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When the present-day United States was a collection of thirteen British
colonies, the most widespread form of live entertainment consisted of lifting pints of ale at
taverns. The first professional theatres in the colonies appeared in Philadelphia and Charleston.
Although New York had been in British hands since 1664, the mostly Dutch
populace considered theatre sinful.
So professional acting troupes did not appear in Manhattan regularly
until the 1730s. British plays and players dominated America's
colonial stages. Musical offerings of that period included --
- one act works which replaced spoken dialogue with wordless clowning and
- ballad operas
- comic plays peppered with popular ballads reset to new satirical lyrics.
location of the Theatre on Nassau Street as it appeared in 2004, now a brick
office building dwarfed by skyscraping neighbors.
According to contemporary scholarship, the first full
length musical play performed in America was Flora (or The Hob on the Wall),
a ballad opera presented in Charleston as early as 1735. New York's first-known professional
musical production was a five performance run of
John Gay's satirical British ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, offered by
Walter Murray and Thomas Kean's traveling theatrical troupe at the
Nassau Street Theatre on Dec.3, 1750.
Click here to read a script sample from
The Beggar's Opera
The American Revolution had a crippling effect on all forms of
theatre. In 1774, the new Continental Congress passed a resolution
discouraging theatrical "entertainments," and the individual states
quickly passed laws forbidding all stage performances. As a result, professional troupes were
forced to either disband or leave the country. Most of these anti-theatre laws remained
in effect until the early 1780s, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island did not lift their
bans until 1793. However, theatrical entertainment gradually reappeared, helped
in part by the support of such prominent citizens as President George
Washington, who regularly attended performances in both New York and
At first, the new Republic's stages remained dependent on British plays
and comic operas. Native born musicals began appearing in the 1790s, but it would be some
time before they matched the popularity of imported works. The earliest American musicals were
comic operas (satirical operas with original scores and
libretti), but sources differ as to which was the first. Some prominent nominees --
Edwin and Angelina, or The Bandetti was written in 1791,
and supposedly received just one performance in December 1796.
An anti-Federalist opera called Tammany, or the Indian
Chief premiered in New York on March 3, 1796, but no copies of the
libretto have survived.
The Archers, or The Mountaineers
of Switzerland, a comic opera by librettist William
Dunlap and composer Benjamin Carr, premiered in New York on April
8th, 1796 at the John Street Theatre.
Based on the William Tell legend, its initial three performance run
was followed by two nights in Boston. In The American Musical Stage Before 1800
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1962, p. vii), Julian Mates claims that
The Archers was the first noteworthy homegrown American musical. While that is
debatable, it is currently the earliest American musical for which a complete score
and libretto survive.
Every known American theatre company of the post-Revolutionary era presented
a wide range of musical works. For example, in 1796, New York City's prestigious American
Company staged 91 performances of 46 different musicals -- accounting for nearly half
of their repertory. Almost every theatrical performance seen in America in the late 18th
and early 19th Centuries offered interpolated musical numbers, or threw in musical
"specialties" (song & dance acts) between the two or more featured plays
seen in a given evening. Even performances of Shakespearian tragedies would include interpolated
popular songs, or at the very least would share the evening with a one-act pantomime or comic
opera as a "curtain raiser" or "after piece."
The Park Theatre was New York's first world
class entertainment venue. Seen at the center of this period print, it stood just across
from City Hall Park from 1798 to 1848.
In the early 1800s, Broadway was New York's main thoroughfare,
making it the most desirable location for all businesses, including theatres. The city's
expanding population was more diverse than in the past, and exhibited a newfound
passion for theatre. Melodramas
became increasingly popular, offering forgettable stories enlivened by mood-setting
background music, interpolated popular
songs and lavish stage effects. There were also
musical romances, original works which were more
sentimental than comic operas but written in much the same musical style. The term
burletta was originally used to describe a
comic opera that burlesqued popular topics, but this word was soon applied to almost any
dramatic production that included songs.
For a comprehensive discussion of early American musical
theatre, see Susan L. Porter's With An Air Debonair: Musical Theatre in
America 1785-1815. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
In the summer of 1821, William Henry Brown (a black West
Indian and former ship's steward) opened a "pleasure garden" in his
backyard at 38 Thomas Street. This was the first black-owned establishment in New
York to offer entertainment to African American audiences. With blacks barred from
every other theatre in town, Brown drew capacity crowds. He soon built the American
Theatre on Mercer Street, and drew curious whites by featuring all-black casts
in the same blend of plays and musical acts found in white theatres.
At first, Brown's work was tolerated by the authorities, and
viewed with amusement by the press. However, when he had the audacity to lease a performance space on
Broadway, the establishment reacted with alarm. White theatre owners hired street toughs to
break up Brown's performances, and when police were called in they ignored the
thugs and arrested the black actors. When the matter came to trial, a white judge ruled that Brown's
negro company was not to perform Shakespeare again, limiting itself to lighter
material. Brown returned to his old location and abided by the court's order,
but continuing harassment forced him to shut down altogether by 1823. African
American performers would not return to the legitimate stage until after the
Civil War, and all-black productions would not successfully return to Broadway
until the next century.
