Creating the First Broadway Musical, By Accident

Inside the Theater

Image of Reynolds Hall stage with curtain drawn

 

The words Broadway and musical have nearly become synonymous since the mid-19th century.

Broadway productions now set the highest standard for musical theater, with many performers aspiring to take part as a lifelong ambition.

This grand tradition launched with one paradigm-shifting show — the first Broadway musical.

And it happened by accident.

While Southern Nevadans can’t experience dazzling and powerful Broadway productions during The Smith Center’s temporary closure, they can read about this fascinating show below.

 

Two Shows and One Burning Problem

In 1866, two productions of highly different natures were scheduled to run in New York City around the same time.

One was a performance by a European ballet troupe, featuring scandalously revealing costumes.

The other was a dramatic thriller at the Niblo’s Garden theater on Broadway. “The Black Crook” chronicled a conflicted man’s dealings with a sorcerer.

A quandary arose when the venue for the ballet, the Academy of Music, burned down — leaving the producers with ballet dancers to pay, but nowhere for them to perform.

To salvage their investment, the ballet producers came to Niblo’s Garden with an idea: combine the shows into one.

Keeping the title of “The Black Crook,” they did just that.

Featuring popular music of the time, and a staggering cast of 100, the merged shows made an unlikely marriage.

“’The Black Crook’ was at once a melodrama, a ballet, a vaudeville, and a peep show,” describes Director Joshua William Gelb, who staged a revival of the combined production for its 150-year anniversary.

 

A Smash and a Spectacle

The show became an instant smash.

In spite of the premiere clocking in over five hours long, “The Black Crook” offered a thrilling spectacle of drama, intrigue and elaborate choreography.

“It had something for everyone, and was shameless in its introduction of surprising new elements,” Gelb says.

While most shows at the time were lucky to run for 20 performances, “The Black Crook” ran for nearly 500, according to Playbill magazine. It toured for more than a year.

Now identified by theater historians as the first Broadway book musical, many hail this production as the prototype for the modern musical.

 

Groundbreaking, Despite Doubts

Not all agree.

Gelb falls among a faction who believe this mash-up of productions fails to earn the title of first musical, especially as its hodgepodge of tunes lacked a unified score by one composer.

“I don't think such a delineation (of the first musical) is actually possible,” Gelb says.

But even so, “the cultural and artistic significance of ‘The Black Crook’ is irrefutable,” he concedes.

The show’s extravagant visuals broke all new ground for theater, he explains.

“The 13-minute-long grand transformation scene that capped the original five-and-a-half-hour long production was a milestone in theatrical technology, upending previous notions of what was scenically possible on stage,” he says.

It also became the first production after the Civil War to seize the entire nation’s attention, he adds, to an extent never seen before with an American production.

“(It was) an unprecedented commercial juggernaut that contributed, whether first musical or no, to a popular melting-pot entertainment that blended art both high and low,” he says. “’The Black Crook’ is an origin story for the spectacle that is America.”