Broadway in the 1920's
Throughout its history, Broadway theatre has been heavily influenced by the world around it. And the "Roaring Twenties," a decade of great social, political, and cultural change, had much to offer. During this decade, Broadway took its cues from everything from World War I to Prohibition to its theatrical cousin, Vaudeville. It was in this rapidly changing atmosphere that Broadway was set on its course to become what it is today.
The onset of World War I in 1917 brought about a major change in Broadway theatre: it was the first time that theatre became an active participant in the world around it rather than merely providing an entertaining distraction from it. Many theatres sponsored charities for the soldiers, and new plays offered commentary on current events. In the time of prosperity following the war, for instance, theatre began commenting on the frivolousness of war and materialism. This trend continued into the 1930's and 40's with the Great Depression and World War II.
The introduction of African-American actors to the Broadway stage was another major change which took place during this decade. Prior to the 1920's, "black theatre" existed parallel to "white theatre." Black performers were mainly found in Vaudeville revues and other forms of secondary entertainment; if a Broadway play called for a black character, the role would be played by a white performer in blackface. But in November of 1920, Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones opened on Broadway, starring black actor, Charles Gilpin. The play was very well-received, and Gilpin was later named one of ten people who had done the most to advance American theatre in that year by The Drama League. Gilpin's performance opened the door for black actors to continue to perform on Broadway.
A third revolution of Broadway in the 1920's was the introduction of repertory theatre. Repertory theatre is non-profit, endowed theatre; a place which could provide training ground for new actors and offer quality theater at prices affordable to every part of the population, not just the upper class. The first such theatre was the aptly named Civic Repertory Theatre, established in 1926. Originally the old Fourteenth Street Theatre, the Civic Repertory was brought to life by Eva LeGallienne, a famous theatre actress of the time. The Civic Repertory Theatre was extremely successful: in the 1928-29 season it even did better than Broadway, and was kept alive through the crash of 1929 through the donations of individual donors and the success of its productions. The vision of the Civic Repertory Theatre is still alive today in non-profit and community theatres throughout the country, providing a training ground and a stepping stone for new actors to make their way to Broadway.
But perhaps the biggest influence on theatre in the 1920's was Vaudeville, the jazzy black sheep of the theatre family. Even though Vaudeville was generally considered "low brow" theatre, its influence is undeniable. As Vaudeville performances were mainly musical revues, musical theater took a few cues from this genre. In the 1920's jazz music was often used in Broadway performances to separate the "bad" characters from the "good" ones. It also helped distinguish between what was considered "legitimate" theatre and what was not. On the whole, Vaudeville and musical theatre were not considered legitimate theatre. However, the musical theatre form gained in popularity in the 1920's, as seen in the success of Shuffle Along, a musical which ran for 502 performances, using jazz music.
The influences of the 1920's can still be seen in theatre today. The vision of the Civic Repertory Theatre is still alive in non-profit and community theatres throughout the country, providing a training ground and a stepping stone for new actors to make their way to Broadway. Musical theatre has thrived in today's society, with musicals such as Oklahoma, Chicago, and Wicked earning nation-wide popularity. Theatre will undoubtedly continue to change in the future, but without the revolutionary decade between 1920 and 1929, it would be a very different thing than what it has become and what it will be in the decades to come.