History of The Musical Stage
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New York's exploding population was also enjoying increased mobility. In 1904, the city opened its first underground commuter railroad lines. Thanks to these "subways," tens of thousands living far from the theatre district could catch a Broadway show and still sleep in their own beds. Add in the ever-increasing numbers of tourists who came into the city by rail and steamship, and Broadway had an expanded audience base that could support more productions and longer runs than ever before.
Although American audiences were ready embrace new and vibrant native-born musicals, West End imports remained popular. The first theatrical sensation of the new century was the British musical comedy Florodora (1899 - London 455 /1900 - NY 553), the story of a young woman seeking romance and the restoration of a stolen inheritance. When it opened to rave reviews in London a year earlier, various producers in New York rejected the show as "too British" -- but a team of newcomers took a chance, earning millions of dollars. When Florodora's sextet of attractive chorines (each standing five foot four and weighing a uniform 130 pounds) joined their well-dressed male counterparts to sing (with heavy Mayfair accents) the flirtatious "Tell Me Pretty Maiden" audiences were entranced –
The original sextet – Daisy Green, Marjorie Relyea, Vaughn Texsmith, Margaret Walker, Agnes Wayburn, and Marie Wilson – inspired all sorts of publicity. Some theatre historians have perpetuated the claim that all six married millionaires, but no one has ever documented this. Everyone was fascinated by these chorines. When chorus boys from a neighboring theatre took to peeking into the sextet's dressing rooms, the girls retorted with cascades of seltzer.
Florodora was revived on Broadway in 1902, 1905 and 1920. The last production updated the material, with the sextet appearing as flappers.
Other British musicals enjoyed record setting success on both sides of the Atlantic. West End lyricist George Dance and American-born composer Howard Talbot designed A Chinese Honeymoon (1901 - 1,074 London)to please provincial English audiences, but Londoners were so taken by this tale of British couples who honeymoon in China and inadvertently break the kissing laws (did somebody say Mikado?) that it became the first West End show ever to run over a thousand performances. The show managed a profitable 376 performance run on Broadway the following year.
The Wizard of Oz
Thanks to the expansion of railroads, taking a Broadway production on tour was easier and potentially more profitable than ever. In 1900, there were over 3,000 professional theaters across the United States. Some were glorified tents, but at least 1,000 were equipped to house Broadway-level productions. By 1904, it is estimated that over 400 touring companies were trouping plays across the country. With millions of dollars at stake, there was fierce competition to control this blossoming business.
No Business Like Show Business
Everyone working in the American theatre of the early 20th Century, from producers on down to the ushers, saw theatre as a business, not an art form. Productions had to be commercially successful to attract audiences, breed imitators and form the basis for future trends. This meant that all shows, musicals included, had to appeal to the growing middle and working classes. The resulting musicals of the early 1900s were mostly unpretentious, upbeat and funny celebrations of American know-how and decency. And no one was more expert at providing such entertainments than a little guy named Cohan.
George M. Cohan
Cohan moved beyond his creative and performing talents to become one of the most powerful producers in show business, forming a longtime partnership with Sam Harris. In fact, Cohan excelled in more capacities than anyone else in American theatrical history. Friend and fellow performer William Collier put it this way –
It would take a bitter actors' strike and a change in popular taste to put the brakes on Cohan's popularity. He remained "The Man Who Owned Broadway" until the 1920s. Cohan's shows had little appeal outside the United States and are too simplistic to be revived today, but the best of his songs are still familiar, including the wartime hit "Over There." Cohan always ended his curtain calls with the same signature speech –
(Note: You can find more about Cohan in our special section, Cohan 101.)
The AABA Song Form
Most showtunes have two parts –
Since the early 1900s, the choruses of most American popular songs have been thirty-two bars long, usually divided into four sections of eight bars apiece. Musicologists describe this as the AABA form –
The uniform use of this approach makes songs easy to listen to -- predictable format falls easily on the public's ears. It also forces composers and lyricists to make their points efficiently, acting more as a discipline than a limitation. From George M. Cohan to Jonathan Larson and beyond, all modern Broadway songwriters have written most of their songs in the thirty-two bar AABA format. In fact, it remained the standard for all popular music until the hard rock revolution of the 1960s.
Of course there are many exceptions. Showtunes that do not use the thirty-two bar AABA format tend to use a variation, such as –
Even radical departures from the form usually retain some vestige of it. The chorus of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is a whopping 104 bars long, and follows an AAB structure, but the B section ends by echoing the opening bar of A – providing a sense of sonic symmetry to ears accustomed to AABA melodies.
While Cohan dazzled everyone with his versatility, Victor Herbert was turning out musicals that were considered to be more sophisticated yet equally popular. For more, continue on to . . .
Next: Stage 1900-1910: Part II