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History of The Musical Stage

1900-1910: Part III

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2008)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Ziegfeld: Broadway's Ultimate Showman

Ziegfeld's cigarette adIn this ad found on the back of the original cast program for Show Boat, Ziegfeld is quoted as saying that Lucky Strike cigarettes "most assuredly protect the voice."

Florenz Ziegfeld's name has taken on legendary status, and remains well-known many decades after his death. This son of a Chicago music professor produced his first Broadway musical in 1895, showcasing glamorous French chanteuse (and common-law wife) Anna Held. There were numerous now-forgotten hits and flops before 1907,when Ziegfeld (at Held's suggestion) invented his Follies.

Held and Ziegfeld took their inspiration from the Folies Bergere, a long-running Parisian revue that used skits and songs to spoof the social and political "follies" of the day, with frequent interruptions for production numbers featuring legions of creatively under-dressed women. Ziegfeld gave this format an American spin with handsome production values and a wholesome, attractive female chorus. Out of consideration for the sensibilities of respectable theatergoers, the tone was elegantly sexy, never trashy. Because the superstitious Ziegfeld considered thirteen his lucky number, he gave the early editions of his revue the thirteen letter name Follies of the Day, taken from the title of a popular newspaper column penned by librettist Harry B. Smith -- who Ziegfeld hired to write the first Follies libretto.

The Shubert Brothers had such success staging lavish "reviews" (the initially preferred spelling) at the new Hippodrome Theatre from 1906 onwards that competing theatre owners Klaw and Erlanger were on the lookout for something similar to fill one of their summertime rooftop theatres. They agreed to finance Ziegfeld's new Follies, which affirmed its European pretensions by using the French spelling, calling itself a "revue." Never one to turn down a good source of funding, Ziegfeld settled for the title of producer and a set salary. Although Erlanger made suggestions, Ziegfeld was given a relatively free creative hand -- so long as he stuck to a  production budget of $13,800, a small figure dictated by the show's limited three month summer run.

The 1907 Follies proved so profitable that it immediately became an annual institution. From the beginning, Ziegfeld's "girlie" show was so respectable that wives were happy to attend with their husbands. Far larger than any cabaret production and more elaborate than any vaudeville, the Follies was the ultimate in variety entertainment. Ziegfeld would supervise more than twenty editions of the Follies, setting new artistic and technical standards for the professional theatre in America.

(You can find more about Ziegfeld and the Follies in the essays to come, as well as in our special site feature Ziegfeld 101.)

Williams and Walker: Black Pioneers

Sheet music for In DahomeyThe stars of In Dahomey, Bert Williams and George Walker appear on the original production's sheet music.

Leading the latest wave of African-American musicals was the ragtime song and dance team Bert Williams and George Walker. They had toured in vaudeville, with Williams playing a well-dressed conniver and Walker as a lumbering stooge. After their specialty number proved to be the highlight of the otherwise unsuccessful Broadway operetta The Gold Bug (1896), Williams and Walker starred in a series of musical comedies. Although these shows depicted blacks in a less than flattering light, the team was moving toward more believable characterizations, and with song, dance and laughter, they were changing attitudes:

"Although many have dismissed musical comedies as "frivolous entertainment for the tired businessman," black musical theatre retains a prime importance in Afro-American history. Around the turn of the (20th) century, musical theatre became one of the few avenues of black mobility in a white world. Within a short period, the barriers of burnt cork fell -- black actors, writers, producers, choreographers, songwriters and directors assaulted the musical theatre in order to achieve financial success but also to carve a niche for black theatrical artists and culture in a restricted field. The pace of change, though at times halting, was relatively swift . . ."
- Allen Woll, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls (New York: Da Capo, 1989), p. xiv.

Williams and Walker achieved international success with In Dahomey (1903 - 53) a musical comedy with songs by Will Marion Cook. The plot involved several African Americans who find a pot of gold and use their fortune to travel back to Africa. Once there, Williams (as 'Shylock Homestead') and Walker (as the conniving 'Rareback Pinkerton') triumph over several plot twists and are crowned the rulers of Dahomey, where --

Evah dahkey is a King.
Royalty is jes de ting.
If yo' social life is a bungle,
Jest you go back to the jungle,
And remember dat you daddy was a king.
White fo'k's what's got dahkey servants,
Try and get dem everything.
You must never speak insulting.
You may be talking to a king.

- as quoted in Woll's Black Musical Theatre

Degrading minstrel comic stereotypes were still very much in place, but Williams and Walker had turned a show written and presented by blacks into a clear financial success. The show played a brief but acclaimed runs in New York but became a long-running novelty hit in London. Then as now, nothing impresses investors as much as commercial success, so Williams and Walker had little trouble raising the funds for Abyssinia (1906 - 31), the tale of two black American lottery winners who tour Ethiopia. There was some critical grumbling about "a white man's show acted by colored men," a complaint that hampered black musicals that dared to rely on anything other than minstrel stereotypes.

Bandanna Land (1908 - 89) was Williams and Walker's longest running Broadway production, but illness forced Walker into retirement before the closing night. When Williams went on to solo stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies, the black musical lost its primary proponent and the newborn form went into a quick decline. More than a decade would pass before black musicals found new life, thanks in part to the rise of the Jazz Age. (More on that in an upcoming chapter.)

Some key elements were now in place -- Cohan's patriotic flair, Herbert's stylistic versatility, Lehar's call to romance, Ziegfeld's sense of high style, and the ragtime jaunt of the African American cakewalk. When a composer appeared who's work could bring the best of all these together, the American musical moved to a new creative level. For more on Jerome Kern and the changes he inspired, go on to . . .

Next: 1910-1920