(The images below are thumbnails click on
them to see larger versions.)
The ornate interior of Niblo's Garden as seen in an
1855 newspaper sketch. Actors needed solid vocal technique to be heard in this
3,200 seat auditorium.
In the summer of 1866, lower Broadway was New York's
busiest thoroughfare, just as congested with traffic as it is today, but with
temperamental horses and piles of manure added to the chaos of carriages and
people. As post-Civil
business boomed, there was a sharp increase in the
city's working and middle class population, and these growing masses of people
craved entertainment. Theaters abounded in Manhattan. One of the most popular
venues was Niblo’s Garden, a 3,200 seat
auditorium at the corner of Broadway and Prince Streets that boasted the most well equipped
stage in the city. Its manager was William Wheatley,
a sometime actor and man who would invent the big-time Broadway musical. Not that he
intended to invent anything. He was just trying to keep his theater
With the fall season set to start in a few weeks, Wheatley was
stuck. He held the rights to a dull
melodrama that he hoped to sweeten with lavish production values and a stack of mediocre
songs by assorted composers. Salvation came in the unexpected form of a fire
that destroyed New York's elegant Academy of Music,
Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer with a costly Parisian ballet troupe
and a shipload of handsome stage sets. Historians
now argue about specifics, but at some point Jarrett, Palmer and Wheatley made a
deal, and Broadway's first
mega-hit musical began to take shape.
The entrance to Niblo's Garden was depicted on this mid-20th
Century cigarette card.
When playwright Charles M. Barras objected to having his
derivative play "cheapened" by the inclusion of musical numbers, a $1,500
bonus secured his silence. Wheatley later claimed that he spent the then-unheard of
sum of $25,000
to produce The Black Crook (1866 - 474).
The opening night performance on September 12 lasted a bottom-numbing five and a
half hours, but the audience was too dazzled to complain.
The Black Crook's tortured plot stole
elements from Goethe's Faust, Weber's Der Freischutz, and several other
well-known works. It told the story of evil Count Wolfenstein, who tries to win the
affection of the lovely villager Amina by placing her boyfriend Rodolphe in the clutches of
Hertzog, a nasty crook-backed master of black magic (hence the show's
title). The ancient Hertzog stays alive by providing the Devil (Zamiel, "The Arch
Fiend") with a fresh soul every New Year's Eve. While an unknowing Rodolphe
is being led to this hellish fate, he selflessly saves the life of a dove,
which magically turns out to be Stalacta, Fairy Queen of
the Golden Realm who was masquerading as the bird. (Are you still
following this?) The grateful Queen whisks Rudolph to safety in fairyland before helping
to reunite him with his beloved Amina. The Fairy Queen's army then battles the
Count and his evil minions. The Count is defeated, demons drag the evil magician
Hertzog into hell, and Rodolphe and Amina live happily ever after.
The original cast program
for The Black Crook.
Wheatley made sure his production offered plenty to
keep theatergoer's minds off the inane plot and forgettable score. There were
dazzling special effects, including a "transformation scene" that
mechanically converted a rocky grotto into a fairyland throne room in full view
of the audience. But the show's key draw was its
underdressed female dancing chorus, choreographed in semi-classical style by
David Costa. Imagine (if you dare) a hundred fleshy ballerinas in skin-colored
tights singing "The March of the Amazons" while prancing
about in a moonlit grotto. It sounds laughable now, but this display was the most
provocative thing on any respectable stage. The troupe's prima
ballerina, Marie Bonfanti, became the toast of New York.
A script sample from:
The Black Crook; Act I, Scene 1
Why a Landmark?
Controversy sells tickets, and righteous attacks from pulpits and newspaper
editorial columns made The Black Crook the hottest ticket on Broadway.
Half-clad women? Who could miss seeing such a daring display! At a time when New York productions were happy to run two or three
weeks, The Black Crook ran for more than a year, grossing over a million dollars.
New tours popped
up for decades to come, and the show was revived on Broadway eight
So why did The Black Crook become such a phenomenon, when
a similar hit from six years earlier is now forgotten? The Seven
Sisters (1860) starred Laura Keene (a top actor-manager of the day) and ran
for a then-whopping 253 performances. It featured the same sort of magical special
effects and scene changes, and delighted audiences of all classes and ages. No copies of
the Seven Sisters score or libretto are known to
survive, so direct comparisons are impossible. However, we can say that The Black Crook's greater success resulted from
two changes brought about by the Civil
and hospitals during the war years, respectable women no longer felt tied to
their homes and could attend the theatre. This substantially increased the
potential audience for popular entertainment. (Even so, some
"respectable" women attended The
Black Crook heavily veiled.)
America's railroad system had expanded and upgraded during the war,
making it easier and more affordable for large productions to tour. During
three decades of touring the United States, The Black Crook earned
millions of dollars.
British theatre historian Sheridan Morley (Spread A Little
Happiness. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987. p. 15) suggests that The Black
Crook was the first musical, American or otherwise. While that is debatable,
The Black Crook did prove how profitable the musical theater could be in the
period print shows what Niblo's Garden looked like from the stage during a
performance of The Black Crook.
The Black Crook spawned a host of similar stage spectacles with
fantasy themes, known as extravaganzas. None gave
much care to plot or characterization, and the songs had little to do with stories
that always involved whimsical trips to fairyland. But the best of these early musicals
were clean and entertaining, so they became an established part of what was then
referred to as "the show business."
The next musical form to rise on Broadway was full
length burlesque. But these shows were nothing like the
bump-and-grind girlie shows of the 20th Century.
Next: 1866-1879 - Burlesque