The Musical
Theatre – A
Chapter 5 - The Birth of Musical Comedy
Chapter 6 – A New Century
by John Kenrick
To review…
The Greeks developed tragedy and comedy
containing elements of music and dance
In the renaissance
Court masques and entertainments gave rise to ballet
and other spectacles
In Italy, the Medici
court developed an
early form of opera
that emerged in
France under the
pen of Lully (who
was born in
The Ballet was
elevated to new
heights by the
“It Belong’d to My Father Before I Was Born”
Offenbach wrote operettes
and opera-bouffes
Gilbert and Sullivan
wrote comic operas
Early American musicals
were often called Extravaganzas or burlettas
Many historians believe that British
producer George Edwardes invented
the term musical comedy with his
The Geisha in 1896
But, did 1891’s A Trip to Chinatown or
the popular Harrigan and Hart shows
introduce the term?
The Mulligan Shows
(Ned) Harrigan had made his name as a comedian in the
variety halls of San Francisco. (Tony) Hart was a stagestruck reform school escapee with a rare gift for stage
comedy. They met the mid-1870s, and soon developed a
routine that poked fun at New York's infamous
neighborhood militias.
When Harrigan and Hart reached New York, their "Mulligan
Guard" act was such a sensation that it played the city's
top variety theaters for more than a year. Inspired by this
acclaim, the team expanded the act into The Mulligan
Guard Picnic (1878), a forty minute sketch that packed
audiences into Broadway's Theatre Comique for a month -a very healthy commercial run for that time. This became
the first in a seven year series of full length musical farces.
‘Musical comedy’ was generally
used in 19th-century America to
describe loosely constructed
musical shows. Then, when the
popularity of operetta and comic
opera waned in the 1890s, the
London impresario George
Edwardes attached the term to a
livelier type of show that featured
fashionable modern dress and
elements of burlesque and music
hall as well as comic opera. The
new genre attained major
international success with Sidney
Jones's The Geisha ( 1896), actually
described as a ‘musical play’ to
indicate its more substantial plot
and score.
GUARD PICNIC used original, popularstyle songs. But Harrigan and Hart (and
composer Braham) do seem to have
originated the form based upon the
evidence of surviving texts.
had their foundations
in Vaudeville…
By the 1880’s, the Industrial Revolution had
changed the once rural face of America. Half
of the population was now concentrated in
towns and cities, working at jobs that left
most of them with two things they never
had back on the farm – a little spare cash
and weekly leisure time. These people
wanted affordable entertainment on a
regular basis. Most variety shows were too
coarse for women or children to attend, and
minstrel shows were already declining in
popularity. In a world where phonographs,
film, radio and television did not yet exist,
something new was needed to fill the gap.
Vaudeville also tried to bridge a social gap
that had divided American audiences ever
since the upper and lower classes clashed in
a deadly 1849 riot.
Tony Pastor (1832-1908)
• Tony Pastor was the first manager to present
commercially successful "clean" variety. He earned fame
as a variety vocalist, songwriter and manager on New
York's Bowery. A devout Catholic and attentive father,
Pastor wanted to provide family-friendly entertainment.
When he started presenting a clean variety show at New
York's Fourteenth Street Theatre on Oct. 24, 1881, the
location said a great deal about his intentions.
• As an early center for public transportation, Manhattan's
Union Square district included most of New York City's
top theatres, restaurants and shops. Respectable
theatergoers had no objection to attending
performances there.
Albee and Keith
Other producers soon picked up on this
innovation. Beginning in Boston in 1883,
Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F.
Albee used the fortune they made staging
unauthorized productions of Gilbert and
Sullivan operettas to started build a chain of
ornate theatres across the northeastern United
States. Stealing Pastor's format, they instituted
a policy of continuous multiple daily
performances, which they called "vaudeville."
The origins of the term vaudeville are unclear. Some
sources claim the word was a bastardization of "voix de
ville," French slang for "songs of the town" – others say it
came from "vaux de Vire," fifteenth century satiric songs
written by Olivier Basselin, a native of the Vire valley in
We get yet another explanation from vaudevillian Sophie
Tucker in her autobiography Some of These Days (1945, pp.
155-156). Her agent, William Morris, claimed that a red
windmill in the Vire valley started serving wine and cheese
to farmers waiting to have their wheat milled. Traveling
entertainers took advantage by performing for the crowd
and passing the hat. This arrangement proved so popular
that others soon copied it. Morris insisted this place not only
gave birth to the term "vaudeville" – it also inspired the
name of the popular Parisian nightclub Le Moulin Rouge
("The Red Mill").
