Musical of the Month: The Black Crook

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
June 2, 2011
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Most musical theater history books cautiously locate the birth of the American Musical at Niblo's Garden (a theater once located on Prince Street) on September 12, 1866 at the opening of The Black Crook. Of course, among many scholars, this identification is regarded as something of a joke — song had been integrated into plays since the early days of Greek drama, and the songs in The Black Crook, at least in its original version, were mostly diversions from the plot — no more related to the action and characters than commercial breaks are to an episode of Glee. Nonetheless, for all the very good reasons to reject The Black Crook as the first American Musical, no one alternative has been widely accepted, and so it seems as good a place as any to begin this series.

The story of the original production of The Black Crook is steeped in legend as dramatic as the plot of the play and has served as a basis for at least two  musicals itself. Although the details of early histories vary,

Interior of Niblo's Opera House, New York City / J.W. Orr, Digital ID EM11616, New York Public Library

Niblo's Garden

most agree on the essential facts: a European ballet troupe in New York was left without a theater when their intended venue, the Academy of Music, burned to the ground. The producers, Henry Jarrett and Harry Palmer, made an arrangement with William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo's Garden, to integrate both the ballet and the spectacular stage machinery they had brought over from Europe into a Faustian melodrama that he was about to produce. The opening night ran for over six hours, which perhaps explains the multiple cuts marked in almost every extant 19th century prompt book.

The Black Crook, Digital ID 85605, New York Public Library

Negative image of a Black Crook dancer

Despite a rocky opening night, the production enjoyed phenomenal success, particularly after The New York Herald published an op-ed piece "condemning" the play for the indecency of the costumes and dancing, suggesting that there may have been "in Sodom and Gomorrah [...] such a theatre and spectacle on the Broadway of those doomed cities," and urging those "determined to gaze on the indecent and dazzling brilliancy of the Black Crook" to "provide themselves with a piece of smoked glass." However, Joseph Whitton, William Wheatley's business manager, explains in his short history of the play, the editor of The New York Herald  was likely aware that such condemnation would promote the show and was rewarding Wheatley for his loyalty to the paper. The moral crusade against the show was taken up by Reverend Charles Smyth who preached a fire and brimstone sermon against it as part of a public lecture series. All of this, of course, simply increased public interest in the play, which ran for over a year, toured, and was revived for the remainder of the 19th century.

The text of The Black Crook was clearly not what made it popular. Indeed, when an unscrupulous producer mounted an unlicensed imitation of the play (called The Black Rook) in 1867, a California circuit court judge dismissed any similarities or differences in the text of the two versions as irrelevant, arguing "A play like this has no value except as it is appreciated by the theatre-going public. It cannot be read — it is a mere spectacle, and must be seen to be appreciated." Business manager Joseph Whitton put it more succinctly when he concluded his history by noting, "I have said nothing of the literary merits of the Crook, for the best of reasons — it had none." However, Whitton goes on to write:

This, however, is no serious fault. Elegant writing, with its daintily picked words and smooth-flowing sentences, is all well enough in its place; but that place is not in the drama of this prosy, money-grabbing age. The playgoer doesn't relish it. What he wants is something to please his eye and tickle his ear — something to strangle his cares and cut the throat of his troubles — something to make him laugh and forget he has a note to pay to-morrow, with no money to meet it. This is what he is after, and shrewd managers will show their shrewdness by accommodating him.

These sentiments seem so familiar and strangely modern that maybe, just maybe, calling The Black Crook the first American musical isn't so terribly off the mark after all.

A note on the ebook edition:

I originally transcribed the text of the ebook below from the Federal Theater Project typescript in the Library of Congress, which I then edited to reflect the text of the 1866 prompt book held by NYPL. In an effort to make a readable text, I have not attempted to reproduce the marginalia describing staging, sound, and light cues, and have removed empty parenthesis that follow most references to "Music" [eg. Music ( ) ]. Those interested in this textual information will be able to find it in the digital images of the prompt book that have just been produced and will soon be available in the Library's Digital Gallery.

You can download the libretto of The Black Crook (transcribed from the NYPL prompt book) in the following formats:

File type
What it's for
(Most ebook readers, except Kindle)
(Computer and Kindle)
(Web browser)
Plain text
(Almost any digital device)
(Digital Humanities geeks)

This entry inaugurates the 12-month series I described in my last blog post: Musical of the Month. Each month I will post the libretto of an important early American musical in a variety of formats and supplement it with associated photographs, vocal scores, and the occasional audio file.