History of the Musical Stage
1700-1865: Musical Pioneers
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996, Revised 2009)
(The images below are thumbnails - click on them to see larger versions.)
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.
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 Philadelphia.
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 --
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."
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.
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.
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.)
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
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
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 Crook