Just a year after the end of the Civil War, the genesis of the American Broadway musical may have been established when an odd production called The Black Crook opened on this very day in theatre history–September 12–in 1866. The production was created almost by accident when a troupe of Parisian ballerinas were left stranded in New York City after their venue, the New York Academic of Music, burned down. William Wheatley, the manager at the famed Niblo’s Garden on Broadway, offered the women a chance to perform as scantily clad background choristers and singing dancers for a new melodrama by Charles M. Barras that was about to go into rehearsal. They immediately agreed (probably out of financial desperation) and Wheatley’s musical extravaganza opened on September 12, running for an astounding 474 performances–a new record. Even more astounding is that it managed to break the record with a performance that was over five and half hours long. That’s some evening in the theatre. Nonetheless, it was the biggest hit New York had ever seen. The trouble is, of course, scholars are divided as to whether this really constitutes the origins of the musical. Some argue that the work lacks any of the key attributes we now consider to be essential for musical theatre. But such observations, I think, are a bit rigid and anachronistic.
The important point is, The Black Crook was a singular form of theatre arriving at just the right time–combining acting, singing, dancing and story all in one performance–with many performers contributing in all four areas. And its success would soon lead to imitators, which would eventually lead to musicals and musical comedies. Of course, the play may have also inspired burlesque, “girlie shows,” and striptease. In truth, the production was a highly popular, widely imitated, and much revived work that found a very profitable niche in the commercial theatre–one that clearly had direct connections to the modern musical. Would the American musical have evolved without The Black Crook? Perhaps. But The Black Crook does exist and, hence, we have a viable source for the origin of a type of theatre that we now identify as a distinctly American form. And it came about as the result of a fire, a stranded crew of dancers, and an imaginative impresario with a knack for knowing what a mid-nineteenth century audience might like to see after four devastating years of civil war.