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First On Stage
Years ago, while teaching college courses in the History of American Musical Theatre, my research exposed numerous instances of innovation in the art form (“this was the first time…”) as theatrical technologies, along with musical styles and forms, evolved. I began to “collect” such phrases, which later included people, theatrical venues and other occasional oddities, into the collection and organized the data chronologically.
At this site, we focus on historical firsts. Innovation creates history, and this is a collection of innovative events, decisions and inventions. Among other things, the collection includes initial appearances of popular shows, songs and performers. Here, you’ll find descriptions of theatrical firsts in America from 1665 to 2000. Each “historical first” appears in bold type.
Generally, the New York opening is considered the finished form of any work (even if subsequent changes occur during the New York run). For the sake of maintaining some historical perspective, this site covers events through the 1999-2000 season.
Ongoing additions to the site include textual entries and pictures of people and theatrical venues. One project will soon offer links to audio files of songs in the public domain; other improvements may occur as they are invented or suggested.
We owe much to those who have assisted in the development and presentation of this material. Please see our “Cast & Crew” page. To everyone who appears there, I offer my deepest thanks.
Perhaps you will find something here that will initiate your own research. You might want to have an item considered for inclusion at the site (if so, please contact me). You might wish to correct an error that you find here (if so, by all means contact me). You may even find items that will pique your curiosity and motivate you to seek answers. We hope that this site will bring you closer to the theatrical art form that has proven time and again to be our most beloved: the musical.
Wayne Hamilton, MFA
2009
First On Stage
Cast & Crew

Content Researcher/Author
Wayne Hamilton, MFA

Programmer
Jim Moore

Opening Graphics
Dan Schletty & Richard Schletty
SchlettyDesign.com

Content Contributors/Advisors
Bobby Golibart
Gerald F. Muller, DMA
Alan Pickrell, Ph.D.
First On Stage

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First On Stage Interesting Facts and Trivia about Broadway Musicals, Musical History, Musical Theater, People, Performers, and Songs. A collection of historical firsts in American musical theatre. In 1910, an important figure made her first professional appearance on the lyric stage in Ziegfeld's Follies of 1910: Fanny Brice (1891 - 1951). Another future great was standing offstage: Irving Berlin (1888 - 1989). Brice was working as a comic in burlesque when twenty-year-old Irving Berlin asked her to sing one of his songs, called "Sadie Salome." Her performance earned Ziegfeld's attention. Ironically, Irving Berlin's first Follies song appeared in this show as well: "Goodbye Becky Cohen." Bert Williams was the only black actor/singer in this version of the Follies.

Irving Berlin sang his own song, "Sweet Italian Love" for the first time in a revue called Up and Down Broadway in July of 1910.

When World War I broke out in April of 1914, it set in motion a subtle change in American musical theatre. First, it changed the way Americans felt about musical forms coming out of Europe, particularly those coming out of Germany; the once-beloved Viennese operetta that had been so popular fell into disfavor. Second, as Americans made contributions to their allies that helped to turn the tide of the war, they began to feel better about what they were able to accomplish on their own. Within a few short years, indigenous musical styles were imprinted on the lyric stage, first with ragtime and then with jazz. Irving Berlin may have written the most popular of ragtime songs with "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Ragtime music was a part of virtually every American musical production from 1896 to 1917. Whether or not the "jazz" that followed ragtime into the musical theatre would be called "jazz" by today's standards, the music and other arts of the twentieth century's second decade became more recognizably American.

In December of 1914, Irving Berlin offered up his first full score for a musical revue called Watch Your Step. With an extremely thin story line (some say an indiscernible story line), Berlin hung together a series of songs that proved popular with the public. The most popular song introduced in this show was "Play A Simple Melody." Watch Your Step, which starred Vernon Castle and Irene Castle, was on the edge of a transformation for musical theatre that had been building since The Black Crook initiated the musical form on the American stage nearly fifty years earlier. Though many attempts had been made to stage stories with plots that were furthered or at least supported by music, no musical entertainment had fully achieved this goal. In every American musical form, music was important but almost incidental, typically used to brighten a slow or dull moment in a show. Minstrel shows, extravaganza, spectacle, variety, vaudeville and burlesque all used music in this way.

The first time three hit musicals opened in the same month of the same season occurred in December of 1915. Katinka and Very Good Eddie both opened on the 23rd; Stop! Look! Listen! opened on Christmas day. Katinka, composed by Rudolf Friml, was the least influential of the three; however, it solidly established Friml as a theatrical composer. The composer of most of the music in Very Good Eddie was Jerome Kern, but the lyrics were by a variety of providers, including Ring Lardner ("Old Bill Baker"). What was notable about this show was that the characters were not comics, princes or potentates, but regular people in everyday situations. Moreover, the songs were easy to sing if not entirely memorable. As a result, the smooth flow of Very Good Eddie established a model that was followed for decades thereafter. Irving Berlin's Stop! Look! Listen! had a recognizable plot and memorable music, including his "Girl On The Magazine Cover" and "I Love A Piano," each performed for the first time by Harry Fox. Like Kern's show, Berlin's was about everyday people, though it employed the old-style interpolations of songs and unrelated acts being performed willy-nilly. Although not all of these three shows gave hints of the future, all were solid hits.

In August of 1918, an unusual show took to the boards on Broadway. The show was titled Yip Yip Yaphank. The cast consisted of soldiers from a nearby US Army post called Camp Upton. The music was written by Irving Berlin, who personally sang his hit song, "Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning," one of the most popular songs to come out of the World War I era. The run of Yip Yip Yaphank totaled thirty-two performances. Berlin also wrote a song that he considered too somber for a comedy, so it was set aside. Twenty years later, late in 1938, he literally pulled it out of a trunk and re-wrote it as fascism and war threatened Europe. Sometimes called America's second national anthem, Berlin's "God Bless America" became a hit around the country. Berlin signed over the revenues from the song to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 offered the first performance of Irving Berlin's great hit "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody." The song was introduced by vocalist John Steel.

