Listen to part of a lecture in a theater history class.
One of the things New York City is known for is its Broadway theaters—big productions, elaborate musicals.
A lot of money goes into producing a musical—with the actors, costumes, scenery… and so on—the shows are designed to appeal to large audiences, to make the production financially viable.
But theater didn’t always appeal to the masses.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was mostly wealthy residents who were going to Broadway—they would see an opera that was probably written and produced in Europe before making its way over to New York.
It was a scene for, uh, well… the socially prominent, the upper class—who attended these functions perhaps because they felt obligated rather than because of a genuine interest in theater.
But, in the 1860s, something else started to occur: the middle-class population began to grow—and they were looking for a source of entertainment.
Keep that in mind while I talk about a theater owner named William Wheatley.
In 1866, William Wheatley had this show, uh… and it was different from most shows on Broadway at the time because it wasn’t an opera.
And, it was developed right here in the United States… in English, unlike the operas, which were typically in Italian or French.
Wheatley also decided to incorporate some fancy production techniques—stage effects.
The show also included music to make it more entertaining.
And, through a stroke of luck, a world-renowned ballet troupe became available just as Wheatley’s show was about to open, so he didn’t hesitate to include the ballet dancers in his production.
Along the lines of those special effects I mentioned, Wheatley redesigned the entire stage for this show: every floorboard on the stage could be lifted up or pushed down—they were all moveable.
This allowed for trap doors to be placed anywhere on the stage, so pieces of the set—uh, of the scenery—could easily be stored beneath the stage… and these trap doors also gave performers another, less traditional way to enter and exit the stage.
While today we might not think much of it—things like this are standard nowadays—the concept was quite novel at the time of Wheatley’s show… and was one of the things that made the show a hit with audiences.
Another innovative element in the show was a scene called the “transformation scene.”
During this scene, the audience watched in amazement as the setting on stage changed from a moonlit cave to a throne room in a palace.
Normally to have this type of major scene change, the curtains would close, the stage crew would remove the previous set and replace it with the new one, and then the curtains would open again.
In this instance, though, the transformation took place in front of the audience using simple machinery.
And this effect… it left a lasting impression on everyone who saw Wheatley’s production.
In fact, those people were probably disappointed when they saw another show that didn’t contain something as, well… as elaborate or exciting.
So look, when it premiered, Wheatley’s show took audiences by surprise… it appealed to large crowds, including the growing middle class.
The show ran for almost two years straight in New York City, an achievement unheard of at a time when productions typically lasted weeks or months—not years.
It also went on tour, visiting different cities across the United States for over 25 years.
So… the show was quite a success.
And with all that in mind, some people call Wheatley’s show the first musical on Broadway.
Now, our current definition of a musical is that it tells a story through dialogue and song.
In Wheatley’s show, the musical sections, well, they didn’t necessarily integrate well with the story, giving an overall impression of something more like a variety show.
Yes, everything was loosely focused around a central theme… so maybe it’s fair to say, then, that this show gave audiences a hint of a new form of musical theater that would ultimately appear on Broadway in the decades to follow.