AMERICAN MUSICAL THEATRE: AN INTRODUCTION

This article was originally published in The Complete Book of Light Opera. Mark Lubbock. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. pp. 753-756.

IT took many years for the American musical theatre to acquire its own identity. The first musical production in the Colonies was Flora, a performance that took place in a court room in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 8, 1735. Flora was a ballad opera imported from England. The English ballad opera remained popular in the Colonies for several decades. After the Colonies had become a nation, a new kind of stage production began to attract interest: the burlesque. At that time, burlesque consisted of travesties on or parodies of famous plays, performers or dancers--in song, dance, pantomime and dialogue. One of the earliest was Hamlet in 1828, in which John Poole starred; one of the best, La Mosquita in or about 1838, satirized the celebrated Viennese dancer, Fanny Elssler, in her performance in Tarantella. Burlesques were also for the most part foreign importations; and so were the extravaganzas and spectacles that crowded the New York stage just before and immediately after the Civil War. The accent on female pulchritude (usually in flimsy attire), so important an element in later American musical productions, dates from one of these foreign importations: Ixion, in 1869, in which Lydia Thompson and her English blondes shocked New York by having girls appear in skin-coloured tights. The sensational extravaganza, The Black Crook, produced in New York on September 12, 1866--and the most successful theatrical production put on in America up to that time--was, it is true, written by Americans. It is also true that The Black Crook introduced some of the ritual subsequently identifying American musical comedy: chorus girls, ornate production numbers, elaborate costuming, songs provocative with sexual innuendos, large dance numbers and so forth. Nevertheless, The Black Crook came from a foreign matrix. It was a frank imitation of the European extravaganzas which had been visiting the United States for a number of years, beginning with Novelty, with the Laying of the Atlantic Cable, produced in New York in 1857 by the Ronzani troupe, a european ballet company. After the middle 1860s, and for the rest of that century, the American stage was literally flooded with foreign operettas: the opera-bouffes of Offenbach and Lecocq among others; the operettas of Suppé and Johan Strauss II; the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. American composers and librettos were, for a long time, driven by the success of these productions to unashamed imitation. The first successful American-written operetta--Willard Spencer's The Little Tycoon in 1886--would not have been written if The Mikado had not been so successful in America before then; the same holds true for Wang, in 1891. The Austrian and German models were uppermost in their minds when Reginald de Koven wrote Robin Hood, and after that Victor Herbert, Friml and Romberg wrote those operettas which brightened the corners of the American theatre for several decades beginning with 1894.

YET all the while that the European influence on the American musical theatre was pronounced and inescapable, tentative efforts were being made to achieve a musical entertainment basically American in style, spirit and format. The minstrel show, first crystallized in 1843, represented such an attempt through the exploitation of the humor, dance and song of the American Negro. But the minstrel show had no plot, characterizations or settings. The first American musical to do so, and at the same time concentrate on American experiences, was The Brook in 1879, book and lyrics by Nate Salesbury. The plot was slight, built around mishaps attending a number of Americans during a picnic; the humor was obvious; the songs were just adaptations of familiar tunes. But, all the same, The Brook was a pioneer effort to achieve some measure of unity among plot, dialogue and characters within an essentially American play.

A pronounced American personality was introduced in the burlesque-extravaganzas produced and written by Ed Harrigan and Tony Hart (who were also the stars), known as the "Mulligan Guard" series. The format was the European burlesque and extravaganza, but the material was completely American. These Mulligan farces presented a caricature of life in New York with such racial or national groups as the Irish, Germans and Negroes. Their individual speech patterns, behavior and mannerisms contributed to these plays most of their merriment. These city types were placed within such everyday situations as a picnic, a ball, a chowder, a silver-wedding celebration, an election. Songs by David Braham added to the local flavor. These Harrigan and Hart burlesques first became successful in 1879 with the Mulligan Guard's Ball and dominated the New York stage until the partnership of Harrigan and Hart broke up in 1885.

