History of the Musical Stage
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Harrigan and Hart
Some British sources credit London producer George Edwardes with creating the first musical comedies, but he did not begin presenting this form until 1893, and most of his Gaiety Theater productions were little more than Gilbert and Sullivan-style operettas with chorines in shortened skirts. The form we know as musical comedy was actually born on Broadway in a series of shows starring Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart. Produced between 1878 and 1884, with book and lyrics by Harrigan and music by his father in law David Braham, these musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York's lower classes -- minus any sign of burlesque's showgirls. With these distinctly American musicals, Harrigan, Hart and Braham laid a path that Broadway would follow profitably for more than a century to come.
Harrigan had made his name as a comedian in the variety halls of San Francisco. Hart was a stage-struck reform school escapee with a rare gift for comedy. They met the mid-1870s, and soondeveloped a routine that poked fun at New York's infamous neighborhood militias. These local "guard" units were little more than uniformed drinking clubs sponsored by local politicians. Weekend parades designed to impress the public were often so beer-soaked that the stumbling participants looked ridiculous. In their variety act, Harrigan and Hart donned ill-fitting uniforms and staggered through inept military drills while singing a merry march.
Audiences loved the act and the catchy "Mulligan Guard's March" was soon heard all around the world. In the novel Kim, Rudyard Kipling notes that it was a favorite with British troops in India who replaced the names of New York streets with various Indian locales.
The Mulligan Shows
The Mulligan Guard Ball (1879), Cordelia's Aspirations (1883) and the rest of the series proved extremely popular with New York's immigrant-based lower and middle classes, who loved seeing themselves depicted on stage. Powerful politicians made a point of showing up too, anxious to curry the favor of voters. Harrigan & Hart's plots focused on such real-life problems as interracial tensions, political corruption and gang violence, but there was always enough clownish humor to keep everyone laughing. Since every class and ethnic group was treated as fair game (and often depicted with surprising sympathy), nobody took offense.
Harrigan's dialogue relied on puns and ethnic dialect to win laughs. In Squatter Sovereignty (1882), an Irish immigrant has the following exchange with his wife when he realizes a fish has been tied to his back as an April Fool's prank
Harrigan and Braham's songs were in the popular style of their day, with lots of sentiment and street-smart humor. The lyrics were redolent with slang, ethnic accents and imperfect grammar, speech forms which had not been set to music before. New Yorkers adored these tunes, and every neighborhood in Manhattan rang with renditions of "Paddy Duffy's Cart" or "The Babies on Our Block"
Since these songs were only peripherally connected to the plots of the shows, hits from previous scores could be interpolated when things needed a lift. Harrigan and Hart could always find an excuse to reprise their "Mulligan Guards March," to show-stopping effect.
Over time, Harrigan's penchant for hiring relatives annoyed Hart, and the team split up in 1885. Hart went off on his own, but the crippling effects of advanced syphilis forced him off the stage in 1886, and he died soon afterwards at age 36. Harrigan continued to produce and star in musicals until 1893. George M. Cohan's jaunty "H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan" was an affectionate tribute to this early giant of the American musical stage.
There were other troupes offering musical comedy in the 1870s and 80s. The Salisbury Troubadours brought their touring production of The Brook (1879) to Broadway, where it lasted a then-profitable six weeks. The minimalist plot involved two women and three men who go on a picnic via a short boat ride. Along with food, their picnic baskets produced the costumes and props for their specialties, turning the show into a vaudeville-style procession of acts. There were recycled songs from various sources. Audiences and critics found the resulting evening amusing, and its inexpensive format inspired numerous imitators. Several sources claim that The Brook contained the first seeds of modern musical comedy, but I feel this is a questionable premise. By the time this mishmash reached New York, Harrigan and Hart were already a going concern.
During the 1880s, Broadway musicals became more numerous and profitable than ever. Aside from the imported works of Gilbert & Sullivan (discussed elsewhere in these essays), most of the hits from this decade are forgotten today. However, at least one American musical from this period remained popular well into the next century.
Erminie (London 1885, NY 1886) was the tale of two thieves who kidnap a young bride in hopes of a ransom, inadvertently liberating the girl from a marriage she dreads. This lighthearted silliness ran for over 500 performances in London, and was revived so often on Broadway that it racked up more than 1,200 performances there by 1900. As the timorous thief Cadeaux, Francis Wilson achieved lasting stardom. Unlike most of the stage clowns of his time, Wilson did not rely on physical mugging to win laughs --
Although the versatile Wilson played many roles over the course of his long stage career, he periodically reappeared in Erminie, starring in a Broadway revival as late as the 1930s. Wilson was so admired by his fellow stage actors that they made him the first president of their union, Actor's Equity.
In the final years of the 19th Century, other writers and performers would bring the Broadway musical comedy a new sense of vitality.