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Black Crook


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#1 John-Michael

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Posted 28 September 2003 - 08:44 AM

Hi! I've been trying to find info on the internet and in books about The Black Crook and can find very little. Does anyone know if the musical has ever been recorded and/or if it's possible to find a libretto, especially with a list of the original ballet scenes? From what little I've been able to glean, the score and dances seem to have changed in subsequent revivals. Honestly, I can't imagine why The Black Crook is so ignored and dismissed as tasteless. One would think that such a seminal attempt to integrate ballet into popular musical theater would be so ignored and it couldn't have been that bad if it were revived in 1929 and made into at least one silent film... whatever it's defects it certainly captured the public imagination. I also wonder as well what type of dancers would have been used in the post 1860 revivals... what was the level of dance training in 19th century America? Were there any professional companies not attached to opera houses? Thanks!

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 28 September 2003 - 11:33 AM

The Black Crook was a sort of production formed by figurative train wreck. A French ballet company, a German melodrama troupe and an Italian opera company all found themselves marooned in NYC in 1866 without enough money to get home. To call the original production "cobbled together" might be kind. The play, by Charles Barras, was kind of clunky, but when they "brought on the ballet-girls", the whole show took off! The New York Public Library has holdings on the production, and so does the New-York Historical Society. The ballerina of the show was Maria Bonfanti, and she became a household word. With "road productions", the show ran from 1866-1909.

In answer to the subsidiary questions, the ballet training standard in America in 1866 was very, very low. There had been three phenomenal American dancers produced by the Paul Hazard School in Philadelphia, George Washington Smith, Augusta Maywood, and Mary Ann Lee, but good dancers were hard to come by. Some were students of John and Charles Durang, a father-son team, the former of whom had danced for George Washington. Charles specialized mostly in ballroom, but did teach a sort of ballet. Sort of.

Edward Ferrero was also a teacher in Victorian America, and his success was such that he was appointed dancing-master to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. During the Civil War, he ranked as a Brigadier-General, and was only relieved of duty for being drunk in combat at the siege of Petersburg, VA. Little discouraged, he went on to run a chain of franchise dancing schools sort of like a Victorian Arthur Murray. Some of these schools offered ballet, too.

#3 cargill

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 10:26 AM

You might want to look at the book Ballet and Ballyhoo, by Barbara Barker, which has a lot of information about The Black Crook, and is great fun to read. The text of The Black Crook was published and a large library might have it. (The author is C. Barras.) It was microfilmed as part of the American fiction series (reel 34, if that helps), so if you want to plough through microfilm, you might be able to get it through your library.

#4 John-Michael

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 10:47 AM

Thanks for the info! From the pictures I've sen it looks as if it were quite an... interesting (?) production. Oddly enough, a book I have on burlesque has a relatively large section on it although it really doesn't seem like much of a burlesque show to me. The rather voluptuous (fat) dancers looks as if they could have stepped out of an old-time burlesque show, though.

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 02:15 PM

The Black Crook is an immediate precursor of the burlesque era, as well as a foundation of modern musical comedy. There are several recordings of the "March of the Amazons" (Giuseppe Operti) around, and it used to be a fixture of mid-level piano lessons. There was a lot of sheet music that was published, and that's one collectible where the prices haven't gone sky-high...yet.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 02:42 PM

I second Mary's suggestion of reading Barker -- her point (which she makes quite convincingly) is that "The Black Crook" was misunderstood by most of the people in its day. It is considered the precursor of the musical comedy, as Mel wrote, but they would have said the smae thing about "Swan Lake." It played to an audience innocent of classical ballet, one might say (except for a few who'd made the grand tour, and found it remarkably similar to the spectacles that were then popular in Italy -- on the La Scala stage.)

The difference is that they began with a play that the theater owned and had to produce (a bad one, all cliches) and added songs and (lots of) classical dancing to it. So there was no pantomime -- spoken dialogue instead -- but otherwise, what Barker lays out sounds remarkable similar to Petipa ballets. (a grand pas classique here or there, lots of processionals, transformation scenes, etc. So I've begun to think of it as Sleeping Beauty without Petipa or Tchaikovsky :devil:

Re the size of the dancers -- Barker has photos of them, too. the fat ones were chors girls. The coryphees were ballet girls from La Scala and were tiny.

There were a lot of these kinds of ballets around -- one choreographer (a Hungarian) staged Excelsior here, and then created his own American version -- America. Shame they didn't stay in repertory!

#7 Mel Johnson

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 06:02 PM

There was something about the billing of the show, too. It was styled an "extravaganza". That meant that there was some of everything, and then came MORE of everything. Offenbach rewrote his very successful 1858 Orphée aux Enfers during the 1870s as an extravaganza, which just meant that he took what was there before and added about as much again.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 29 September 2003 - 07:42 PM

Yes! It was made by and for folks whose taste in simplicity is best exemplified (in my town) by the Old Executive Office building, a minimalist version (no gargoyles, not too many tours, widow walks or balconies) of Conspicuous Consumption.

