Musical of the Month Reboot: Clare Kummer's "The Choir Rehearsal"

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
June 18, 2019
Photo of Clare Kummer
Clare Kummer 

Photograph by White Studio from the Victor Finizio Collection*T-Mss 2001-004

Maestra, an organization recently founded by composer Georgia Stitt, seeks, in the words of their mission statement, "to give support, visibility, and community to the women who make the music in the musical theater industry." As part of this work,  Maestra affiliate Shoshana Greenberg created a really interesting timeline of musicals by women composers on Broadway

One of the women featured on the timeline is Clare Kummer, a composer, playwright, and lyricist who was exceptionally prolific in the first decades of the 20th century. In a recent social media post, Stitt mentioned her interest in learning more about Kummer. Intrigued, I looked through our own collections here at the New York Public Library and found that, while her papers are preserved at Princeton University, we have quite a few of her scripts in the Theatre division of NYPL.

When I mentioned this online, others expressed a great deal of interest in making her work more visible. A small group of enthusiasts has begun to transcribe Kummer's scripts; we are also trying to track down her scores and hope to organize performances of her work at the Library in the near future. If you are interested in joining this work, please email me at dougreside@nypl.org.

The first edition of Kummer's work created by this team is the libretto of the 1921 musical,The Choir Rehearsal. The team, including Alex Greenberg and Sarah Whitfield, transcribed the Samuel French edition (available from The Internet Archive) into Google Docs, which we then used to produce PDF, TXT, and DOCX versions. Whitfield, a musical theatre scholar from the United Kingdom, also researched the play and wrote the introduction below an NYPL guest blogger.

It is my hope that this represents the first in several editions of Kummer's work we will release as part of a reboot of the Musical of the Month series (which started in 2011 but has been on hiatus for several years).

You can view and download the libretto of The Choir Rehearsal in the following formats:The Choir Rehearsal—PDF

The Choir Rehearsal—DOCX 

The Choir Rehearsal—TXT

-----------------------------------------------------------

Clare Kummer's The Choir Rehearsal 

by Sarah Whitfield

As is the case with many women who worked in professional theatre in the first half of the 20th century, Clare Beecher Kummer (1873-1958) appears to have disappeared from the histories of Broadway. Kummer worked professionally for 50 years, with Broadway credits in each of those five decades; she opened shows in the UK and Australia, wrote seven movie scripts and contributed to an eighth, and even saw some of her plays produced as TV scripts.

Coming from an educated and literary family—Harriet Beecher Stowe was her great aunt—Kummer was clearly able to receive a good level of music and literary education. By any definition, she was an extraordinary polymath: first known as a composer and songwriter with her early hit Dearie (1905) sung by Sallie Fisher, she then worked as a script doctor (she is charmingly described as a ‘libretto patcher’1in one news article), and then as a playwright and musical theatre writer. Kummer also adapted (and possibly translated) at least two European operettas, The Opera Ball (1912), and Madame Pompadour (1924).

Kummer wrote several successful plays, becoming particularly known for her comedies and farces, with her unique comedic style. Intriguingly, she had very early connections with Europe, writing a three-act comic opera, Captain Kidd, or the Buccaneers in 1898.She even appeared, on one occasion, in variety theatre in London: in August 1909, she played at the newly renovated London Hippodrome, performing and playing her own songs at the piano. She was well-reviewed, described as having "a charming voice and sentiment" by the London Times.3

The Kummer piece discussed here is a short one-act musical, The Choir Rehearsal, which appears to have had two lives. The first started in New York vaudeville in February 1917; the second was touring one of the North Eastern vaudeville circuits. Kummer was already well-known as a playwright and composer. One review described the play as an "altogether delightful and an extremely deft bit of playwriting - its very slightness is turned to account"4; The New York Times was less impressed saying "Miss Kummer has really taken a seductive bar of melody and written a bit of a play about it."5 The Choir Rehearsal starred vaudeville performer Sallie Fisher, and was presumably written for her—their connection from Dearie had continued when Fisher performed Kummer’s songs in a speciality vaudeville act as early as 1913.6

