Musical Theatre: Early Origins

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.




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