I'm finally starting to get theater-related swag. (It's about bloody time.) I've gotten a few free tickets out of this blogging gig, but only this week did I score my first free piece of merchandise: a new book from Turner Publishing called Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater 1850 - 1970. (I strongly encourage more of the same: I can be had for the price of a CD, a book, a ticket, or even the chance to interview someone cool and influential. Ply me to the moon.)
Despite the dreadfully dull title, the new book is actually quite fascinating, representing a comprehensive visual account of some of the most important people, shows, and theaters in Broadway history. The book has text and captions by Back Stage editor Leonard Jacobs, and incorporates images from the theater collection and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
One of the book's many charms lies in affording us the chance to stare in wistful wonder at the exteriors and interiors of some charming old theaters that no longer exist, such as the gorgeous Casino Theater (torn down to accommodate a growing garment district) and the lovely Morosco (razed to make room for the hideous Marriott Marquis and the characterless Marquis Theater).
What makes the book compelling, at least to me, is that, rather than focusing on the well known stars and shows of recent memory, Jacobs chooses to skew his coverage toward older and lesser known people, places, and productions. I was especially pleased to see photos from obscure but significant shows that I cover in my Boston Conservatory course, including:
The Black Crook: (1866) What many historians consider to be the first American musical, actually just the first long-running, home-grown hit. A loosely plotted spectacle peppered with irrelevant songs as well as dances from a homeless troupe of French ballet dancers. The theater that the dancers were supposed to have performed in burned down, and the producer of The Black Crook simply added them to the mix, with no connection whatsoever to the show's Faustian plot.
Babes in Toyland: (1903) The first significant show with a score by one person, rather than a collection of previously existing popular songs. Composer Victor Herbert also made the first significant use of underscoring and connecting music.
Very Good Eddie: (1915) The first of the influential, but now largely forgotten, "Princess" musicals, so named because most of the shows played the Princess Theater (demolished in 1955). The production team of Jerome Kern (music), Guy Bolton (book) and P.G. Wodehouse (lyrics) came together to create a new type a musical, one that would attempt to integrate all the elements into a cohesive whole. The "Princess" shows (which also include Oh, Lady! Lady!, Oh, Boy!, and Sitting Pretty) were fluffy, fun, and economical, and greatly influenced such future greats as Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin.
Shuffle Along: (1921) The first successful Broadway musical produced, written, and performed by African Americans. The show broke color barriers on both sides of the footlights: it was also the first time blacks were allowed to sit in the orchestra. It was a separate section of the orchestra, but it represented the beginning of the end of segregation in the theater. The show itself was offensive by modern standards: the actors performed in blackface, and the song titles included "If You Haven't Been Vamped by a Brownskin, You Haven't Been Vamped at All" and "Uncle Tom and Old Black Joe."
Of course, the Jacobs book also features photos of such iconic musical performers as Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, and of such seminal musical works as Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, and Fiddler on the Roof. (There are lots of photos from non-musicals, too, but we don't really care about those, do we, dear reader?) Plus, it's a great book for people like me: adults with ADD who don't always like to read things cover to cover, but rather just skim and skip around to our hearts' content. As the title suggests, the book comprises photos with captions, albeit in chronological order, but that doesn't mean you have to read the book that way.
The book has a $39.95 cover price, but you can get it on Amazon for about $29, and I'm sure for even less if you poke around a bit. It's worth poking around for.