Broadway before Ragtime—Operettas and Variety Shows

Photo of Operetta Composer, Sir Arthur Sulllivan

Sir Arthur Sullivan Composer of H.M.S. Pinafore

Starting in 1867 and lasting well into the turn of the century, there were numerous European operettas to hit our shores, led by Franz Lehar, Jacques Offenbach, Franz von Suppe, Johann Strauss II and, most of all, by the great team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.  Their first show, HMS Pinafore, arriving in Boston in November 1878, was wildly popular.  As they used to say, nothing succeeds like success.  At one time, there were ninety different companies performing Pinafore; five companies in New York alone.

As a note to the reader:  There were and are different names associated with these shows:  comic operas, operas bouffes and operettas.  Because comic operas and operas bouffes have different meanings in Europe and the United States, we will use the term “operetta” to refer to these types of shows.

We can be grateful to the Europeans that the importation of so many of their operettas led Broadway producers to search for American composers who could rival their European counterparts.

Two of the earliest American operettas were heavily influenced by The Mikado:  Willard Spencer’s The Little Tycoon (1886.15) and Reginald de Koven’s The Begum (1887.47).  These two shows opened the floodgates; the era of American operetta had dawned.  One of de Koven’s best was Robin Hood (1891.29), which is still performed because of the gorgeous “O, Promise Me” in the score.  

Victor Herbert, Father of American Musical

Victor Herbert

In 1894 the public flocked to the operettas of Victor Herbert, starting with Prince Ananais (1894.45). Called the first great composer for the American stage, Herbert went on to write forty-six operettas and two operas.  He was joined by other composers, including Gustav Luders, Ludwig Englander, Gustav Kerker, Karl Hoschna, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg.  

While the number of American operettas started to diminish by 1920, Romberg’s New Moon (1928.29) was the only Broadway show in 1928 to run over 500 performances.  It accomplished this feat in spite of a book that, at best, can be called confusing.  Even when saddled with artificial librettos, the major scores of Herbert, Friml and Romberg are worthy of preservation, because of their lasting musical value.

Vaudeville came to New York when Tony Pastor opened the Tony Pastor Music Hall on East 14th Street in October 1881.  Pastor described his Music Hall as the “first specialty vaudeville theater in America….”  Among others, Lillian Russell made her vaudeville debut there in November 1881.

These shows took on various names, such as revues, gaieties, follies, scandals and vanities; these shows consisted of bits of dialogue, lots of beautiful women and sumptuous sets and costumes.  The music would vary from the very best popular songs to humorous parodies. Vaudeville veterans, such as Joseph Weber and Lew Fields, sensed that they could preserve their place on Broadway best by controlling the theater and the production rights.  They were not alone; whether they had been performers or not, men like Raymond Hitchcock, Earl Carroll, Florenz Ziegfeld, Thomas Lederer and George White produced similar shows. Quite often, half of the shows on Broadway might be one form or another of these variety entertainments.

Weber and Fields may have been pioneers, but Lederer followed with his own musical revue with The Passing Show (1894) (1894.21), a form that was copied by Ziegfeld, J.J. Shubert, White, and Irving Berlin.  This form of entertainment continued to impress audiences until its demise in the late 1940’s.