On September 12, 1866, a happy accident occurred that changed Broadway forever.
A New York theatre entrepreneur had booked two properties—a French ballet company filled with beautiful girls wearing the scandalous new invention, silk stockings, and an overripe melodrama about a man who is having second thoughts about selling his soul to the devil. The problem was, the theatre where he’d booked the dancers had been damaged in a fire, and he was on the hook for the whole dance company with no place for them to perform and earn him some money.
So, with classic American entrepreneurial resourcefulness, he decided to combine the two shows. The result, The Black Crook, an extravaganza that included a battle scene in Hell itself, has been widely identified by theatre historians as the first Broadway “book” musical. It was indeed massively popular, running 484 performances at a time when a 20-performance run was considered respectable. It toured for decades and was revived on Broadway repeatedly.
The title refers to the character of Herzog, the devil's go-between who has promised him a fresh soul each year in return for everlasting life. He is described as “an alchemist and sorcerer.”
To mark the show’s (and the Broadway musical’s) 150th anniversary, the Off-Broadway Abrons Arts Center is planning a revival of The Black Crook, to run September 17-October 7, in what is being described as a minimalist restaging that will bring “the biggest of all American spectacles into the tiniest of spaces.”
The self-described ”Original, Grand, Romantic Magical and Spectacular Drama” has music by Thomas Baker, book by Charles M. Barras and lyrics by Theodore Kennick.
The revival will be directed by Joshua William Gelb, and the cast will feature Randy Blair, Alaina Ferris, Lizzie Hagstedt, Steven Rattazzi, Jessie Shelton, Christopher Tocco, Kate Weber and Merlin Whitehawk. Arrangements and additional compositions are by Alaina Ferris and Justin Levine, with choreography by Katie Rose McLaughlin, sets by Carolyn Mraz, costume design by Normandy Sherwood, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Matt Stine and dramaturgy and additional text by Dan O’Neill.
Gelb told Playbill.com, ”I've been working on The Black Crook for almost 10 years, and only recently did I realize that the 150th anniversary was coming up. As a lover of musical theatre (I also dabble in librettist work) and theatre history, the mythology of The Black Crook has always been on my radar. Whether or not it deserves the mantle of being the literal ‘first’ musical (and I don't think such a delineation is actually possible), the history of The Black Crook is certainly a fitting origin story for the birth of a truly American art-form. And in presenting both the original musical alongside the history of its creation, hopefully a third narrative emerges, one that dramatizes the theatrically charged cross-over area in the Venn diagram between the art and the artist.”
He explained, “This production is about interrogating the idea of spectacle. So while the original show had a cast of 100, we have only eight. The original's full orchestra is also supplanted by those same eight performers and the same can be said for the corps de ballet. So I suppose we're interested in an economy of spectacle. How much can we achieve with the limited resources at our disposal? The 13-minute-long grand transformation scene that capped the original five and a half hour long production was a milestone in theatrical technology, upending previous notions of what was scenically possible on stage. Our transformation is a little more symbolic, more introspective. But it's a transformation nonetheless and spectacular in it's own right.”
Here is the cast breakdown:
Rodolphe / Charles Barras: Steven Rattazzi
Hertzog / William Wheatley: Merlin Whitehawk
Amina / Stalacta / Sallie St. Clair: Alaina Ferris
Greppo / Joseph Whitton: Christopher Tocco
Count Wolfenstein / Zamiel / Henry Jarrett: Lizzie Hagstedt
Von Puffengruntz / Giuseppe Operti: Randy Blair
Madam Barbara / William Voegtlin: Kate Weber
Carline / Dragofin / Clara Morris: Jessie Shelton
Historians may have picked The Black Crook as “first” for the sake of convenience. In reality there were many plays with music in New York before 1866, more or less following the conventions of opera with American-style popular music interpolated. But The Black Crook was undoubtedly the most successful and the most widely imitated. Though it’s set in Germany, it has a peculiar Americanness. And when you think of the classic ”chorus girl” or ”big dance number” or ”impressive scenery,” you're basically thinking of expectations created long ago by The Black Crook.
The Abrons Arts Center is located at 466 Grand Street in Manhattan, about a mile from the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, site of the long-gone 3,000-seat Niblo's Garden, where The Black Crook premiered. Tickets, at $25, can be ordered at AbronsArtsCenter.org.