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How A Bawdy Mess Kicked Off The American Musical Tradition

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As you may have noticed, we’ve reached the time of year when musicals are most plentiful. This week, for instance, Music Theatre Wichita is staging a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

There is something extra-right about musicals in the summer season, something about the froth and the fun and the carefree vibe that translates well to bursting into song onstage. But where did it all begin? Many theatre historians point to "The Black Crook" as the first American musical.

When the Academy of Music in New York City burned down in 1866, it left a European ballet troupe without a venue. The troupe’s producers made an agreement with the manager of the Broadway theatre Niblo’s Garden to combine their scenery and dancing with the melodrama that the manager was about to put onstage at the Garden.

On September 12, 1866, the opening night of "The Black Crook" ran over six hours. The writing was unexceptional and the songs had nothing to do with the plot. But an op-ed piece in the New York Herald denounced the production for its skimpy costumes and suggestive dancing... thereby ensuring the show’s success. It ran for over a year, went on tour, and was regularly revived until the end of the 19th century.

There are a variety of musicals playing this summer at theatres all over the city. Enjoy the spectacle and stay cool.

Sanda Moore Coleman received an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University in 1991. Since then, she has been the arts and community editor for The Martha's Vineyard Times, a teaching fellow at Harvard University, and an assistant editor at Image. In 2011, she received the Maureen Egan Writers Exchange prize for fiction from Poets & Writers magazine. She has spent more than 30 years performing, reviewing, and writing for theatre.