It has long been a goal of mine to see a show on “Broadway”, an area of Manhattan that seems both part of, and yet separate from, New York City. Taking in a show is as much of the tourists rite of passage in New York as getting to the top of the Empire State Building, or visiting the Statue of Liberty. The idea of “Broadway” is magical in of itself. A musical is one thing, a Broadway musical is something else entirely.
So this begs my question – how did Broadway, as a qualifier that means both quality and spectacular, come into being? What was the first Broadway Musical?
To answer that question, some exploration of the theater scene in both New York City, as well as the United States of America itself, need to be explained. Theater had been established in some form or another in America since before the before the American Revolution. Theater houses were founded in larger cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston, and yes, even in New York, and these places were used to showcase touring companies from Europe, usually British, but not as a rule, rather because Americans didn’t speak and/or understand the touring companies from Germany, France, or Italy.
Theaters were places where the upper-classes mixed with the lower classes, at least those of whom could afford a ticket on a regular basis. Theater was a vibrant form of entertainment for the masses, one akin to the movies that were to come a century later. The audiences often talked back to those on stage, and if a performance displeased too many people, rotting vegetables and stones would and were thrown at the performers. To be an actor in this era had its own challenges unseen by many in the profession today. Add into this mix the perception held by the more genteel that theater houses were places of vices and raucousness, and you have the general overview of the state of theater in the early nineteenth century. The fact that many of the theaters allowed prostitutes solicit themselves in the more darkened floors, and that pickpockets prowled the standing room only pits did little to dissuade the moral from the immorality of theater.
Did musicals exist during this era? Kinda/sorta. Plays could have, and did have musical elements, but these elements were in place to support the narrative of the story in some way or another. The idea of theater event where the narrative elements drive the musical numbers didn’t exist until roughly 1866, when a show called The Black Crook took to the stage at Niblo’s Garden.
The Black Crook was little more than a combination of two shows that were mixed together in order to create a show for a ballet troupe that had found themselves without an avenue to perform when the Academy of Music had burnt down. In order to make the troupe palatable for the masses, a story based off of Der Freischütz was added along with some of the more popular songs of the day as performed by whatever actor or actress knew at the time.
For all intents and purposes, the story was a mess, the narrative had to follow, and whatever themes that could have been explored were non-existent. A man no less than Charles Dickens himself panned the show, stating:
[It is] the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen. The people who act in it have not the slightest idea of what it is about, and never had;
So what made the show popular enough that it ran for a record 475 nights and took in over a million dollars in box office receipts? Two things:
- It was naughty, or, at least, gave the appearance of being naughty, what with the scanty costumes that the dancing girls wore, with the pink tights worn beneath sheer robes giving the appearance of partial nudity. When some of the local press called the play anti-Christian in its presentation, the shows promoters took the “bad publicity is still publicity” to heart and leveraged its less that puritanical reputation.
- It looked beautiful, by many accounts. While little to no money was spent on story development (having borrowed heavily from an already established German opera), the set pieces, stage designs, and transitions between scenes were given an exceptional amount of attention.
It is on this latter point that Mark Twain had a word or two, as he explained a wordless, thirteen minute transition between scenes that started in a subterranean gallery and ended in the “Realms of Stalacta”:
Beautiful bare-legged girls hanging in flower baskets; others stretched in groups on great sea shells; others clustered around fluted columns; others in all possible attitudes; girls – nothing but a wilderness of girls – stacked up, pile upon pile, away aloft to the dome of the theater, diminishing in size and clothing; till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in camisa. The whole tableau resplendent in columns, scrolls, and a vast ornamental work, wrought in gold, silver, and brilliant colors – all lit up with gorgeous theatrical fires, and witnessed through a great gauzy curtain that counterfeits a soft silver mist! It is the wonders of the Arabian Nights realized.
To say the Msr. Clemons enjoyed the show would be an understatement.
Would we recognize it today as a musical? In structure, yes, but only just. The show lasted five and half hours, about two and half hours longer than today’s average show. The fact that the narrative of the story has some importance would likely put off modern audiences to The Black Crook. But it had recognizable, musical theater elements that we have today, including a chorus line (of sorts), and (some) songs created for the show itself would fit into today’s definition.
While some may claim others fit the bill as being the first Broadway Musical, The Black Crook has enough history to claim itself to be a seminal event in the history of Broadway.