In September of 1921, the opening and first performance in a new Broadway theatre occurred when the Music Box Theatre offered The Music Box Revue of 1921-1922. The small house was conceived by Irving Berlin, who also wrote the music for the show. Its intimacy allowed for a different type of musical presentation, providing a closer rapport between the audience and the singers and a style that was less large and broad.

A show calling itself a "musical comedy revue" was the vehicle in which the Marx brothers were introduced to Broadway. It was titled I'll Say She Is! and featured (Julius) Groucho Marx, (Adolph) Harpo Marx, (Leonard) Chico Marx, and (Herbert) Zeppo Marx. There was another brother named (Milton) Gummo Marx who did not appear in the show. I'll Say She Is! opened in June of 1923 in Philadelphia and later (May of 1924) in New York. The brothers had started their careers in vaudeville as a singing act, developing their zany comedy over the years leading up to their appearance on the lyric stage. Their popularity may have influenced another musical-theatre icon: Irving Berlin. Though Berlin wrote many songs during the 1920s, he only wrote one book musical: Cocoanuts, starring the Marx Brothers. Berlin did write music for two versions of The Ziegfeld Follies and four versions of The Music Box Revue during the roaring twenties, but there must have been more money or more fun writing for revues or for Tin Pan Alley than for the lyric stage. Cocoanuts opened in December of 1925. In the 1940s Berlin began writing more book shows than revues; this practice continued for the remainder of his creative life, but Tin Pan Alley was always there.

Kate Smith's first appearance in a Broadway musical took place in September of 1926. The show was Honeymoon Lane, in which she played the part of Tiny Little. The creative staff numbered two people: Eddie Dowling and James Hanley wrote the music, lyrics and libretto. Kathryn Elizabeth Smith (1907 - 1986), a native of Washington, DC, sang and danced in theatres and at nightclubs from an early age and was discovered by a New York City producer in 1926. After appearing in Honeymoon Lane, she later performed in Hit the Deck and Flying High. She began performing on the radio in 1931. She was an immediate success on the air and soon broke the record for longevity at the legendary Palace Theatre. Her theme song was "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," a song for which she helped Howard Johnson and Harry Woods write the lyrics. In 1932 she had a cameo role in Paramount's The Big Broadcast. Then she starred in her own movie, Hello Everybody!, with co-stars Randolph Scott and Sally Blane. In 1943 she sang "God Bless America" in the Irving Berlin picture This is the Army. Irving Berlin is said to have regarded that song as his most important composition. Kate predicted, in 1938, that the song would still be sung long after all of us are gone. Ending her career on a high note, Kate became the singing good luck charm for the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team with her performances of "God Bless America" before each game, which helped inspire them to two successive Stanley Cups (1974 and 1975). Fittingly, the last song she sang in public was that Irving Berlin anthem on a bicentennial special just before July 4, 1976. She died in Raleigh, NC, June 17, 1986.

Yet another revue, Blackbirds of 1928, which opened in May, 1928, was written by whites, performed by blacks and was the first show to have lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Jimmy McHugh. Fields (1905 - 1974) was Lew Fields' daughter and Herbert Fields' sister. McHugh (1894 - 1969) had worked for Irving Berlin and was the composer of "When My Sugar Walks Down The Street." Blackbirds of 1928 featured Bill Bojangles Robinson and contained two hit songs: "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Diga Diga Do."

Satire was the theme in the February, 1932 opening of Face the Music, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Moss Hart; George S. Kaufman directed. This show included the first public performances of two Gershwin standards: "Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee" and "Soft Lights And Sweet Music."

In September of 1933, Irving Berlin changed a few lyrics to a song he had written during World War I and added it to a show called As Thousands Cheer. The result was the classic "Easter Parade" in its first public performance. A few years later, in 1938, he pulled "God Bless America" out of his WW I trunk and had another big hit.

Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing so well just three years after they began working together that they began producing shows by others. In May of 1946, they opened Annie Get Your Gun. The idea for the show came from Dorothy Fields, who wanted to create a show for her friend Ethel Merman. Fields and her brother Herbert wrote the book for the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein selected Jerome Kern to write the music, but Kern died before he began work on the project. His replacement was more than adequate, since the score was provided by Irving Berlin. Some of Berlin's greatest hits were introduced in this show, including "The Girl That I Marry," "(There's No Business Like) Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do." The show also further ensconced Merman in the role of "Queen of the Musicals."

In October of 1950, Irving Berlin offered up a new show written for the talents of Ethel Merman: Call Me Madam. Based on the life of Perle Mesta, a well-known social hostess in Washington, DC, the lead character was portrayed as a woman whose lack of grace was counterbalanced by a plenitude of money. Therefore, one of Berlin's songs was called "Hostess With The Mostes' On The Ball." The audience heard for the first time the Berlin classic song "It's A Lovely Day Today." Another song from the show, "They Like Ike," was popular when Dwight D. Eisenhower became a Republican candidate for President. At that point, the networks declined to play it over the air. Eisenhower's party used it as a campaign song anyway. The musical was also the first book musical in which Elaine Stritch appeared.

Film star Robert Ryan made his Broadway musical debut in October of 1962 when he appeared in the title role of Mr. President. Irving Berlin wrote the music and lyrics for this show, and the book was by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Nanette Fabray played the First Lady. Although the show had the largest advance sale to date in musical theatre history, it ran only 265 performances.


Ladies and gentlemen, this first selection was randomly generated for your edification and delight!