One question that has been of interest to historians is why do great changes in cultures, societies, and nations occur? Are they the result of certain circumstances coming together and colliding, and in the heat that’s generated something new is created or do important events occur, major changes happen, and new movements developed as a result of unique individuals who in some way influence and create great change?
For the sake of this blog we are taking the latter view. We look at 10 people who changed Broadway. In Part 1 we consider the first five.
George M. Cohan
Cohan was an amazing force who was a writer, composer, choreographer, producer, and actor. His focus on American themes, patriotism, and development of the American musical was instrumental in this country’s theatre artists embracing native idioms, American themes, and Broadway showmanship. Some of his songs included “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Over There.” He was especially influential in the early part of the 20th century.
In the 1920s, Ziegfeld created a revue that included his vision of the perfect American girl, mesmerizing spectacle, and the most talented performers of his age. Ziegfeld was into making shows big and this quality became associated with the Broadway musical. Ziegfeld also produced the first purely American book musical, Show Boat, which was written by Kern and Hammerstein.
Eugene O’Neill is considered to be America’s first great dramatist. O’Neill, who is the only American playwright to win the Noble Prize for Literature, was an innovator who created an catalogue of plays that include Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, The Hairy Ape, The Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Ah, Wilderness!, Strange Interlude, and Long Days Journey Into Night. He also won four Pulitzer Prizes. O’Neill’s activity as a playwright from the 1920s to the 1950s shaped the American drama and was responsible for American theatre being taken seriously by those in England and Europe.
Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein created great books for musicals and wonderful lyrics for the tunes of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and others. His ability to weave a major plot with numerous subplots, to develop characters that had depth, and to chart a unified dramatic action that held the story, characters, and themes of a musical together was unmatched by any other librettist from the 1920s through the 1950s. Hammerstein created two groundbreaking musicals approximately 20 years apart- Show Boat and Oklahoma! Both of which changed American musical theatre.
The Shubert Brothers
In the early 20th century, the Shubert Brothers, Lee, Sam, and Jacob, came down from upstate New York to NYC and after some time challenged the power of the Theatrical Syndicate. The Syndicate had controlled theatre in America for about 30 years as the organization dictated which performers and shows would be booked into the best venues in the United States. The Shubert brothers, who helped establish the Broadway district, challenged the Syndicate, claiming that they were a monopoly. The Shuberts won and were then able to develop various venues on Broadway as well as a chain of theatres throughout the United States. Their name became synonymous with quality theatre, first-class theatre buildings, and lavish productions.
More to Come
In Part 2 of this series we will look at five other people who changed Broadway. Of course, this is my personal list. You may have a different one.