Thetheatre world throughout the 1920’s to 1940’s had witnessed many great changes.It will be interesting to explore whether these were driven by changes insociety or by the actual shows inspiring changes in the social world. Kenrick(2014) says “As the 1940s ended, New Yorkwas the undisputed centre of the theatrical world, and Broadway’s last musicalhit of the decade was one of the biggest ever.”Frompersonal experience I feel the theatre world has such great power in allowingits audiences to feel such a wide variety of emotions.
Itcan raise spirits and allow people to escape from their own every-day lives.The woman’s role throughout this period changed fairly dramatically fromstarting as simple background performers, to grabbing the attention ofaudiences, to finally becoming their own rightful established artists. It willbe interesting to explore if the changing role of women in society was mimickedin musical theatre shows. The20s were the golden age of musical theatre as theatre became popular as ever. Onewebsite notes “In1927 alone, over 250 shows debuted on Broadway, and over 50 of them weremusicals. It’s estimated that 20 million people attended shows that year,which is twice the box office receipts as now.” I found this statement especially impressive consideringhow many more people live in and travel to New York now, as compared to then.
Iconic shows were first shown such as Music Box, Showboat, Beggar’s Opera andof course all of the Ziegfeld shows. WhenTV, radio and movies weren’t around Broadway was the popular form ofentertainment for most people. The shows created popular music that could beheard all around the city from radio to people pianos at home.TheTheatre deemed very popular to both men and women because of the spectacularshows including lavish sets and amazing costumes. “Everything about the scene is loud and imposing, colorful and vibrant,daring and flashy.
” Siduribeckman (2016). Broadway was very different to theaudience members normal life which is why maybe the shows were so popular andsaw audiences coming back again and again. Anidea circled round at the time that the women on stage lived an excitinglifestyle surrounded in glitz and glamour. However as lavish as theirlifestyles were they were always the background artists in the shows asdancers, choral girls or playing minor female roles that were scripted as, atthe time, stereotypical females; predictable, weak, confused and who’s maingoal is to marry and rich husband to fall in love with.
Theircharacters were created around the foundation of their physical appearance. Costumes were created to show ofthe female body, meaning the girls were able wear new and exciting designs thatin normal life they could never wear. By exploring the limits of sexual freedomon stage by wearing shorted and shinier skirts with more sequins, feathers andattitude the girls were able to become the women that they had always dreamedof becoming.
Although costumes and the idea ofwomen on stage were slowly evolving sadly a good number of shows in the 1920swere the typical ‘Cinderella’ stories. Shows by composers like Jerome Kern werenamed Sally, Irene, and Mary. These storiescontinued the Ziegfeld tradition of “glorifying the American girl.
” Akind young girl, typically lower-class, would meet the man of her dreams andend the evening with him, living happily ever after.Althoughthese shows seem very sexist and show a good interpretation of what being awomen was like in the 1920s, this wasn’t so much the case. Of course the girlswere put into the shows to attract the male gaze however it also sparkedinterest with the females gaze too because it showed the ‘glorified Americangirl’. In the Follies, for example, the girls were always dressed to perfectionin the finest costumes something that many girls back then dreamed. Thereforeseeing these glorified goddess on stage gave females of the 1920s hope and inspirationthat they too could be like the stars on stage. For many people, the 1930s worldwas one of economic depression, hardship and uncertainty. The Wall Street Crashof 1929 sent permanent devastation effects throughout America, Britain andEurope. However Broadway seemed to reflect the opposite and gave people hope,keeping spirits high after the crash.
As times started to change and women insociety started to have a voice and an opinion so did the role of women in thetheatre. Although this change was not dramatic it did start a chain reactionthat gives us todays outcome of leading ladies with strong story lines thataren’t centred around finding a husband. It’s easy to understand why Historicalcontext is so importantwhen creating a musical, therefore when the rise of women’s equality began toarrive in 1930 the idea of the contemporary love story became more importantthan ever.
For the first time, Broadways producers had to consider theiraudience differently. During the 1930s, a record number of white single womenheld jobs as typists and assistants in the rise of corporate America,especially in New York City. Working white single women had purchasing power,and therefore the power to demand a different kind of love story; a story wherethe woman had a little more punch. Of course, the stories were still ripe withmisogyny and sexist stereotypes which would stick around for a couple moredecades.
Onstagewomen’s roles were slowly building however behind the scenes women started totake a stand and lead the way in writing and producing their own shows andmusic. The musical ‘Just Because!’ iswritten and composed entirely by women. The book by written by Helen S.Woodruff and Anna Wynne, the lyrics were written by Woodruff, and the music wascomposed by Madelyn Sheppard, the only female composer. It ran for just over a month in the spring of 1922 however it hasnever been produced. Although the shows running time wasn’t very impressive Ithink this show is still really important in showing women’s rising roles inthe creative side of Broadway and hopefully inspired young girls of the timeand today to test stereotypes and break into once male dominated workforces.Whileresearching the creators of this show and their careers I noticed that they alltook very similar paths to become the successful writers and producers thatthey became.
