The American Theater
She began her tour in February and played profitably all over the country. By May, the core of the Civic Repertory Theater was established and donations were being accepted to further the creation.
By June of 1926, LeGallienne had signed a lease on the old Fourteenth Street Theater. Built in 1866, it had a grand and impressive history, but had fallen on hard times and was practically abandoned. The theater seated 1100 patrons including a large gallery for the $.50 seats that LeGallienne envisioned. The theater opened in October with performances of Saturday Night,The Three Sisters and LeGallienne's little company's stock of Ibsen, Goldoni's La Locandiera,, Susan Glaspell's The Inheritors, and a touch of Shakespeare. She debuted her Twelfth Night on Christmas Eve.
LeGallienne advertised in all of the foreign language newspapers, and her audiences were a grand mix of immigrants, students and uptown theatergoers, who were exuberant over the performances turned in by this troupe. Alexander Woollcott praised it as "the new life in the theater", and another critic said that "the Civic Repertory Theater ... [is] one of the most significant events not only in the history of the American stage, but in the history of America...". LeGallienne had offered her company 20 weeks of work. The season extended to 30 weeks with the demanded tours that followed the theater's seasonal close.
The Civic Repertory, besides offering great theater at prices attainable to every part of the population, also proved a training ground for some interesting names. Early on in the Rep's history was the addition of Josephine Hutchinson, who made a delightful "Alice" in LeGallienne's Alice in Wonderland. Katherine Hepburn also applied, to hone her craft, but was denied entry to the august little company because there wasn't room for another ingenue. Miss Hepburn has said, "I wanted to work with Eva because she understood that I wasn't beautiful, but had to pretend to be." The implication is that LeGallienne could make people "see" what she wanted them to see, and had the ability to pass that talent on. Nazimova joined the Civic Repertory's company in 1928 on her return from Hollywood.
While Broadway's theater season for 1928-29 was disastrous, LeGallienne's Civic did exceptionally well, both critically and economically. While funds from the wealthy supporters were drying up as a result of the Crash of 1929, LeGallienne was receiving funds from students, women's clubs, and bridge circles -- hundreds of individual donors wanting to own a brick in the vision of a National Theater. These donations, plus the success of her company's performances, kept the promise and vision alive well into the next decade. The Civic Rep's family grew to include May Sarton, Burgess Meredith, Jacob Ben-Ami, Howard De Silva and Merle Maddern.
Musical theater during this period was also changing. The operetta was becoming passe. This isn't to say that Rudolph Friml's Rose Marie wasn't well accepted when it opened in September of 1924. With lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach, the show had a run of 557 performances, which was considered very successful by the day's standards. Its popularity was renewed in 1936, when it became a film vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; but the operetta form was seeing its demise, or rather, a synthesis.
Vaudeville, too, was undergoing such a change. The classic "revues" (Ziegfeld's, Carroll's and White's) were co-opting the best vaudeville acts like Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor to headline their shows - along with fellow vaudevillians W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Sophie Tucker, and Will Rogers - leaving Vaudeville in a transition toward the bawdier "Burlesques". An example of the pressure Vaudeville was facing can be illustrated by the fact that when Sophie Tucker opened her two-a-day stint at the Palace in 1926, she simultaneously performed her cabaret act. This is the first time the Keith-Albee managers permitted this to happen. Vaudeville was desperate for "bankable" stars.
The operetta was generally a light comedy, relying heavily on music to deliver the story derived from a European classic tradition or more correctly, a German-Austrian classical tradition. During World War I, with feelings running high against anything vaguely considered "German", it had suffered in its popularity. Cohan's style, which was the prevalent form for musical comedies, was heavy on the comedy with music and dance segments "pasted in."
While new songs were written for shows, it was also common practice to insert songs from previous shows or to work popular songs into a script. The character had always been the decisive force in selection of the music chosen. With the advance of the career of Jerome Kern, and following a principle he had begun with Very Good Eddie in 1915, the music began to form and define the character. That sounds like double-talk, but it's a very subtle distinction. To understand the difference it made, examine the difference between No, No, Nanette, written in the "Cohan" style which opened in September of 1925 (570 performances), and Show Boat, which opened December 27, 1927, with the largest advance sale yet recorded.
It shouldn't be thought that Kern, with his collaborators, had been moving steadily toward Show Boat. He had created in the "Cohan" style, Sally in 1920, and Sunny in 1927. Both of these shows have been criticized as "Revues" parading as musical comedies. Both were created for Florenz Ziegfeld, and we know what his idea of theater was. This collaboration of Kern, Hammerstein and lyricist Otto Harbach for Show Boat was based on Kern's new theories of what a musical could be and what the music and lyrics should do.
The transition of Musical Theater is complete in Showboat. From "Where's the Mate for Me" to "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" to "Only Make-believe" to "You Are Love" to "Bill", the songs define characters and relationships and progress the story. They are not "set up" in the scripting, but actually set up and prepare for the continuance of the scene. Billed as the "All American Musical Comedy", Show Boat seems to have broken every tradition of musical comedy theater. It dealt with the "adult" themes of racism, miscegenation and dysfunctional marriage. The show was so successful that it toured for almost a year after its Broadway run ended (575 performances) with its star, Norma Terris, being replaced by her understudy, Miss Irene Dunne.
Show Boat was so popular and profitable that Flo Ziegfeld, the producer, revived the show in 1929 when the role of Joe, previously played by Jules Bledsoe, was assumed by Paul Robeson - who had backed out of the role in the original due to delays in production. By dealing with themes other than mistaken identities, co-eds and a multitude of slamming doors, and settings without lines of chorus girls, Show Boat led the way for productions like Porgy and Bess, Carousel, South Pacific, Cabaret and Sweeney Todd.