History of the Musical Stage
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Weber & Fields: Burlesque Musicals
The most popular and artistically significant burlesque musicals of the 1890s were created by former vaudeville comedians Joe Weber and Lew Fields. Weber (assisted by heavy padding) played the short, rotund "Mike," while Fields was the tall and lean "Meyer," who constantly schemed to swindle Mike out of his money. With these cartoonish German immigrant personas, Weber and Fields became vaudeville's definitive "Dutch" act (a corruption of "Deutsch" - i.e. "German"). The duo met as boys on Manhattan's impoverished Lower East Side. By the late 1890s, they were one of the top comedy acts in vaudeville.
There was nothing subtle about Weber & Fields' comedy. They used false chin beards, pork pie hats, and exaggerated German accents. Their dialogue relied on mispronunciations and misunderstandings, and fans reveled in the team's knockabout physical battles. Weber once said that "all the public wanted to see was Fields knock the hell out of me." The act usually began with Fields pushing the smaller Weber onstage, with Weber indignantly squealing, "Don't pooosh me, Meyer, don't pooosh me!" Both characters then bantered in fractured English --
In the course of their dialogue, one would offend the other, and verbal insults swiftly turned into an all-out battle with punches, kicks, pratfalls, etc.
SAMPLE SCENE: Weber & Fields
Beginning in 1896, Weber and Fields parlayed their two-man act into a series of more than a dozen full cast Broadway musicals which the duo jointly produced and co-starred in. In their earliest productions the first half of the evening was a musical burlesque of a recent Broadway hit (example: Cyrano de Bergerac became Cyranose de Bric-a-Brac), and the intermission was followed by a vaudeville-style collection of individual comedy and song-and-dance acts.
The Weber & Fields burlesques went so far as to spoof specific sets and costumes. These extended parodies were burlesques in the classic sense, with clean humor designed to attract a family audience. The humor could aim in almost any direction. For example, when skewering a drama set in Scotland, Weber & Fields included a song entitled "Alexander's Bagpipe Band," sending-up Irving Berlin's ragtime hit.
Being spoofed by Weber and Fields proved to be such great publicity that producers enthusiastically campaigned for their shows to be targeted. The variety segments of these catch-all evenings did much to refine and define the revue as a Broadway-level entertainment, a format that would soon reach its zenith in the productions of Ziegfeld & others.
While Weber and Fields were the main stars of their joint productions, they had the good sense to surround themselves with several of the musical theater's biggest talents, forming the most stellar company Broadway had ever seen. Fay Templeton, Anna Held, DeWolf Hopper and vaudeville favorite Marie Dressler were regulars, and pioneer director-choreographer Julian Mitchelladvanced the craft of musical staging. The best-remembered star of this troupe was Lillian Russell, a singing actress who became the embodiment of 1890s glamour.
Russell was renowned for exceptional good looks, a piping high C, a curvaceous (if increasingly ample) figure, and a winning way with comic dialogue. She debuted at Tony Pastor's vaudeville theatre in 1883 and solidified her reputation in a series of Broadway operettas. Russell's talent, beauty and infamous relationship with financier "Diamond" Jim Brady made her a national celebrity. She eventually commanded an astronomical weekly salary of $1,250, a record figure for Broadway performers of the 1890s. After adding Russell to their team, Weber and Fields switched to presenting full-length musical comedies with preposterous titles like Whirl-i-gig (1899 - 264) and Fiddle-dee-dee (1899 - 262). These lighthearted hits followed their New York runs with lucrative national tours.
One of Russell's songs had a back story that became the stuff of theatrical legend. During pre-production for Twirly Whirly (1902 - 244), songwriter John Stromberg, who had written several hit numbers for Russell, promised her "the prettiest song you ever sang," but delayed delivery, insisting it was not ready. Days before the first rehearsal, Stromberg (who suffered from severere rheumatism) took a fatal dose of insecticide. The completed manuscript for the sentimental ballad "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" was found in his coat pocket. Although claims that Russell burst into tears while singing the song on Twirly Whirly's opening night were probably a press agent's fantasy, the public bought into them. "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" became Russell's trademark number for the rest of her career.
Although Weber & Fields ended their Broadway partnership in 1904, they reunited eight years later for Hokey Pokey (1912 - 108) with a rather hefty Russell making her final Broadway appearance to join in the shenanigans and reprise "Come Down Ma Evenin' Star." She continued to sing in vaudeville until failing health forced her retirement in 1919. Both Weber and Fields remained active in show business through the 1930s, reviving their old act for special stage events and a few film appearances.
Imitators & Legacies
Lew Fields' greatest and most direct legacy was his children, librettists Herb and Joseph Fields, and lyricist/librettist Dorothy, all of whom would contribute to some of the most important stage and screen musicals of the 20th Century. But Lew's partnership with Joe Weber left a theatrical legacy of its own. Their biographers put it this way --
While homegrown musical comedies entertained New York, a British team initiated a series of shows that caught the imagination of the entire English speaking world.
Next: Gilbert & Sullivan