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Musical of the Month
Musical of the Month: Evangeline
A guest post by Brian D. Valencia
Evangeline, or The Belle of Acadia rounds out the Musical of the Month blog's consideration of the four most popular American-devised musicals of the late 19th century. Only The Black Crook (1866) surpassed Evangeline in frequency, longevity, and popularity—and Humpty Dumpty (1868) and A Trip to Chinatown (1890/1) trailed not far behind. It premiered in New York in 1874, and remained a fixture of the American musical repertory for the next three decades, reportedly amassing more than 3,000 total performances and appearing as late as 1901 throughout Massachusetts, still "fresh and green," according to a preview in the Worcester Spy.
Based very loosely on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's very serious epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadia of 1847, the very un -serious musical adaptation was penned by Boston-bred showbiz novices J. Cheever Goodwin, who contributed the words, and Edward E. "Ned" Rice, who contributed the music. Rice was at the time a clerk in the printing office of the Cunard Steamship Office; Goodwin was a recent Harvard graduate, serving as a cub reporter for the Boston Evening Traveler ; and both were members of Boston's Papyrus Club, a literary society for young romantics.
The idea to write together seems to have struck them following a disappointing evening at a Boston theater in the early 1870s. Goodwin and Rice had just attended a musical burlesque performed by Lydia Thompson's British Blondes—full of risqué tomfoolery, leggy chorines, and unremarkable music—and, on the walk home from the performance, were intrigued by the prospect of improving upon it. One account of their post-show conversation appeared in the Boston Sunday Herald in 1896:
Said Goodwin, "If I couldn't write a better piece than tha[t], I would never touch pen again."
"If you can," rejoined Rice, "why don't you? There's money in it."
(Rice was ever the financial opportunist.)
Goodwin stopped short and turned to his friend. "See here," he said, "if it comes to that, will you write the music to my libretto?"
"I'll do it!" replied Rice, and they shook hands on the agreement.
This ad hoc collaboration decided on the subject of Longfellow's then well-known poem and set about adapting it (liberally) for the stage over the next several years. In doing so, they quickly discovered that, in the words of a reflecting journalist a generation later, "Goodwin's right hand could make a pen breathe and Rice's fingertips could make a piano talk."
Longfellow's stately poem tells the pathetic story of the titular young Acadian (Nova Scotian) maiden separated from her betrothed Gabriel in the Great Upheaval, the forced displacement of the Acadians from the northern French-colonial territories in present-day Canada ceded to Britain in 1763. As cruel fate carries Evangeline down the Mississippi River, wandering through the Ozarks, and eventually back northward to Philadelphia as a Sister of Mercy, she searches in vain for her beloved, sometimes unknowingly just crossing his path—only to be reunited with him, in the final stanzas, over his deathbed. From this, Goodwin and Rice borrowed only the most basic of building blocks: character names and sketches of their relationships to one another, Evangeline's expulsion from home and her subsequent separation from Gabriel, distant lovesick wanderings, . . . and "Evangeline's beautiful heifer," described only in passing by Longfellow as "Proud of her snow-white hide, and the ribbon that waved from her collar, / . . . as if conscious of human affection."
What they turned out was a raucous celebration of the silly, the nonsensical, and the non sequitur. In Goodwin and Rice's adaptation, Evangeline is not forced out of her geographically non-specific home (sometimes identified as Louisiana) until the end of Act 1, and not for ethnic or political reasons, as in the source poem, but because she is harboring deserting sailors. Naturally, she is arrested for this crime by the Dutch captain of the British Army, who intends to imprison her in the Bastille. But —as is revealed at the beginning of Act 2—the ship carrying her (as well as, naturally, all of the characters from Act 1) has run aground on the coast of a generic savage Africa, whose landscape glitters with forbidden diamonds! All the while, Evangeline is pursued by the foolhardy Le Blanc, the Acadian notary, who holds a secret will that will legally divert Evangeline's inheritance to his own pockets as soon as she signs her marriage contract, an event that is repeatedly, ludicrously interrupted.
This is essentially the plot, but none of it much matters, at least not in any meaningful way. And into the gaping void created by this lack of meaning, there is stuffed a spectacular glut of fun! Evangeline 's book, written largely in rhyming couplets, is not one motivated by convincing dramatic conflict, sustained by unexpected but believable reversals of fortune, and resolved by the reassessment of relationships or circumstances in light of learned or earned information. Instead, borrowing a comic strategy honed to an art by earlier musical playwrights James Robinson Planché and John Brougham, it is guided from one ridiculous episode to the next by no more than the cleverest pun or rhyme that can be effected in the next line of dialogue.
