The Black Crook
|The Black Crook|
Finale of The Black Crook
|Book||Charles M. Barras|
1870 Broadway revival
1872 Broadway revival
The Black Crook is often considered to be the first piece of musical theatre that conforms to the modern notion of a "book musical". The book is by Charles M. Barras (1826-1873), an American playwright. The music is mostly adaptations, but some new songs were composed for the play, notably "March of the Amazons" by Giuseppe Operti, and "You Naughty, Naughty Men", with music by George Bickwell and lyrics by Theodore Kennick.
It opened on September 12, 1866 at the 3,200-seat Niblo's Garden on Broadway, New York City and ran for a record-breaking 474 performances. It was then toured extensively for decades and revived on Broadway in 1870–71, 1871–72 and many more times after that. This production gave America claim to having originated the musical. The Black Crook is considered a prototype of the modern musical in that its popular songs and dances are interspersed throughout a unifying play and performed by the actors.
The British production of The Black Crook, which opened at the Alhambra Theatre on December 23, 1872, was an opera bouffe version based on the same French source material, with new music by Frederic Clay and Georges Jacobi. The musical was also produced in 1882 in Birmingham, Alabama. A silent film version of The Black Crook was produced in 1916. It is the only screen version of the show.
The Black Crook was born when a dramatic group and Parisian ballet troupe joined forces in New York. Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer had hired the ballet troupe to perform at the New York Academy of Music, but the troupe was left without an engagement when a fire destroyed the Academy. They approached Wheatley at Niblo's Garden to see if he could use them. Wheatley offered them a chance to participate in a musical "spectacle" by combining their ballet forces with Barras's melodrama.
In operas, even comic operas with dialogue like The Magic Flute, the principal singers leave the dancing to the ballet troupe. In burlesque, music hall and vaudeville, there is little or no unifying story, just a series of sketches. So The Black Crook, with song and dance for everyone, was an evolutionary step, and has been called the first musical comedy.</ref> Cecil Michener Smith dissented from this view, arguing that while multiple scholars point to the show as the first popular comedy, "calling The Black Crook the first example of the theatrical genus we now call musical comedy is not only incorrect; it fails to suggest any useful assessment of the place of Jarrett and Palmer's extravaganza in the history of the popular musical theatre ... but in its first form it contained almost none of the vernacular attributes of book, lyrics, music, and dancing which distinguish musical comedy." Another dissenter is Larry Stempel.
The same year that The Black Crook opened, The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post was the first show to call itself a "musical comedy." In the late 1860s, as post-Civil War business boomed, there was a sharp increase in the number of working- and middle-class people in New York, and these more affluent people sought entertainment. Theaters became more popular, and Niblo's Garden, which had formerly hosted opera, began to offer light comedy. The Black Crook was followed by The White Fawn (1868), Le Barbe Blue (1868) and Evangeline (1873). An apparently similar show from six years earlier, The Seven Sisters (1860), which also ran for a very long run of 253 performances, is now lost and forgotten. It also included special effects and scene changes. Theatre historian John Kenrick suggests that The Black Crook's greater success resulted from changes brought about by the Civil War: First, respectable women, having had to work during the war, no longer felt tied to their homes and could attend the theatre, although many did so heavily veiled. This substantially increased the potential audience for popular entertainment. Second, America's railroad system had improved during the war, making it feasible for large productions to tour.
The original production opened on September 12, 1866 at the 3,200-seat Niblo's Garden on Broadway. It was a staggering five-and-a-half hours long, but despite its length, it ran for a record-breaking 474 performances, and revenues exceeded a record-shattering one million dollars. It was produced by the theatre's manager, William Wheatley, who also directed the piece.
The production included state-of-the-art special effects, including a "transformation scene" that converted a rocky grotto into a fairyland throne room in full view of the audience. The cast included Annie Kemp Bowler, Charles Morton, J.W. Blaisdell, E.B. Holmes, Millie Cavendish and George Boniface. The poster announced with great emphasis the presence of a "Ballet Troupe of Seventy Ladies" choreographed by David Costa. This scantily-clad female dancing chorus in skin-colored tights, was a big draw. It was respectable enough for the middle-class audience, but very daring and controversial enough to attract a great deal of press attention. The dance soloists were two Italian ballerinas from the school of Teatro alla Scala of Milan, Marie Bonfanti and Rita Sangalli, who went on to star in further New York productions. The musical was then toured extensively for decades and revived on Broadway in 1870–71, 1871–72 and many more times after that.
The British production of The Black Crook, which opened at the Alhambra Theatre on December 23, 1872, was an opera bouffe version based on the same French source material, with new music by Frederic Clay and Georges Jacobi. The author, Harry Paulton, starred as Dandelion, opposite the comedienne Kate Santley, who had appeared in the 1871-72 Broadway revival. The Black Crook was also produced in 1882 in Birmingham, Alabama as the opening-night attraction at O'Brien's Opera House.
Evil, wealthy Count Wolfenstein seeks to marry the lovely village girl, Amina. With the help of Amina's scheming foster mother Barbara, the Count arranges for Amina's fiancé, Rodolphe, an impoverished artist, to fall into the hands of Hertzog, an ancient, crook-backed master of black magic. Hertzog has made a pact with the Devil (Zamiel, "The Arch Fiend"): he can live forever if he provides Zamiel with a fresh soul every New Year's Eve. As Rodolphe is led to this horrible fate, he escapes, discovers a buried treasure, and saves a dove. The dove magically turns out to be Stalacta, Fairy Queen of the Golden Realm, who is pretending to be a bird. The grateful Queen rescues Rodolphe by bringing him to fairyland and then reuniting him with his beloved Amina. The Count is defeated, demons drag the evil Hertzog into hell, and Rodolphe and Amina live happily ever after.
- Morley, p. 15
- Article on the creation of The Black Crook
- "Broadway's first musical: The Black Crook". The Bowery Boys, November 26, 2007, accessed 1 March 2010; the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on the musical agrees (subscription required)
- Grosch, Nils and Tobias Widmaier (Hrsg.) (2010) Lied und populäre Kultur - Song and Popular Culture
- Smith, Cecil. Musical Comedy in America. New York. The Colonial Press, 1950
- Stempel, Larry. Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theatre, p. 49: "[T]he claim would be hard to sustain on purely historical grounds whatever criteria one chooses to apply."
- Article at the Musicals101 website
- Information from the Musical Heaven website
- "Revival of the Ballet", The New York Times, September 1, 1901, p. SM3
- Baggett, James (November 2007) "Timepiece". Birmingham magazine, vol. 47, No. 11, pp. 266-67
- Morley, Sheridan. Spread A Little Happiness, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987
- Barras, C. M. (1866). The Black Crook a most wonderful history. Philadelphia: Barclay.text available here.
- New Complete Book of the American Musical Theatre by David Ewen, 1970
- Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos, 1999
- The Black Crook at the Internet Broadway Database
- History of the Musical Stage 1860s: The Black Crook
- New York Public Library
- Photos of The Black Crook from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection
- The Black Crook, from the Library for the Performing Arts "Musical of the Month" series
- Audio files to several songs from The Black Crook, from the Library for the Performing Arts "Musical of the Month" series
- The Music of The Black Crook (Sheet Music) from the Library for the Performing Arts "Musical of the Month" series
- Additional sites