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History of the Musical Stage

1700-1865: Musical Pioneers

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996, Revised 2014)

(The images below are thumbnails - click on them to see larger versions.)

Humble Beginnings

When the present-day United States was a collection of thirteen British colonies, the most widespread form of live entertainment was lifting pints of ale at taverns -- a comparatively healthy pass time in an era when impure drinking water was a leading cause of disease. 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 visit in Manhattan regularly until the 1730s. Throughout the colonial period, British plays and players dominated America's stages. Musical offerings included --

  • pantomimes - one act works which replaced spoken dialogue with wordless clowning and interpolated songs.
  • ballad operas - comic plays peppered with popular ballads reset to new satirical lyrics.

nassau2004.jpg (22951 bytes)The location of the Theatre on Nassau Street as it appeared in 2004, a brick office building dwarfed by skyscraping neighbors.

According to recent scholarship, the first full length musical play performed in America was Flora (or The Hob on the Wall), a ballad opera presented in Charleston in 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 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 the good people of Massachusetts and Rhode Island did not lift their bans until 1793. However, theatre gradually reappeared, helped in part by the support of such prominent citizens as President George Washington, who made a point of frequently attending performances in both New York and Philadelphia.

At first, the new Republic's stages remained dependent on British plays and comic operas. Homegrown 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 mostly comic operas (satirical operas with original scores and libretti), but sources differ as to which was the first. Some prominent nominees --

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 typical evening. Even performances of Shakespearian tragedies included 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, 1790sThe 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.

Racial Barriers

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 theatrical 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 in 1823. African American performers would not return to New York's legitimate stages until after the Civil War, and all-black productions would not successfully appear on 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 on this.)

Vague Definitions

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 "transformation scene" (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 (and the one 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 Crook