The Wicked Stage: What effect did 1920s America have on musical theatre?

Ever since my first year of university, when my lecturers told this story, I have been fascinated by it and couldn’t help but share it with A Younger Theatre readers. Many of you may know this already, but for those who don’t, this is my favourite piece of musical theatre trivia.

There is a vast difference in structure between the front of house of London and New York theatres – here in London we have bars. Many of the New York theatres were built during the USA prohibition era of 1920–1933, and as such did not have bars built into them. Due to this lack of alcohol, the audiences would sneak out during the interval to a nearby speakeasy to get their booze fix before hot-footing it back to the theatre for the second half. Now, I have never been to New York so can’t say if this is true (and nor do I wish to find out, as I love this story), but the tale comes from the writers and theatricals who were not unobservant – they noticed that audiences took a while to get back into their seats after intervals, causing writers to decide to change how they structured a show. They made the opening of Act 2 a big showy chorus number, or at least something that doesn’t advance the plot, so audiences have a chance to get back in their seats before the plot gets going again. The strange thing is that this practice continued even after the end of prohibition, right up to the present day, and it isn’t just an American phenomenon…

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! (1943) opens Act 2 with a chorus number ‘The Cowman and The Farmer’, highlighting the antagonism between the cowboys and the farmers, which the audience pretty much already knew from Act 1, as indeed did anyone who studied the American West during GCSE History. Similarly, ‘Masquerade’ opens the second half of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (1988), a song that comments that everyone wears some kind of mask in a figurative and literal sense, but doesn’t really advance the plot. A more recent example is Wicked (2003), which opens Act 2 with a reprise of how it opened Act 1: ‘No One Mourns The Wicked’. One of my lecturers likened this opening to American TV shows, which catch you up with what you missed in previous episodes (a bit like how Glee episodes start, now I think of it). Some more examples include Sweeney Todd (1979), which returns with customers eating pies made out of humans – whilst this is narrative, it is essentially just re-establishing what the audience already knows about the legend and character of Sweeney. The Lion King (1997) comes back from the interval with the cast singing, in African dress, the song ‘One By One’ – they are not even in their character costumes, let alone advancing the plot. The list goes on: Showboat (1928), Kiss Me Kate (1948), Legally Blonde (2007), Rent (1994) Oliver! (1960)… It is probably easier to find exceptions to the rule than list every show that conforms to this theatrical norm.

Without going through every musical ever written the only one I can think of is Les Miserables (1985), which may be an exception because it is more operatic in its approach and structure, in terms of vocal style and the fact there is no dialogue. ‘At The Barricade’ is the setting up of the iconic barricade, one of the most important theatrical elements of the show, developing [SPOILER ALERT] the plot of Javert being a double agent. The main reason it doesn’t conform to the ‘Act 2 norm’ is because it’s through-sung; whilst most shows tend to be defined by songs being cut up by moments of dialogue (meaning there are clear breaks between musical numbers) with Les Mis you don’t get that clear definition as it’s like one giant three hour song. However, you could argue that because there are some songs which are so well-known, such as ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ and ‘Bring Him Home’, the opening few minutes are basically a set up for Eponine to sing ‘On My Own’, which is one of the songs a well-versed theatregoer may be waiting to hear. So whilst I’m not saying that Les Mis does or doesn’t follow the rule, I think that it falls into a greyer area than most shows.

Theatre is known to be tied closely with social contexts and historical events, but the sometimes-forgotten musicals have their structural traditions too. If anyone knows of any other shows that have plot filled Act 2 openers then do let me know as I would love to find them out – I do love a good exception to the rule.

Image by Jim Nix.