The Birth of Musical Comedy

Schwartz, Gershwin, Schonberg, Menken, Kander, Ebb, and Webber: What do these names have in common? They represent names of musical composers whose music is currently represented on the Great White Way! Names that would not have become so well known in musical theatre if it had not been for one great Irish-born composer: Victor Herbert!

The Climb to the Top

On first looking at old pictures of Herbert, the first striking trait is the mustache. He probably twirled the ends of it nervously during long periods of composing alone in his New York flat.

Victor Herbert

Victor Herbert

Herbert’s mustache gained some acclaim because his wife Therese Förster came to New York with him to sing at the Met for a season of Wagner. He got some associative fame as her pianist and then skyrocketed into the New York scene from there! His goals as a composer were to create work within a “folk theatre” scope that was reminiscent of Harrigan and Hart, a vaudevillian duo of comedic composers who also performed in NYC. Herbert’s first productions are considered “Light operas” and he was the best at writing during the turn of the 19th century. He and his twirling mustache made famous the song, “Gypsy Love Song” from The Fortune Teller (1898) that is shown here in this video performed by the Robert Shaw Chorale from 1976:

Always a Backlash

Of course, Herbert didn’t have it easy with the critics all the time. When he first came to the United States, his first job was as bandmaster for the 22nd New York National Guard Band. Critics found his ascension to composing fame to be appalling because they believed a job as a bandmaster was completely lowbrow! To think that this man should be allowed to twirl his mustache on the New York stage annoyed them. At the fame of The Fortune Teller, critics scoffed and called him a plagiarist of better composers. Unfortunately for them, their hateful words have not lasted as long as his influence on the musical comedy!

What He Gave Us

Herbert’s constant mustache twirling and composing gave the musical comedy a need for great music accompanied by a strong libretto. Though he was born in Ireland, studied in Germany, and then immigrated to the United States, his composing style helped to give identity to American musical theatre with his marches, waltzes, and ballads. Much like Antonin Dvorak and the New World Symphony, his appearance in the United States and experience of American patriotism helped him to identify us and himself as a composer in the New World.

The MacDowell Colony

Edward and Marian MacDowell

Edward and Marian MacDowell

A quiet studio just for your particular skill set sits waiting in a rural town in New England. For composers and writers there are cottages with grand pianos, beautiful bedrooms with handmade quilts and rugs, and large windows to look out into the woods for inspiration. Your gourmet lunches and breakfasts are delivered quietly and left in ornate baskets outside your door. At dinner you can join other artists at a summer camp-style mess hall to discuss progress. This Thoreauvian escape is where the most elite artists are accepted to work for weeks at a time. If it seems like your type of place, you might consider submitting your work to The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire next year.

History and Famous Fellows

Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein.

Composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian MacDowell, a pianist, invested in this property in 1896 as an escape. Its peaceful grounds and remote location made it a perfect place for MacDowell to compose. MacDowell wished he could turn the area into a community for working artists and his wife acknowledged this wish. After MacDowell’s death in 1908, Marian worked with investors like Andrew Carnegie and Grover Cleveland to turn the area into an artists’ colony. The colony has now served more than 6,000 artists including some of our theatre favorites Suzan Lori-Parks (Topdog/ Underdog), Kerrigan-Lowdermilk (Henry and Mudge), John Pielmeier (Agnes of God), Susan Blackwell (Title of Show), and Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story).

Visit the Grounds

To continue MacDowell’s belief of a community area, the colony invites the general public to visit once every summer. There is a great guest speaker or two, women wear expensive floppy hats, everyone eats lunch on the lawn, and the artists open up their cottages to display their work and speak with the public. I was lucky enough to visit the year Stephen Sondheim was the guest speaker. Musical theatre geeks from New Hampshire and Massachusetts flocked to hear him discuss his lessons learned under his mentor Leonard Bernstein. Visiting only made me more jealous of the sanctuary each of these creators are allotted for a few weeks out of the summer. As one of the top artist communities in the world, it’s no wonder why it’s difficult to become a MacDowell Fellow. Applications are usually due around April of each year.