Talkin' Broadway HomePast ColumnsAbout the Authors
The Great White Wayback Machine
by Laura Frankos

Bovine Terpsichoreans: Cow Characters in Musicals

Also see Immigrants in Musicals, Part One: The Early Years, 1870-1910 and Immigrants in Musicals, Part Two: Cinderellas Rampant

This essay grew from my research for The Broadway Musical Quiz Book, when I kept running into references to cows in musicals. Some of them I worked into quizzes, but I had the stack of Post-It notes about cows left over, so I was moo-ved to use them. My mom taught me never to waste anything.


Arthur Conquest as the Cow, George Graves as the Dame
Jack and the Beanstalk - Drury Lane 1910-1911

Cow characters on stage go back to the ancient Greeks. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus adapts the legend of Io, a mortal girl loved by Zeus, who changes her into a cow to protect her from his jealous wife, Hera. (Cows are sacred to Hera, and Aeschylus says Io is a priestess of that goddess, so there are definitely bovine connections here.) Hera sends a gadfly to torment the poor cow-girl, whose wanderings take her across the Bosphorus (the name means "cattle crossing" or "ox-ford"). Prometheus tells Io her suffering will eventually end, Zeus will change her back, and she will have famous offspring.

Although there are bovine references in Shakespeare (e.g., a good exchange between Beatrice and Benedick), we'll jump to the early nineteenth century for the dawn of British pantomime, for the panto cow has had a direct influence on American musicals. Pantos were (and are!) traditionally performed at Christmas. They are stage versions of children's fairy tales, with a girl playing the young male lead (a trouser role), a man playing the comic Dame (in drag), and an actor or two in "skins," playing a cow, a horse, Dick Wittington's cat, or some other creature. Audience participation is mandatory; "It's behind you!" is a common cry. The earliest—and perhaps the most popular—panto was the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, with Jack's cow as a key character. The cow is usually called "Old Buttercup," though Daisy, Constance, Priscilla, Mabel, and Daffodil also show up. The cow's chief stage business is to bump the Dame as often as possible.

In 1959, British song writers Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds, best known for Salad Days, created a new panto, Hooray for Daisy, with the cow in the title role. Daisy even got to perform the "Soft Hoof Shuffle."

Notable American Musical Cows

  • Evangeline's Heifer—One of the most popular shows in late nineteenth century America was Evangeline (1874, book by J. Cheever Godwin, songs by E.E. Rice), very loosely inspired by Longfellow's poem, but lengthened into a globe-spanning spectacle, with added characters including the Lone Fisherman and a love-struck, spouting whale, and a chorus of girls in padded tights. Evangeline was revived for years; the reviewer of the New York Journal bemoaned the 1896 return of "a primal extravaganza belonging neither to life nor to drama," cashing in on the enduring popularity of "perennial limbs and immutable cow."

    The musical shows clear influences from British panto, including the trouser and drag roles and, of course, the cow. One verse from Longfellow about a milk-white heifer was all Goodwin and Rice needed to create a memorable character. The heifer's dance with the heroine became the most beloved scene in the show. New jokes replaced the old ones with each revival, but the cow danced on. A number of famed comic actors, including Francis Wilson, Henry Dixey and Richard Golden, played the hoofing heifer.

  • Jack's Cow—In 1896, a new musical of Jack and the Beanstalk debuted, this one notable for twenty-four-year-old A. Baldwin Sloane's first complete score. Madge Lessing became a star in the trouser role of Jack, singing "I've Sold My Cow," and having adventures with other fairy tale characters like Miss Muffet and Puss in Boots. A hit in Boston and then New York, the show featured plenty of spectacle, including ten girls with identical figures popping out of King Cole's blackbird pie and the "Birth of the Firefly," performed in front of a black curtain by seven dancers in costumes outfitted with 250 wires and a thousand small lights. Jack's cow wasn't much compared to such effects, but the next Broadway bovine became legendary.

