THE EUROPEAN INFLUENCE | In the 18th and 19th centuries, as a new nation began to develop its cultural identity, the European influence on the American stage remained strong. It was felt with considerable fervor in the sizable collection of contemporary European playwrights who found their work either presented or premiered in New York, particularly in the latter half of the 1800s as the city blossomed into a towering capital of entertainment. Among the most prominent were Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, who made his stage debut at the Union Square Theatre with Vera; or, The Nihilists in 1883. Among the most popular was Dion Boucicault. In 1859, while living and working in New York, the celebrated Irish playwright unveiled The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana, an exceptionally potent socio-political drama centering around a tragic romance between a white plantation owner and a mixed-race slave of one-eighth African origins. The events of the play, which was adapted from the Thomas Mayne Reid novel The Quadroon, involved murder, suicide, arson, and a slave auction.
EARLY AMERICAN AUTHORS | In the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century, furthering a trail blazed by the likes of Augustin Daly, William Dunlap, and Bronson Howard, Broadway witnessed a growing number of early American authors. David Belasco, in particular, emerged as a major theatrical force with such works as The Girl of the Golden West, The Heart of Maryland, and Madame Butterfly, which premiered in 1900 and inspired the opera by Giacomo Puccini. Other notable voices included Owen Davis, Clyde Fitch, and Langdon Mitchell.
In 1900, Olga Nethersole stormed the Broadway stage as the dangerously seductive woman at the center of Sapho, a popular play by Clyde Fitch that boasted a salacious scene in which the fully clothed star was carried by her lover up a spiral staircase to an unseen, unnamed bedroom. Based on the French novel and drama of the same name, Sapho was said to have offended public decency and Nethersole was arrested and put on trial alongside three of her colleagues. “The argument has been presented to me,” the star explained during the show’s run, “that a play like Sapho is harmful to the morals of the young. It is certainly no play for children, but men and women cannot be harmed by it. Knowledge, as we all know, is the strongest safeguard against sin. The knowledge that vice is sure to pay the penalty is certainly disseminated by this play, which deals with the cause. By knowing sin, we learn to avoid it, especially when we see that it is remorsely followed by punishment.”
In 1876, Anna and Emma Hyers emerged as two of the earliest African-American pioneers on the musical stage, launching their own legitimate touring troupe with Joseph Bradford’s Out of Bondage. An original musical drama set before, during, and after the Civil War, the trailblazing entertainment interspersed throughout its storytelling an assortment of plantation, jubilee, and slave songs and aimed to offer a more honest depiction of African-American life than was commonly found on the contemporaneous stage. In the years that followed, while employing in their company the likes of Billy Kersands, Wallace King, and Sam Lucas, the two stage stars and classically trained vocalists expanded their repertoire to include such early American musicals as E.S. Getchell’s Urlina, the African Princess and Pauline Hopkins’ Peculiar Sam, or The Underground Railroad. In 1879, in particular, the pair premiered a daring new adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, bringing the classic Harriet Beecher Stowe novel to vivid life with an integrated cast. An advertisement for the landmark road show read, “All the Slave characters represented by colored people while white people play the white characters, thus for the first time in the world presenting this time honored Drama in Nature’s own coloring.”
THE AMERICAN MUSICAL | A singular art form largely defined by its maturation over the course of the mid-20th century, the American musical emerged more than 100 years prior in a dizzying array of disparate, embryonic modes. T.D. Rice, for instance, created original serio-comic burlettas that blended story, dialogue, song, and dance as early as the 1830s. Laura Keene presented numerous “Operatic,” “Rhythmical,” “Musical” entertainments throughout the 1850s and 60s. Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart headlined a series of incisive musical plays that aimed to depict “actual life” in the 1870s and 80s. Harry B. Smith and Reginald De Koven emerged as American Comic Opera pioneers in 1887. John J. McNally and Sydney Rosenfeld turned out a multitude of works in a fantastic turn of the century style known as farce comedy, comedy vaudeville, and vaudeville farce. And, between 1896 and 1904, Joe Weber and Lew Fields bounced around the stage of the Broadway Music Hall as the undisputed kings of burlesque. (Burlesque, characterized prior to the 1930s by slapstick, travesty, and knockabout comedy, was also an independent national institution with a home on Broadway at the Columbia Theatre from 1910 to 1930.) Spectacle, meanwhile, was prominently represented by shows such as The Black Crook, an 1866 sensation that intermingled ballet, music, and melodrama to become the city’s first seismic commercial success.
BLACK ARTISTS | In the 1890s, Black artists emerged as an integral part of the bustling Rialto, offering fresh infusions of syncopation and dancing that recalibrated the rhythm and movement of the musical stage. Though Bert Williams and George Walker remain two of the era’s most recognizable figures, Bob Cole was perhaps its most progressive and pioneering. In addition to creating contemporary Black musicals with clean, clever comedy and themes of education, patriotism, and romance, the multitalented titan crossed the color line with partners Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson to pen individual songs and (nearly) complete scores for numerous white musicals. Humpty Dumpty and In Newport, in particular, found the three Black songwriters with two white musicals running simultaneously on 42nd Street for three weeks beginning December 26, 1904.
A giant of the American stage who worked for more than five decades as a librettist, lyricist, composer, director, choreographer, producer, and entertainer, George M. Cohan began his career in variety in the late 1800s, performing alongside his mother, father, and sister as the Four Cohans. In the first decade of the 20th century, the virtuosic talent turned his attention to the legitimate stage, unleashing a string of fast, furious, and emphatically American farces such as The Governor’s Son (1901), Running for Office (1903), Little Johnny Jones (1904), and George Washington, Jr. (1906). The latter two, in particular, spawned the immortal airs “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Though Cohan himself headlined the majority of his patriotic affairs, he also penned book, lyrics, and music for such third-party projects as Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway (1906) starring Fay Templeton and The Talk of New York (1907) starring Victor Moore.
In the 1910s, in addition to coproducing a roster of original works by both emerging and established artists, Cohan delivered what may well have been his greatest success as a writer with a series of three insider revues that burlesqued the Broadway stage. It was during this time, too, that he penned the World War I anthem “Over There,” for which he received a Congressional Gold Medal. In his later years, Cohan starred in the original Broadway productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers’ I’d Rather Be Right (1937).