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Broadway in "The Gay 90s"
program for A Trip to Chinatown (1891) announces that curtain
time was 8:30 PM, and informs theatergoers that carriages may pick them up
at 10:50. New York's subway
system would not appear until 1904.
Although none of the Broadway musicals of the 1890s would merit a
today, they appeared during an era of extraordinary theatrical bounty. It was not unusual
for fifty or more musical productions to open in a single season. While numerous revivals
and European imports were in the mix, many of these shows were homegrown
originals, including numerous farcical musical comedies. Following the Harrigan and Hart model, these shows had loose plots
involving "ordinary people," offering enough gags and dialogue to get from song
to song. Any number of composers might contribute to the score.
Producer-playwright Charles Hoyt mastered
this form, which reached its peak with
A Trip To Chinatown (1891 - 657), the story of a widow
who accidentally maneuvers several young suburban couples into a big city restaurant
where a rich man loses his wallet before true love wins out in the end. (The
bare outline of this plot would serve again two generations later in Hello Dolly.) The show was cobbled together, using songs by a multitude of composers.
Thanks to interpolations made during the New York run, the score eventually included
the perennial favorites "Reuben, Reuben," "The Bowery," and
"After the Ball" none of which had any real connection to the
plot. A Trip to Chinatown toured for several years, and its record-setting
Broadway run would not be surpassed until the early 1920s. Whenl
(1927) needed a familiar song to embody the
sound of 1890s, Hammerstein and Kern interpolated "After the Ball."
The Belle of New York (1897) did poorly on Broadway
with its tale of a Salvation Army girl who prevents her millionaire boyfriend from
being disinherited. But a London production in 1898 proved a surprise sensation, running
more a year and receiving nine West End revivals over the next four decades.
This was the first American musical to enjoy unqualified success in Britain. It also made a star out
of Edna May, an attractive dark-haired American soprano who played the title role on
both sides of the Atlantic. The songs, popular in their day, have not had any lasting fame.
However, when most people think of the entertainments of the "Gay 90s,"
The Belle of New York is the
sort of show they picture lighthearted musical comedy with a touch of
innocent romance, all designed to showcase lovely young women in lavish but moderately
The 1890s also brought the first Broadway
The Passing Show (1894). This almost vaudeville-like hodgepodge of
songs, sketches and specialty acts drew little attention, and the revue format
would not catch on until Florenz Ziegfeld introduced his Follies in 1907.
There is far more on this in the pages ahead.
Early Black Musicals
In the years following the Civil War, minstrel shows
were the only professional stage
outlet for African American performers, so it is no surprise that the earliest black
musicals grew out of the minstrel tradition. The Creole Show (1890)
reshaped minstrelsy's all-male tradition by offering a female interlocutor
and other women in an all-black cast. With a successful tour and a New York run, this
production proved that black musicals had substantial commercial appeal.
John W. Isham, The Creole Show’s booking agent, later produced
The Octoroons (1895), a touring musical farce that placed traditional minstrel
comedy routines in a continuous plot. The show's racial attitude is reflected
in the title of its hit song, "No Coon Can Come Too Black for Me."
Bob Cole (seated) and J.R. Johnson, two
of the earliest African American songwriters to succeed on Broadway.
Popular singer Sisseretta Jones starred in Black Patti’s Troubadours
(1896), which toured the US for eighteen years and gave many talented black performers
their first professional showcase. Black composer/lyricist Bob Cole wrote
one-act musicals for the troupe, including "At Jolly Coon-ey Island." When
Cole eventually found it impossible to work with the company's white managers, he established
his own all black production company. Cole composed and produced the first full-length New
York musical comedy written, directed and performed exclusively by blacks,
A Trip to Coontown (1898). Aside from the now-offensive title (which
spoofed A Trip to Chinatown), it relied on minstrel stereotypes to
tell the story of con artist Jimmy Flimflammer’s unsuccessful attempts to steal an
old man’s pension. With variety acts thrown in to keep things lively, the show had a
successful tour and two runs in New York. Cole went on to compose several more black
musicals with lyricist J.R. Johnson, including The Red Moon (1909).
While A Trip to Coontown was still running at the Third Avenue Theater,
Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) opened at the Casino Theatre's
Roof Garden. This hour long sketch was the first all-black show to play in a
prestigious Broadway house, thanks to a daring maneuver by composer
Will Marion Cook. He and his company walked into
the Casino Roof one day and informed the manager that the owner had sent them
an outright lie, but it got them onto the stage. Their unauthorized performance
caused such a sensation that producer Edward Rice
booked the show for a run. Clorindy's libretto relied on demeaning minstrel-style
comedy, but the innovative ragtime score brought acclaim to Cook, who went on to
write musicals for Broadway’s first top rank black stars, Bert
Williams and George Walker. The history of African American musicals continues
in our article on the early 1900s.
Next: 1890s - Part II