Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow was the most popular musical in Britain during World War I, playing 2,235 performances over almost five years. Much of its success was due to the era’s fascination with the Orient, and it contained accessible music by Frederic Norton that generally only hinted at exoticism.
Chu Chin Chow continued a tradition of Orientalist musical entertainments, perhaps most notably Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The legacy continues in the 21st century, for example in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Bombay dreams.
This according to “Chu Chin Chow and Orientalist musical theatre in Britain during the First World War by William A. Everett, an essay included in Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: Portrayal of the East (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 277–96).
Above, an autographed postcard depicting Asche in the original production; below, the show’s signature song.
The Takarazuka Kagekidan (Takarazuka Revue) is a Japanese all-women musical theater troupe that delivers a wide array of performances, including Broadway musicals, traditional Japanese plays, and flashy Vegas-style revues.
Performers are assigned a stage gender that, with rare exceptions, they stick to and perform as throughout their time with the company. Women who play women on stage are referred to as musumeyaku, while those who portray men are called otokoyaku.
When comparing images of otokoyaku over time there is a palpable shift in appearance, from a look that seeks to portray a convincing male to a more androgynous aesthetic. While the otokoyaku’s shift in appearance from classically male to more androgynous and almost feminine may have been instigated by the male authorities of the Takarazuka Kagekidan, this different way of presenting themselves as male can in fact be seen as liberating and offering new opportunities for expression to the performers.
This according to “Dude looks like a lady: The otokoyaku’s transformation in Japan’s Takarazuka Revue” by Michelle Johnson, an essay included in Dance ACTions: Traditions and transformations (Birmingham: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2013, pp. 193–201).
Below, the opening of one of the musicals in the Rose of Versailles series, which provides the main examples in the article.
Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanization of Georges Bizet’s Carmen—68 years after its premiere—altered its form from the operatic genre to that of musical theater and transformed the place and time to a setting more familiar to a Broadway audience.
Instead of playing in Seville, Carmen Jones takes place in a city of the American South, African Americans become the sociological equivalent of Spanish gypsies, and the cigarette factory becomes the more topical World War II army parachute factory.
The change from bullfighting to boxing, a spectator sport that had become increasingly popular in America since the 1890s, demonstrates how Hammerstein distances the Carmen story from the world of Prosper Mérimée’s novella without diminishing its universal constants of human tragedy.
This according to “Carmen am Broadway: Oscar Hammersteins Carmen Jones” by Manfred Siebald, an essay included in Caecilia, Tosca, Carmen: Brüche und Kontinuitäten im Verhältnis von Musik und Welterleben (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 2006, pp. 225–234).
Today is Hammerstein’s 120th birthday! Above, a portrait by Abbey Altson from 1943, the year of Carmen Jones’s premiere; below, the trailer for Otto Preminger’s 1954 film version.
What is most striking about the nudie musicals that ran in New York in the 1970s—aside from the many naked, jiggling bodies, of course—was just how conventional they were.
Even the raunchiest of the bunch espoused the same basic messages: Human bodies are beautiful! Sex, regardless of with whom, is natural and fun! The seismic cultural shift that is taking place right outside this theater is not threatening or confusing or scary at all!
In marked contrast with XXX theaters, peepshows, and sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat, the sex that nudie musicals featured was simulated—never real—and was almost always packaged in a familiar, age-old format: the musical revue.
This according to “Nudie musicals in 1970s New York City” by Elizabeth L. Wollman (Sound matters 16 June 2014). Wollman’s monograph on this topic is Hard times: The adult musical in 1970s New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Above, cast members from the original Broadway production of Hair; below, the finale of Oh! Calcutta!
While some scholars have suggested that Jerome Kern’s early work has little relevance to his later output, there are many continuities—not only in the way that Kern constructed his songs, but also in the way that he employed music to convey dramatic meaning.
Before becoming a successful writer of full scores for Broadway, Kern spent over a decade working as an interpolator, contributing songs to shows written principally by other composers. In this capacity he learned to write songs to specification for a variety of theatrical genres, including British and American musical comedy, Viennese operetta, and Broadway revue.
Kern thus gained technical fluency in numerous musical styles, and learned how these styles and their diverse associations of genre, gender, race, and social class could be harnessed to convey specific dramatic meanings. Continuities are also evident between his early and later work in his musical grammar: preferred song structures, harmonic and melodic sequences, modulations, and cadences.
This according to Becoming Jerome Kern: The early songs and shows, 1903–1915 by James Kenneth Randall, a dissertation accepted by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 2004.
Today is Kern’s 130th birthday! Above, an early photograph of the composer; below, Ella Fitzgerald’s Jerome Kern songbook.
Several stage and screen productions derived from L. Frank Baum’s The wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) preceded the renowned 1939 film The wizard of Oz.
A number of Oz musicals were staged between 1902 and 1918, beginning with Baum’s own The Wizard of Oz (1902; the full book and lyrics are here). A wide variety of silent Oz films followed between 1908 and 1925. While these are largely forgotten now, they figured in discussions when MGM began work on what was to become their classic Judy Garland vehicle.
This according to Oz before the rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s The wonderful wizard of Oz on stage and screen to 1939 by Mark E. Swartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Above, a poster for the 1902 production; below, the earliest known film of the story, which is thought to have been based on that stage version.
From the 1950s to the 1980s U.S. corporations commissioned a vast array of lavish, Broadway-style musical shows that were only for the eyes and ears of employees.
These improbable productions were meant to educate and motivate the sales force to sell cars, appliances, tractors, soda, and a thousand other products.
Though most of these shows were lost to the universe, some were recorded and distributed to convention attendees via souvenir vinyl records.
This according to Everything’s coming up profits: The golden age of the industrial musical by Steve Young and Sport Murphy (New York: Blast, 2013). Above, the cover of the souvenir album from American Standard’s 1969 musical The bathrooms are coming! (click to enlarge). Below, the music video from General Electric’s 1973 show Got to investigate silicones.
You can listen to more songs from industrial musicals here.
The earliest known secular stage play with music, Adam de la Halle’s Le jeu de Robin et de Marion, has been touted as the first musical comedy.
Of the two extant sources, the Paris version is by far the rowdier one—three characters that do not appear in the Aix version engage in mooning the audience, playing with sheep dung, and speaking in unimaginable metaphors worthy of Hungarians.
Common to both versions, Robin, Marion, and the seducing knight are more stock characters, but their lines are pithy and suggestive—e.g., from the scene depicted above:
Knight: You surely won’t put up a fight—you’re just a peasant, I’m a knight!
Marion: Money can’t buy love, you know.
Knight: It can buy something like it, though.
This according to “The hows and whys of Adam de la Halle’s Robin & Marion” by Lucy E. Cross (Early music America XVII/1 [Spring 2011] pp. 38–42). Below, a complete family-friendly performance of the work.
Theaterencyclopedie, a free online resource published in 2012 by the Theater Instituut Nederland, includes a complete database of all theatrical performances in the Netherlands since 1900, along with hundreds of biographies of singers, actors, and directors.
Audio and video clips are also included. Musical productions—opera, cabaret, and musical theater—are well represented.