Most of the women started out as actresses but dropped out andreturned to ‘normal life’ before they received any form of fame for particularroles. It seems form my research that the women already knew that they wantedto be something else and used the advantage of being in the industry to talk toand meet male mentors that could work along side with and advise the women ontheir work. Most of the women married these men and collaborated with them onmany projects in the early stages of their creative careers withthe wife’s writing the lyrics and the husband composing the music. However, astheir songs gained popularity, these women finally gained authority andindependence. Another famous writer,Nora Bayes, worked with her husband on many occasions but soon divorced himonce she acquired her own fame as an actress and a lyricist. The couple wereknown to be the happiest couple on the stage however this impression didn’t seemto be the case because in an interview Bayes responds to the idea with “Wewere- on the stage”.Siduribeckman(2016) mentions that “Within the Kislak Center’s Broadway sheet music collection whichdates from 1919 to 1929, there are a total of 15 female lyricists, musicians,and producers for the 384 pieces in the collection.
” From these figures alone I can see that the role ofthe women in theatre was slowing beginning to change on and off stage. Duringand post 1940 marked the start of the Golden Age of American Musical Theatre. It was during this time that Broadway iconsCole Porter and Irving Berlin started creating their hits and this was also thetime period where Rodgers and Hammerstein were first introduced to America. TheGolden age style and unique sound captured a true sense of America and what thepeople were feeling and what they needed to feel.
In a time of war, Musicaltheatre was an escape for many people from the everyday issues that the countrywas facing. Asreal life become more and more of a struggle theatre shows needed new story’sto entertain and distract audiences from the real world. This is how the ideaof a triple threat was first properly introduced. Before, audiences couldexpect to see the main actors who could possible sing too, chorale singers anddancers. However with the loss of many actors due to the war directors startedlooking for performers that could lower the cost of productions by doing all threetalents; singing, acting and dancing. Many of these new shows introduced manymore female characters as there were more female actresses compared to maleactors at the time due to social circumstances.
Two such shows that introducedthe idea of more strong female leads were ‘Guysand Dolls’ and ‘On The Town’. Theseshows seemed very popular and still continue to be performed around the worldtoday.Thisnew responsibility that was thrust upon women in the theatre was great howeverit wasn’t easy to be successful, the girls now had to be exceptional in allthree disciplines rather than just the one. During the 20thcentury almost all leading ladies on Broadway were classically trained to be’Legit’ sopranos. Previous to 1930, belt singers would play the character roleswhilst the more ‘legit’ singers would support in the chorus. Actresses likeStella Mayhew, Ethel Levy, Sophie Tucker and May Irwin, famous vaudevilleladies, sang in belt. They mostly did this in roles that were stereotyped asminorities. It is vital to emphasise that belting was not a Broadway invention.
” The history of the sound weassociate with the word belting goes back a long way. It can be found all overthe world—in African music from many countries, in flamenco from Spain, inmariachi from Mexico, in Middle Eastern music, particularly in religiousapplications.” Jeannette LoVetri explains. The blues singers BessieSmith and Ma Rainey’s first recordings showed that belting was already part ofthe commercial music industry prior to its extensive consumption on Broadway.
In, short, Broadway singers did not create the idea of belting, they simplyadopted and re-purposed the technique. 1930 iswhen Ethel Merman burst onto the Broadway scenes in ‘Girl Crazy’ written byGeorge Gershwin at the Alvin Theatre. Kevin Michael Jones (2015) explains ‘The twenty two year old actress wowedaudiences with her brassy, trumpt-like voice and her ability to sustain the Cabove middle C in chest voice for sixteen bars over a pit orchestra during thechorus of “I Got Rhythm”‘ Singing in that style was simply unheard of inthe 1930s which is why many believe Ethel Merman is one of Broadways mostinspirations leading ladies ever to step foot on stage and was the reason why abreak through for vocal diversity in leading roles was made. Gershwinwas so impressed with Merman’s performance that he told her, “don’t ever letanyone give you a singing lesson; it’ll ruin you”. Merman’s performance showedhow the belting technique could be used to make lyrics seem clearer in unamplifiedtheatres.
During the ‘Golden Age’ of Broadway (1943-1964) leading female roleswere created for both legit sopranos and belters. This meant that the way anactress told audience members what her character’s inner qualities andmotivations were more important and essential to the story rather than if theysounded ‘pretty. AfterMerman’s debut, songwriters began to create songs for female performers withlower ranges to create a speech-like, naturalistic style of singing. This cementedthe way for other singer-actresses to find success later onIn conclusion I have learnt and decided thatthe theatre emerges more and more as time goes on.
And as theatre expanded in avariety of different directions pre and post 1943, women’s importance in thetheatre was also expanded. There’s no question that women are a major part oftheatre today, participating in all kinds of ways. But there was not an easypath that led to this point. It’s unfortunate that theatre has historicallybeen unfair to women. Still, there were a lot of women who loved theatre somuch that they felt the need to defy cultural expectations and join in anyway. Althoughas pointed out in this essay there have been some apparent drawbacks to life onstage, however there was also glamour, excitement and the public admirationthat so many women saw as appealing.
Women were lured by the theatre, to itsaudience as well as its professional perks, and in doing so grew an industryand gave normal women who held potentially boring, unentertaining andunrewarding jobs a chance to support themselves financially, learn new skillsand become a star. “Women helped change the dynamic of theatre in the second half ofthe 19th century and were directly responsible for the rise in itspopularity.”