History of The Musical Stage
1910-19 Part III
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

 

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

Ziegfeld: Setting Standards
ziegfeld28.jpg (11657 bytes)Ziegfeld as he appeared at the height of his career.

Having established the popularity of the revue format with his Follies, Florenz Ziegfeld continued to set new artistic standards with the series in the 1910s. Although this now-legendary showman used his unique personal taste to shape and define each edition of the Follies, several people added signature elements to the series –

  • Julian Mitchell re-affirmed his status as the first important director of Broadway musicals, an extraordinary distinction for a man who was deaf.
  • Gene Buck served as songwriter, occasional director, and Ziegfeld's right hand man.
  • Joseph Urban's exquisite sets became the embodiment of the art nouveau style.
  • When a bizarre New York law made it illegal for nude actors to move on stage, artist Ben Ali Haggin placed naked Ziegfeld girls in a series of motionless but dazzling tableaux. These lavish "living pictures" sidestepped the law and delighted audiences.
  • Ned Wayburn became Broadway's first important dance director -- no one on Broadway was willing to use the term "choreographer."
  • Lady Duff-Gordon (a.k.a. "Lucille") and Erte raised costume design to the level of international high fashion

Over time, Ziegfeld's tendency to spare no expense made his Follies the costliest productions on Broadway. The 1907 edition was produced for a modest $13,800 -- the 1919 edition came in at $150,000. Although the emphasis was on spectacle and pulchritude, the Follies introduced several memorable songs. Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" became the unofficial anthem for the series, which also introduced such hits as "My Man," "Shine On Harvest Moon," "Second Hand Rose" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon."

The greatest artistic legacy of the Follies was its stellar line-up of comedy talent. Some of the funniest stars in show business achieved fame by appearing in the series, including W.C. Fields, Bert Williams, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice. The Follies would remain a Broadway staple through the next decade, when Ziegfeld would also produce several important book musicals. (You'll find more on him in the pages ahead, or visit Ziegfeld 101.)

 

World War I
overthere.jpg (18627 bytes)The original sheet music for George M. Cohan's wartime hit "Over There." The patriotic lady in the photo is vaudeville star Nora Bayes, who Cohan selected to introduce the song.

After three years of official nutrality, the United States entered World War I in 1917, joining with Britain and France in the struggle against Germany and Austria. Broadway luminaries played an active role on the home front. George M. Cohan's "Over There" was a popular wartime hit. Al Jolson and other stars entertained the troops and raised millions of dollars through war bond drives. Dancer Vernon Castle served in the Canadian air force and was killed while training cadets in Texas.

Although few book musicals dealt with the war, many topical revues included war-themed routines. Florenz Ziegfeld dressed his Follies chorines in military uniforms, and had one of his girls appear bare breasted to personify "liberty" – thanks to the patriotic context, no one complained. Not to be outdone, the Shuberts stripped their already under-dressed Passing Show chorines in the name of patriotism. In a slightly classier gesture, they also introduced the hit song "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France" in the 1917 edition.

Things took a dark and unexpected turn in the autumn of 1918 when a devastating flu epidemic reached the United States. As 25 million Americans fell ill and an estimated 550,000 perished, many cities closed their theatres. New York City allowed theatres to stay open, but audiences were so sparse that several Broadway productions were forced to close. A core group of shows kept running at a loss, including Ziegfeld's Follies. Within a few weeks, the commercial theater reached the brink of economic ruin. Then, for no apparent reason, the epidemic subsided. Audiences soon reappeared, and one of the deadliest chapters in history became a buried footnote to "The War to End All Wars." It is estimated that the epidemic killed more than 20 million people worldwide, about twice the number of people killed in battle during the war. Most historians ignored this frightening epidemic until the beginning of the next century.

goodbyebway.jpg (23434 bytes)The sheet music for "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France," a popular wartime march introduced in The Passing Show of 1917.

As the war ended in 1918, America shifted from being a debtor nation to being a lender to the world. This subtle change had a profound effect on life in New York City.

By 1919, New York had displaced its last and greatest rival, London, as the investment capital of the world, and money was flowing into the city, one British observer remarked, "as water flows downhill." "Only by careful and constant extravagance," one New Yorker replied impertinently, "can we keep it from bursting the banks!"
- Burns, Ric and James Sanders, New York: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p. 315.

America was in the mood to party. Broadway led the way with giddy editions of George White's Scandals, Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies and numerous now-forgotten musicals. As a new energy began to make itself felt in all aspects of American popular culture, Broadway ticket sales rose, and the theatre prepared for a post-war boom.

 

Actors Strike of 1919
But Broadway's postwar boom was interrupted when the Actor's Equity Association demanded better working conditions for its members. This union had formed years earlier in response to abusive treatment by the Shuberts and other producers. It was common practice for producers to make actors pay for their own costumes, rehearse for weeks without pay, and face termination without notice. In a patriotic gesture, Equity waited until after the war to press its demands. When producers ended months of half-hearted negotiations by refusing to recognize the union, Equity president Francis Wilson called the first strike in the history of the American theatre in August 1919.

Actor-producer George M. Cohan had always treated performers well. Taking the strike as a personal insult, he led a spirited effort to quash Equity. Most actors felt Cohan had forgotten what it was like to be a struggling performer. Angry rhetoric poured forth from both sides. When Cohan proclaimed that he would quit the theater and run an elevator before giving in to Equity, longtime friend Eddie Cantor publicly pointed out that that elevator operators in New York City had to belong to a union.

Producers tried to put together non-union casts to keep shows running. Then the stagehands union agreed to honor the strike, shutting down almost every professional production in the US. Coming barely a year after the flu epidemic, the strike hit producers like a one-two punch. Faced with crippling losses, producers were forced to recognize Actors Equity and accept its demands. An embittered Cohan never accepted Equity's existence, but others did, and actors finally had some professional leverage.

Irene
IreneEdith Day on the sheet music for Irene's title tune. She traveled with the show to London, where she reigned as a top musical star for several decades.

The first memorable post-World War I hit was the Cinderella-like story of a Manhattan shop girl (played by Edith Day) who becomes a high fashion model and wins the love of a Long Island millionaire. The twist is that the millionaire has to win over the girl's impoverished mother who is prejudiced against wealth! Following the Princess Theatre model with believable characters facing realistic problems, Irene (1919 - 670) set a new long-run record for Broadway by giving audiences sentimental, easy going fun with a fresh "modern" energy. Composer Harry Tierney and lyricist Joseph McCarthy's score included the nostalgic "Alice Blue Gown," which fed a craze for "Alice blue" fashions (a blue-gray tint named for Theodore Roosevelt's famed daughter).

As Broadway moved into a new decade, a record number of musical productions would help keep the 1920s "roaring" . . .

Next: 1920s