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Harrigan and Hart
Hart, Ned Harrigan and an unnamed assistant perform "The Mulligan Guard
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 soon developed 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.
We shouldered arms
And marched away,
From Baxter Street
We marched to Avenue A.
With drums and fifes
How sweetly they did play
As we marched, marched, marched
In the Mulligan Guards.
- Lyric transcribed from sheet music
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
When Harrigan and Hart reached New York, their "Mulligan
Guard" act was such a sensation that it played the city's top variety theaters
for more than a year. Inspired by this acclaim, the team expanded the act into
The Mulligan Guard Picnic
(1878), a forty minute sketch that packed audiences into Broadway's Theatre
Comique for a month -- a very healthy commercial run for that time. This
became the first in a seven year series of full
length musical farces. The versatile Harrigan performed, produced, and
directed while writing the scripts and lyrics. The action was always set on the
scruffy streets of downtown Manhattan, with Harrigan playing politically ambitious
Irish saloon owner "Dan Mulligan" and Hart winning praise as the
African American washerwoman "Rebecca Allup."
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
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
MICHAEL: Be heavens, that's a haddock.
ELLEN: 'Tis, and was hanging to a sucker.
MICHAEL: You're only codding me.
ELLEN: What eels you?
MICHAEL: I've smelt that before.
The Mulligan Guard Ball (1883). I
discovered this tucked between the pages of a Victorian novel -- you never
know what might be hiding at your local flea market.
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
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"
If you want for information
Or in need of merriment,
Come over with me socially
To Murphy's tenement.
He owns a row of houses
In the first ward, near the dock,
Where Ireland's represented
By the babies on our block.
There's the Phalens and the Whalens
From the sweet Dunochadee,
They are sitting on the railings
With their children on their knee,
All gossiping and talking
With their neighbors in a flock,
Singing "Little Sally Waters"
With the babies on our block.
"Oh, little Sally Waters,
Sitting in the sun,
A-crying and weeping for a young man;
Oh rise, Sally, rise,
Wipe your eye out with your frock";
That's sung by the babies
A-living on our block.
- Lyric transcribed from sheet music
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.
For more on Harrigan & Hart:
Wilson (seated) as the cowardly thief Cadeaux, and William S. Daboll as his
daring partner Ravennes are seen plotting a kidnapping in the original
Broadway production of Erminie (1886). Extremely popular with his
fellow performers, Wilson was an early leader of the Actors Equity
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 --
Wilson's comedy and farce were rooted
in his sense of characterization. He achieved much of the force of his humor
by the unerring consistency with which successive bits of business built up
a rounded and believable character.
- Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (New York:
Theatre Arts Books, 1950), p. 93.
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.
Next: 1890s - Farces &