The humorist and playwright Jean Kerr, co-author of the Fifties flop musical Goldilocks, once compared serving as the book writer for a musical to being the anesthetist at an operation. “OK, you’re necessary,”she conceded, “but who cares?” Aspiring playwrights who think she was kidding should visit the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street, where, until October 7, they can contemplate the unhappy life of one Charles M. Barras, known to history only because he provided — apparently with reluctance — the book for The Black Crook (1866), a demented spectacle that has gone into the record books as America’s first musical.
Nobody knows much about Barras. He seems to have written other plays, but probably no one beyond a few American-theater historians has ever read them. The script of The Black Crook itself, a gloppy stew of demon-summoning wizards, conniving aristocrats, and German-dialect buffoons all scheming to separate two poor-but-honest young lovers, is tough enough for any sane theater lover to stomach. Its mash-up of gothic melodrama, bel canto opera, and fairytale transformations suggests that Barras was either writing an intentional spoof or recklessly stealing any piece of unclaimed literary property he could get his ink-stained hands on.
Only by pure accident did his work make its mark on history. The story is familiar; it even served as the excuse for a 1954 Broadway musical, Sigmund Romberg’s The Girl in Pink Tights. Two New York theatrical managers, Henry C.
Jarrett and Harry Palmer, had imported at great expense a Parisian ballet troupe and booked them to appear at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. The ballerinas arrived just in time to see the Academy burn down, as theaters often did in those pre-fireproofing days. Desperate, the producers offered their troupe to William Wheatley, who managed the vast, 3,200-seat Niblo’s Garden Theatre, less fashionably located at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.
Wheatley was about to produce Barras’s melodrama, in which he had little faith. The idea of adding a ballet troupe
to the spectacular scenery and effects he was already shoveling onto it struck him as practical. Songs were stuck into the script at arbitrary points so the audience that had come for the dancing wouldn’t get restive during the wordy
dialogue. Barras, like many musical-book writers since, had no say in the matter. Wheatley’s prognostications
famously proved accurate.
Coherent drama — not that Barras’s text offers much of it — was not what audiences desired: The Civil War was over, and New York was ready to party. The absurd mishmash that Wheatley poured onto the stage, its demons, schemers, and buffoons augmented by sentimental parlor ballads and parades of pretty girls in flesh-colored tights, ran for an unprecedented 474 performances. Even its five-hours-plus running time didn’t put ticket buyers off. It then toured extensively and had regular New York revivals well into the 1890s. (Agnes de Mille made her theatrical debut choreographing and dancing in a 1929 Hoboken revival.)
Most of that backstory can be gleaned from the elaborately collaged performance event that Joshua William Gelb has staged at the Abrons Center, misleadingly under the original work’s title. Gelb does use some fairly large chunks of the original text of The Black Crook, and several of its associated songs. He intersperses these, however, with scenes that show the hapless author, Barras (Steven Rattazzi), enduring the devastation of his script at the cynical hands of Wheatley (Merlin Whitehawk) and Jarrett (Lizzie Hagstedt), while his ailing actress wife (Alaina Ferris) slowly dies at home. Though a lot of secondary material in these scenes suggests that Gelb and his crew have done thorough research, it’s impossible to tell how much of this framework is factual and how much is merely Hollywood-style snideness about the fate of idealistic authors in the money-grubbing game of musical theater. The situation isn’t improved by Gelb’s annoying trick of repeating key scenes over and over, while cutting them off before they reach their resolution.
Inevitably, most of Gelb’s actors also shriek and over-ham the excerpts from the actual Black Crook text. Most theater-makers and theatergoers today, unfortunately, believe that melodrama equals constant exaggeration. One can’t say that the Crook‘s rather soggy text deserves better. Still, the overwrought speechifying can grip the audience, even when shouted consistently at fever pitch, as it is here. Something similar happened two years ago, when Branden Jacobs-Jenkins pasted segments of Dion Boucicault’s considerably classier melodrama, The Octoroon, into his freewheeling modern adaptation. When trusted, the genre carries a stylistic truth. (Bernard Shaw called melodrama “the embodiment of our romantic imaginings.”)
Against these major defects, one must put Gelb’s virtues. The matrix he’s constructed does tell, however chaotically, the story of how The Black Crook came about (whatever the truth of the stuff about Barras). His framework deploys his eight-person cast in witty doubling: Rattazzi plays both Barras and the Crook‘s young lover, Rodolphe. Ferris shuttles among Barras’s invalid wife, the Crook‘s put-upon heroine, Amina, and the beneficent spirit Stalacta, who rules an underground “golden realm.” Barras’s producers, naturally, double as Rodolphe’s nemeses, the misanthropic wizard Hertzog (the titular “black crook”) and the conniving Count Wolfenstein. And while the singing, like the acting, is mostly shouted, the cast handles a batch of musical instruments effectively, with Ferris — who also serves as musical director and, with Justin Levine, created the arrangements — equally at ease with harp, piano, vocalizing, and acting.
In the two latter categories, she’s ably seconded by Christopher Tocco, doubling as Rodolphe’s loyal servant and Wheatley’s box office manager. Whitehawk manages his two versions of villainy, Wheatley and Hertzog, with aplomb. Rattazzi, wearing a forlorn look and an utterly convincing stutter, makes Barras a genuinely touching figure, and,
as Rodolphe, even shows the rest of the cast a more viable melodrama style.
And if Gelb’s Black Crook seems to mock, through its account of the misshapen original’s birth, the whole idea of the American musical as an art form, it also, ironically, echoes the wayward self-spoofery that’s a hallmark of the form — currently exemplified uptown in the unabashed silliness of Something Rotten. Playwrights may whimper and lovers of high art may wince, but Americans know that, as Rotten‘s best-known song points out, “Nothing’s more amazing than a musical.”
The Black Crook
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through October 7