The First Modern Musical and How Dance Came To Broadway
In nearly any dance school around the world right now, from Berlin to Rotterdam, there are students taking a rigorous dance class, many of them hoping towards a career entertaining audiences on Broadway in New York City. When one thinks of Broadway, one thinks of musicals and a large part of a Broadway musical is not just the songs, but also the dancing. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to name a popular Broadway musical that does not incorporate dance into its show in one way or another. How did this come to be, though? Were song and dance always so connected at the hip in the way that we think of it today when we think of Broadway?
An Unlikely Pairing Makes History
It is hotly contested among historians, but the closest thing to what could be called an agreement is that the first example of a modern musical as we know it was The Black Crook.
The way it all happened is rather fascinating. In 1866, a Parisian dance troupe of 70 ladies that was scheduled to put on a string of performances, had to deal with their show entitled La Biche Au Bois being curtailed by a fire that destroyed New York's Academy Of Music. Stuck on the line for not only the dancers but also a staggering number of costumes/stage settings, the promoters went to William Wheatley, manager of Niblo's Gardens. Niblo's was a massive theater that could hold somewhere around 3,200 people and Mr. Wheatley held the rights to a melodrama called The Black Crook that borrowed liberally from well-known properties such as Faust. The parties involved decided to mash the seemingly unrelated productions together into one and the modern musical was born.
The melodrama's playwright, Charles M. Barras, was not too keen on having his work used for such a spectacle. It is known that he was paid off for the sum of $1,500, a sum that would be equal to about $26,000 in today's money (according to inflation calculators). What is not known, is how Mr. Barras work would have been taken on its own. One might surmise an educated guess though being that many have commented that on the page the work feels rather lifeless. That was definitely not the assertion when the extravaganza that was The Black Crook premiered with its spare-no-expense production values on September 12th, 1866.
One notable part of the stage production was an epic transformation scene. In this thirteen minute scene, the stage would change from a grotto into a fairy-tale wonderland domain of a queen in front of the audience's eyes.
A spectacle and a blockbuster
The musical was a behemoth in scope and in length, reportedly five and a half hours long! Audiences were wildly entertained though, even if the songs performed seemed to have little to do with the plot (with all the dancing even less so). The dancers were wearing (then-new) silk stockings, and this blatant show of legs (especially in such a large number) was considered tawdry and risque at the time. This alone would have helped guarantee that it would become the hottest ticket in town--a touch of the tawdry nearby Bowery delightfully working its way over to the more upper-end and proper Broadway.
The critics were split on whether The Black Crook had artistic merit. It was clear that the plotting, writing, and quality of songs were not anywhere near the level of high art. No one could deny though that it was something that must be seen. It was simply too big to be ignored.
Some very famous critics had their say about The Black Crook. Mark Twain wrote, "Beautiful bare-legged girls … nothing but a wilderness of girls--stacked up, pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theatre...dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in 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." Taking the opposite side of things, Charles Dickens wrote about it, "[It is] the most preposterous peg to hang ballets on that was ever seen. The people who act in it have not the slightest idea of what it is about."
Despite the harsh words of some critics, The Black Crook was a full-blown blockbuster, the equivalent of its time to one of those Hollywood movie special-effects spectaculars whose only merit is its razzle-dazzle. The initial run of The Black Crook ran for a whopping 474 performances and it was so successful that it was reported that it made more money at the box office than all the other shows in New York at the time combined. It then continued to wow audiences around the country over the following decades in its touring versions of the show.
A star is born
Marie Bonfanti, the prima ballerina assoluta of The Black Crook, became a phenomenon from the production. She was featured in various touring productions of the show as well as its sequel, The White Fawn. Her fame from her association with The Black Crook was of a such that it allowed her to open her own dance school in New York after her retirement.
The Black Crook's place in history
While there is a great deal of debate as to whether The Black Crook should genuinely be considered the first Broadway musical as we know it, it was such a resounding success and changed the game so much that history has chosen to pretty much deem it so. Not long after the success of The Black Crook, the marriage of song and dance on Broadway became the norm and now (all these years later) it is extremely difficult to imagine a show without having both. If you went to a musical on Broadway these days and there wasn't any dancing, you would likely feel like you were cheated out of your money.
Nurturing your own dance dreams of Broadway
Whether you want to dive in deep into dance to try making your way to the stages of Broadway or if you just want to learn some of the moves that you have seen some of the dancers do in your favorite Broadway productions, there is a dance class available to you in Rotterdam that you can find through Artship. Perhaps you might be the next great ballerina to follow in the footsteps of Marie Bonfanti or perhaps you might just be happy to settle for learning how to properly pirouette. Whatever your motivation, we hope you have enjoyed this little bit of history and that it has helped further spark your passion for dance. We leave you with this very charming little video clip of none other than Leonard Bernstein telling a bit more of the history of The Black Crook, including a performance of a song from the musical entitled "You Naughty, Naughty Men".
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