Songwriters, Suffragettes, and the Musical Stage

 

Portrait of Ben West. Photo credit: Kris Rogers.

The following is a guest post from Ben West, a writer, director, producer, performer, and musical theatre historian. His current stage project is The Show Time! Trilogy, three new documentary musicals charting the evolution and cultural impact of the American musical: Show Time! The First 100 Years of the American Musical, 45 Minutes from Coontown, and 68 Ways to Go. His directing credits include Unsung Carolyn Leigh for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook. West recently curated the exhibit Sex, Satire, and Song: Inside the Broadway Revue for Yale University’s Irving S. Gilmore Music Library. He has worked in various capacities on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regionally. He is the founder of UnsungMusicalsCo. and a 2017 recipient of Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award.

Ben will be presenting “Diversity and the Birth of Broadway: Early Female Authors of the American Musical” on October 23, 2019 at 7pm in the Madison Building’s Montpelier Room. Register online here!

 

 

With a diverse body of work that includes such distinguished 21st-century stage shows as Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), Caroline, or Change (2004), and Fun Home (2015), Jeanine Tesori is widely considered the most successful female composer in the history of the American musical. And though she is also (understandably) considered one of the few female composers in the history of the American musical, often overlooked are the dozen or so melodists whose material animated the musical stage in the first two decades of the 20th century. Together with the dozen or so additional female lyricists and librettists also active in the early-1900s, these intrepid individuals collectively, quietly opened doors for future generations; doors that would, shortly thereafter, shut. Such is the tumultuous tale of the female figures in the history of the American musical: so many in number, so many unnamed.

Since its beginnings, this uniquely American art form – fertilized with global influences – has captured the social, political, and cultural consciousness of the country, its roots reaching back to the circuses, dime museums, and minstrel shows of the 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, the musical theatre in America had embarked on a swift and steady rise. So, too, had the nation’s first organized women’s rights movement, which itself began to take shape in the 1800s.

Photograph of Librettist, lyricist, composer, and playwright Clare Kummer. Call number LC-B2- 1122-7, Prints & Photographs Division.

In its coverage of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the Seneca Fall Courier reported, “This convention was novel in its character. The doctrines broached in it are startling to those who are wedded to the present usages and laws of society. The resolutions are of the kind called radical.” The radical resolutions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott’s landmark conference would color the remainder of the century and culminate with the women’s right to vote being ratified in 1920. They would also provide a backdrop for – and, in part, propel – the two dozen or so early female authors of the American musical.

One of the earliest and most prominent was Clare Kummer. Though she is perhaps best-known as the author of such acclaimed plays as Good Gracious Annabelle and A Successful Calamity, Kummer – the grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe – rose to prominence as a songwriter during the suffrage era, penning lyrics and music for such hit Broadway interpolations as “Egypt,” employed in the 1903 musical The Girl from Kay’s, and “Dearie,” dispatched to the London import Sergeant Brue in 1905.

That same year, the rising star reportedly signed a three-year, three-show deal with producer Henry W. Savage. The pair’s first planned production, Noah’s Ark, was indeed written, copyrighted, and announced in 1905, but it would be two more years before the self-described “dramatic event in history, and its result, set to music” set sail under the auspices of Maurice J. Lehmayer, its first stop being the Academy of Music in Baltimore. “It is a piece thoroughly original and amusing,” the Baltimore Sun reported in April 1907. “Five weeks hence, Noah’s Ark will reach New York City. By that time, it will come near being the best of the spring offerings in musical comedy.”

“Everybody Rag with Me” by Gus Kahn and Grace Le Boy. Call number M1622.L.

This 1905 (or, 1907) curiosity appears to have been the first full-length American musical written entirely by a woman (or, women). It must be noted, however, that early American musicals often endured endless interpolations, typically in the service of a star or specialty act. (Kummer herself had authored such aural interjections.) And, indeed, Noah’s Ark fell victim to this popular practice, with at least two items being interpolated into the score for its headliner, Harry Bulger. Nonetheless, as written, Clare Kummer remains the sole author of the musical that is Noah’s Ark.

Incidentally, this 1905 (or, 1907) curiosity would also likely have become the first full-length Broadway musical written entirely by a woman (or, women), but Noah’s Ark never reached New York. Following its promising Baltimore premiere, subsequent stops in Washington, DC and Philadelphia, and an eleventh-hour tune-up from outside director Julian Mitchell, Noah’s Ark dropped off the map. Despite its unfortunate disappearance, its author nonetheless went on to a fruitful four-decade career, arguably the longest of any of the American musical’s early female pioneers.

Composer Grace Le Boy, for example, scored her first success in 1907 with “I Wish I Had a Girl,” which was followed by a short-lived musical comedy, a smattering of vaudeville items, and another sizeable song hit in “Everybody Rag with Me,” interpolated by Al Jolson into the tour of his Broadway extravaganza Dancing Around in 1915. By 1918, though, the burgeoning composer had effectively retired, choosing instead to raise her family and support the flourishing career of her husband and lyricist Gus Kahn.

“The Dream Girl” by Rida Johnson Young and Victor Herbert. Call number M1508.

Elsewhere, Muriel Pollock got her start as a teenager in Long Island scoring Madame Pom Pon (1914); Elsa Maxwell, the future party giver, gave voice to Melinda and Her Sisters (1916); Anne Caldwell co-authored The Fred Stone Musicals (1912-1928); Rida Johnson Young penned the landmark operettas Naughty Marietta (1910) and Maytime (1917); and three so-called “society women” – Anna Wynne O’Ryan, Helen S. Woodruff, and Madelyn Sheppard – scripted the prophetically titled Just Because (1922), which may well have been the first full-length Broadway musical authored entirely by women. Catherine Cushing and the infamous Duncan Sisters would bring to Broadway a more legitimately recognized female-authored entry two years later with Topsy and Eva (1924).

Indeed, these and many other women lined the American musical’s suffrage-era landscape, though their voices began to disappear – or get crowded out in a cyclone of sexism – by the 1930s. (Their vital and invaluable contributions are more fully addressed in my forthcoming documentary musical 68 Ways to Go, which is a celebration and history of female musical theatre writers throughout the 20th century.) Still, this singular moment for American women forever changed the dynamics of the musical stage, shaping the foundation of an American art form.

As author Anna Steese Richardson remarked in 1917, “The lady playwright is coming into her own. Today, [she] comes nearer presenting life as most of us live it, because she knows life. Her mind is individual, not a mere reflection of the books she reads and the man to whom she happens to be married.”

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