Musical Theatre History: the 1920s

Musical theatre as we know it today consists of music and lyrics that move a plot, or “book.”  This was far from the case in the early 1900s.  In class, we discussed how influences from England, France, and elsewhere in Europe blended with America’s own emerging mix of cultures to create a variety of entertainments in New York.  In the 1920s, these different pieces would start to merge, and would ultimately lead to the first “book musical.”

The 1920s were the boom years for Broadway.  In 1927 alone, over 250 shows debuted on Broadway, and over 50 of them were musicals.  It’s estimated that 20 million people attended shows that year, which is twice the box office receipts as now.  This is especially impressive considering how many more people live in and travel to New York now, as compared to then.

Broadway was the popular entertainment.  In a time without movies, television, or radio, the revue and variety show provided the popular music.  The songs played on a parlor piano in someone’s home were from a stage show.  In 1904, Lawmaker Square in New York was renamed Times Square (in honor of the New York Times newspaper) and a new subway station was opened there.  For the first time, people from all over could easily travel to 42nd Street and see a show, and Broadway quickly became the concentrated area of theatres that it is today.

Just as the music in the theatre was the popular music, the actors in the theatre were the stars of the time.  America’s first entertainer celeb was George M. Cohen, a star of vaudeville and revues who appeared in over 40 shows in 30 years.  He often created the shows himself, serving as writer, composer, and star.  He was a larger-than-life personality who was even larger on stage and audiences adored him.  His music was often patriotic in tone and he is perhaps best known now as the creator of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  Actual video footage of him is rare, but James Cagney captured George M.’s signature singing and dancing in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy.  A clip is below (the second part of the clip features Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney singing the same song in their film Babes of Broadway.)


Other star performers soon emerged, many from vaudeville and the Ziegfeld Follies.  These included early stage and screen stars Fanny BriceBert WilliamsMarilyn Miller, and Al Jolson.  By the 1920s, Jolson had become Broadway’s biggest star and often performed in black face, singing his popular “mammy” songs.  As we discussed in class, black face is a difficult concept for our contemporary sensibilities to stomach.  At the time it was simultaneously not about race and all about race.  Jolson was a Jewish immigrant from eastern Lithuania.  Here you’ve got an Eastern European Jewish man putting on black face make-up to perform on the stages of New York to became a major American star – this just about sums up the confluence of worlds and cultures going on at the time.  Here is a clip from The Jazz Singer, which we’ll talk about more below:


A good number of the shows in the 1920s were “Cinderella” stories.  These are not fully developed book musicals yet, but hint at the plot construction that would eventually develop.  Shows by composers like Jerome Kern were named Sally, Irene, and Mary.  These stories continued the Ziegfeld tradition of “glorifying the American girl.”  A kind young girl, typically lower-class, would meet the man of her dreams and end the evening with him, living happily ever after.

Much of this music was made available to the regular citizen of New York via Tin Pan Alley.  This block of West 28th St. between 5th and 6th Ave. was home to a number of music publishing offices, each equipped with multiple pianos.  The name “Tin Pan Alley” comes from the sounds one would hear on the street as all of these pianos (with tin-like tone quality) played simultaneously.  Song writers would set up shop and play their songs for publishers, or for customers who wanted to know how a song went in the days before radio, CDs, and cast recordings.  Composing teams like George and Ira Gershwin (brothers)  honed their craft on Tin Pan Alley and the area became a gathering place for the composers and lyricists working on Broadway at the time.

One of America’s most famous composers, Irving Berlin, got his start in Tin Pan Alley.  He would go on to compose 24 shows between 1914 and 1962.  He was born in 1888 and did not pass away until 1989.  It is incredible to think about how much music he has injected into the American culture and how much change he saw in American entertainment.

It is interesting to consider the change in the American worker taking place in the first 20 years of the 20th century.  As unions began to form, actors saw the need for a collective unit of their own and Actor’s Equity was born.  In 1919, among multiple nation-wide strikes of all sorts of workers, actors also refused to work.  Actor’s demanded pay for rehearsal time and transportation for any out-of-town rehearsals or performances.  They also demanded that costumes be provided for them (with the exception of the elaborate costumes in the Follies, many performers were expected to provide their own clothing for shows).  After the musicians and stagehands joined the walk out, producers, including Ziegfeld, had to give in.  Actor’s Equity has remained an important player in the theatre since.

The effect of the “Jazz Age” on the Broadway musical cannot be over emphasized.  New popular music was wafting out of clubs and bars.  After Prohibition passed in 1919, much of the social scene went underground, to illegal speakeasies and clubs where booze was still served.  This lead to a mixing of worlds, class, and races.  More white Americans were falling in love with jazz, which emerged from African American musical styles.  This period also coincided with the change in the “American woman.”  The girl from the “Cinderella” musicals donned a flapper dress, drank alcohol with men, and smoked cigarettes.  Change was happening quickly and of course, that change was reflected on the Broadway stage.

The largest single change to hit the theatre was Showboat, a 1927 piece based on the popular novel by Edna Ferber.  Theatre veteran Jerome Kern was the composer and a young Oscar Hammerstein II (yes, that Hammerstein) was the lyricist.  They presented their material to Ziegfeld who saw the potential of what they were doing and agreed to produce the show.

Showboat was the first “integrated musical,” referring to an integration of plot and music, not of race (however, the issue of race would also play heavily in the piece.)  For the first time, music was used to move plot forward and develop character.  The story concerns a group of people on Captain Andy’s showboat, the Cotton Blossom.  The piece contained songs that remain popular in the musical repertory today, including “Bill,” “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine,” and “Old Man River.”  The piece also launched the careers of stars like Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson:



The book focused on a complex social issue of the time: miscegenation.  Interracial marriage was illegal and political racial tensions at the time brought the issue to the forefront.  For the first time, audiences saw “real life” issues played out on the stage for them and Kern and Hammerstein did not shy away from the tensions.  The famous “miscegenation scene” from Showboat is below (from the 1936 film starring many leads from the stage version):


Showboat was the height of the Broadway show in Broadway’s most popular decade, the 1920s.  As ’20s concluded, two events in close succession would put a stop to the unchecked growth of the Broadway show and would turn the American entertainment industry on its head.  The first of these events was the premiere of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer.”  The film debuted in Oct. of 1927 and for the first time, American audiences could experience music and entertainment without going to the theatre.  The role of film in American culture is well-known and it’s effects on theatre are still felt today.  The second event struck in Oct. 1929, when the stock market crash on “Black Friday” plummeted the entire country into what would become the Great Depression.  Theatre survives, of course, but the 1930s were a very different decade than the boom of the 1920s.

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