Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Black Crook

This month we are looking at the development of American musical theater over the last 150 years. Last time we looked at a few types of early theater. Today, let’s look closer at one famous work, The Black Crook (1866), which started as two separate works that, when combined, found success.

The Black Crook originated as a melodrama by Charles M. Barras. Considered old-fashioned, it was a supernatural tale similar to Weber’s Der Freischutz. Despite the lack of intrigue, the New York theatre Niblo’s Garden booked the show. For more about Niblo’s Garden, check out the video below!



Around the same time, a European dance troupe that was scheduled to perform at the Academy of Music found themselves without work when the Academy burnt down. Thus, they combined their ballet with the melodrama to produce a show known for its scenic effects and scantily dressed dancers. The show ended up taking in over a million dollars and running 475 consecutive shows at Niblos’s, exceeding any production prior to it in New York! In order to keep the show fresh, new ballets were periodically added. Following its Broadway run, The Black Crook toured the country.


Join me next week as we move into the early 20th century! 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Introduction to Early Musical Theater

Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, the rise in leisure activities in large cities resulted in the development of department stores, amusement parks, and various types of theater. Minstrelsy, vaudeville, extravaganzas, operettas, and revues are several types of theater that were popular during this era. But what are they? Let’s quickly define these types of theater that eventually contributed to what we know as musical theater today. Throughout the month, we will walk through a brief history of the development of musical theater, looking at several hits whose music will live on for generations including Oklahoma!, Hair, and Rent. I’d like to thank my friend and local music scholar Alexandre Badue for his assistance with my research on musical theater!

Minstrelsy: An early form of variety show in which white northern actors portrayed southern plantation life using burnt cork to paint their faces black. The Virginia Minstrels led by Dan Emmett, who wrote the famous tune “Dixie,” is one example of a minstrel group. Variety shows had no plots or stories and no restraints when it came to being politically correct.

Vaudeville: A type of show in which a variety of talents are displayed including singers, dancers, minstrels, gymnasts, and comedians. Vaudeville was often performed in concert saloons and associated with crime. Over time, it became more refined and acceptable.

Extravaganza: A type of show that focused on the visual spectacle including music and dance.

Operetta: An imported show from Europe and translated into English if necessary.

Revue: Light entertainment dealing with satirical themes and involving short skits, songs, and dances.

During this early era of American musical theater, teams of comic performers became known for their theatrical shows. Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart present one example who gave a comic voice to New York’s immigrant and working class of the Gilded Age. Harrigan was a dry, comic baritone while Hart was the silly falsetto who frequently impersonated females. The team was known to add narrative to the variety stage and eventually, their success resulted in the establishment of their own company with their own acts.

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were another vaudeville team during this time who, like Harrigan and Hart, presented narrative alongside variety. They often referred to their show as a burlesque—a comic show where the humor is derived from an existing model. An example of this would be setting a popular tune to a new, silly text. Weber and Fields were also known to incorporate things we now associate with musical theater into their shows including costumes, stage sets, special effects, etc.

Join me next time as we look at an early theatrical performance from 1867!


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise"

Though not considered an innovative composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) had a knack for keeping the traditional in music fresh. His music combines Western influences with those of his native Russia. Though he made his primary living as a pianist, his compositional output is outstanding, ranging from works for piano, orchestra, and voice!

Rachmaninoff began his studies with piano under his mother’s tutelage. He later went on to attend the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he remained until his parents separated, causing his grades to suffer. At that point, he moved to the Moscow Conservatory where he lived and studied with Nikolay Zverev. He met Tchaikovsky during this time, who would have a great influence on the young composer. 

Though primarily known for his works incorporating the piano, Rachmaninoff also wrote art songs. Today let’s look at an example that many may be familiar with, but unaware of its origins. The 14 Songs, Op. 34 was written for specific Russian singers based on their known talents. Rachmaninoff chose poetry to set to music from popular poets including Pushkin, Tyutchev, Polonsky, Khmyakov, Maykov, Korinfsky, and Bal’mont. The songs generally contain simple vocal lines with accompaniments that emphasize certain parts of the text. His famous “Vocalise” is the last song in this opus. Many of you may know this piece from one of many instrumental arrangements that have developed since the piece’s origin. In the beginning, however, it existed as a wordless song that he wrote at Ivanovka, the family country estate. You can almost hear the calm escape from the world that Rachmaninoff enjoyed at Ivanovka in “Vocalise.” Below you can enjoy Kathleen Battle sing this beautiful song in its original form.