    Animal cracker advertisement featuring Dorothy and Imogene the Cow

  • Imogene in Oz—Everyone knows that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz took her dog Toto with her. But in L. Frank Baum's 1903 smash musical version (book and lyrics by Baum and other lyricists, music by Paul Tietjens and others, including several by the aforementioned A. Baldwin Sloane), Dorothy's pal is her cow, Imogene. Unlike Evangeline's heifer, Imogene was a single-person "skin," first played by Edwin J. Stone—the brother of Fred Stone, the Scarecrow—and later by Joseph Schrode. Imogene's head was made of papier-mache, with a movable jaw and rotating eyes. The jaw let the actor snack on loose straw from the Scarecrow's clothes. Reviewers praised Stone for his realistic, plodding gait as he patiently followed Dorothy through Oz, even into the deadly poppy field (one of the show's fabled scenes). Evangeline's heifer might have been a better hoofer, but Imogene became known in merchandising, including animal cracker ad, and was featured in the 1910 silent movie version of the story.

  • An Early California Cow—Though forgotten now, a musical comedy called Lonesome Town ran for several months in 1908—a good run for those days. Set in the fictional California "boom town" of Watts in 1902, it had characters named Ima Peach and Hazy Fogg, with Charles McGaffney as the Cow. There apparently was a barn dance, but I haven't been able to discover if the Cow took part.

  • Sloane's Third Cow Show—In the 1912 flop The Sun Dodgers (music by A. Baldwin Sloane, lyrics by Ray Goetz) a wealthy widow (George W. Monroe in drag) transforms a farm into a resort for insomniacs. This disaster featured Bessie Wynn, who had been in a trouser role in Oz, as "Praline Nutleigh," singing "Poor Old Cow (The Night the Old Cow Died)." But that wasn't all. This show boasted two panto critters; the Times review stated: "provides a cow as well as a horse, both animals having eyes that move and tails that wag. And after all, what would a musical comedy be without a wag?"

  • Over the Moon—Rodgers and Hart's 1930 offering Simple Simon (book by Ed Wynn and Guy Bolton) had comic Wynn as a Coney Island news vendor who prefers fairy tales to the depressing headlines. In his dreams, he encounters many classic characters, including the Cow (Gladys Pender) who jumps over the moon. Also in the cast was panto specialist Joseph Schrode, once Imogene, but here playing a horse. During his decades-long career, Schrode played a camel, a stork, a lion, the "north end" of a horse, and a giant spider.

  • Butterfly—Preston Sturges was an established playwright and would become an acclaimed screenwriter-director, but in 1930 he wrote and produced a floperetta called Well of Romance. The Grand Chancellor of the kingdom of Magnesia and Butterfly the Cow (played by Lo Ivan and Ruth Flynn) performed "The Cow's Divertissement," but, mercifully, only for eight performances.

  • Caroline in Gypsy—Aside from a few more minor Jack and the Beanstalk cows, we must jump ahead to 1959 for one of the most famous of all stage cows, Caroline, the pal of Dainty June, in Gypsy (book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). Caroline, as all Broadway buffs know, is played by June's sister, Louise, in the vaudeville act devised by their mother, Rose. June and her farmboys sing and dance, while Louise moos and clumps about in the awkward cow costume. It's a hokey number which shows that Rose has plenty of ambition for her girls, but little creative ability. Well into their teens and twenties, the sisters and the boys are still putting on the same tacky act. Later, after June and the boys have left, Rose, Herbie and Louise soldier on, bringing the cow costume with them ("We all take the bow, including the cow."). Rose is forced to rethink the act, which becomes "Madame Rose's Toreadorables." Rose transforms Caroline into a flower-draped bull, and Louise and a bevy of minimally talented girls portray bullfighters.

    In the 2008 revival of Gypsy, Laura Benanti won the Best Featured Actress Tony as Louise, thus becoming the only stage bovine with a Tony.

  • Greenwillow's Cow—The year after Gypsy saw the arrival of the First Live Cow playing a Major Character in a Broadway Musical, in Frank Loesser's 1960 flop, Greenwillow. The cow in question belongs to grouchy old Thomas Clegg, who has made an arrangement with the Briggs family that they will care for the cow through the winter and return it in the spring. In exchange, all they get is half the milk, which they need, since another baby is on the way and the Briggs menfolk have a tendency to "hear the call" and leave home. But sly Gramma Briggs, once romantically linked to Clegg, says the old fellow repented on his deathbed, giving the cow to her family. There's no witness to this change of heart save Gramma, who later admits she lied ("He died ornery!"). All does end happily, with Gideon's "call" keeping him on the farm and the birth of a calf, which gets baptized ("Clang Dang the Bell").