There were fountains, lots of stage magic -- it was THE hit show for tourists. Its successor, "The White Fawn" was so extravaganza that even its audience thought that, well, it was maybe -- just maybe! -- a bit too much.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 September 2003 - 03:43 AM

the Old Executive Office building, a minimalist version (no gargoyles....)

Well, if you don't count the department heads. :)

#10 John-Michael

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Posted 30 September 2003 - 07:22 AM

The one synopsis that I found of a touring company of The Black Crook lists a grand ballet of the nations as one of the dancing sections... very Petipa-like. But it also ends with a series of "living pictures" illustrating various conditions of life, emotions, vices, and virtues. I guess they were probably tableaux as opposed to dances or mime but it seems somehow rather charming and elegant if it were handled nicely. It's one of the cool things about pre-20th century theater that they didn't seem as obsessed with unity as we are today. If such a semi-afterpiece is only tenuously related to the play, it still could build upon themes that the play introduced and create quite a pleasant spectacle... sort of a desert after the main dish. I'm not a theater scholar but what I've read seems to indicate that our contemporary ballets, operas, plays, concerts, etc. are rather staid, homogeneous affairs compared to earlier productions and that we've been brainwashed into believing that the earlier productions were somehow less "advanced." But I babble.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 30 September 2003 - 07:27 AM

Oh, babble more, please :) I remember from some of the turn of the last century children's books I read that tableaux were popular entertainment far from New York -- and I guess they're descended from Renaissance tableaux (the Rose Bowl parade is, too, and halftime shows, and the Olympic opening ceremonies). But in the 1890s, small theaters would have "tableaux" -- the prettiest girls, the sweetest children, everything was roses and butterflies and was "pretty" when the word had a positive connotation.

The "Black Crook" type of spectacle lasted until the Depression -- "The Black Crook" itself went across country -- to places like Denver, which back then, was not easy to get to -- and was in theaters in one form or another for 70 years. And today, not a step remains. Not a step. Maria Bonfanti was its ballerina -- she did the Demon Dance (it was a plug in your favorite variation type of show) -- and she taught in New York through the 20s. Some of Balanchine's first dancers were her pupils.

#12 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 September 2003 - 02:29 PM

Tableaux vivants were very popular, whether in the theater or at home. Queen Victoria was very fond of staging them herself, then signalling with a tea bell when the curtain should be drawn for the guests to see the Royal Children and/or Grandchildren and their playmates all arranged artistically to celebrate whatever was being celebrated. There is a beautiful photograph of Princess Vicky as "Summer" and Princes Arthur and Alfred as East Indian a couple of boys as a couple of really German kids could look! Cute³! That the Queen permitted their being photographed and reproduced in some hundreds of prints says that she was very much the proud mama showing "snaps of the kids" to almost anybody who'd look. In Sir Arthur Sullivan's ballet, "Victoria and Merrie England", there is a tableau vivant set to his "Imperial March" and when the curtains finally parted, the lights slowly came up on Edward Landseer's "The Coronation of Queen Victoria". It must have been a real feast for the eyes.

#13 Amy Reusch

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Posted 01 October 2003 - 08:14 PM

Closing with tableaux vivants seems as if it might feel like the rhythm of closing credit sequences in movies... particularly where they have little postcripts for characters in the movie... It would be an interesting (if expensive costume-wise) way to wind down a show... but what would become of the usual extended curtain calls? I suppose only a post-modern dance company could pull it off... (or adventures in motion pictures?) [See, Alexandra, if you encourage babble, it might burst forth from the wrong corner].

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 02 October 2003 - 03:39 AM

In the Sullivan "Victoria...", the tableau vivant was the penultimate scene. The next and finale set was the Horse Guards, and the last divertissement was a sort of military review, with England, Ireland, and Scotland represented as the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards, and the Scots' Guards. Sullivan intertwined "British Grenadiers", "Scots, What Hae Wi' Wallace Bled", and "Let Erin Remember" playing together in a wonderful polyphony. Sir Arthur only regretted that he couldn't figure out how to weave in "Men of Harlech" to get the Welsh Guards in there, too. There seems to have been a tableau in the middle of this divertissement, also, as lantern slides of British soldiers and sailors in the far corners of empire were shown on a scrim. Sort of "mail call" I guess. The orchestra played "Home, Sweet Home" for this little scene. Also the very last scene, after a brisk coda, was a slow entrance by the Entire Company (The Alhambra) and a playing of "God Save the Queen", doubtless with the company singing.

Kitsch? Sure! Sincere? You bet! My only problem is that I can't figure out how to make it work for a modern audience with fewer than 137 people and one lion.


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