(The images below are thumbnails click on them to
see larger versions.)
The Gaiety Musicals
The Quaker Girl came to
Broadway in 1911 with Ina
Claire (far left) in the title role. A poor British girl wins the love of a
young American diplomat, but only after she runs away to be a model in
In Britain, everything on the musical stage during the late
measured against the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their most successful
producer George Edwardes. His
first hit was major was Dorothy (1886 - 931), a comic opera by B.C.
Stephenson ad composer Alfred Cellier (Sullivan's former conductor).
Initially a modest success at the Gaiety Theatre, the show was purchased by
Edwardes accountant, who moved the show, recast it effectively, and kept it
a sold-out hit for two additional years. With a sweet tale of a rake who
falls in love with his disguised fiancée, and the hit ballad "Queen of
My Heart," Dorothy broke all London stage records, running far
longer than any G&S production. After the modestly successful follow-up Doris (1889
- 202), Cellier's promising career was cut short by his premature death.
Edwardes stumbled upon a new formula with The Gaiety Girl
(1893 - 413), perhaps the only book musical named after a theatre (and
ironically, it ran at another house). It
was the first in a series of
musicals that would pack the Gaiety for the next two decades. Although the earliest of these
shows have the same sound one expects from Gilbert & Sullivan's operettas, Edwardes
called them "musical comedies" leading some scholars to incorrectly
credit him with inventing a form that Harrigan & Hart had established on Broadway
a decade earlier. Although Edwardes was not
the true inventor of musical comedy, he was the first to elevate these works to
international popularity. When The Gaiety Girl reached Broadway in
1894, the imported British chorus of "Gaiety Girls" caused a
The Gaiety musicals had two basic plots
either a poor girl loves an aristocrat and wins him against all odds, or a girl
tries to escape an unwanted marriage and leads other characters on a chase
through some colorful locale. Decades later, a nostalgic Noel Coward
described these shows as follows
In most of these entertainments there was nearly
always a bitter misunderstanding between the hero and the heroine at the
end of the first act. (if it was in two acts) or the second act (if it was
in three acts). Either he would insult her publicly on discovering that
she was a princess in her own right rather than the simple commoner he had
imagined her to be, or she would wrench his engagement ring from her
finger, fling it at his feet and faint dead away on hearing that he was
not the humble tutor she had loved for himself alone, but a
multi-millionaire. The ultimate reconciliation was usually achieved a few
seconds before the final curtain, after the leading comedian had sung a
topical song and there was nothing left to do but forgive and forget . . .
I still long to hear the leading lady cry with a breaking heart, "Play
louder play louder. I want to dance and forget!"
- Coward's forward to Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson's
Musical Comedy (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1969), pp.
All the scores bore a certain resemblance, as did the titles
The Shop Girl, The Geisha, The Quaker
Girl, My Girl, The Circus Girl, The Utah Girl, A Runaway Girl . . . all
variations on the same basic theme. And that is exactly the way the critics
and public wanted it. As late as 1920, a West End revival of The Shop Girl
racked up 327 performances.
The London hits from this period that traveled to Broadway could not
equal the influence Gilbert and Sullivan had on the American theatre.
Theatre historian Sheridan Morley points out that Britain's musical theatergoers
"settled into a tasteful kind of calm from which they had to be regularly
jolted by occasional glimpses of how these things were done on the other side
of the Atlantic." (Spread a Little Happiness, Thames & Hudson,
London, 1987, p. 29).
G&S in the USA
casts of G&S were extremely popular. Here is a program for one such
company that appeared on Broadway performing Patience in the 1880s.
Appearing at about the same time as the musical farces of Harrigan
and Hart, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan appealed to a much wider audience. After
the first unauthorized version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore
premiered in the United States in 1878, the craze known as "Pinafore-Mania"
quickly swept the nation.
Pinafore's songs captivated the nation, and the line
"What never? Well, hardly ever," became part of everyday conversation.
When one newspaper editor angrily commanded his reporters to never use the phrase
again, they responded, "What never?" Defeated, he said, "Well,
hardly ever!" Unauthorized companies toured the show all over the country,
with several troupes playing simultaneously in New York.
The works of G&S remained popular
in America through the 20th Century, including a record setting centennial Broadway
production of Pirates of Penzance (1981 - 787). The effect of W.S. Gilbert on American lyricists reaches into our own time.
Johnny Mercer said, "We all come from Gilbert."
Larry Hart called Gilbert
"the master," Alan Jay Lerner wrote
that it was Gilbert who "raised lyric writing from a serviceable craft to a
legitimate popular art form," and
Stephen Sondheim included an homage to Gilbert in his Pacific Overtures
(1976) showstopper "Please Hello."
But that was all in the future. In the
1880s, Pinafore and the G&S hits that followed made most of
America's musical stage entertainment look third rate. Thanks to the industrial
revolution and the growth of American cities (the same cultural forces that brought
about the growth of vaudeville) theatergoers were becoming more numerous and more
sophisticated. Theatrical standards
in the US began to change, and an ambitious
new breed of native-born musicals quickly developed.
The Home Team: "Oh Promise Me"
Broadway's Robin Hood (1891) -
and you thought your high school had bad sets?
Several American repertory companies based on the DOyly Carte
model thrived during the1880s. The Boston Ideal Opera Company, later known as
toured the country for over a quarter of a century giving top-quality professional
performances. Most troupes were centered around a particular star, but The Bostonians made
their mark as an ensemble. Their repertory included Gilbert & Sullivan as well as
original American musicals. Some of the most memorable American "comic operas"
- "March King" John Philip Sousa wrote
several, his most successful being
El Capitan (1896), now remembered primarily for its march.
- Composer Reginald DeKoven
and librettist Harry B. Smith's
The Begum (1887) featured characters
with names like "Myhnt-Jhuleep" and "Howja-Dhu" in a
G&S-style topsy-turvy plot.
Hopper and Della Fox as Siamese royalty in Wang (1891) -- a far cry
from what Broadway would one day see in The King and I.
- Wang (1891 - 151) starred matinee idol
as the regent of Siam, who tries to end his country's bankruptcy by
marrying a rich foreigner. Because popular comedienne Della Fox
appeared in tights and portrayed a male character, the producers
billed the show as an "operatic burletta." A modest success
in its Broadway run, Wang enjoyed extended popularity on tour.
- DeKoven & Smith reached their peak with
Robin Hood (1891), a semi-comic opera based on the popular
British legend of a nobleman who steals from the rich to give to the
poor. It featured "Oh Promise Me," a sentimental ballad that
became a favorite at American weddings.
(Click here to see a script sample from Robin Hood.)
- Although DeKoven was prolific, his melodies faded from public
favor soon after he completed his longest-running hit, The
Highwayman (1897 - 123).
Harry B. Smith
was one of the unsung giants in the development of the American musical. In a career
spanning from 1887 to 1932, he wrote the librettos for 123 Broadway musicals. (By
comparison, the great Oscar Hammerstein II wrote less than 50 shows.) Smith's
productions included the earliest American comic operas, 13 musicals with Victor
Herbert, and material for the earliest editions of Ziegfeld's Follies. Forgotten
today, Smith did much to set a professional standard in this young art form.
Now that the American musical had learned to have a good laugh and sing a
catchy tune, it was ready for what the 1900s would bring. "It was
the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning . . . "
Next: Broadway 1900 - 1918 or
Gilbert & Sullivan 101