Forms of Variety Theater

Variety/Vaudeville | Minstrel Show | Burlesque | Extravaganza | Spectacles | Musical Forms | a. Musical Revue | b. Musical Comedy

1. Variety/Vaudeville:
What eventually became known as vaudeville had its origins in minstrel shows, concert-saloons, and beer gardens. Unlike the minstrel show, which appealed to broad audiences of both sexes, early variety or vaudeville was designed for men only. The name "vaudeville" largely replaced variety by the 1890s, but the word "variety" continued to be used as a synonym throughout the period covered by this collection. Both terms referred to a program constructed from separate acts of several different types.

The English have continued to use the term "variety" for the same theatrical experience and have rarely employed "vaudeville." The term "music hall" has been customarily used for a British form of variety with strong emphasis on songs sung by individual performers. "Music hall" is also found in the United States, but here it is simply another name for variety. To foster a respectable image, many buildings that housed vaudeville shows were named music halls rather than theaters. This continues a tradition of naming legitimate theaters "academies" or "museums with lecture halls." In this way, the long-standing puritanical aversion to theater held by some in this country was assuaged.

"Vaudeville" is an American term that dates from the 1840s. Its origin is generally traced to a French form of nineteenth-century pastoral play that included a musical interlude. The term rarely appeared until the 1890s when it was used, like "variety," to describe brief, varied acts without a narrative plot, scenario, book, or connecting theme. Nevertheless, these vaudeville acts were carefully structured according to tried-and-true formulas that helped provide rhythm, pace, and a kind of subliminal unity. This recipe proved remarkably successful until the rise of movies as a dominant form of popular entertainment in the early 1930s.

A typical vaudeville show offered the audience a little bit of everything in eight to fourteen acts or "turns." The average show had about ten turns and included magic segments, musical numbers (especially solo and duet vocals), dance numbers, combination song-and-dance acts, acrobatics, juggling, comic routines (monologists were popular), animal acts, celebrity cameos, and appearances by criminals, pugilists, and others in the news.

Various theater circuits were controlled by vaudeville entrepreneurs. One of the most famous was the Keith Circuit, managed by B.F. Keith and Edward Albee. Variety theater had two major levels: Big-Time and Small-Time. The former comprised the major theaters in the larger urban areas and they offered twice-a-day straight vaudeville without films (although sometimes a film might take the place of single turn in a bill). Big-Time came to mean "big league" or the upper echelon of show business. The pinnacle of Big-Time was the Palace in New York. Small-Time, in contrast, usually meant theaters, usually in small cities and towns, that played bills three or more times a day (often in what was known as "continuous" vaudeville). During the later years of vaudeville, some of these venues varied live acts with films. Performers in Small-Time were poorly paid. They were considered "small-time" acts or performers.

Materials selected for this collection illustrate that vaudeville was designed to appeal to a broad audience. Its acts, especially those with verbal content, draw upon themes relevant to everyday life: immigration, ethnicity, gender roles, urban life, industrialization, temperance, women's suffrage, technology (especially the automobile and the telephone), and social problems (such as alcoholism). But the major aim of a vaudeville scriptwriter was not to be a sociologist or cultural historian--rather, he or she wanted to entertain the audience in as many ways as possible. If one turn in a variety show failed to amuse, fascinate, or amaze, then surely the one that followed would do so. Indeed, the knowledge that each short act was just one offering in a smorgasbord of material explains much of vaudeville's appeal. Because a bad act might be followed by a stunningly good one, one's sense of anticipation tended to remain high.

In 1923, writing for "Variety", vaudeville impresario Edward Albee gave his view of vaudeville's popularity: "In vaudeville, there is always something for everybody, just as in every state and city, in every county and town in our democratic country, there is opportunity for everybody, a chance for all." Vaudeville retained some popularity until 1932, when New York's Palace Theater replaced live acts with films.

2. Minstrel Show:

Far less well represented in this collection than vaudeville, the minstrel show was the most popular form of public amusement in the United States from the 1840s through the 1870s. It virtually ended, in its original form, by 1896, although vestiges lasted well into the twentieth century. Much humor in later comedy forms originated in minstrelsy and adapted itself to new topics and circumstances. The minstrel show also provided American burlesque and other variety forms with a prototypical three-part format. The minstrel show began with a "walk around" with a verbal exchange between the "end" men and the interlocutor. An "olio," or variety section, followed. Finally, a one-act skit completed the show.

For much of its history, the minstrel show was presented by white performers in blackface. This tradition of caricaturing blacks helped perpetuate various widely-held stereotypes about African Americans. Blackface was also used by white performers to express opinions, desires, and attitudes that called into question existing systems of authority and social order. This satirical use of blackface has antecedents in the folk and ritual practices of medieval and renaissance Europe. Such a disguise has long allowed the performer of European-derived dramatic forms a certain socially-sanctioned freedom to say things that would normally be considered off limits.

After the Civil War, all-black performing troupes made a significant contribution to the minstrel show, but they had little success in realistically depicting African-American life. When playing to white, segregated audiences, all-black minstrel troupes satisfied audiences' biased expectations by using recognized stereotypes. At the same time, they tried to invest those stereotypes with new or enriched meanings.