(For more on this often overlooked chapter in theatrical
history, see Marvin McAllister's White People Do Not Know How to Behave at
Entertainments Designed for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color. Chapel Hill:
Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003.)
Anti-black feeling did not prevent the rise of a new form of variety
entertainment based on the denigration of African American culture. White
performers had been blacking up their faces and doing "colored" song
and dance acts since Thomas Rice introduced the song (and character)
"Jump Jim Crow" on variety stages in the early 1830's. In 1842, a group of four
unemployed actors who had experience doing blackface routines in circuses banded
together to present a full-length evening. Calling themselves The Virginia
Minstrels (spoofing the popular Tyrolese Minstrels of Switzerland), their
"plantation songs" and shuffling dances caused a sensation. This first
minstrel show spawned a
flurry of successful imitators. Minstrel troupes soon toured the country,
giving performances that usually included rudimentary one act
musicals as part of an evening's entertainment. Horrifying by today's standards,
minstrel shows were the first American-born form of musical theatre.
(See Musicals101's special section on minstrel shows for more
In the 1840s, most American stage productions included some songs. Working
and lower class audiences expected music as part of a night's
entertainment, and shows aimed at these audiences were happy to oblige.
Benjamin A. Baker's melodrama Glance At New York (1848) was a comic look at
life on the streets of Manhattan, including petty thieves, gullible
"greenhorns," and the street gangsters known as "Bowery B'hoys"
-- most notably the semi-legendary roughneck "Mose." This show offered
several musical numbers, including barroom ballads and other popular tunes. These
songs had little if any connection to the plot, serving mainly to add atmosphere.
By 1850, original musicals were commonplace fare on Broadway, but
no one was calling them "musicals" yet. A play with songs might
advertise itself as a burletta, extravaganza, spectacle,
operetta, comic or light opera, pantomime or even parlor opera. These
classifications were so vague that The Magic Deer (1852) advertised itself
as "A Serio Comico Tragico Operatical Historical Extravaganzical Burletical
Tale of Enchantment" just to make sure potential ticket buyers got the
point. At the time, most Broadway theatre companies ran varied repertories, so
it was rare for a single production to rack up more than a dozen performances.
In most cases, the scripts for these disposable entertainments are long-since lost, so we
cannot be sure exactly what they were like.
The Seven Sisters
As New York City's population boomed, the demand
for more ambitious entertainments grew. Riding the crest of this new cultural wave,
actress-manager Laura Keene became one of the first nationally recognized
stars of the American stage -- and the first American woman to succeed as
manager of her own troupe. With a strong business sense and versatile stage talents,
she produced and starred in a series of popular comedies and musicals in her
theatre at 622 Broadway (just above Houston Street).
After setting Broadway's first "long-run" musical record with
a 50 performance hit called The Elves (1857), Keene astounded New York
when her "musical burletta" The Seven Sisters
(1860) racked up an unprecedented 253 performances.
Keene starred as one of seven female demons who come up from hell to
go sightseeing in New York. The show included a series of patriotic tableaux
hosted by no less than Uncle Sam himself, including a grand parade of
thirty-four chorines as the states celebrating the union, and a finale that
featured George Washington rising from his tomb. The score borrowed various
popular songs, including the minstrel classic "Dixie." With its heady
blend of patriotic fantasy, spectacular sets, and a
(where the entire stage set changed in full view of the
audience), Seven Sisters was a clear precursor to the more widely
remembered hits that came later that decade. After the North was routed in the
first Battle of Bull Run, any celebration of the American union rang so hollow
that Keene closed the show. Because the heavy stage machinery required by The Seven
Sisters made touring impractical, the show had no afterlife. Oh, how
different things would be after the four tumultuous years of the Civil War.
The Civil War
During the Civil War (1861-1865), most theatrical troupes remained
in the more populous and prosperous North, but actors were often allowed to cross
the battle lines to provide entertainment on either side. After an initial
financial panic, New York City saw a marked increase in theatrical
attendance as people looked for lighthearted distractions. Broadway's
wartime musicals ranged from outright fantasies (Cinderella) to topical
burlesques (King Cotton, or the Exiled Prince). Laura Keene's troupe
offered eight musicals
as part of their ongoing New York repertory, until financial difficulties forced
Keene to give up her theatre and take a repertory of non-musicals on tour from
1863 onwards. Sadly, Keene is mainly remembered because President
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching her performance in the popular comedy
Our American Cousin in 1865 at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
After the war, the musical stage -- like the nation -- faced a time
of extraordinary redefinition. In 1866, two events set the course
for the American musical theatre's future. The first (which is rarely noted)
came in January, when a double bill entitled The Black Domino/Between You, Me
and the Post became the first known Broadway production to call itself a
musical comedy. Since no
libretto or score is known to survive, we can't be sure what this material was
like, but the very use of the phrase "musical comedy" shows change
was in the air.
The second big theatrical event of 1866 (which is often
noted) came in September. Some have called this production "the first Broadway
musical," which is nonsense. However, The Black Crook was
America's first bona fide nationwide musical blockbuster.
Next: 1860s - The Black