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History of The Musical Stage

1910-1919: Part I

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

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

Imported Hits

Progeam for The Pink LadyThis program title page for The Pink Lady (1911) announces that complimentary pink parasols will be distributed to all ladies attending the 200th performance.

George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert were still turning out hits after 1910, but their scores were pretty much a continuation of the kind of work each had been doing since the start of the century.

From 1910 onwards, many Broadway producers inspired by The Merry Widow concentrated on importing musicals from Europe. Notable examples include –

The coming of World War I stifled the demand for German-language operettas in both America and Great Britain. Luckily, an American was ready to step into the void, opening a new era in American musical theatre.

Jerome Kern: "They Didn't Believe Me"

The American musical found a new creative direction thanks to Jerome Kern, a native New Yorker who got his start amending the scores of imported British musicals. Since British high society rarely arrived at a theatre before intermission, London musicals of the early 1900s often saved their best material for the second act and filled their early scenes with forgettable fluff. These shows had to be revised for New York audiences, who tended to arrive for the first curtain and leave at intermission if the first act was not up to snuff.

When producer Charles Frohman brought over the British hit The Girl From Utah (1914 - 120), the plot (an American girl flees to London rather than become a rich Mormon's latest wife) proved amusing, but the British score was unremarkable. So Frohman hired Kern and veteran lyricist Herbert Reynolds to write five new numbers for the lackluster first act.

Julia Sanderson and Donald BrianWhen Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian introduced Kern's "They Didn't Believe Me" in The Girl From Utah, they became one of the most popular stage duo's of their time. These photos come from the original cast program.

Kern and Reynolds had added songs to previous imports. This time they demanded and got full program credit. Their delightful ballad "They Didn't Believe Me" marked a turning point in the development of popular music. The melody defies time. Forthright sentiment meets refined romance, and the resulting sound pointed to the Broadway musical's future. Rejecting the stilted, flowery poetry found in most period love songs, the lyric captured the easy cadence of everyday conversation –

And when I told them
How beautiful you are
They didn't believe me.
They didn't believe me.
Your lips, you eyes, your curly hair
Are in a class beyond compare
You're the loveliest girl
That one could see.
And when I tell them,
(And I certainly am going to tell them)
That I'm the man
Who's wife one day you'll be,
They'll never believe me,
They'll never believe me,
That from this great big world
You've chosen me.

- Transcribed from sheet music

As Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian sang those words in the Knickerbocker Theatre on the night of August 14, 1914, it is doubtful that they or their audience realized they were part of an historic moment. As far as they knew, it was just great entertainment. But "They Didn't Believe Me" eclipsed everything in the show's original British score and made Kern the hottest new composer on Broadway. Musical theatre -- in fact, all popular music -- would never be the same.

The Princess Theatre Musicals

Kern's best melodies have a timeless, distinctly American sound that redefined the Broadway showtune. He made the most of his early popularity, composing sixteen Broadway scores between 1916 and 1920. The most memorable of these graced a series of innovative musicals for The Princess Theatre.

Ray Comstock leased the cozy 299 seat Princess to house a dramatic repertory company, but that soon folded. Agent Elizabeth Marbury suggested producing small, low-budget musicals as alternatives to the lavish songfests then dominant on Broadway. Comstock and Marbury joined forces, hired Kern and librettist Guy Bolton, limited production expenses to $7,500 (because of the small number of seats), and launched a series now referred to as The Princess Theatre Musicals. Kern and Bolton began by adapting the London operetta Mr. Popple of Ippleton. They replaced the book and most of the score, reduced the chorus to a minimum, and renamed the show Nobody Home (1915 - 135). The production barely broke even, but Comstock was encouraged enough to have Bolton & Kern attempt an original project.

This time, the team focused on settings and characters that would be familiar to Broadway audiences of that time -- facing credible challenges. Very Good Eddie (1915 - 341) involved two honeymooning couples who get involved in some innocent misunderstandings while cruising on a Hudson River steamboat. Because of the Princess Theatre's size, the production aimed for a naturalistic and seemingly informal style.

"With little or no space separating the players from the audience, Very Good Eddie depended upon the ease and credibility of the acting and characterization. Scarcely any previous musical comedy had been favored with a plot and dialogue so coherent, so nearly related to those of well-written non-musical plays."
- Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1950), p. 212.

ohboy.jpg (45043 bytes)After many misunderstandings, an innocent man and his suspicious wife are reunited in the finale to Oh Boy! (1917), the longest running Princess Theatre musical. Note the relatively small cast and realistic setting -- both hallmarks of the Princess series.

The Princess Musicals hit their full stride when British lyricist-librettist P.G. Wodehouse joined the team. The next few shows by Wodehouse, Bolton and Kern featured amusing plots, a trove of charming Kern melodies, and the wittiest lyrics since the best of W.S. Gilbert –

In a period interview, Bolton explained what he and his collaborators were trying to do:

"Our musical comedies . . . depend as much upon plot and the development of their characters for success as upon their music, and . . . they deal with subjects and peoples near to the audiences. In the development of our plot . . . we endeavor to make everything count. Every line, funny or serious, is supposedly to help the plot continue to hold."
- as quoted in Gerald Bordman's American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle (New York: Oxford Press, 1978), p. 330.

Despite the claims of some experts, The Princess shows were not the first musicals to integrate song and story – Offenbach did that in the previous century, as did Gilbert and Sullivan. As for believable characters in everyday settings, Cohan and others started doing that over a decade earlier.

So what made the Princess series unique? Aside from an intimate performing style that presaged the future appeal of sound film, these were the first musicals to profit from the full creative genius of Jerome Kern. There is no question that Bolton and Wodehouse's wit was crucial to the success of the series, but it is Kern's music that captured the hearts of theatre goers. It is no accident that the series died right after Kern left the team.

Kern loved it when his songs became hits, but he had a higher priority. As he once told an interviewer, "I'm trying to apply modern art to light music as Debussy and those men have done to more serious work." Kern would continue to enrich the musical stage and screen for decades to come – there is more on him in the chapters ahead.

Just months after Kern made the scene with his contributions to The Girl From Utah, another great American composer unveiled his first complete stage score. Trained in the pop song traditions of Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin became an immediate Broadway legend.

Next: 1910s - Part II