Theatre yesterday and today



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To demonstrate just how far back my theatre knowledge goes (and without unduly showing off), today I offer up a little history about The Black Crook, which opened in New York exactly 150 years ago today.

I love to drop this title into conversation among theatre folk from time to time, usually as the punch line to a joke: “He’s so old … he was at the invited dress of The Black Crook!” But more often than not, the joke is on me, since the reference is so dated it only ends up showing off how old I am!

For those with no idea to what I’m referring, The Black Crook is generally considered to be the first musical, or to be more specific, the forerunner of what we know as a Broadway “book musical.” It premiered in New York City on September 12, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. But let me be clear about one thing: there are many dissenters who do NOT believe The Black Crook was the first musical. As far as that issue is concerned, I will leave it to better qualified historians than I to argue over. Instead of discussing what this show’s place in history should (or shouldn’t) be, I thought it might be fun to point out what a show like this even was—and how it came into being.

For starters, The Black Crook employed more than seventy actors and dancers on its stage, the long forgotten Niblo’s Garden, a 3,200 seat theatre on Broadway. Not the stretch of Broadway we know today in midtown Manhattan. No, the Niblo was downtown on Broadway and Prince Street, which for those with geographical know-how, may recognize as roughly around the corner from the Public Theatre in the East Village. Built in 1823 and first named the Columbia Garden, it was twice burned down and rebuilt and, at the time The Black Crook premiered there, was owned by William Niblo, a renowned caterer (try picturing a Broadway house today named for a caterer). Under Niblo’s direction, it became an important place to see operas and the like for the well-to-do, and its fifty-cent admission price was designed specifically to “keep out the riff-raff.” You have to love that.

The Black Crook was first performed as a melodrama; a retelling of the Faust story (long before Jeffrey Cordova had the idea) and contained no songs or dances. But as fate would have it, there had been a fire at the Academy of Music in lower Manhattan (a lot of fires to contend with back in the day, as it would appear), leaving a French ballet troupe that had traveled to America with no home to offer their rendition of La Biche au Bois (The Deer in the Woods). As the story goes, the stranded ballet company offered a potential solution to the problems facing both sets of producers. The Black Crook was about ready to open, but was hopelessly dull. The attractive sets the ballet troupe needed a home for, as well as its large company, forced a marriage of convenience. Adding the musical elements to the play created an

extravaganza that lured in audiences—and it didn't hurt that the scantily clad dancers added a bit of something-something to the proceedings. Without even realizing what they were doing, their hybrid became one of the biggest hits New York had ever seen.

I've always had an interest in how the elements of this all came together and have an equal fascination with a Broadway musical that opened in 1954, loosely based on this legend. The Girl in Pink Tights ended up the final musical with a score by the prolific Sigmund Romberg, composer of musicals and operettas like The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928). He contributed to literally dozens of shows in his lifetime, though this last one was produced posthumously, as he died three years prior to its premiere. The Girl in Pink Tights was not a success, but a cast album survives and it has its pleasures.

Zizi Jeanmarie, the star of the show.

I would love to see The Girl in Pink Tights someday and I'm sure some outfit will figure out a way to put in on in a small-scale fashion, the only way it can be done, since the original had a cast of fifty-two. It included the Hines brothers, Gregory and Maurice, in their Broadway debuts as Shoe Shine Boy and Newsboy. It also had in its cast Marni Nixon, who only recently passed away in July at the age of eighty-six. Nixon was the singular talent who on film, sang the roles of Eliza Doolittle, Maria and Anna in My Fair Lady The King and I and West Side Story, dubbing for Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr, respectively. The Girl int the Pink Tights herself was played by Zizi Jeanmarie (billed as “Jeanmarie,” for some reason), a famous Parisian ballerina, who with this show made not only her Broadway debut, but her debut in something other than ballet.. She returned to Broadway for one last show, a revival of Cole Porter's Can-Can in 1981. It closed in a weekend.

If it turns out I never get the chance to see The Girl in Pink Tights, as luck would have it, in honor of its progenitor's 150th anniversary, there is a production of The Black Crook that is currently playing a limited engagement downtown at the Abrons Arts Center Henry Street Settlement. I have no intention of missing it and look forward to reporting on it within a week or two's time.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.