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History of The Musical Stage

1900-1910: "Skipping a Beat, Singing a Dream"

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

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

British Imports: Florodora

Florodora sextette

The "Pretty Maidens" who made up Broadway's original Florodora sextet all reputedly married millionaires -- a legend that sold tickets and drew countless girls to pursue stage careers.

At the start of the 20th Century, America was in the full glory of its cultural adolescence, bursting with energy and optimism. London was still the theatrical capital of the world, but New York was gaining fast in clout, sophistication and sheer size. As of 1900, there were thirty-three Broadway theatres, and many more would be built within the next decade to meet growing audience demand.

New York's exploding population was also enjoying increased mobility. In 1904, the city opened its first underground commuter railroad lines. Thanks to this extensive system of "subways," tens of thousands living miles away 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 performances /1900 - NY 553 performances), 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 --

MEN
Oh tell me, pretty maiden,
Are there any more at home like you?

GIRLS
There are a few, kind sir,
But simple girls, and proper too.

MEN
Then tell me pretty maiden
What these very simple girlies do?

GIRLS
Kind sir, their manners are perfection
And the opposite of mine.

The original Broadway 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 press agent's claim that all six married millionaires, but it is difficult to verify this. Everyone was fascinated by these chorines, who's elegant stage gowns were nothing like the reveling tights usually seen on show girls. When chorus boys from a neighboring theatre took to peeking into the sextet's dressing rooms, the girls defended their honor by dousing the boys with icy cascades of seltzer.

Florodora had such lasting popularity that it was revived on Broadway in 1902, 1905 and 1920. The final production updated the action, with the sextet dressed as Jazz Age 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 performances in 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

Broadway had plenty of native hits in the early 1900s. Frank L. Baum provided the book and lyrics for the musical version of his classic children's novel The Wizard of Oz (1903 - 293 performances). The story of Dorothy and her pet cow Imogene (Toto was considered too small to be seen clearly from the balcony) being blown to the magical land of Oz received a spectacular production, with a stereopticon cyclone and lavish settings. Vaudevillians David Montgomery (as the Tin Woodman) and Fred Stone (as The Scarecrow) acrobatically clowned their way to Broadway stardom, and the show inspired a slew of musicals based on childhood fantasies. Thanks to the expansion of railroads, taking a Broadway production on tour was easier and potentially more profitable than ever. As a result The Wizard of Oz toured for several years, earning millions of dollars.

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

Lee and Jacob Shubert succeeded in their efforts to wipe out Abe Erlanger's once invincible theatrical syndicate. By the 1920s, the Shuberts would control 75% of the professional theatres in America. More ruthless than Erlanger, they became infamous for suing actors, writers, producers, and even each other. The Shuberts treated all their employees (including performers) as expendable commodities. The ever-practical Fanny Brice described what it was like to be on a Shubert tour by saying, "It took the Shuberts to invent a new way to kill the Jews." (as quoted in Herb Goldman's Fanny Brice, Oxford, NY 1992, p. 161.)

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 comic 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

George M. Cohan was an Irish-American graduate of variety and vaudeville who wrote, directed, produced and starred in jingoistic musical comedies that celebrated the triumph of American know-how and New York-style "street smarts." After limited runs on Broadway, where most critics frowned on Cohan's shameless, sentimental jingoism, these musicals toured to packed houses for a year or more. Cohan's most memorable hits included:

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:

"George is not the best actor or author or composer or dancer or playwright. But he can dance better than any author, compose better than any manager, and manage better than any playwright. And that makes him a very great man."
- As quoted in John McCabe's George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1973), pp. xi-xii.

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:

"My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I assure you, I thank you."

(Note: You can find more about Cohan in our special section, Cohan 101.)

The AABA Song Form

In the early 1900s, one song format became the accepted standard in all forms of popular music, including Broadway showtunes -- the AABA form, a structure ingrained in American ears by countless Christian hymns.

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