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!

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