Therefore, the sound of the language, and not its sense , leads the way, and the resulting helter-skelter affords opportunities for delicious digressions from any classical sense of deliberately plotted dramatic action; these include, chiefly, the (as playbills and advertisements hawked loudly) " the dancing heiffer ! . . . the lively whales!" and "the baloon trip to arizona! " [sic]. Indeed, though they are hardly relevant to the larger story, a four-legged specialty dance performed by Evangeline's pet cow at her wedding, a harrowing encounter between Evangeline and a "mighty monster" of a whale during a quick dip in the sea, and a deus ex machina (the second of two) in the form of a balloon ride home from Africa comprise three of the most prominent and memorable moments in the show. In the three-act versions, none of which seem to have survived, the balloon overshoots fair "Arcady" and comes to rest instead in the middle of Arizona's uncharted Indian territory, where Act 3 takes place. The two-act version supplied here ends with the balloon's ascent—carrying only Evangeline, her father, and Gabriel. . . . (Never mind how the others get home.)
This structural looseness was perhaps compounded by the writers' tendency to develop songs in front of their built-in test audience at the Papyrus Club, and it was the membership's best-liked tunes that were originally conscripted for Evangeline , not necessarily those that were most dramatically appropriate to the circumstances of the plot. The club favorite, "Six Miserable Ruffians," for example, was published as a single sheet in 1875, boasting the dedication "to the Papyrus Club, Boston," yet its place and purpose in show is not immediately clear. In a program from the Boston Museum, a synopsis of scenes for the 1876 three-act version places the song in Act 3, where its title appears in type more prominent than any other in the surrounding pages—yet it remains unclear who sings it and why. In a separate "argument," after providing a lengthy description of Act 1, and a passable description of Act 2, the same program insists that the adventures of Act 3 "must be seen to appreciated."
Rice claimed to have written between 300 and 500 songs for Evangeline in total, though this is almost certainly propagandistic exaggeration. Despite the earlier quoted assessment of Rice's compositional skill, he was not a formally educated musician and could do little more than pick out his melodies at the piano (although later he was also an active musical director). Therefore, from the earliest, Evangeline depended on the additional collaboration of Boston composer and musical director John J. Braham—the first American conductor of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the brother of David Braham, the composer of Harrigan and Hart's important early musical plays—to transcribe, arrange, and orchestrate Rice's tunes. A rarity for this period, a sample of Braham's Evangeline orchestrations survives at the Library of Congress, indicating a busy nine-piece instrumentation for flute/piccolo, B-flat clarinet, two trumpets, trombone, two violins, viola, bass.
Dominated by merry marches and lilting waltzes, Rice's score is bookended by a recitative prologue delivered by Gabriel, in which he informs "the public . . . / About the play they've come to see," and a company finale announcing, "Our little play is done." The unapologetically trivial tone that marks these opening and closing numbers flavors much of the rest of the music, which is written largely in bright major keys and peppered richly with playful chromaticism.
The "Soldier's Chorus" near the end of the first act erupts in a surprising burst of musical complexity, as the principal characters express their anxiety over Evangeline's fate in counterpoint to the soldier chorus's bloodthirstiness. The heroine's prison song in Act 2, "Come to Me Quickly, My Darling" also exhibits traces of harmonic complexity indicative of an underlying emotional complexity, perhaps pointing toward the psychologically grounded musical-theater love songs to come. Immediately following this number, Gabriel is revealed, in an unmistakable nod to Longfellow, singing (the infinitely more straightforward) "Where Art Thou Now, My Beloved?" It's fun to imagine how these numbers might have been combined as a duet in performance—but, even without such a vocal coup, there is enough textural variety to maintain the sense of forward musical momentum throughout.
Whether or not Evangeline received a full public staging in Boston prior to its New York premiere is uncertain, but the musical opened in New York, after an exhaustive and frustrating search for a willing producer, on July 27, 1874, at Niblo's Garden, the site of The Black Crook premiere eight years earlier. Rice, who assumed the role of producer, was allowed a modest budget to fill a two-week gap in the theater's schedule between the dour pair of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and a revival of Augustin Daly's Griffith Gaunt . W.H. Crane, a low comedian from the world of legitimate opera, headlined the cast in the role of Le Blanc, and, in the grand burlesque tradition of cross-gender casting, the roles of Evangeline's brave beau Gabriel and zaftig playmate Catherine were played respectively by Miss Connie Thompson in a revealing tunic and tights and Mr. Louis Mestayer in outrageous female drag.