 Opera House in Kirksville, MO
Keeping it clean
As vaudeville spread through the United States, major
theatre chains or circuits were built by Sullivan &
Consodine, Alexander Pantages, film mogul Marcus
Loew and others. All of them were tough businessmen,
but no one could match Keith and Albee's cutthroat
tactics, or their ruthless insistence that acts keep their
material clean at all times.
Small to Big Time
More than 25,000 people performed in vaudeville over it’s 50-plus
years of existence, working their way through the three levels
defined by the trade newspaper Variety –
"Small time" – small town theatres and cheaper theaters in larger
towns. Performers made as little as $15 a week in the early years,
closer to $75 over time. These often crude theatres were the training
ground for new performers, or the place for old-timers on the skids to
eke out a few final seasons.
"Medium time" – good theaters in a wide range of cities, offering
salaries of up to a few hundred dollars a week. Performers seen here
were either on the way up or on the way down.
"Big Time" – the finest theaters in the best cities, using a two
performance-a-day format. Most big time acts earned hundreds per
week, and headliners could command $1,000 a week -- or far more.
An act could be darn near anything that was
inoffensive and entertaining. A performer's
gender, race and appearance were no barrier
to success, and nothing was too eccentric if it
gave an audience ten to fifteen minutes of
diversion. While singers and dancers were
part of every bill, the specialty acts set
vaudeville apart –
The bill…
The bill…
To cut down on squabbles among
performers, theater owners came
up with the idea of advertising
acts in order of appearance,
rather than order of importance.
1. The "Opening" was a "silent
act" that would not be ruined by
the bustle of an audience
settling in. Acrobats or animal
acts were ideal. For any other
kind of act, getting booked in
this spot was the ultimate insult.
2. Usually a "singing
sister" or "dancing
brother" act – in which the
performers were not
necessarily relatives. The
youngest of the singing
Gumm Sisters went on to
fame after changing her
name to Judy Garland,
and the tap dancing
Nicholas Brothers played
this spot before becoming
3. A comedy sketch or one-act play. These could be old
melodramas with unknown casts or new works featuring
top Broadway stars. Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore,
Walter Hampden and Helen Hayes toured in vaudeville.
Alfred Lunt got his first big break touring actress Lillie
Langtry. Some of the finest professional writers provided
sketches and one-act plays for vaudeville use, including
J.M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, George M.
Cohan and W.S. Gilbert.
4. A novelty act or eccentric
dance act was thrown into the
fourth spot to liven things up.
5. This spot was reserved for
rising stars or falling ones, to
close out the first half of the
program with a solid crowd
6. After intermission came a
"big" act involving a large set –
choirs, novelty orchestras and
top animal acts were typical
choices for this slot.
Above: Vaudeville act with Rose Louise (Gypsy
Rose Lee) and June Hovick (June Havoc), ca.
7. "Next to closing" was the
star spot reserved for the
headliner – usually a vocalist
or comedian. Jack Benny,
Sophie Tucker, George Burns
and Gracie Allen, Marie
Dressler, Al Jolson and Eddie
Cantor were among the few
headliners whose fame
outlived vaudeville. Singer
Kate Smith (remembered for
introducing Irving Berlin's
"God Bless America" on radio)
was held over at the Palace by
popular demand for eight
weeks – making her the
longest-running headliner
that house ever had.
8. The "closing" spot was
reserved for short films -- or
annoying acts that might
encourage patrons to leave
before the next show. A clunky
one-man band or a grating
singer were typical closers
Harrigan & Hart got their
start in Vaudeville
Tin Pan Alley
By the 1890s, most of the music
publishing firms in New York City
had set up shop on a small strip
of West 28th Street which soon
became known as Tin Pan Alley.
The name came to stand for
American popular music for
years to come. Vaudeville
performers bought songs from
composers and publishers and
built them into popular songs.
Other hit songs…
One of the popular Tin Pan Alley songs from 1891’s A
It also introduced
After the Ball
“Stars” of Vaudeville
Francis Wilson (1854-1935) came to
fame in Erminie (1885)
The Belle of New York (1897) was so
popular in NYC that it played in
London for 697 performances
beginning in 1898
Weber and Fields met as schoolboys
on the lower east side and made
famous their Dutch characters:
WEBER: Who vass dat lady I saw you wid last night?
