(Copyright 1996, Revised 2014)
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When the present-day United States was a collection of thirteen British colonies, the most widespread form of live entertainment was lifting pints of ale at taverns - a comparatively healthy pass time in an era when impure drinking water was a leading cause of disease. The first professional theatres in the colonies appeared in Philadelphia and Charleston. Although New York had been in British hands since 1664, the mostly Dutch populace considered theatre sinful. So professional acting troupes did not visit in Manhattan regularly until the 1730s. Throughout the colonial period, British plays and players dominated America's stages. Musical offerings included -
- pantomimes - one act works which replaced spoken dialogue with wordless clowning and interpolated songs.
- ballad operas - comic plays peppered with popular ballads reset to new satirical lyrics.
The location of the Theatre on Nassau Street as it appeared in 2004, a brick office building dwarfed by skyscraping neighbors.
According to recent scholarship, the first full length musical play performed in America was Flora (or The Hob on the Wall), a ballad opera presented in Charleston in 1735. New York's first-known professional musical production was a five performance run of John Gay's satirical British ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, offered by Walter Murray and Thomas Kean's traveling theatrical troupe at the Nassau Street Theatre on Dec. 3, 1750.
The American Revolution had a crippling effect on theatre. In 1774, the new Continental Congress passed a resolution discouraging theatrical entertainments, and the individual states quickly passed laws forbidding all stage performances. As a result, professional troupes were forced to either disband or leave the country. Most of these anti-theatre laws remained in effect until the early 1780s, while the good people of Massachusetts and Rhode Island did not lift their bans until 1793. However, theatre gradually reappeared, helped in part by the support of such prominent citizens as President George Washington, who made a point of frequently attending performances in both New York and Philadelphia.
At first, the new Republic's stages remained dependent on British plays and comic operas. Homegrown musicals began appearing in the 1790s, but it would be some time before they matched the popularity of imported works. The earliest American musicals were mostly comic operas (satirical operas with original scores and libretti), but sources differ as to which was the first. Some prominent nominees -
- Edwin and Angelina, or The Bandetti was written in 1791, and supposedly received just one performance in December 1796.
- An anti-Federalist comic opera called Tammany, or the Indian Chief premiered in New York City on March 3, 1796; no copies of the libretto have survived.
- The Archers, or The Mountaineers of Switzerland, a comic opera by librettist William Dunlap and composer Benjamin Carr, premiered in New York on April 8th, 1796 at the John Street Theatre. Based on the William Tell legend, its initial three performance run was followed by two nights in Boston. In The American Musical Stage Before 1800 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1962, p. vii), Julian Mates claims that The Archers was the first noteworthy homegrown American musical. While that may be debatable, it is currently the earliest American musical for which a complete score and libretto are known to survive.
Every known American theatre company of the post-Revolutionary era presented a wide range of musical works. For example, in 1796, New York City's prestigious American Company staged 91 performances of 46 different musicals, accounting for nearly half of their repertory. Almost every theatrical performance seen in America in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries offered interpolated musical numbers, or threw in musical "specialties" (song & dance acts) between the two or more featured plays seen in a typical evening. Even performances of Shakespearian tragedies included interpolated popular songs, or at the very least would share the evening with a one-act pantomime or comic opera as a "curtain raiser" or "after piece."
The Park Theatre was New York's first world class entertainment venue. Seen at the center of this period print, it stood just across from City Hall Park from 1798 to 1848.
In the early 1800s, Broadway was New York's main thoroughfare, making it the most desirable location for all businesses, including theatres. The city's expanding population was more diverse than in the past, and exhibited a newfound passion for theatre. Melodramas became increasingly popular, offering forgettable stories enlivened by mood-setting background music, interpolated popular songs and lavish stage effects. There were also musical romances, original works which were more sentimental than comic operas but written in much the same musical style. The term burletta was originally used to describe a comic opera that burlesqued popular topics, but this word was soon applied to almost any dramatic production that included songs.For a comprehensive discussion of early American musical theatre, see Susan L. Porter's With An Air Debonair: Musical Theatre in America 1785-1815. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.