The first blockbuster American musical.
The talk of the town for the 1866 and 1867 season, the show, which introduced the Cancan to American audiences, ran for 475 performances (16 months) and scandalized New York. The New York Herald called it "an indecent and demoralizing exhibition." Mark Twain wrote that the musical "debauched many a pure mind."
Why have I never heard of it?
First, 19th century musical tastes haven't survived the 20th century. Though The Black Crook would tour until the 1930's, by midcentury, Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943) had redefined the Broadway musical-- so much so that today, the modern conception of what musical theatre should look and sound like is based on these two shows. The Black Crook is no longer produced because it doesn't fit the modern image of musical theatre.
Second, and perhaps more to the point, the music sucked. It borrowed liberally from popular operas of the day, and what was original (much of it by Guiseppe Operti) didn't catch on. Songs were replaced regularly throughout the run and in revivals. The only song that survived the original show was "You Naughty, Naughty Men," written by G. Bicknell and T. Kennick, and sung by Millie Cavendish throughout the run.
Still, if The Black Crook can be said to have a legacy in the form of the Broadway musical, it would be because of its success in bringing elements of European theatrical extravaganzas to an American production: elaborate costuming, ornate sets, large dance numbers, and chorus girls (more on them later).
Hey, gang, let's put on a show!
Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer had hired a ballet troupe from Paris to perform La biche au Bois at New York's Academy of Music. On Monday, May 21, 1866, the curtain had just closed on a production of La Juive at the Academy when a fire broke out on the upper floors. Before the New York City Fire Department could extinguish the flames, the fire reached the gas (used for lighting the theatre), and the place exploded. Jarrett and Palmer found themselves with a very expensive ballet company on their hands, (without costumes or scenery, which had gone up in flames), and without a theater.
They approached impresario William Wheatley to see if his theatre could accomodate them. Wheatley managed the most well equipped theater in New York, Niblo's Garden, at Broadway and Prince streets. Wheatley had just had a cancellation, and nothing in mind except the stage rights to a stilted melodrama by Charles M. Barras, entitled The Black Crook. Wheatley didn't think a straight ahead ballet would play at Niblo's. But he offered Palmer and Jarrett the chance to produce a new show, a "spectacle" combining their ballet with his melodrama. Barras was reluctant to change his script to accomodate the dancers-- but he was broke, and gave in.
Plot? Who needs a plot?
Barras had in mind a Faustian tale, taken from Carl Maria Von Weber's opera, Der Freischütz. Hertzog (C. H. Morton), the Black Crook (an evil magician in black tights), makes a deal with the devil ("Arch-Fiend," played by E. B. Holmes) to deliver a human soul into his power. Rodolphe, our hero (G. C. Boniface), is rescued from prison by Hertzog not realizing that the price will be his soul! Zounds! Luckily, Rodolphe saves the life of a dove, who just happens to be a Fairy Queen, and so will set things right.
Rodolphe: If this indeed be not a dream, tell me, bright being, you whose simple motion seems to sway the moves and passion of this Elfin Band, who art thou, and where am I.
Stalacta: I am called Stalacta, Queen of this dazzling realm, the glittering wonders that assail thine eyes are not creations of phantastic dreams, but nature's handiwork, wrought with cunning fingers in a bounteous mood.
And where there is a Fairy Queen, there follows a band of fairies. More like an army of fairies (literally-- the women would march in formation across the stage). The rest of the play mainly finds reasons to get the one hundred ladies of the ensemble on and off stage. In addition to the marches, choreographer David Costa did include ballet numbers for the Parisian troupe. The corps de ballet were all peroxide blondes, and had their figures padded out with symmetricals to conform to the masculine taste of the time. Furthermore, in pink tights, the marching "Amazons" appeared to be seriously underdressed. Newspaper editorials and preachers alike denounced the show as immoral (During its early run, women who wanted to see the show went wearing veils, or in drag, lest anyone see them visiting such an indecent display).
"Glittering Wonders that Assail Thine Eyes"
Wheatley also filled the show with elaborate painted backdrops, costumes, and stage effects. Combined with the showgirls, he couldn't help but have a spectacle on his hands. Samuel Clemens saw the show, and as Mark Twain reported for his newspaper:
The scenic effects - the waterfalls, cascades, fountains, oceans, fairies, devils, hells, heavens, angels - are gorgeous beyond anything ever witnessed in America, perhaps, and these things attract the women and the girls. Then the endless ballets and splendid tableaux, with seventy beauties arrayed in dazzling half-costumes; and displaying all possible compromises between nakedness and decency, capture the men and boys....
The scenery and the legs are everything; the actors who do the talking are the wretchedest sticks on the boards. But the fairy scenes - they fascinate the boys! Beautiful bare-legged girls hanging in flower baskets; others stretched in groups on great sea shells; others clustered around fluted columns; others in all possible attitudes; girls - nothing but a wilderness of girls - stacked up, pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theatre, diminishing in size and clothing, till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in a camisa. The whole tableau resplendent with columns, scrolls, and a vast ornamental work, wrought in gold, silver and brilliant colors - all lit up with gorgeous theatrical fires, and witnessed through a great gauzy curtain that counterfeits a soft silver mist! It is the wonders of the Arabian Nights realized.
Those girls dance in ballet, dressed with a meagreness that would make a parasol blush. And they prance around and expose themselves in a way that is scandalous to me. Moreover, they come trooping on the stage in platoons and battalions, in most princely attire I grant you, but always with more tights in view than anything else. They change their clothes every fifteen minutes for four hours, and their dresses become more beautiful and more rascally all the time.
So while modern day audiences now expect dazzling scenic effects, from the battlements of Les Miserables to the helicopter of Miss Saigon, it was Wheatley who brought dazzle to the set designs of Broadway (if only through sheer quantity). Twain was not exaggerating about the four hour length of the show (Opening night, the show ran five).
There's No Business Like Show Business
Wheatley, Jarrett, and Palmer (and Barras, too), became rich beyond their dreams. Although the show needed an extravagant $50,000 investment to produce, the initial run brought in one million dollars (Remember, this is in 1867). The show would be revived on Broadway 15 times. The blockbuster success would spawn numerous imitations, and introduced to domestic artistic-minded investors/entrepreneurs that you could make serious money on Broadway, if you could only deliver the right combination of music and spectacle.
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Burnham, Charles. "Queer Superstitions of Theatre-Land." Theatre Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 6. New York: Theatre Magazine Company, 1919. p. 356.
Costello, A.E. Our Firemen, The History of the New York Fire Departments from 1609 - 1887. 1887. Excerpted at New York City History and Genealogy Web Site. <http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ny/state/fire/41-50/ch48pt13.html> (23 October 2002)
Kenrick, John. "1796-1879: Broadway Pioneers." Musicals101.com. <http://www.musicals101.com/1860to79.htm> (8 June 2000)
Lubbock, Mark. "American Musical Theatre: An Introduction." The Complete Book of Light Opera. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962. Excerpted at TheatreHistory.com. <http://www.theatrehistory.com/american/musical030.html> (23 October 2002)
Twain, Mark. "Mark Twain on His Travels." Alta California, San Francisco, March 3, 1868. Twainquotes.com <http://www.twainquotes.com/18680303.html> (23 October 2002)
-----, Alta California, San Francisco , March 28, 1867. Twainquotes.com <http://www.twainquotes.com/18670328.html> (23 October 2002)