Some spin-offs of the all-black minstrel shows were black vaudeville, tent, and medicine shows that reached black audiences throughout America, especially those in the rural and urban South. It was on these shows that performers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters first developed a popular following. Unfortunately, this collection does not include much material from all-black troupes, although there are scripts for the comedian Bert Williams and Black Patti's Troubadours; no additional materials were found among the Library's source collections examined for this digital collection.

By the turn of the twentieth century, minstrel-show images of the rural "Negro of Plantation Society" were giving way to stereotypes of the high-stepping, high-living black dandy and images associated with African-American urban life. These found expression in a form of variety theater that overlapped with and eventually succeeded minstrelsy: the so-called "coon show." Several skits of this nature are included in the Library's source collections.

In its heyday, the minstrel show was an energetic and popular form of amusement. Despite its use of derogatory stereotypes, its music made use of an African-derived instrument-- the banjo--as well as African-based syncopations and dance patterns. However, in many cases, melodies also drew upon Anglo-Celtic folk materials. The jokes and stock caricatures reworked traditions of considerable antiquity. The result was a hybrid that seemed uniquely American. The coon show, similarly, became a theatrical event in which one could hear rag-time, "coon-shouts" (which attempted to replicate certain black vocal traditions), and, eventually, jazz.

3. Burlesque:
Burlesque refers to a satiric, comic, and spectacular form of American popular entertainment. In its heyday, burlesque bore little resemblance to earlier literary burlesques which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music. The popular burlesque show of the 1870s though the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater. It was inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as "The Black Crook" (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by M.B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with her group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.

Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale. The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the strip tease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s.

4. Extravaganza:
It is difficult to define this form in relation to other genres. Many early shows that were called extravaganzas resembled literary or satiric burlesque. They offered parodies of contemporary legitimate shows, stories, or related materials. Especially popular before the turn of the century, typical extravaganzas were light entertainment in dramatic form and often featured improbable plots and spectacular presentations. Music was generally included.

5. Spectacles:
The term "spectacle," which is also difficult to define, was often incorporated into the descriptive title of another theatrical form. An example of this is the "spectacular extravaganza." Spectacular extravaganzas and spectacles can, essentially, be considered early musicals; they represented forms that had not yet fully developed. Work represented in this collection by the Kiralfy Brothers or the Hanlons fits this category. Spectacles emphasized exotic settings and lavish production values.

6. Musical forms:
a. Musical revue:
Initially, the musical revue was little more than glorified burlesque, but, when fully realized, it was a unique, dazzling, and popular form. It combined skits, songs, dance numbers, comic routines, and an ensemble of scantily-clad young women. Their minimal costuming, such as it was, was elegant. It tended to be coordinated with sumptuous, carefully executed set design.

A thematic coherence and acts created specifically for a particular show made the revue different from other musical entertainments. Usually, variety theater strung together turns (or acts) of material that could be used independently of one another. Different players performed in each of these variety skits. A musical revue, in contrast, used a single cast to perform interconnected skits which incorporated dialogue, sketches (including blackouts), songs, and dance numbers. All these elements were written especially for the revue.

Some revues developed thematic coherence into a true, unifying theme or story-line. After 1915, however, plots, when used at all, seem to become purely incidental. The revue remained popular from 1894 to 1939. The Ziegfeld Follies were probably the most representative revue. Like spectacles, revues were often called by other names, including "extravaganza" and "spectacular musical production."

b. Musical comedy:
This type of popular entertainment is composed of a play or narrative story with interpolated songs and dances. The integration of book or libretto with music and dance anticipates later American "musicals." Like the revue, musical comedy employs the same cast throughout the show. Actors usually play the same, specific characters, although, as in Weber and Fields's musical comedies or Harrigan and Hart shows, characters might be "personae" created by the performers themselves. These personae sometimes reappear in show after show.

The American musical comedy was influenced by the light opera and European operetta popular in the 1890s and 1900s. Like opera and operetta, it tends towards sentimentality and is built around stock characters. After World War I, musical comedy became even lighter than operetta, slighter and more quickly paced, with more dancing. The accent, however, was less on romance than on comedy.

This collection documents modern musical comedy' s formative years. There are examples of early forms that fed into the genre: pantomime, early burlesque, minstrelsy, extravaganza, spectacle, musical review, and operetta. Also included are examples of American musical theater pieces such as "The Black Crook" (1866) and "Evangeline" (1874). Irish plays with music by Harrigan, early American productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, the work of pioneer composers such as Reginald De Koven ("Robin Hood," 1891), and vehicles in the comic opera genre for such stars as Jefferson De Angelis, De Wolf Hopper, Francis Wilson, and others, are also represented. In the earliest forms, specialties unrelated to the story line were permitted. Thus, it anticipated both the revue form and musical comedy. The demand for operetta in the first part of the twentieth century increased as works by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and other composers achieved a greater integration of dramatic ingredients.

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