The Choir Rehearsal appeared on vaudeville bills alongside other acts—this mixture of musical theater and vaudeville was increasingly common in British and American variety/vaudeville theater during this period. Short, loosely plotted revues sat alongside animal acts or comedians; during its run in Boston at the Keith's TheatreThe Choir Rehearsal could be seen alongside "The Gaudsmiths," a speciality dog act starring two spanish poodles.7

In 1921, the play was revived with a more traditional Broadway premiere when it played alongside Rollo’s Wild Oats at the Punch and Judy Theatre, again starring Fisher in the lead role. It was well-received, cementing Kummer’s reputation for a certain kind of subtle comedy. One reviewer wrote "Miss Kummer's feathery humor has been a too infrequent joy."8

More than 100 years later, the play is still funny, and the dialogue remains sharp and well-paced, even if some of the references have become lost. It's the 1870s, and Esmeralda has gotten into trouble with her church and religious community for daring to sing a song about romantic love which isn’t a hymn, and has been cast out of her choir and the church altogether. One evening, with the choir needing somewhere to rehearse, they, conveniently for us, come around to Esmeralda’s house. We see their pious, if rather pompous, exchanges; one character, Sister Abigail, is written less an antagonist as a wry foil to Esmeralda’s more emotional responses and gets some of the best lines. When deciding what the choir should sing, she suggests:

"I thought as sister Mordecai’s boy has turned from grace and gone to the haunts of sin, it would be very comforting to her if we was to sing Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight."

Of course this is a musical, and it happens that this rehearsal is on the same night that the new Parson Alan, (admittedly an unlikely name for a romantic lead) arrives to meet the now non-churchgoing young woman.

Parson Alan insists on hearing the song that got Esmerelda into all that trouble in the first place, A Wonderful Thing; when he does, he finds a spiritual meaning for the love song and insists she sing it at church. Of course, Alan falls in love with Esmeralda, and she with him.

If this sounds sickly sweet, it isn’t. Esmeralda is enduringly written, resisting the religious expectations of her strict community through her thinly veiled desires for something better than what is expected. She asks for directions to Broadway for a start—never a good sign—and, even placated by her newfound love for Alan, still asks him "Is the wonderful thing just being good? Is that all there is for us?" Alan doesn’t really have a satisfactory answer. The ending is happy and perhaps contemporary audiences saw it as such. But it leaves a sense of wanting more from life, something hard not to associate with the extraordinary figure of Clare Kummer.

About Sarah Whitfield:
Sarah Whitfield is a musical theatre researcher, practitioner and academic. She writes about theater history with a particular focus in uncovering the work that under-represented and minoritized groups do, and have done, in the arts. Her recent publications include Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables and, as an editor, the 2019 collection Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity.

Notes

1"ABOUT PEOPLE WE KNOW." 1917. Town & Country, Jan 20, 15-15, 17. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

2 The Stage, July 14, 1898, p. 11.

3Lawrence, Arthur, "The Evolution of Entertainment." Times, July 28, 1909, 8. The Times Digital Archive (accessed May 27, 2019). http://tinyurl.galegroup.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/tinyurl/A95j37.

4"ANOTHER BY CLARE KUMMER: HER SKETCH AT THE PALACE A DECIDED AND DESERVED SUCCESS." 1917. New York Tribune (1911-1922), Feb 20, 11. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

5"'CHOIR REHEARSAL' PLEASES: CLARE KUMMER DRAMATIZES A BAR OF MUSIC FOR SALLIE FISHER." 1917. New York Times (1857-1922), Feb 20, 7. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

6"Auditorium." 1913. The Sun (1837-1993), May 18, 1. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

7"SALLIE FISHER THE STAR AT KEITH'S: ACTS A BRIGHT LITTLE COMEDY, CALLED "THE CHOIR REHEARSAL"- OTHER FEATURES." 1917. Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Apr 17, 2. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

8Special to The Christian Science Monitor from its Eastern,News Office. 1921. "FOUR PLAYS BY CLARE KUMMER." The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current File), Mar 08, 12. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.....

Further resources

Finizio, Victor Lee. 1965 "CLARE KUMMER: AN ANALYSIS OF HER PLAYS AND MUSICALS." Order No. 6603427, The University of Iowa. http://ezproxy.nypl.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/docview/302173283?accountid=35635.

Shafer, Yvonne. American Women Playwrights, 1900-1950. Peter Lang, 1995.