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Imagining the U.S. Immigrant Musical Theater

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The following is a guest post from Dr. John Koegel, Professor of Musicology at California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Koegel will be presenting the Fall 2019 American Musicological Society/Library of Congress Lecture, “Recovering the History of the U.S. Immigrant Musical Theater at the Library of Congress” tonight (November 12, 2019) at 7pm in the Montpelier Room. In the coming months, Dr. Koegel’s lecture will be streamed on the Library’s Webcasts page and the Library of Congress YouTube Channel


John Koegel, Professor of Musicology at California State University, Fullerton.

A vast musical theater world beloved of first- and second-generation immigrants existed throughout the United States from about 1840 to the onset of World War II, in a multitude of languages, national traditions, ethnic groups, and performance practices. As an example, imagine impresario-composer-librettist-performer Adolf Philipp’s (1864-1936) hilarious German-American musical comedy Klein Deutschland (Little Germany) of 1897 given at his own Germania Theater on Eighth Street in New York. Philipp set his German-language musical in the streets, houses, and spaces outside his own theater, among the German American community in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that represented his core audience. In Klein Deutschland he gave himself the starring role of Crischan Herzog, a New York City German American window washer who expressed his joys, sorrows, and humor in song. Many of Philipp’s Germania Theater audience members in the 1890s were first-generation German immigrants who could identify with the travails and comic nature of life for the newly arrived immigrant to this country, which Philipp and his company portrayed on stage for them six or seven times a week. Some years later, Philipp’s Americanized German-language musical Two Lots in the Bronx that he presented at his own Adolf Philipp 57th Street Theater in New York in 1913 played to increasingly assimilated Americanized German American audiences. As he had with his earlier works, Philipp again gave himself the leading role in this musical comedy, that of Jimmy Wilson, a reformed counterfeiter, who earlier had been sent “up the river” to prison, but has now turned away from a life of crime to do good works, but with humorous results.

Shakespeare’s plays were performed frequently on the immigrant stage, in many different languages. Music usually accompanied the drama. For example, King Lear was performed frequently as The Jewish King Lear in Yiddish on New York’s Second Avenue—the Yiddish Broadway—in a version adapted by Jewish playwright Jacob Gordin. The Jewish King Lear starred Jacob Adler, one of the greatest performers on the Yiddish stage, and the father of the Adler clan, which included his famous children Luther and Stella. As with many Yiddish adaptations of Shakespeare, Gordin reworked the story in The Jewish King Lear to reflect Jewish sensibilities and audience expectations. King Lear was also performed in German by the distinguished German company at the well-regarded Irving Place Theater in New York City, as König Lear, starring the renowned Jewish actor Rudolf Schildkraut, who appeared alternately in this role on the Yiddish and German stages in New York, acting in both German and Yiddish.

Chinese (Cantonese) opera was the dominant form of Asian theater in the USA, in New York, Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle, and also in Vancouver, Havana, and Mexicali (Baja California). In her very important book on Chinatown opera, in which she traces the development of Chinese opera in North America and the USA from the 1850s through the 1940s, Nancy Rao demonstrates that the heyday of Chinese opera in America was during the 1920s, ironically, at a time of anti-immigrant, especially anti-Chinese, agitation, discrimination, and legislation. This was a common theme in the history of the immigrant theater. As on other immigrant stages, Chinese opera troupes presented works that veered between representations of tradition and modernity. The lavish costumes in Chinese opera productions given at San Francisco’s Great Star Theatre, for example, alternately represented visual aspects of Chinese traditional opera plots and Westernized Chinese settings.

Franz Lehár’s immensely popular Viennese operetta Die lustige Witwe/The Merry Widow of 1905 was given throughout the United States, in many different languages, in both lavish and modest productions, for immigrant audiences. Los Angeles’ leading Spanish-language theater impresario Romualdo Tirado produced and performed in it in the 1920s in Spanish, billed as La viuda alegre, numerous times in Los Angeles’ many Mexican theaters along Main Street. Tirado appeared as a dashing Count Danilo, alternating with his own musical comedies on local Mexican immigrant themes on life in Los Angeles, such as De México a Los Ángeles (From Mexico to Los Angeles). Countless other immigrant-oriented musicals were performed throughout the country during the heyday of the immigrant stage. These few examples demonstrate the large geographic, linguistic, musical, and theatrical diversity that was its hallmark.

Comments (2)

  1. Many thanks for an informative and interesting look back at musical theater. If only we had a time machine!
    Fran Morris Rosman
    The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation
    Los Angeles, CA

  2. The riches of immigrant community theater sometimes spilled over into Hollywood,
    but your blog makes me think that it did not happen often enough. Love Schildkraut’s famous portrayal of the obsequious store employee who often took “deliveries” to boss’ wife in “Shop around the Corner” movie…which manages to give us a mild taste of Central Europe sensibility…

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