Broadway Musicals in the 1920s

February 25, 2016
Daveed Diggs plays plays
What played on Broadway in 1928?

By John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

A Playbill listing from 1928, the climax of Broadway's most production-packed decade.

The 1920s proved to be the busiest decade Broadway would ever know, with as many as fifty new musicals opening in a single season. With employment rates running high and incomes on the increase, record numbers of people forked over up to $3.50 a seat. But it wasn't all mindless fun. With so much demand for entertainment, these years were a time of extraordinary artistic development in the musical theatre.

". . . the 1920s as a whole saw the the form so refine and transform itself that, by the decade's finish, the "Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo" chorus line, the Bubble Dances, the nineteenth-century comedy, and the unmotivated star shot would be virtually extinct, unknown to the better writers and unpopular even with second raters."
- Ethan Mordden, Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), p. 4.

In 1924, ASCAP (co-founded by Herbert, Cohan, Berlin, Kern and others) won a long battle to give American composers creative control over their stage scores. As unauthorized interpolations by other composers became a thing of the past, the musical began to grow in surprising ways. Several historians suggest that a "golden age" of the American musical began in September 1925, when four hits opened within a space of seven days –

  • & Irving Caesar's No, No Nanette (321 performances), became one of the most lasting musical comedy hits of the decade.
  • 's romantic operetta The Vagabond King (511 performances), featured matinee idol as a common thief who squelches a rebellion against the King Louis XI of France.
  • Tea For Twoand 's Sunny (517 performances), starred popular actress (more on this show below).
  • and Lorenz Hart's Dearest Enemy (286 performances), a musical comedy about a romance between a patriotic New York girl and a British officer during the American Revolution.

These shows were written by craftsmen who took operetta and musical comedy seriously, trying to provide quality entertainment while simultaneously making a profit. This approach kept the musical theatre booming. As hundreds of musicals flooded Broadway in the early 1920s, one new female star emerged to dominate the decade.

and Marilyn Miller

Marilyn Miller dances 'en point' in her biggest hit, Sally.

When producer decided to build a hit in the 1920s, he spared no expense, especially when showcasing his favorite star (and sometime mistress) . A so-so singer adept at both ballet and tap, Miller's enchanting dancing persona made her Broadway's top female musical star for that decade.

Her first and longest running success was Sally (1920 - 570 performances), the story of a poor dishwasher who rises to fame as a ballerina . . . in (what else?) the Ziegfeld Follies. Ziegfeld commissioned a score by Jerome Kern (including "Look for the Silver Lining")and threw in a Victor Herbert ballet for good measure. Follies veteran Leon Errol handled the comedy, but the triumph was Miller's. She starred in the show on Broadway for two years, toured for a third and filmed an early sound version for Hollywood in 1929. Surviving prints give a hint of Miller's appeal - her singing and acting seem forced, but when she dances, she is irresistible. She went on to star in two more 1920s Broadway hits –

REPLAY "CATS" the musical - Broadway in Chicago
REPLAY "CATS" the musical - Broadway in Chicago
1920s footage of Broadway and Theatres in New York City
1920s footage of Broadway and Theatres in New York City
In The Heights - The Broadway Musical
In The Heights - The Broadway Musical
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