Greenwich Village Follies

Music published by Leo Feist. Artwork by H.H. Warner

Billed as a “Revusical Comedy of New York’s Latin Quarter,”[1] The Greenwich Village Follies enjoyed eight seasons among New York's most opulent of revues. In its heyday, the production was the creative brainchild of John Murray Anderson, fated to become one of the most prolific producers/directors of his time.[2] The first edition opened (a day late) on July 15, 1919, at the newly-constructed Greenwich Village Theatre near Christopher Street. The show’s instant success, however, owed much to the timing of its opening. As a non-union production, it was poised to flourish during the actors’ strike that darkened much of Broadway at the time.[3]

From downtown to uptown

Though considered a pioneer in the history of Off-Broadway musicals,[4] this annual revue actually spent very little time in its original downtown home. The first edition moved uptown soon after its opening, as did the second. By the third year, the revue simply skipped its native venue and opened at the Shubert Theatre.[5] Typically, after a run in New York, an adapted version of the show toured the country.

Rival revues

To the dismay of rival impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Anderson changed the last word of his title from “Nights” to “Follies.” Ziegfeld did not take Anderson to court, but in the decade to come, the two Broadway moguls were often compared.[6] Like Ziegfeld’s famous Follies, Anderson’s revue boasted of lavish curtains,[7] original scores, comedy sketches, and, of course, a bevy of beautiful girls. Other peers included George White, with his Scandals; and Earl Carroll, with his Vanities.

Featured acts

The first star of The Greenwich Village Follies was Ziegfeld-veteran Bessie McCoy Davis. She made several appearances in the first edition, including one as a marionette. While singing “I’m the Hostess of the Bum Cabaret,” she spoofed the recently-ratified Eighteenth Amendment.[8] The names at the top of the marquee changed from season to season. In a 1924 number titled “The Dollies and the Collies,” trained dogs danced alongside vaudeville's celebrated Dolly Sisters.[9] Specialty acts included circus veterans, such as the wire-walking Bird Millman[10]; female impersonators, such as Bert Savoy[11]; and even blackface comics, such as Al Herman[12] and comedy team of Moran and Mack. In later editions, aspiring dancers Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille made appearances.[13]

Music and dance

In 1919, a critic for The New York Times commended the collective singing talent of the cast: not only did a male quartet provide harmony, the beautiful girls who had no other obligation than to be beautiful proved to have beautiful voices as well.[14] The following season, another newspaper critic extended high praise to the show’s choreography.[15] A year after that, however, a critic decried the show’s over-reliance on dance.[16] For nearly a decade, popular composers of the day, including Irving Berlin,[17] Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers,[18] contributed tunes; but to the perpetual disappointment of the backers, the revue never seemed to produce any notable hits.[19]

Distinguishing qualities

True to its bohemian roots, the revue came to be distinguished by its socially- and intellectually-provocative content.[20] Even so, the material appealed to the eye as well as the brain. Anderson was often noted for his striking stage pictures and his novel lighting effects.[21] Not surprisingly, the ballad ballet became a staple of the revue. Popular stories, such as Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose”[22] and Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven,” provided inspiration for these wordless interludes.

Decline

By the late 1920s, the Broadway revue was losing patrons to story-driven book musicals like Show Boat. Anderson left the show after 1924,[23] and the franchise went into hibernation during the seasons of 1926 and 1927. The last year the revue was produced on Broadway was 1928. At the onset of the Great Depression, the modest and short-lived Greenwich Village Theatre was demolished.

Reinvention

In July of 2011, the Manhattan Theatre Source reimagined The Greenwich Village Follies as an exploration of local history. Like its predecessor, this production paid homage to members of the cultural avant-garde, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Jackson Pollock; it also tackled gritty subjects, such as the Stonewall Uprising of 1969.[24]

References

  1. ^ New York Herald, September 1, 1921, 9.
  2. ^ Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 1985, 31.
  3. ^ Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 342.
  4. ^ Hischak, Thomas S. Off-Broadway Musicals Since 1919: From Greenwich Village Follies to The Toxic Avenger. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011
  5. ^ Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 1985, 31.
  6. ^ New-York Tribune, August 31, 1920, 6.
  7. ^ New York Times, July 16, 1919
  8. ^ New York Times, July 16, 1919
  9. ^ Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 393.
  10. ^ New York Herald, September 1, 1921, 9.
  11. ^ New-York Tribune, August 31, 1920, 6.
  12. ^ New York Herald, September 1, 1921, 9.
  13. ^ Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 380/536.
  14. ^ New York Times, July 16, 1919
  15. ^ New-York Tribune, August 31, 1920, 6.
  16. ^ New York Herald, September 13, 1922, 6.
  17. ^ Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 1985, 31.
  18. ^ Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, 393.
  19. ^ Everett, William A., and Paul R. Laird. Historical Dictionary of the Broadway Musical. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, 325.
  20. ^ Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 1985, 31.
  21. ^ New-York Tribune, August 31, 1920, 6.
  22. ^ New York Herald, September 13, 1922, 6.
  23. ^ Green, Stanley. Broadway Musicals Show by Show. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 1985, 31.
  24. ^ Gates, Anita. New York Times, July 4, 1911, C2.

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