Beguilement from Another Era
A ventriloquist with a Mick Jagger dummy. A rope-lariat artist who hails…from the Bronx. A comedian who has been seen on Saturday Night Live.
These are some of the artists you may encounter at Travesties of 2012, running July 19-28 as part of the 2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Mounted by the American Vaudeville Theatre, Travesties of 2012 will also showcase a contortionist, a mentalist, a chanteuse, and at least one high-profile clown during its run at New York City’s 45th Street Theatre (354 W. 45th Street). What is more, the production will highlight a little bit of history, along with its idiosyncratic performers: Travesties of 2012 is, in part, a centennial tribute to The Passing Show, one of the landmark revues that flourished in the early decades of the 20th century.
The Ziegfeld Follies series is perhaps now the best remembered of the revues, which were elaborate showbiz concoctions encompassing vaudeville-style acts, political and cultural satire, and numbers featuring chorus girls in eye-catching attire. But impresario Florenz Ziegfeld didn’t have the field to himself: George White’s Scandals, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, the Hitchy-Koo series, and comparable inventions flocked onto New York stages from 1907 (the first edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies) through the 1930s, often appearing in annual editions over a range of years.
The revue “is an obscure form now, but it couldn’t have been more prominent or important in people’s lives than it was in the first third of the century,” American Vaudeville Theatre founder Trav S.D. said in a telephone interview. “Everyone knew the names. [People] went to these shows annually.” The influence of the genre can still be felt today, he points out. “The art of the modern comedy sketch, as we recognize it—the Broadway revue is the grandparent of it,” he says.
Other historians are even more emphatic about the significance of the revue era. In his book Ziegfeld: The Man who Invented Show Business, Ethan Mordden writes that “far more than the book musicals of the day, revue let loose a refreshingly ‘dangerous’ cultural energy, resistant to authoritarian views on race and sex, on who controls the public dialogue, on what life is like. This energy began immediately to enliven the book musical, which matured to the point of being able to make more than passing remark on such issues as race relations and corrupt war lobbying within a decade of Ziegfeld Follies of 1919.”
And the curators of the current exhibit The Great American Revue: How Florenz Ziegfeld, George White and Their Rivals Remade Broadway, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through July 21, note that “revues provided visibility to generations of performers, designers, directors, choreographers, writers, and songwriters who went on to re-define Broadway, films, television, and popular entertainments.”
In a nice bit of synchronicity, the New York Public Library exhibit will overlap for a couple of days with Travesties of 2012, in which Trav S.D.—a performer, writer and cultural historian—will appear. The author of No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous (Faber and Faber, 2005) and the forthcoming Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube, Trav S.D keeps his eye out for the anniversaries of significant early showbiz events. So he realized that this month marks a century since the opening of The Passing Show of 1912, the first installment in a revue series created by the legendary Shubert brothers.
The Passing Show would reappear annually through 1924 (with a hiatus in 1920); over the course of its life, the franchise featured performers like Fred and Adele Astaire, Fred Allen, Marilyn Miller and De Wolf Hopper (who is best-known now for popularizing the poem “Casey at the Bat”). Trav S.D. says the Passing Show’s “main claim to fame was a kind of Forbidden Broadway idea” that allowed the revue to spoof shows from the past season, while, in other sketches or numbers, cracking wise about current events.
The American Vaudeville Theatre has been mounting productions regularly for 16 years, and a Passing Show centennial was a good enough excuse for another project. Headlining in Travesties of 2012 will be comedian/impressionist Bob Greenberg (seen on SNL); ventriloquist Carla Rhodes (Trav S.D. says she has a Keith Richards dummy to complement the Mick Jagger one); rope artist A.J. Silver; and chanteuse Meghan Murphy, who will perform songs from the Shuberts’ Passing Show. There will also be a tribute to Woody Guthrie. (The performer lineup will vary over the course of the Travesties run. See Trav S.D.’s Travalanche blog for more details.)
His remarks about the revue era’s cultural significance notwithstanding, Trav S.D. prefers to think of his Travesties as a blast of unpretentious entertainment—an antidote to the more disheartening aspects of 21st-century existence.
“Rather than tack to what I consider to be odious winds, I prefer to immerse myself in the sensibilities of other ages—in short, to escape,” he wrote in an email. “And that’s what I hope audiences will find at my show: blissful escape from the bleakness of contemporary culture.”