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Ch. 04: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Early 20th Century: Revues in America

Appearing in the final years of the 19th century was a musical stage form that would heavily influence theatre, film, radio, and television throughout the 20th century. Similar to burlesque and vaudeville, the revue was borrowed from the French form of the same name, but was shaped to become uniquely American.

Like burlesque, vaudeville and the minstrel shows, the revue contained a series of musical numbers, comedic sketches, and specialty routines. The difference between revue and the other forms lay in the unifying element of the revue. It could be unified on an idea or theme (a revue on love or union solidarity), it could be unified around an organization (a hospital auxiliary fundraising revue), or an individual (such as a Cole Porter revue or one of the many Ziegfeld Follies revues). The interrelation of purpose and theme connects what would have been a series of independent acts in vaudeville or burlesque. The careful planning and design of the show led to a more cohesive unit, similar to later “book” musicals. The revue also differed from vaudeville in that the same group of performers appeared throughout the show. In vaudeville once their act was finished, the performers wouldn’t reappear onstage until the next performance.

Influenced by other dominant musical theatre forms of the day, revues at first were large, impressive visual feasts. Before the 1930s most revues fit the “spectacular” mode, complete with elaborate scenery, lavish costumes and technical wizardry similar to the extravaganza or spectacular shows of the late 19th century. After the 1930s a second, more intimate style of revue was being crafted. Less dependent on the sumptuous accoutrements and more on the charismatic personalities and moments, the intimate revue featured a smaller cast, but was built around intellect, wit and charm.

George White’s Scandals found their way to Hollywood in movies like this one in 1934

The first truly American revue was The Passing Show, launched in 1894 by George Lederer. Over the next decade various theatres and producers explored variations without any significant success. However, the first great spectacular revue was the Ziegfeld Follies of 1907, where Florenz Ziegfeld brought beautiful sets, costumes, girls and music together. So successful was the Follies that Ziegfeld began a series of annual Ziegfeld Follies of … which ran from 1907 until 1931. Other spectacular revues were staged during the ‘10s and ‘20s such as the George White Scandals, which had twelve different from 1919 to 1939. Like the Follies, the Scandals revues featured a beautiful and elaborately costumed girls chorus. The sight of the luxuriously dressed dancers moving in synchronization on the stage was eventually brought to Hollywood, where elements of the Follies and Scandals were filmed for wider distribution in the 1940s.

Bert Williams, a well-known African-American comedian and singer from vaudeville and burlesque, broke the color barrier by being the first African-American to be signed to feature in a Broadway revue show in 1910.

While the spectacular revue dominated for the first two decades of the century, beginning in the late 1920s a more intimate, personality related type of revue was gaining popularity. The “Golden Age” of revues from 1929 to the late 1940s and included The Little Show (1929), Three’s a Crowd (1930), Life Begins at 8:40(1934) and Pins and Needles (1937). What the intimate revue lacked in opulence and magnificence it made up for with charm, energy, passion, and an off-handed, almost casual tone.

1927 Follies; Featured Act: Ruth Etting with chorus girls

While songwriters like Irving Berlin, Victor Herbert, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern were writing songs for the large spectacular revues in the ‘20s, the intimate revues of the ‘30s were built around the musical talents of composers like Noel Coward and Richard Rodgers.

Just as movies brought an end to vaudeville in the late 1920s, television contributed to the end of revues in the late 1940s by creating variety shows that emulated the revue shows of the ‘20s and ‘30s. When vaudeville became popular many burlesque stars were hired to headline the variety playbill, but movies hired many to leave the theatre for Hollywood. When television became the new medium for entertainment in America many of the earliest stars had gained their first professional gigs in revue shows. Television pioneers like Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar went from intimate revue with songs and sketches to the innovative Your Show of Shows a ground-breaking television show comprised of sketches and songs.

From the early ‘40s until the late ‘60s revues were rarely produced in major theatres but found venues in small, off-off-Broadway theatres disguised as cabaret shows.

A renaissance of revues began in the early ‘70s when composer-centered revue shows made a comeback on Broadway. Shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1977 revue of Fats Waller’s music), Sophisticated Ladies (1981 – music of Duke Ellington), and Smokey Joe’s Café (1995 – music of Lieber and Stoller) not only caught the public’s attention but played to hundreds of sold-out houses and won several Tony awards (American Musical Theatre’s counterpart to the movie industry’s Oscar). Also called compilation or catalog shows, the contemporary revue format is still being explored with the works of Billy Joel (Movin’ Out), Green Day (American Idiot) and The Million Dollar Quartet, a revue based on the historic meeting one afternoon when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis got together at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

One of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues: “As Thousands Cheer” (1934)

The importance of the two types of revues presented at the beginning of the 20th century was that they prepared American musical theatre to move into the modern era. While the extravaganzas and spectaculars of the 1880s were gargantuan in size and overwhelming in numbers, the spectacular revues of Ziegfeld and George White emphasized beauty and elegance over quantity. The humor and songs of burlesque and vaudeville relied on broad humor, slapstick physicality, low-brow sight gags and buffoonish costumes. The intimate revues of the ‘30s were witty, intelligent, and subtle; using character and situation driven comedy with scenarios and clothing more accessible to the average theatre-goer. As musical theatre began to explore the book-musical format, the music composed for the revue shows set a higher standard for creative teams of composers, lyricists, producers and performers. Prepared by the intimate revues of the ‘30s, audiences were accustomed to songs and lyrics with more subtlety, more intimacy, more reflection and inner revelation.

The loosely connected, intelligent, witty revue show still exists, not only on Broadway and in smaller regional and local community theatres, but especially on television, where shows like Saturday Night Live have continued the tradition of the witty, charming and sometimes irreverent.


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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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