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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
First On Stage
Cast & Crew

Content Researcher/Author
Wayne Hamilton, MFA

Jim Moore

Opening Graphics
Dan Schletty & Richard Schletty

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. After choreographing five ballets and directing ballets for the 1936 Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, George Balanchine choreographed his first book musical, appropriately named On Your Toes. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote the music and lyrics, respectively; both collaborated with George Abbott to create the libretto. Ray Bolger was the star. The show opened in April of 1936 and ran for more than 300 performances. Although some pleasant songs were included, the show was the source of the great modern-dance music for "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."

A show that opened in November of 1938 has remained in the consciousness of musical theatre afficionados: The Boys From Syracuse. George Abbott adapted the story created by Shakespeare in Comedy of Errors, and Rodgers and Hart wrote the songs. Some of those songs are American classics, having had their first performances when the show premiered. Tunes include "Falling In Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love" and the great trio "Sing For Your Supper." George Abbott (1887 - 1995) had a remarkable career in theatre, working as an actor for eleven years and making his musical debut in Gilbert and Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard in April of 1915. He went on to write, direct and produce, and in the process won eight Tony awards. He was involved with some of the best-remembered and successful Broadway productions in history, including On Your Toes, Pal Joey, Sweet Charity, On the Town, Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Fiorello! and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

When Too Many Girls opened in October of 1939, it saw the debut of Latin singer Desi Arnaz. Rodgers and Hart wrote the music, Jo Mielziner created the sets and George Abbott was the producer. The story, about college football players assigned to guard a girl, was by George Marion, Jr. Arnaz was one of the football players, along with comic Eddie Bracken and dancer Hal Le Roy. Another actor who made his first appearance in a book musical with Too Many Girls was future film star Van Johnson.

Another "college" musical opened in October of 1941: Best Foot Forward. The scene is the college prom and not the football season. Ironically, the only hit to emerge from the show, "Buckle Down Winsocki," has been more associated with football than with proms. Nevertheless, the first performance of that song was in Best Foot Forward. The songs were by Hugh Martin (1914 - 2011) and Ralph Blane (1914 - 1995), who made their real fame writing for the movies. The book was by John Cecil Holm (1904 - 1981). This was the show in which comedienne Nancy Walker (1922 - 1992) made her Broadway musical debut. The piece was directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Gene Kelly. The opening of Best Foot Forward occurred less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Someone felt that the hit song "Buckle Down Winsocki" might serve the war effort; therefore, it was given new lyrics and a new title: "Buckle Down Buck Private."

In 1944, Jerome Robbins and a young composer friend named Leonard Bernstein (1918 - 1990) created a ballet called Fancy Free. Convinced that the ballet had the makings of a full-fledged musical, the two collaborated with their friends Adolph Green and Betty Comden. The result was Bernstein's first score for Broadway, On The Town, which opened in December of 1944 and was later made into a film. It was also the Broadway debut for Adolph Green and Betty Comden. George Abbott directed and a memorable song came from the score: "New York, New York."

Comedian Red Buttons first appeared in a Broadway musical in April of 1947, when Barefoot Boy With Cheek opened. Set on the campus of the University of Minnesota, the show was produced and directed by George Abbott, with music by Sidney Lippman, lyrics by Sylvia Dee and libretto by Max Shulman, which he adapted from his book with the same title.

As much as good music and lyrics, a good book can make or break a musical. Happily, Brandon Thomas wrote a funny play called Charley's Aunt that helped make its musical adaptation, Where's Charley?, a workable piece when it opened in October of 1948. George Abbott directed, Ray Bolger starred and won a Tony for Best Actor in a musical, George Balanchine choreographed and Frank Loesser wrote the score, his first. A great tune, "Once In Love With Amy," was first heard in this show. Bolger sang it in front of a closed curtain and, when the song became a popular hit, invited the audience to sing along.

As has happened with many stories, novels become plays or movies (sometimes both) before becoming musicals. This happened with The King and I, which clearly prospered from that evolutionary path. However, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which opened in April of 1951, did not do as well. The novel was written by Betty Smith, who collaborated with George Abbott to create the libretto for the lyric version; Arthur Schwartz wrote the music to which the lyrics of Dorothy Fields were sung. Shirley Booth was the star. Though it had a decent run, the piece was unable to repay its investment.

An American musical classic opened in May of 1954: The Pajama Game, the music for which was written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. George Abbott directed and Bob Fosse provided choreography. In his first hit show since Carousel, John Raitt (1917 - 2005) starred. The show gave the public its first hearing of two classic songs, "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Hey There." Another favorite of theatre lovers is "Steam Heat," which did not achieve the popularity of the other two tunes, but did provide a vehicle for Fosse's signature style of dance. Also appearing in the original cast were Eddie Foy, Jr. and Carol Haney, Fosse's lead dancer. This was Harold Prince's debut as a Broadway producer. Harold Prince began his career on Broadway as an office boy for George Abbott. Then he was an assistant stage manager for a musical revue called Touch and Go in October of 1949. He repeated that job for Tickets, Please in April of 1950 and Call Me Madam in November of 1950. Then in 1952 he not only stepped up to be the stage manager for Wonderful Town, he also performed in that show, which was his last show-biz effort as anything but producer or director. He went on to produce and/or direct more than fifty additional Broadway productions, most (40) of them musicals. He has been nominated for 38 Tony awards.

College football had been a centerpiece of Broadway musicals for decades, but when Damn Yankees opened in May of 1955, it was the first New York show built around baseball (a theatre company in Chicago created The Umpire in 1905, but it never played New York). Douglass Wallop had written a book called The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant; he and George Abbott adapted the book for the libretto. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote two classic songs that were first heard in this show: "(You Gotta Have) Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants." Lola was played by Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston (who later performed the role of the title character in TV's My Favorite Martian) played the Devil. Damn Yankees marked the first time Gwen Verdon and future husband Bob Fosse worked together; he choreographed the show. It was the last collaboration between Adler and Ross; Jerry Ross died just six months after Damn Yankees opened.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning musical story about New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened in November of 1959. Like the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize (Of Thee I Sing), Fiorello! was also a story about politics. Unlike its predecessor, the lead character was a real politician. George Abbott and Jerome Weidman wrote the libretto, while Jerry Bock wrote the music and Sheldon Harnick the lyrics. Although no hit songs came from the show, Fiorello! won not only a Pulitzer, but also six Tony awards and the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. It shared honors in three Tony categories with The Sound of Music. Tom Bosley, who played La Guardia, debuted on the lyric stage and won a Tony for his efforts. Bosley (1927 - 2010) went on to fame in a number of television roles (remember Richie Cunningham's dad in Happy Days?).

When A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum opened in May of 1962, it was the first complete score (music and lyrics) for a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. The cast was populated by veterans like Zero Mostel, Jack Guilford and John Carradine. It was Carradine's lyric stage debut, and it was the first book musical for both Guilford and Mostel. Guilford was nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, but fellow cast member David Burns won that award. Mostel won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical. Forum won the Best Musical Tony award. Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart wrote the book and won Tonys, as did Producer Harold Prince and Director George Abbott. One song became a hit: "Lovely."

Anthony Roberts had his Broadway musical debut in December of 1967 with How Now, Dow Jones, for which he won the Tony award for Best Actor in a Musical. Future film and television star Brenda Vaccaro also debuted and was nominated for a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical. The show also boasts a third musical debut for venerable stage, screen and television actor Barnard Hughes. David Merrick produced the show, but no hit songs resulted. Music was by Elmer Bernstein, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and the book was by Max Shulman. The show was directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Gillian Lynne.

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