COMEDY, DRAMA, AND EXTRAVAGANZA | Though the American musical of the early 20th century is often dismissed as having been nothing more than an assortment of leggy revues and superficial Cinderella stories, the form was, in fact, vibrantly alive with a wide variety of formative stage styles. Charles Dillingham and R.H. Burnside, for instance, manufactured spectacular funhouse entertainments intermingling circus, clowning, comedy, and vaudeville. Guy Bolton, P.G. Wodehouse, and Jerome Kern penned intimate musical comedies infused with tinkling music and up-to-the-minute mayhem. Harold Atteridge constructed a series of stylish theatrical extravaganzas starring Al Jolson. Otto Harbach and Rida Johnson Young separately wrote musical plays peppered with cynicism, regret, psychology, and murder. And Harlan Thompson and Harry Archer were among the next generation artists to script contemporary musical comedies in the key of jazz. Though this early work was not fully matured, there was, by the second half of the Roaring Twenties, a clear, accelerating movement toward sophisticated language, sound construction, three-dimensional characters, and integrated scores.
NIGHTCLUBS AND CABARET | In 1911, the Folies Bergère, a combination restaurant, theatre, and music hall, unofficially inaugurated New York’s nightclub craze. Its opening program consisted of two burlesques and a ballet followed by a midnight cabaret show. For the next three decades, catering primarily to the after-theatre trade in swanky dining establishments located in and around Times Square, nightclubs and cabaret would remain two of the most defining features of the syncopated Rialto. In addition to dinner and dancing, many of Broadway’s ritziest resorts offered elaborate, theatrical floor shows written, staged, and performed by the town’s top talent.
BLACK ENTERTAINMENT | In the 1920s, the Black musical stage experienced a jazz-infused boom. Though Shuffle Along (1921) was instrumental in igniting the significant uptick in Black entertainment, the best legitimate offerings of the period were often those that originated in glamorous nightclubs like the Plantation, a landmark rendezvous located on the second floor of the Winter Garden Theatre building. On November 2, 1925, in particular, the popular midnight chateau launched the legendary Black Birds series.
In 1921, Tangerine took up residence at the Casino Theatre and instantly turned the country’s long-standing social traditions upside-down. A tart, topical entertainment billed as “A Musical Satire of the Sexes,” the long-running hit centered around an engaged couple and six divorcees who make their way to a mythical island where women go to work and men remain in the home. The lightweight commentary on prevailing domestic practices was penned by Philip Bartholomae, Guy Bolton, Lawrence Langner, Howard Johnson, Monte Carlo, and Alma Sanders. Sanders, in particular, was one of the growing number of female authors active on the musical stage, briefly toiling in Tin Pan Alley before making her production debut with Tangerine. Incidentally, five months prior to the musical’s premiere, the composer’s own husband had filed for divorce, reportedly testifying that his wife’s success had “turned her head” and that she “refused to keep house any longer.”
In the 1910s and 20s, as hundreds of Black southerners moved north in what became known as the Great Migration and as Harlem developed into an African-American cultural center, Black plays began to blossom on Broadway. Among the most prominent were Ridgely Torrence’s Three Plays for a Negro Theatre (1917), Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920), Paul Green’s In Abraham’s Bosom (1926), and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy (1927), which was later adapted into the groundbreaking folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Charles MacArthur and Edward Sheldon’s Lulu Belle (1926), too, was built around a Black narrative but the original David Belasco production famously employed an interracial cast, with the central roles having been played by white performers in blackface. Though the majority of these works were written by white authors, Willis Richardson’s The Chip Woman’s Fortune (1923) was one of the few penned by an African-American scribe. Presented by Raymond O’Neil’s Ethiopian Art Theatre during the company’s two-week stint at the Frazee Theatre on 42nd Street, the six-character one-act was cleverly employed as a curtain raiser, warming the stage the first week for Oscar Wilde’s Salome and the second for a “jazzed” version of William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. A program note read, in part, “Believing that the Negro has a valuable contribution to make to the American drama, Mr. O’Neil trained these players seeking to develop the natural warmth and richness of their voices, their graceful and expressive movements. His effort has been not to train them in imitation of the more inhibited white actors, but to develop their peculiar racial characteristics – the freshness and vigor of their emotional responses, their spontaneity and intensity of mood, their freedom from intellectual and artistic obsessions.”
NEW DRAMATISTS | In the late 1910s and early 1920s, hot on the heels of such runaway hits as J. Hartley Manners’ Peg o’ My Heart (1912), James Montgomery’s Nothing But the Truth (1916), Frank Bacon and Winchell Smith’s Lightnin’ (1918), and Avery Hopwood’s The Gold Diggers (1919), a new crop of dramatists began to redefine the contemporary American play, delivering drama and comedy infused with intellect, acerbity, satire, and wit. The list of audacious, socially prescient penmen included Maxwell Anderson, Marc Connelly, Sidney Howard, George S. Kaufman, Eugene O’Neill, and Elmer Rice.
LITTLE THEATRE MOVEMENT | In the 1910s, the Provincetown Players and the Neighborhood Playhouse became two of the most recognizable outfits to emerge amidst a Little Theatre Movement that altered the course of the American stage. One of the most curious was the Washington Square Players, which launched in 1915 and disbanded in 1918. In 1919, though, members of the tenacious troupe regrouped as the Theatre Guild, going on to produce such musical and dramatic milestones as They Knew What They Wanted (1924), Strange Interlude (1928), Porgy and Bess (1935), and Oklahoma! (1943).
FEMALE PLAYWRIGHTS | In 1845, Anna Cora Mowatt caught theatregoers off guard as the author of Fashion, a landmark comedy of contemporary New York that enjoyed a monumental three-week run at the Park Theatre. The women’s rights movement commenced three years later in Seneca Falls. By the late 1910s, female writers were making significant inroads on the Broadway stage, with some of the most prominent practitioners having been Rachel Crothers, Susan Glaspell, and Clare Kummer, a celebrated multihyphenate who began her career as a librettist, lyricist, and composer.