History of The Musical Stage
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A Golden Age
The1920s were Broadway's busiest decade, with as many as fifty new musicals opening in a single season. Record numbers of people forked over up to $3.50 a seat. With so much demand, it was a time of extraordinary artistic development in the musical theatre.
In 1924, ASCAP (co-founded by Herbert, Cohan, Berlin, Kern and others) won a long battle to give American composers creative control over their stage scores. As unauthorized interpolations by other composers became a thing of the past, the musical began to grow in surprising ways. Several historians suggest that a "golden age" of the American musical began in September 1925, when four hits opened within a space of seven days
These shows were written by craftsmen who took operetta and musical comedy seriously, trying to provide quality entertainment while simultaneously making a profit. This approach kept the musical theatre booming. As hundreds of musicals flooded Broadway in the early 1920s, one new female star emerged to dominate the decade.
Sally and Marilyn Miller
When producer Florenz Ziegfeld decided to build a hit, he spared no expense, especially when showcasing his favorite star (and sometime mistress) Marilyn Miller. A so-so singer adept at both ballet and tap, Miller's enchanting dancing persona made her Broadway's top female musical star of the 1920s.
Her first and longest running success was Sally (1920 - 570), the story of a poor dishwasher who rises to fame as a ballerina. Ziegfeld commissioned a score by Jerome Kern (including "Look for the Silver Lining"), plus a Victor Herbert ballet for good measure. Follies veteran Leon Errol handled the comedy, but the triumph was Miller's. She starred in the show on Broadway for two years, toured for a third and filmed an early sound version for Hollywood in 1929. Surviving prints give a hint of Miller's appeal -- her singing and acting seem forced, but when she dances, she is irresistible. She went on to star in two more 1920s Broadway hits
The often waspish critic Alexander Woollcott described how Miller's Rosalie "star entrance" was staged at the New Amsterdam Theatre --
Charming as Miller was on stage, her volatile temper made her difficult to work with, and she had a celebrated gift for using colorful language. Patricia Ziegfeld recalls the day her father took her to a matinee performance of Sally. During the show, the little five year old girl thought Miller "seemed to be floating over the stage like a thistledown angel," but a backstage visit proved to be an eye opener. (Please pardon the edits - this is a family friendly site)
Miller co-starred with Adele and Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld's unsuccessful musical comedy Smiles (1930 - 63). After a triumphant appearance in Irving Berlin's hit revue As Thousands Cheer (1933 - 400), Miller did not return to the stage. A tempestuous marriage and chronic health problems drove her into premature retirement. Three years later, she died at age 37 of a sinus infection. It is fair to say Miller was irreplaceable, since all of her hits have proven impossible to revive without her.
No, No, Nanette
Musicals rarely have easy gestations, but few have as difficult a time as No, No, Nanette (1925 - 321). When its first pre-Broadway tour stumbled in 1924, the producers brought in new stars, a new script and new songs -- in essence, creating a new show. Composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach offered a hit-drenched score that included "Tea for Two" and "I Want to Be Happy." The lighthearted coming of age plot centered on a fun-loving Manhattan heiress who gives her fiancÚ the cold shoulder and runs off to (gasp!) Atlantic City for a weekend. By the final curtain, Nanette and her man are reunited, and her bible publishing father mends his philandering ways. Harbach and co-librettist Frank Mandel turned this slight story into a charming laugh fest, highlighted by Youmans' sparkling melodies.
Nanette was such a hit in Chicago that it remained there for more than a year. By the time Broadway saw the show, a successful London production was already running. Translated into various languages, it enjoyed international success through the end of the decade. After three mediocre screen adaptations, Nanette began to fade into obscurity. Then in 1971, a nostalgic Broadway revival revamped the book, left most of the score intact and electrified audiences with several sensational dance sequences. In this version, it has become the most frequently performed musical comedy of the 1920s.
The 1920s also brought a slew of revues and remarkable new composers. For more on them . . .
Next: 1920s - Part II