The American musical comedy, however, did not emerge with its familiar panoply until after the turn of the twentieth century. Its parent was George M. Cohan--librettist, lyricist, composer. Ingenuous though were Cohan's methods and techniques, naïve though much of his material was, he was nevertheless a powerful influence in creating an indigenous musical production. Not only were the settings and characters of Cohan's musicals thoroughly American, but his dialogue, lyrics and melody were colloquial and native. The spirit of brashness, cocksureness, energy and chauvinism that pervaded the Cohan musicals were unmistakably American. Cohan also established some of the procedures henceforth governing musical-comedy writing. Any plot, however far-fetched and improbable, was serviceable just so long as it could be the frame for songs, dances, routines and humorous episodes. Not the play was the thing, but the elements within the play. And for many years American musical comedy was governed by this principle.

In those years a musical comedy rarely came into being because a text was found lending itself for musical treatment. The more usual practice was for a producer to have a star, or a group of stars, under contract and then concoct some kind of a play which would highlight the special gifts of performer or performers. The important thing in musical comedy was the kind of business that was assigned to the stars, and it did not matter at all if much of this business was irrelevant to the story. A pattern was evolved which for a long time was adhered to inflexibly, beginning with the rise of the curtain on a line or two of fetching chorus girls chanting an opening number; mammoth production sequences had to end each of the acts. The girl always captured the boy, and the villain always met his just due. Within such a rigid formula, however, some creative figures were able to bring some distinction and personality of style: composers like Friml, Romberg, Herbert and Jerome Kern; lyricists and librettists like P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II; performances by stars like Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Vernon and Irene Castle and many others.

From time to time efforts were made to break loose from the bonds of rigid formula. In the 1920s the Princess Theatre Shows--texts by Guy Bolton, lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse and music by Jerome Kern--represented for the times a radical departure from the kind of musicals then popular on Broadway. The Princess Theatre Shows dispensed with a large apparatus to concentrate on intimate and informal entertainment with small casts and no stars. In place of production numbers, humorous skits and chorus-girl lines, these musicals concentrated on sophistication, witty dialogue, amusing incidents that rose naturally from the context of the play, charming music and a distinctly American personality of plot and characters.

The tendency away from routine was followed with even greater courage in the 1920s by Rodgers and Hart, with Herbert Fields as their librettist. Material long considered taboo in musical comedy was tapped by these inventive and courageous writers: dream psychology, American history, American literature. These men had no hesitancy in abandoning long-accepted procedures of musical comedy when their texts demanded this; and there was always a willingness on their part to endow their writing with a breadth and scope not often encountered in the musical theatre of that day. Rodgers and Hart lifted musical comedy out of the nursery and carried it to adult maturity.

The greatest revolution in the American musical theatre up to that time came in 1927 with Show Boat, by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern. Here we come to a completely new genre--the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Now, at long last, the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now, at last, came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity. Here, finally, was a musical with a consistent and credible story line, authentic atmosphere and three-dimensional characters.

The musical play made further forward strides with Of Thee I Sing!, the brilliant political satire by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira and George Gershwin; with two more musicals by Jerome Kern, Cat and the Fiddle and Music in the Air; with several more musicals by Rodgers and Hart, most notably On Your Toes and Pal Joey; and most of all with the first of the Rodgers and Hammerstein masterworks, Oklahoma!, with which the musical play finally became a significant American art form.

After Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most important contributors to the musical-play form--with such masterworks as Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific. The examples they set in creating vital plays, often rich with social thought, provided the necessary encouragement for other gifted writers to create musical plays of their own, men like Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser and Leonard Bernstein among others.

But while the musical play was thus being solidly established as a basic form of the American musical theatre, the musical comedy had not fallen by the wayside. On the contrary--through the years musical comedy, dedicated to escapism and entertainment, grew increasingly sophisticated, subtle, and imaginative even while pursuing long-established patterns of behavior. With musical comedies like Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, musical comedy became entertainment in excelsis, drawing to itself the best talent the American theatre had to offer in every department.

The musical play and musical comedy are today the two major branches of the American musical theatre. Each is a thriving institution, artistically and commercially, because each has its own place and purpose, and each continues year by year to give promise of a still richer and more eventful future.

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