Perhaps a limited engagement was for the best. The New York Herald–Tribune led the initial critical assault on Evangeline , accusing it of "heaping a muck of absurdity upon exquisite purity of spirit," meaning Longfellow's poem. "Several scenes are so stupid," it continued, "that it is difficult to contemplate them without going to sleep," and—furthermore—that Ione Burke, in the title role, "has no more notion of humor than a lobster has of geometry." The New York Times , while still less than enthusiastic, attempted to see the bright side: ". . . it is not forever within the dead level of stupidity" (emphasis added). The one figure to receive standout praise was the curious Lone Fisherman, an omnipresent mute who plays absolutely no part in the action until mere minutes from the finale, and for whom there is no precedent in Longfellow. Meanwhile, the Herald–Tribune , the Times , the New York Herald , and the Daily Graphic all failed to make so much as a mention of the spectacular cow, whale, or balloon, all of which came to be synonymous with the Evangeline stage show.
Perhaps these elements were refined in rewrites. By the time Evangeline resurfaced in Boston a year later (with a stronger cast assembled partially from Lydia Thompson's alumnae), alterations, greeted as improvements, had been made, and were almost certainly ongoing. Although it's impossible to tell exactly what these were without a greater wealth of extant performance materials to compare, the lion's share of Rice and Goodwin's revisionary energy was spent on the book, which had been excoriated by the New York press. After a well-received run at the Boston Globe and Museum, and a subsequent tour to Philadelphia, Evangeline returned to New York in 1877, this time at Daly's Fifth Avenue Theatre, where a now favorable Times review perceived its "reproduction" with "all the freshness of a first night," singling out Goodwin's book, in particular, as "tolerably rich in puns and allusions." It concluded prophetically: "[ Evangeline 's] lightness and vivacity endow it with strong claims . . . to longevity in New-York." It had become an indefatigable hit, and was revived in there in 1878, 1880 (in Brooklyn), 1885 (for more than 250 performances), 1887, 1888, 1889, 1892, and 1896, in addition to making extensive tours to Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, with many stops in between.
But the strain on Goodwin to fix his contributions seems to have put a pressure on his collaboration with Rice from which it never fully recovered. Although only Goodwin alone ever received billing for the show's book and lyrics, it has been proposed that an old John Brougham doctored the book prior to its 1877 return engagement in New York, and that a young John J. McNally continued to contribute new text for Evangeline after Goodwin and Rice parted ways shortly thereafter. (Rice, in fact, sued Goodwin, unsuccessfully, the following year for attempting to start a rival Evangeline company—though there is evidence they later attempted mending fences.) Even after the triumph of 1877, Rice continued rigorously to alter the content of the show, creating and dropping entire characters, songs, and incidents; rewriting topical jokes to suit a tour's environs; tweaking the title and subtitle to provide an added air of freshness; and interpolating new star turns for his star performers, which Evangeline had a knack for cultivating.
One such star, Henry E. Dixey, a young Boston-based dancer who later rose to fame in Rice's Adonis (1884), appears to have joined the production following its 1874 New York debut as one end of Evangeline's heifer (which end, it has been debated endlessly); his dancing partner, Richard Golden, assumed command of the cow's two other legs. It has been repeated anecdotally that the "Heifer Dance" originally fell flat in New York, but the comic virtuosity of the new Dixey/Golden choreography made it into a legendary showstopper. Another, George K. Fortescue joined the company for the 1876 incarnation at the Boston Museum in the transvestite role of Catherine, a part he virtually made his career. It was for Fortescue's Catherine that "In Love With the Man in the Moon" seems to have been written. Lillian Russell, perhaps the most luminous actress of Broadway's early days, was discovered while making her New York debut in the chorus of Evangeline in 1880. Additionally, N.C. "Nat" Goodwin (unlikely any close relation to J. Cheever Goodwin) joined Rice's company in 1876 as the Captain, and by 1877 had graduated to the star-making role of Le Blanc. A 20-year-old Fay Templeton made her professional stage premiere as Gabriel in the celebrated, long-running New York revival of 1885.
