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Weber & Fields: Burlesque Musicals
Lew Fields ("Meyer") and a
heavily padded Joe Weber ("Mike") in one of their confrontational
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 --
WEBER: I am delightfulness to meet you!
FIELDS: Der disgust is all mine!
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
A comedy sketch developed by Weber & Fields in the
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 program for Weber and Fields' Whoop-Dee-Doo (1904).
Although they would reunite occasionally, this run marked the end of
their active partnership.
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 &
Beloved soprano Lillian Russell enjoyed prolonged stardom in vaudeville as
well as Broadway.
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.
Anna Held, DeWolf Hopper
and vaudeville favorite Marie Dressler were regulars, and pioneer
director-choreographer Julian Mitchell
advanced 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.
Templeton, Lew Fields, Joe Weber and Lillian Russell in their final joint stage
vehicle, Hokey Pokey (1912).
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
Weber & Fields had many imitators in vaudeville. Their act and
their Broadway burlesque-variety formula was blatantly copied by Gus and Max Rogers,
who played characters painfully similar to "Mike & Meyer" in a series
of eight Broadway musicals between 1899 and 1908. With pleasant but unmemorable
scores, the Rogers Brothers musicals profitably showcased such outstanding musical stage talents as
Pat Rooney, Della Fox and (in her Broadway
debut) vaudeville great Nora Bayes. While
audiences enjoyed the silliness, the Rogers' burlesques were considered no match for
Weber & Fields.
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 --
How do we judge the legacy of Weber and
Fields and their Music Hall? It was on the Music Hall stage that the basic forms
and techniques of the revue and the musical were assembled and tried out . . .It
was also on the music hall stage that Julian Mitchell defined the creative
responsibilities of the stage director, becoming the progenitor of American
musical directors, from Ned Wayburn to Bob Fosse. . . Socially and
aesthetically, Weber & Fields Music Hall was the evolutionary link between
the popular stage entertainments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- Armond Fields and L. Marc Fields, From the Bowery to Broadway: Lew
Fields and the Roots of American Popular Theater (New York, Oxford
University Press, 1993), p. 203.
While homegrown musical comedies entertained New York, a British team
initiated a series of shows that caught the imagination of the entire English
Next: Gilbert & Sullivan