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The idea that “The American musical sprung from slavery and immigration” certainly has its merits when examining the main currents in the American musical prior to 1942, as influences from minstrel shows and the influx of immigration introduced new performance styles and subject matters to the steadily developing art of American musical theatre. Regarding the implication that slavery was one of the launching points from which the American musical sprung, one could certainly take this as a reference to the reverberating effects of minstrelsy shows.
Minstrelsy, which was popularized in the mid nineteenth century during American slavery and continued to be a popular form until its fade from public favor in the post-Civil War period, is best defined as a variety performance form which featured white performers in blackface invoking exaggerated impersonations of what they believed to be inductive of “negro lives and matters”. This race-oriented performance form was most certainly derived from the racial division generated by American slavery, as it was often Northern white performers with little credible knowledge of Southern plantation life who most used this form to romanticize the realities of life as an African American slave.
Minstrelsy introduced the first roots of American popular music as original compositions were formed for the shows from the likes of people like Stephen Foster, and also in its’ structure sewed the first seeds of a show that alternated between ensemble and featured “specialty” performers. Minstrelsy’s musical and structural legacy helped to define the developing American musical theatre as it was seen as the first “anti-European” or “anti-formal” piece of genuine American-made performance.
Immigration also played a large role in the production of American musical theatre, as the rush of European immigration in the nineteenth century to New York not only yielded highly important figures such as Irving Berlin, but the blending and interaction between different ethnic groups advanced the art of variety performance which pre-1942 American musical theatre would ultimately mature from. As immigrants from all backgrounds – whether Irish, Jewish, Italian, Russian, German, or other – struggled to find their place and sense of belonging in their new home, many found that showmanship was a way to connect to the other diverse groups of their growing Manhattan neighborhoods through the employment of ethnic variety shows which played off of ethnic stereotypes to create entertainment. These variety shows became not only a way for otherwise unqualified immigrants to create a living, but also a way to create a sense of belonging for new ethnic groups in America by putting their stereotypes onstage.
The inclusion of more diversity and cultural interaction on the variety stage advanced the form, as other variety forms such as burlesque, vaudeville, and revue flourished from the interest and participation of immigrants. Not only did immigration advance the forms that would ultimately breed the formula of the American musical, but it also popularized the very idea of American show business as theatre became a source of opportunity and involvement.
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