Owing to the overwhelming public and critical acclaim it received, Evangeline became a myth in its own time, and, as time marched on, that myth (d)evolved into history. Exaggeration and misinformation bred more of the same, to the point where no two accounts seem to agree on any point of fact regarding its origin or early productions—a fitting parallel for a script and score that were always constantly changing, to the point where no extant materials present exactly the same image of the show. As a consequence, however, much of what has been written about Evangeline , even in contemporary sources, has little or no grounding in verifiable fact, explaining my hesitation to commit firmly to every incident I recount here.
Rice, on the other hand, appears to have harbored no such hesitation in using exaggeration to sell the show (recall the Herculean number of songs he claims to have written for it). It is not implausible, then, that the sensational stories of company members' divorces, suicides, bankruptcies, and lawsuits that appeared in the New York Times especially between 1878 and 1882, for example, were, at least in part, clever marketing ploys, purposely (and perhaps recklessly) trumped up by Rice himself to tantalize potential ticket-buyers otherwise unconvinced by the whale, the balloon, the cow, the Lone Fisherman, or even the girls in tights!
It is Evangeline 's mythic status that has largely earned it the distinction commonly bestowed upon it: the first American-devised Broadway show with a wholly original score supplied by one composer. As is the case with so many historic "firsts," this is only true with endless qualifications (and dis-qualifications). The claim is also frequently made that the term musical comedy was first used in America in connection with Evangeline , citing Cecil Smith's groundbreaking 1950 study Musical Comedy in America —which, unfortunately, does not sufficiently cite its source.
Over the course Evangeline 's production history, there is no question that Rice did advertise it successively as an extravaganza, an (American) opéra bouffe , and a burlesque. And while some later critics have insisted that Evangeline is, in fact, a burlesque and a burlesque only, it is helpful to remember that there are no-hard-and-fast generic categories in this period of very messy musical-theater dramaturgy. Only in hindsight did these labels develop specialized identities. In their own time, they were used interchangeably, by Rice and by others, more to make such entertainments appear European and au courant than to describe their precise literary species.
Even so, Evangeline is at once an extravaganza in its commitment to spectacle and wayward narrative wanderings, an opéra bouffe (literally "opera puffed up") in its implementation of homespun characters overflowing with playful music, and a burlesque in its cross-dressed, parodic roast of well-known source material. It also shows shades of pantomime in its comic reliance on the silent Lone Fisherman and humorous tableaux vivants, and glimmers of a musical comedy-to-come, too, in its occasional slips into vernacular speech and music. The real achievement of Evangeline , then—rather than ushering a transition out of the muddled 19th century into the somehow more "mature" forms of the early 20th—was the perpetuation of a deliciously overstuffed musical formula that, in Smith's appraisal, "was permissive rather than restrictive[,] . . . an informal manner of presentation that allowed [it] to grow along with the tastes and fashions of the time, to develop new performers, and to take on new colorations." In a sense, it summarized and put a point on the 19th-century musical-theater muddle, and captivated the collective imagination of a generation in doing so.
Because no book for Evangeline has been easily available, it has been frequently dismissed as dismissible, relegating Evangeline to the nether category of a "leg show" and lending credence to the popular perception that such early musical shows bear no resemblance to the musical theater of today. The libretto presented here—despite the dust of archaic references to calcium lights, frequent indications of obscure comic " business ," and preponderance of groan-inducing puns (groan-inducing, to be sure, even at the time of their writing)—is almost surprisingly accessible, delightful, not off-putting, in its incoherence. If it is at times sloppy, it is most certainly not shoddy. And it does much to bridge the temporal gap between the musical theater of then and now.
Through its prism, we might see Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (originated on Broadway memorably by Harvey Fierstein) as a distant descendant of Fortescue's Catherine, or the Mute in The Fantasticks an eventual theatrical successor to the Lone Fisherman. We might begin to understand how the scene-stealing spectacle of the mechanical whale developed a larger-than-life reputation of its own, much like the chandelier and helicopter of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon . We now get the joke of the bungled balloon ride to Kansas in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz novel and subsequent MGM musical film and its subsequent theatrical adaptations.
And then there's the cow. . . . Speaking of Baum, there is no question that the fizzling specter of Evangeline hovered over his typewriter as he dispensed with Toto in favor of a pet cow, Imogen, for Dorothy in his 1902/3 Wizard of Oz stage extravaganza. Gypsy 's "moo cow" Caroline and Into the Woods 's Milky-White (performed in a full-body puppet by Chad Kimball in the 2002 Broadway revival) perpetuate our bizarre fascination with performers in cow costumes on the musical stage. And—as a particularly perceptive Yale College student of mine, Ethan Karetsky, has observed—we get a kind of post-modern rendering of Evangeline's cow in Maureen's "Over the Moon" performance in Rent . So much of what made Evangeline the theatrical blockbuster it was is, in so many ways, still with us.
