EARLY FORMS OF AMERICAN MUSICAL PRODUCTIONS

History bequeaths the title of the first American musical production (on what we now call Broadway) to The Black Crook. It was shown at Niblo’s Garden in September 1866.  It can best be called an “extravaganza,” which inspired other extravaganza’s based on its financial success.  When you think of an extravaganza, think of Cirque De Soleil with lots of dancing and singing included.

However, many American producers turned to a number of lower forms of musical entertainment.  One of these was called a “burlesque,” emphasizing travesty, parody and caricature.  These shows became known as “burlesque extravaganzas.”  Evangeline, produced in 1874 (1874.11) is a parody of Longfellow’s famous poem and is the first show to be called a “musical comedy.”  Adonis was produced in 1884 (1884.42) and parodied the theme of Pygmalion and Galatea.  

Harrigan & Hart Mulligan Guard Poster

Poster of Harrigan & Hart in Mulligan Guard

One of the most famous and lasting set of comic plays or local comedies (which might also now be called musical comedies) was the long series of “Mulligan Guard” shows, with books by Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart and music by David Braham.  These productions dominated the New York stage from 1879 until Hart’s death in 1891.  

Concurrently, another form of American musical entertainment was coming into being.  It was called Vaudeville, and was derived from the French term “vau-de-vire.”  It was first identified as a specific form of variety entertainment in February 1871 at Weisiger’s Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, where a troupe headed by H. J. Sargent called itself “Sargent’s Great Vaudeville Company from Chicago.”