, she can not work on that boat and is forced to leave. The plot follows Julie and follows the daughter of the showboat managers as she grows up. Other characters include the managers, other performers, and Jim, a black man who works on the ship and sings the most famous song in the show, "Old Man River", in response to Julie getting fired.
The production history of Show Boat is significant not only in that it is considered the first, mature example of the musical comedy form, but also in that it was the first integrated cast of any Broadway show. It set the style for many future musical comedies in that, in spite of the genre name "musical comedy", it contained both comic and serious elements and thus would better be described as a "drama". Show Boat is still frequently performed in summer stock, regional repertory and university settings, and had a major Broadway revival in the 1990's. As it was a period piece when written in the 1920's that brought up issues that still effected 1920's America, it plays well today too. While it is a period piece even more removed from us today, we have yet to fully solve our country's deeply embedded racism.
The development of the book musical corresponds to the birth of Hollywood
feature films. Much early Hollywood material was taken from the live
theatres, including musicals. The ideal of unity arrived later in Hollywood
musicals than in Broadway musicals, and corresponded to directors' and
editors' ability to define and manipulate the possibilities of the new
medium of film. Early Hollywood musicals tended to import vaudeville acts
at regular intervals, or whenever the plot began to drag, whether or not
that vaudeville act had anything to do with the rest of the movie. This
was an accepted convention, and, as the vaudeville acts filmed were popular
headliners, the public enjoyed the performances without worrying about
the disunified effect. Many great vaudeville stars are preserved
on film in this manner, like the great tap dance duo "The Nicholas Brothers".
Fred Astaire, who starred in vaudeville and on Broadway in musical revues
for 25 years with his sister Adele then headed for Hollywood after she
married and moved abroad, was an important influence in unifying the Hollywood
musical and establishing a filming style. In such films as Flying Down
to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Top Hat (1935)
the songs appear at appropriate moments within the plot and are appropriate
to the characters who sing them. Dance sequences and choruses are
minimally justified within the plot. In terms of filming style, Astaire
insisted that the virtuosity of live performances ought to be maintained
in films by shooting such things as dance sequences in one take, and placing
them, unedited, into the film.
Well known composers and lyricists from the this first stage of American
musical comedy (roughly 1927-1942) include Kern and Hammerstein, Rodgers
and Hart (On Your Toes, 1936; Babes in Arms, 1937; Boys
from Syracuse, 1938; Pal Joey, 1940), Irving Berlin (As Thousands
Cheer, 1933; Annie Get Your Gun, 1946), George and Ira Gershwin
(Strike Up the Band, 1930; Of Thee I Sing, 1931; Porgy
and Bess, 1935), and Cole Porter (Anything Goes, 1934; Red,
Hot and Blue, 1936; Kiss Me Kate, 1948). The most famous early
director of Broadway musicals was George Abbott, and the screen director
who best exemplifies the pre-unified film aesthetic is Busby Berkeley,
with such films as Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935,
in Arms (1939), and For Me and My Gal (1942). Popular performers
on stage and screen included Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple,
Bill Robinson, and the Marx Brothers.
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