FIELDS: That was no lady, that was my wife.
Fay Templeton (1865-1939) contralto was
one of the early stars
Soprano Lillian Russell (1861-1922)was one of
its greatest stars
Theatre owners
became wealthy on
the vaudeville circuit
and with the growth of
musical comedy.
Albee and Keith made
a fortune as managers.
Their chief competitors,
Klaw and Erlanger,
eventually joined with
Charles Frohman and
others to form The
Syndicate. Florenz
Ziegfeld and George
M. Cohan eventually
joined the fray pitting
one side against the
other. The Shuberts
eventually challenged
the syndicate.
Black Performers came to stardom on
the Vaudeville Circuit…
Ethel Waters (a.k.a. "Sweet Mama
Stringbean") - who went on to Broadway
and film stardom
Ma Rainey - jazz vocalist
Bert Williams - Ziegfeld Follies star
Bessie Smith - jazz vocalist
Bert Williams in a
vaudeville sketch
spoofing Jim Crow.
Bill "Bojangles"Robinson - tap dance
Ma Rainey and her band
Early Black Musicals
A Trip to Coontown (1898)
Clorindy, The Origin of the Cakewalk
In Dahomey (1903) featured Bert
Williams and George Walker and the
characters of Zip Coon and Jim Crow
and eventually toured to London
In 1908, Ziegfeld hired Williams for his
A New Century (1900-1913)
“Whisper of How I’m Yearning”
The acclaimed British musical
comedy FLORADORA (1899)
was an even bigger hit in
New York than in London
where it opened in 1900.
It also generated scandal
when one of its featured
dancers, Evelyn Nesbit, had
a prolonged affair with
architect Stanford White
before marrying industrialist
Harry K. Thaw. In 1906, Thaw
shot White to death during a
performance at the Madison
Square Garden rooftop
It was the end of the
gilded age
Hundreds of immigrants
and fortune-seekers were
arriving in New York daily
at the turn of the
century…and these new
citizens yearned for
affordable entertainment
The theatre district moved
uptown to Times Square.
By 1900…
There were over 30
legitimate theatres
on Broadway. And
vaudeville houses
were springing up all
over the city and
across the country.
Family entertainment
was especially
popular. After a
successful NY run, THE
enjoyed a long tour.
Victor Herbert
The pre-eminent Broadway
composer at the start of the
20th Century was a patriotic
Irish immigrant. Trained in
Europe, Victor Herbert was
the longtime musical director
of the prestigious Pittsburgh
Symphony. He composed
more than forty musical
comedies and operettas for
Broadway, becoming one of
the most acclaimed popular
songwriters of his time.
Herbert's musicals (written with various collaborators) involved simple American
goodness triumphing over Old World ways. His most famous works include –
Babes in Toyland (1903 - 192), a childhood fantasy best remembered for its
sentimental title song and the martial "March of the Toys." An attempt to copy the
success of the musical hit The Wizard of Oz.
Mlle Modiste (1905 - 202) told of an American shop girl who finds romance and
operatic fame in Paris. Metropolitan Opera soprano Fritzi Scheff triumphed in the
title role, introducing the wistful waltz "Kiss Me Again.”
The Red Mill (1906 - 274) involved a pair of vaudeville comedians kidding their way
through some minor adventures in Holland. A 1945 production starring Eddie Foy Jr.
ran for 531 performances, becoming Broadway's first musical revival to outlast an
original run.
Naughty Marietta (1910 -136) told the story of a French noblewoman who flees the
prospect of a loveless marriage to find love with an American soldier of fortune in
colonial New Orleans. The score included "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” Designed as a
showcase for operatic voices, it is the only Herbert musical still performed with any
regularity. (One of its songs -- "I'm Falling in Love With Someone" -- reappeared in
Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002).
Attributes of American
Historic or exotic setting.
The music rules.
Music and lyrics are flowery and poetic.
Romance, not sex, is main ingredient.
Heroine is indecisive.
Hero is stalwart and masculine.
Class differences between leads is
• Productions are handsome and lavish.
• Comedy is a “spice” and must be used
• “Wit? Never heard of it. Whatever it is,
it need not apply.” (117-118)
Fritzi Scheff in the bejeweled costume she
wore for the finale of Mlle. Modiste.
