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In the age of ever-evolving technology, it is amazing how tight of a grasp musical theater still has on the American imagination. The world is saturated with different forms of entertainment including cinema, television, and streaming services, yet musical theater has remained consistently popular. Through unique dance, song, and drama, theater effortlessly transports the audience to a world of fantasy and romance. Centering on Broadway in America, musicals have since progressed to include extravagance that was not initially essential in productions. However, although not especially baroque, the significance of early American musical theater performances remains. Two of the most influential figures that spearheaded the rise of American musical theater are Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr and Irving Berlin. Ziegfeld and Berlin marked the stage with their bold attitudes and paved the way for many more individuals to join. While Ziegfeld’s contributions of popularizing individuals and performers differed from Berlin’s contribution of combining different musical elements to create “American-sounding” music, both composers were instrumental in the successful integration of immigrants into American culture through their influences in American theater.
The Ziegfeld’s were a talented musical family, save for Florenz Jr., who had no interest in attending musical college and an interest in show business. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was born to music professor Herr Doktor Florenz Ziegfeld, Sr., who opened the Chicago Musical College in 1867 (Brideson 3). Following the Great Fire of 1871, the Ziegfeld family relocated their home and the college to Chicago’s business district (Brideson 10). Here, Ziegfeld found himself enticed by a variety of influences – flamboyant individuals, burlesque theaters and music that was the opposite of his father’s. He especially idolized the brash nature of Buffalo Bill Cody, a stage performer, who made a name for himself through extravagance in his image, personality, and marketing (Brideson 13). Ziegfeld managed amateur shows while working for his father until 1894, when he decided to make a name for himself. The show that first put Ziegfeld on the map was for Prussian immigrant, Eugen Sandow. Ziegfeld brandished Sandow’s talent through colossal exaggeration (Brideson 18). Ziegfeld had a knack for advertising the best qualities in people and drawing crowds in. With Ziegfeld’s help, Sandow was deemed one of America’s first sex symbols and harvested an infamous reputation that some individuals condemned. However, audiences still traveled far and wide to see this “monarch of muscle” (Brideson 19). Ziegfeld used this technique to popularize his musical shows and its major success impacted managers and producers, alike.
Using his experiences from managing different acts, Ziegfeld began to play a much larger role in shows. He always sought perfection, and this was notably apparent with the beginning of Ziegfeld’s Follies. Beginning in 1907, Ziegfeld designed a show consisting of different talents to showcase a particular star. These shows became a hit with audiences, as reporters called it “Mr. Ziegfeld’s superlative achievement” (New York Times). One of the largest contributions to the show was Burt Williams’ performances. Burt Williams, an African-American comedian, performed for The Follies’ famous eleven o’clock song, or the encore performance for the most beloved performer of the time (Gardner). Williams was a light skinned individual and was told to perform in black face, but was allowed to incorporate into his performances the anger and sadness that African-Americans faced during the time. His performance was an instant success and The Follies were successfully integrated, allowing aspiring artists to join the industry, and there were many who had done so.
While Ziegfeld was rising in stardom, a young Irving Berlin was exposed to the intricacies of American entertainment. Berlin was an immigrant who lost his father at a young age, and was forced to become a street singer for change (Gelbwasser 4). He progressed to a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe, a Chinatown beer hall, by 1906 (Kart). It was through consistently singing that Berlin developed a love of writing music. Berlin was also able to learn from various pianists he met through his occupation, whom he often sought advice from (Wright 39). This was particularly advantageous for Berlin, since he had no musical background or training. He understood how to compose a successful song and, not long after, released a major hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911 (Wright 40). Berlin believed that American-sounding music had not yet existed and curated a new sound with Jewish and African-American influences. He used slang, punctuation, grammatical mistakes, and audiences loved it (Wright 40). Jerome Kern, notable composer, stated in a letter that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music, he is American music” (Holden).
Berlin’s talents did not go unnoticed, as his signature style dominated the musical era at the time. In 1914, Berlin wrote America’s first ragtime musical, Watch Your Step (Wright 43). This was the first instance of ragtime music on both Broadway and popular tunes. Although Berlin did not birth the musical stylings of ragtime, his music thrived during the Tin Pan Alley era. The Tin Pan alley era, approximately 1980 to 1950, was coined from the sounds that filled the streets as people would play cheap pianos (Gelbwasser 6). The reason behind his success was his ability to assimilate both his jewishness and his blackness into his lyrics. Berlin concentrated on the themes of home, love, self-pity, and happiness. His signature style dominated the time, as displayed in Watch Your Step and the various productions thereafter. His influence was apparent, as audiences of all color enjoyed a true American sound.
Broadway underwent significant changes that has resulted in what America knows today. This would not be the case had the influences of Irving Berlin and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. not existed. Ziegfeld created ornate productions, was an amazing salesman, and paved the way for African-Americans to join the entertainment industry through his integration of The Follies. Irving Berlin provided nationalism and helped immigrants assimilate into American culture through his song stylings and America’s first ragtime musical. Without these figures to forefront these movements, American musical theater may not be what it is today.
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