    The live cow, Buttercup Hyacinth Bertram III, was apparently well trained, and could even kneel on command. While the show was flopping through tryouts in Philadelphia, though, Buttercup left some flops of her own on stage. Loesser's daughter reported that everyone in the cast was so glum about the show's prospects that nobody even laughed, though I've also seen a report that Pert Kelton (Gramma)—dare I say it?—milked the incident for a laugh with an ad lib.

  • Cow in Candide—in Hal Prince's revival of Candide in 1974, there were actors playing sheep and a cow. In the final scene, while glorious voices urged everyone to "Make Our Garden Grow," the cow fell over dead, either of the pox or the plague. Or, so much for this "best of all possible worlds."

  • Milky White of Into the Woods—The classic cow of beanstalk fame returned to Broadway in 1987 in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, later revived in 2002. Dimwitted Jack ("He's the best cow!") loves Milky White, and is heartbroken when his mother describes the cow's obvious shortcomings ("There are bugs on her dugs!"), demanding that Jack sell her. After a sad farewell, he trades her to the Baker and his wife for some magic beans. The Baker needs "the cow as white as milk," among other things, to reverse the curse the Witch has placed on his family. After stealing golden eggs from the Giant, Jack tries to buy Milky White back, but the Baker refuses. At the chime of midnight, as the Witch prepares her spell, Milky White dies, but is revived, completing the spell. Everyone lives happily ever after ... or do they?

    The 1987 Milky White was a prop cow on wheels, but in the 2002 revival Chad Kimball donned the skin, complete with many wrinkles and a mournful, hangdog face. The live Milky could better interact with Jack and the other characters—the original was far more, er, wooden—and Kimball stole many scenes. Milky White's sweet, affectionate ways induced cries of "Awww!" from audiences, an unaccustomed sound at most Sondheim shows.

  • The Midway Cow—In Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1996 State Fair, adapted from the earlier movie, two actresses dressed in cow and pig costumes stroll through the fairgrounds. They did not win either blue ribbons or Tony awards.

  • Bat Boy's Dinner—In Bat Boy (1997, songs by Laurence O'Keefe, book by Keythe Farley, Brian Fleming), the monstrous title character preys on the townfolks' cattle, leading them to wonder in song about "Another Dead Cow." Bat Boy gives a bloody "Apology to a Cow" in a number that has been variously staged with an actor in costume, a stuffed or puppet cow, or, most commonly, with Bat Boy chowing down on a cow's head. This doesn't really count as a character, but at least it appears on stage. Even if dismembered.

    Arthur Conquest and his skin, London, 1910-11

  • Spamalot's Catapulted Cow—In 2005's Monty Python's Spamalot (book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Idle, John du Prez, Neil Innes), the taunting French knight tells his comrades, "Fetchez la vache!" Whereupon they catapult a cow at King Arthur and his knights. (Never missing an opportunity for marketing, the show sells souvenir cows branded with the logo.) Alas, we would have had another Tony-winning cow character if not for a cut number while Spamalot was in tryouts. Sara Ramirez, dressed as a cow, performed "The Cow Song" in the style of Marlene Dietrich, accompanied by the French citizens. The number, along with "Burn Her," got axed in Chicago; small wonder Ramirez bemoans what happened to her part in "The Diva's Lament"!

  • Cows that Type—Based on Doreen Cronin's award-winning children's book, Click Clack Moo (2009, music by Brad Alexander, lyrics by Kevin Del Aguila, book by Billy Aronson) tells the tale of three cows that learn to type on an antique typewriter. They use it to articulate their demands for better working conditions. (Hmm. Unions, collective bargaining, dairy products ... is this show set in Wisconsin? Or on Animal Farm?) Click Clack Moo earned a nomination for the Lucille Lortel Outstanding Musical award.

    Special thanks to Nigel Ellacott at, a fantastic site devoted to the history of pantomime, for permission to reproduce the photos of panto cows.

    Next up: references to cows in lyrics and libretti, including Tevye's unseen herd, Elsie the Cow in Cyberland, and the historical background of "The Farmer and the Cowman." And a big Broadway Bonus to anyone who can tell me which musical character admitted he studied dairy farming at Rutgers.

Terms of Service

[ © 1997 - 2015, Inc. ]