Archive for January, 2013

Happy 92nd, Carol Channing!

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Today is Carol Channing’s 92nd birthday.  Her contributions to the musical theatre, film, and TV are many, but she will forever be known as Dolly Levi, the title character in Hello, Dolly! which we’ll see as a class at Ford’s Theatre later this semester.  Channing played the role on Broadway, on tour, and elsewhere more than 5,000 times.  In this clip, she and the waiters sing their way thru the title number in the 1979 London production:


For more Carol Channing, check out this entertaining and touching documentary about her life, career, and marriage to her childhood sweetheart.


Musical Theatre: Early Origins

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

We can’t discuss early musical theatre productions without understanding what theatre already existed in New York City at the turn of the last century.  From 1880 thru the early 1900s, a number of different types of theatrical entertainments began to mix and meld in New York’s immigrant communities.

It is obviously difficult or impossible to get high quality audio/video for these historical performances, so in some cases, I’m providing links to film or stage adaptations from much later.  Still, the performances are examples of the turn-of-the-century art we are discussing here.

VAUDEVILLE (English/American):

Vaudeville shows were fairly “clean” evenings of entertainment where audience members got a lot of different types of entertainment rolled into an evening.  The video below shows examples of animal acts, feats of physical strength or talents, dance, and comedic routines.  (Follow the “Related Video” link to find Part II).



Utilizing the now shameful practice of “blackface,” the minstrel shows began as white actors giving exaggerated performances of American folk music.  Eventually, African American performers began to adapt blackface into their own performances, adding to this complex practice.  In this video, America’s first “star,” Al Jolsen, performs his signature song, George Gershwin’s “Swanee.”



The French may have been among the first to discover that “sex sells.”  The burlesque dancers added an alluring, glamorous, and risque component to theatre performances.  The “tableaux vivants” (or “living pictures”) were highly stylized tableaux designed to “wow” and impress audiences who were far more accustomed to New York’s grimy work conditions than elaborate and intricately beautiful French style.


OPERA (Italian/German/French):

Opera had existed in some form for hundreds of years already, but the opera in early 1900s began to take on a new lushness and grandeur.  Here is the love duet from Act I from Puccini’s 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly.  (Trivia: What musical used this story as its source material?)


OPERETTA (English):

As its name suggests, operetta is light-hearted opera.  The stories often are funny, satirical  or fanciful and the tunes are more carefree and less emotional than its full-figured cousin, opera.  Gilbert & Sullivan are the prime British examples with shows such as The Pirates of Penzance, The HMS Pinafore, and The Mikado.   Here is one of the most famous “patter” songs, “I Am a Very Model of a Modern Major General” from Pirates.



Ballad opera, or folk opera, used popular/traditional tunes with the lyrics changed to tell satirical stories.  The prime example, John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera,” was composed in the 1790s, but found new popularity in the early 1900s.  Just as “jukebox” musicals today give audiences music they already know, these popular operas found mass appeal fairly easily.  (Trivia: What musical used John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” as its source material?)


The REVUE/Ziegfeld’s FOLLIES (American):

If you were to take aspects of each genre listed above, rolled them all together, and added in a healthy dose of “New York turn-of-the-century living”, you’d have a revue.  The most famous creator and producer of revues was Florenz Ziegfeld.  He staged productions of  his Ziegfeld Follies from 1907 – 1931 and featured a “whose who” list of early American theatre talent, such as Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, Ed Wynn, Ray Bolger, and Helen Morgan, and the countless “Follies girls.”

Described as the Finale to the evening, this clip has four parts:  “Ladies of the Dance,” (an operetta-style tenor singing while the ladies of the troupe display their elaborate costumes and headpieces); “The Flippity Flop,” (an American early jazz tune sung in the contemporary style by a soloist, followed by a dance routine); an “Eccentric Dance,” (a comedic dance by a clown-like male soloist); and the “Finale” (where everyone and their mother join together).  The “Finale” may seem like a nearly disparate mix of styles and performances…and it is.  As were the Follies.




Welcome – Spring 2013

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013


As we start this semester, please take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the layout and content of this class blog.  This site will serve as a resource for you throughout the semester.  Sometimes I will tell you when you need to visit the site and post comments.  However, I expect that you’ll visit frequently on your own to check out updates, read your classmates’ comments, and look for readings/video clips.

If you’d like a review of the music theory basics we covered in the first class, please check out the Theory tab at the top of the page.