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The Great American Revue: How Ziegfeld, White and their Rivals Remade Broadway.


Due to events being held in library, The Great American Revue exhibition will close early on the following day:

  • Tuesday, May 15 at 5:00 pm

What are Revues? In our fantasies, fed by nostalgia and Hollywood, they are concoctions of songs, dance, elaborate costumes and semi-nudity. To devotees of the American Songbook, they were the laboratories in which Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, Schwartz, Gorney, Harburg, Rome, and many others learned to ply their craft. To historians, they are editorial cartoons, preserving contemporary responses to Suffrage, Prohibition, World War I, and the other topical, political and cultural concerns of their day.  Join us for the Film Series, Hollywood's Rave Revues (Tuesday afternoons in May), and for three public programs on music (Wednesday, May 2 at 6:30), Dance (June 13 at 6:30), and Impressarios (June 20 at 6:30).

Revues are too often defined by how they were not – musicals or vaudeville. They appeared on Broadway but were not musical comedies or operettas, since those genres were written to character around plots. They respected the specialties of performers, but were not vaudeville, since the selection and order of acts were curated, provided with a consistent vision determined by a producer or director. Although there were many single shot revues, the exhibit focuses on Broadway revues with multiple, annual editions.[Brox Sisters (three) with elaborate costumes and  hats.], Digital ID ps_the_2256, New York Public Library
Why did Revues become so popular in the early 20th century?
Revues responded to a confluence of 3 urban and 3 cultural influences:
v     A swell of general interest in political and cultural news, fed by New York’s 13 daily papers
v     Extension of the Times Square/Broadway performance calendar to include summer productions, thanks to improvements in air conditioning and elevators
v     Vaudeville’s success at marketing to specific audiences led revue producers to focus on “summer widowers,” businessmen whose families leave the city for summer
v     Popularity of imitations as a performance specialty, especially as practiced in vaudeville and roof garden shows
v     Radical changes in social and theatrical dance, each in turn was integrated into revues
v     The new phenomenon of frequent Broadway runs for African American musical comedies. Although plot dependent (and therefore not included in the exhibition), they introduced revue creators to the songwriters and arrangers of syncopation, blues and jazz.
Revue series were linked and named for their “impresarios,” who could be producer, director and/or theater manager. Revues could be developed by a settlement house project such as The Neighborhood Playhouse, The Theatre Guild production collective, or the International Ladies’ Garment Makers’ Union.   But the great majority or shows were commercial ventures. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., J. J. and Lee Shubert and the Hippodrome’s R. H. Burnside were full time producer/directors, managing multiple musicals as well as the revues series. 
Developing these shows was a complex balancing act. The producers/directors/impresarios juggled the relative importance of topical scripts, songs, dance, design, and performer specialties. Some came from these fields – Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Elsie Janis, Grand Street’s Agnes Morgan, and Earl Carroll were all songwriters, while George White was a noted dancer and dance director. 
That balancing act meant that revues had a huge impact on the American performance industries since each edition could feature multiple designers, directors and writers for songs and comedy routines. Ziegfeld relied on Joseph Urban as set and concept designer, but the John Murray Anderson revues showcased 6 – 8 artists each, including many of the women designers of the 1920s. R. H. Burnside maintained a large studio of male and female set and costume designers for the Hippodrome shows and the revues and musical comedies that he produced at other theaters. The revues credited dozens of script, song and joke writers. In addition, comics often provided their own material, interpolating songs or monologues, that gave (small print) credit to Blanche Merrill or Alex Rogers for Fanny Brice and Bert Williams acts, respectively. 
What did the revue audience see and hear on stage? What entertained them and made them laugh?   Through scores, prompt scripts and lyric sheets, posters, photographs, production notes, and spectacular original designs for sets, costumes, logos and billboards, the gallery audience can experience the grandeur and humor of the Great American Revues, 1907 – 1938.