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Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: A Trip To Chinatown
A quiz for musical theater fans: Name a musical, set at the close of the 19th century, in which two young men deceive a crotchety old man in order to escape his oversight and seek love and adventure in the big city. The young men, together with their female romantic partners and a romantically available widow, go to a fancy restaurant where, through a somewhat improbable chain of events, the old man is also present and expecting to meet a potential romantic partner himself. A scuffle breaks out at the restaurant, and at the conclusion of the scene the old man is left with a bill for the whole party — which he cannot pay because he has lost his wallet. The musical was extremely popular and played a record-breaking number of performances in New York.
Hello Dolly! would be an obvious answer. However, the description above applies equally accurately to June's musical of the month: the 1891 hit A Trip to Chinatown. Of course, Hello Dolly! was explicitly based on the 1955 Thornton Wilder play "The Matchmaker," which was in turn based on the 1842 Austrian musical, "Einen Jux will er sich machen" (which was, itself, based on a 1835 play, "A Day Well Spent" by British opera librettist John Oxenford) As happens more often than we champions of the musical theater genre might like to admit, originality sometimes seems to have been inversely proportional to popularity.
To be fair, Charles Hoyt, bookwriter of A Trip to Chinatown, made no great artistic claims for his play. As was his custom, Hoyt included a self-deprecating note on the Broadway program that read: "In extenuation: The author begs to say that whatever this play may be, it is all that is claimed for it." Hoyt could well afford to be so dismissive of his work; he knew it would make no difference to his audience. Although his later personal life was plagued with tragedy (including the death of two wives and a child in the course of five years), Hoyt enjoyed an extremely successful career as a playwright. A Trip to Chinatown, for instance, ran for a record-breaking 657 performances; Hoyt knew what entertained, and seems to have very rarely allowed artistic high-mindedness get in the way of his providing it to his audiences.
Regular readers of this blog may note that after the relative integration of music and plot in last month's Naughty Marietta and April's The Pink Lady, A Trip To Chinatown, hearkens back to the early musicals covered in this series for which the songs were more or less interchangable parts — able to be dropped, added, or replaced as popular tastes changed. Indeed, the text at the Museum of the City of New York that is transcribed below does not contain any lyrics at all but rather stage directions that suggest the placement of a number. Although the songs listed in the program during the original New York seem to have remained relatively constant, and the 3rd act number, "On the Bowery" (with lyrics by Hoyt and music by Percy Gaunt) became closely identified with the show, later productions freely interpolated new music. The immensely popular waltz song, "After the Ball," perhaps best known to musical theater fans for it's later inclusion in Show Boat, was interpolated into A Trip To Chinatown soon after it was written.
In 1912, Florenz Ziegfeld produced a new, somewhat less commercially successful version of A Trip to Chinatown, retitled "The Winsome Widow." True to Ziegfeld's form, the production seems to have been a spectacular extravanganza with many specialty numbers (one review mentioned an ice-skating number), but, perhaps counter-intuitively, the songs appear to have been more tightly integrated into the plot than in Hoyt's original play. A Winsome Widow opened the Moulin Rouge, New York and ran for 172 performances during the summer season—quite a bit fewer than A Trip To Chinatown but also not a strikingly short run for the period. Ethan Mordden called the show a "hit"; Kurt Ganzl described it as "a singular flop." I have been unable to locate any financial information about the run, but the contemporaneous reviews suggest it was critically received as something in between. Regardless, it is clear it enjoyed nothing like the success of A Trip to Chinatown.
The history of musical theater is a complicated one. The popular narrative in the mid-to-late 20th century told a story of a steady evolution from spectacles with musical speciality numbers (like The Black Crook) to popular operetta (like Naughty Marietta) to shows like The Winsome Widow, Show Boat, and Oklahoma in which the songs (it has been argued) flow naturally out of the spoken dialogue (a form some have called the "integrated" musical). Recent historians have challenged this idea--arguing musicals as "integrated" as Oklahoma existed long before 1943, and some (most prominently the late Bruce Kirle) have questioned the often assumed superiority (or even reality) of a fixed score. This debate can be fascinating, but it is often relatively limited as many of musical theater texts written before Show Boat are not generally available. It is my hope that by providing access to the texts of the period of supposed transition between the "embryonic" Black Crook and the more "integrated" Show Boat, this series allows the public to better understand what the "pre-Hammerstein" musical actually was, and to decide for themselves whether Hello Dolly! or A Trip to Chinatown is a better work of art, or if, as Hoyt vaguely requests in his program note, both should be taken for what they are and enjoyed according to the conventions of their own, different, forms.
A note on the text:
The following text was transcribed by Ann Fraistat from the a text held by the Museum of the City of New York which lacks lyrics. Given the frequency with which the music changed and the lack of clarity as to the exact placement of the songs, I have decided to preserve the integrity of the source text and not supply lyrics from other sources. However, I have transcribed the song list from the opening night program below with links to where period sheet music with lyrics may be found.
Out for a Racket (Gaunt)
Dorothy (Gavotte) (Gaunt)
["Dorothy" seems to have been quickly replaced by African Cantata—"Push Dem Clouds" (Gaunt)]
Burlesque of Italian Opera (Gaunt)
Medley (Arranged by Gaunt)
Whistling extraordinary: "The Waiting Maid" (Gaunt)
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 There appears to be an annotated typescript copy of this libretto at the Museum of the City of New York. Although it is titled "A Trip to Chinatown," the songs in the libretto match those in a program for "The Winsome Widow" held by NYPL.