Herbert’s lasting legacy
• Enjoyed a long and successful career.
• Babes in Toyland and Naughty Marietta are often
• Strongly influenced Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers
and Frederick Loewe.
• Served as co-founder of ASCAP (American Society
of Composers, Authors and Publishers.)
George M. Cohan
Cohan became one of the most powerful
producers in show business, forming a
longtime partnership with Sam Harris. In
fact, Cohan excelled in more capacities than
anyone else in American theatrical history,
before or since.
Although he strongly denounced the
formation of Actor’s Equity, he remains the
only actor with a statue on Times Square.
George M. Cohan was an Irish-American
graduate of variety and vaudeville who
wrote, directed, choreographed, produced
and starred in jingoistic musical comedies
that celebrated the triumph of American
know-how and New York-style "street
smarts." After limited runs on Broadway,
where most critics frowned on Cohan's
shameless, sentimental jingoism, these
musicals toured the U.S., drawing packed
houses for a year or more.
Cohan's most memorable hits included –
Little Johnny Jones (1904) featured Cohan as
an American jockey who loses the English
Derby, clears himself of false charges that he
threw the race, and simultaneously wins the
girl he loves. Cohan's first wife Ethel Levy
played his beloved, and his parents played
major comedy roles. "Yankee Doodle Dandy"
and "Give My Regards to Broadway" gave
Cohan a national reputation.
George M. Cohan and
first wife Ethel Levy in
Little Johnny Jones
Forty-five Minutes From Broadway (1906 - 90) featured musical comedy
favorite Fay Templeton as a small-town girl who would rather give up an
inherited fortune than lose the poor street-smart New Yorker she loves
(played by newcomer Victor Moore). The title song and "Mary's a Grand
Old Name" became lasting hits, and Cohan took over Moore's role when
the show was revived a few years later.
George Washington Jr. (1906 - 81) opened a few weeks after Forty-five
Minutes, with Cohan playing a senator's son who (in the name of
patriotism) refuses to marry a British nobleman's daughter. The
showstopper was "You're a Grand Old Rag," a tuneful tribute to the Stars
and Stripes. The word "Rag" was switched to "Flag" after one of Cohan's
critics instigated a journalistic outcry. The song remains a patriotic favorite.
Cohan and his contemporaries helped to popularize
the AABA form for popular songs…
Most traditional showtunes have two parts –
The verse sets up the premise of a song. For example, the verse of one
popular Cohan hit begins "Did you ever see two Yankees part upon a
foreign shore?," going on to explain that the one remaining behind will ask
his friend one parting favor. The verse can be most any length.
The chorus (or "refrain") states the main point of the lyric – "Give my
regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square." Since the early
1900s, the choruses of most American popular songs have been thirty-two
bars long.
Those thirty two bars are usually divided into four sections of
approximately eight bars each. Musicologists describe this as the AABA
form –
* A is the main melody, usually repeated three times – in part, so that it
can be easily remembered.
*B is the release or bridge, which should contrast as much as possible with
melody A.
The uniform use of this predictable format falls easily on the ear,
making songs easy to listen to. It also forces composers and lyricists
to make their points efficiently, acting more as a discipline than a
limitation. From George M. Cohan to Jonathan Larson and beyond,
modern Broadway songwriters have written most of their songs in
the thirty-two bar AABA format. In fact, it remained the standard for
all popular music until the hard rock revolution of the 1960s.
AABA Song Form - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
First A: Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
Second A: Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
B Section: Someday I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the
clouds are far behind me
Final A: Someday over the rainbow bluebirds fly...
Ziegfeld Follies
Florenz Ziegfeld's name has taken on
legendary status, and remains familiar in
an age that pays little attention to the
This son of a Chicago music professor
produced his first Broadway musical in
1895, showcasing glamorous French
chanteuse (and common-law wife) Anna
It was not until 1907 that Ziegfeld (at
Held's suggestion) invented his now
legendary Follies.
In this ad found on the back of a program for
Show Boat, Ziegfeld is quoted as saying that
Lucky Strike cigarettes "most assuredly protect
the voice."
Ziegfeld Follies of 1912
A circus act
Held and Ziegfeld took their inspiration from the Folies
Bergere, a long-running Parisian revue that used skits and
songs to spoof the social and political "follies" of the day,
pausing for production numbers featuring legions of
creatively under-dressed women. Ziegfeld gave this format
an American spin with lavish production values and a
wholesome, attractive female chorus.