Whereas Evangeline the musical concludes with an exuberant grand finale, with the company "Singing, dancing, / Always feeling gay . . . ," the conclusion of Evangeline the poem lingers over the somber image of the lovers resting "Side by side, in their nameless graves . . . . / . . . / In the heart of the city, . . . unknown and unnoticed . . . ." As irreconcilable as these endings may seem, perhaps Longfellow's is not totally irrelevant in discussing the stage adaptation's legacy. In the lines that follow the passage quoted above, the poet reverts his focus to the world of the living, recently vacated by Evangeline and Gabriel, where there exist now
Thousands of throbbing hearts, where theirs are at rest forever,
Thousands of aching brains, where theirs no longer are busy,
Thousands of toiling hands, where theirs have ceased from their labors,
Thousands of weary feet, where theirs have completed their journey!
Though today it is not widely known and seldom noticed, Evangeline, or The Belle of Acadia lies beneath so much of the musical theater that now occupies the spaces it once did. It deserves from us whose hearts throb and brains ache and hands toil and make our feet weary in order to make and enjoy what the American musical has become, more credit than we have previously been willing to grant it. Attention must be paid.
The basis for this libretto is the most complete Evangeline promptbook extant, housed at the University of Wisconsin's Tams–Witmark Collection, and dug up nearly two decades ago by Richard Jackson. Although Jackson was certain this two-act text was "one of the earliest ones" from 1874, its indication of several later songs makes clear it must be from 1877 at the earliest. In act two, cues for "In Love With the Man in the Moon" and "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley" suggest an even later date, as they were not published until circa 1890 and 1895, respectively.
The source typescript exists in a sorry state, and I have taken great care to decipher its horrific spelling, jumbled verse, creative punctuation, handwritten corrections, pencil cross-outs, and archaic stage directions, while attempting to preserve its textual integrity. In particular, however, where stage directions in the original appear either incomplete or garbled, I have rewritten them altogether for sense, clarity, and consistency. Due to the sheer volume of my emendations, they appear mostly without indication or comment, though my own original editorial insertions appear in [square brackets]. Additionally, only puns underlined in the typescript appear in italics here unless clarification was deemed necessary.
The two-act Evangeline reflected in the libretto does not match either of the three-act versions of the show reflected in the two published vocal scores. Furthermore, the libretto, which contains no lyrics whatsoever, is not always clear about which song belongs where. At times it refers to songs by name; at other times it merely sets up songs in dialogue, or else indicates in stage directions that a character sings. I have done my best to insert the lyrics where I believe they fit best in the given book. In the end, however, mine is only one solution to the "open text" puzzle (and the fun!) that is Evangeline .
The character descriptions in the "Cast of Characters" are drawn from an undated playbill held in the theatrical ephemera collection of the American Antiquarian Society. Evangeline's father is referred to as Ben in the promptbook, but as Basil in the vocal scores and AAS playbill. Out of deference to Longfellow, who calls her father Benedict, I have opted for Ben throughout. (In the poem, Basil is Gabriel 's father. In different stage versions, Basil seems sometimes to have been Evangeline's father, sometimes Gabriel's.)
Finally, antiquated indications in the stage directions taking the form " R.1.E ." signify which numbered entrance or exit a character is to use (with 1 being the downstage-most opening) and on which side of the stage ( L or R ) to do so. A letter U in place of a number simply means "upstage," perhaps through an opening in a drop.
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Most of the songs in the accompanying libretto can be heard in MIDI audio format on Colin M. Johnson's excellent website Victorian and Edwardian Musical Shows . Visit his Evangeline page at http://www.halhkmusic.com/evangel.html.
About the Editor/Writer
Brian D. Valencia is a doctor of fine arts candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama, where he is writing a dissertation on the rise and proliferation of musical dramatic forms in 18th- and 19th-century America. As a composer, musical director, dramaturg, and performer, Brian has presented his own theatrical work in New York City and New Haven, Connecticut. He is originally from Bay City, Michigan, and holds a master of fine arts degree from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in musical theater writing, as well as a bachelor of science degree from Yale College in chemical engineering. Brian is a 2012–13 Last Fellow for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society, and the 2012–13 John M. Ward Fellow in Dance and Music for the Theatre at Harvard University's Houghton Library.