Out of consideration for the sensibilities of respectable
theatergoers, the tone was sexy but never trashy. Because
the superstitious Ziegfeld considered thirteen his lucky
number, he gave his revue the thirteen letter name Follies
of the Day, taken from the title of a popular newspaper
column penned by librettist Harry B. Smith -- who Ziegfeld
hired to write the libretto.
One of Ziegfeld’s follies
From the New York Times, reprinted May 2007.
The Shubert Brothers had such success staging lavish "reviews" at
the new Hippodrome Theatre from 1906 onwards that competing
theatre owners Klaw and Erlanger were on the lookout for a
promising alternative. They agreed to finance Ziegfeld's Follies,
which affirmed its European pretensions by using the French
spelling, "revue." Never one to turn down a good source of
funding, Ziegfeld settled for the title of producer and a salary.
Although Erlanger made suggestions, Ziegfeld was given a
relatively free creative hand -- so long as he stuck to
a production budget of $13,800, a small figure dictated by the
show's limited summer run.
Starting as three month summer event, the Follies proved so
profitable that it immediately became an annual institution. From
the beginning, Ziegfeld's "girlie" show was so respectable that
wives were happy to attend with their husbands. Far larger than
any cabaret production and more elaborate than vaudeville,
the Follies was the ultimate in variety entertainment. Ziegfeld
supervised more than twenty editions of the Follies, setting new
artistic and technical standards for the professional theatre in
The Follies were known for their
beautiful women.
Some of the Folly girls through the years
The Passing Show (1894)
The Follies was not the first Broadway revue. In 1894,
THE PASSING SHOW played 121 performances.
Stars sought out Ziegfeld
to star in his annual show
To read more about Ziegfeld
and The Follies, click here.
Nora Bayes
forgotten hit of the new century.
A Chinese Honeymoon is a musical
comedy in two acts by George Dance,
with music by Howard Talbot and
additional music by Ivan Caryll and
others, and additional lyrics by Harry
Greenbank and others. It opened at the
Theatre Royal in Hanley, England in
1899 and then toured extensively. It also
played at the Casino Theatre, in New
York, opening on 2 June 1902 for a run of
376 performances. It was the first
musical to run for 1,000 performances.
The story concerns couples who
honeymoon in China and inadvertently
break the kissing laws (reminiscent of
The Mikado).
The Shubert Brothers
Looking for a hit to
solidify their place on
Broadway, the Shubert
Brothers produced the
first American
production of A
Bickering, bad luck and
broken promises helped
to establish the longstanding feud with “The
Syndicate” (Erlanger,
Frohman, etc.)
The Merry Widow
Although Broadway audiences took increasing
pride in homegrown musical shows, in the early
1900s a European import became the biggest
cultural phenomenon since H.M.S. Pinafore.
In 1905 composer Franz Lehár convinced Vienna's
prestigious Theatre An der Wein to premiere his
new operetta Die Lustige Witwe. With librettists
Victor Leon and Leo Stein, Lehar had created a
seamlessly integrated musical masterpiece, with
every number and bit of dialogue contributing
something crucial. It was translated into more
than a dozen languages. And its success kept
confounding the experts. London producer
George Edwardes was surprised when his staging
of The Merry Widow (1907) became a runaway
Success in New York
The first Broadway production
of The Merry Widow at The New
Amsterdam Theatre (1907)
delighted Americans with its
romance and refined
sensuality. When the dashing
Donald Brian whirled Ethel
Jackson around the stage in
what became known as "The
Merry Widow Waltz" ("I Love You
So"), they ignited a cultural
firestorm. Several companies
toured the USA, a full length
parody version ran profitably in
New York, and the waltz itself
was heard everywhere.
Its imitators included The
Chocolate Soldier (1909)
SOLDIER by Oscar
Straus, was an
adaptation of
Bernard Shaw’s
Lily Elsie (Sonia) and
Joseph Coyne (Danilo) in
the original London
production of The Merry
Shaw hated it and
refused to allow
adapted as a
musical until 1964,
As the new century
revved up, Broadway
balanced the influence of
European works by
developing fresh
theatrical trends. From
African-American rhythms
to "the glorification of the
American girl," there was
fresh excitement brewing
on the street that--thanks
to the invention of electric
light--was coming to be
known as "the Great
White Way."

The Musical in America - Emporia State University