As Cats claws its way back to Broadway and producers rub their palms envisioning yet another billion-dollar season, creator/director Joshua William Gelb and producer Moe Yousuf know now is the perfect time to reanimate the theatrical behemoth that started it all: Charles M. Barras’s 1866 marvel, The Black Crook. Set to open at Abrons Arts Center on September 17, honoring the play’s sesquicentennial, this reimagining of America’s “first” musical promises to delight audiences with its dexterous investigation of how that peculiar anomaly of dramatic form came to be.
Many history buffs will recognize the title and be cognizant of its contribution to the development to the modern musical, but few, if any, will know the actual plot of The Black Crook or even the playwright’s name, a detail not missed by Gelb. In fact, this contradiction becomes the point of departure for his artistic inquiry.
“When I was a student and searching for materials, I knew about The Black Crook and its mythologies, but when I finally came across the script it wasn’t so much that it was bad, as much as it was so hackneyed, such a ridiculous melodrama mixed with a Faustian parable. Then, in the fourth act, the play just completely dissolves into a series of tableaux vivants,” Gelb gleefully explains. In this preposterous dramatic concoction, Gelb sees the protean elements of our own current popular entertainment. “Black Crook might as well be a super hero movie,” he quips, pointing out that popular tastes privilege something besides dramaturgical integrity.
So how did The Black Crook scorch its path through the archives of cultural memory? Producer Moe Yousuf posits: “After the Civil War, when America was in this era of rebranding itself, there was a tremendous appetite for such a work, a need for escapism and large scale spectacle.” There is no doubt that the first production of The Black Crook gave the people exactly what they wanted: over the top, dazzlingly excessive spectacle.
A review of The Black Crook dated September 17, 1866 from the New York Tribune describes the orgy of the eye thus: “A vast grotto is herein presented, extending into an almost measureless perspective […] Beautiful fairies herein are assembled—the sprites of the ballet, who make the scene luxuriant with their beauty.” That’s right, a tale of good versus evil, with dancing ladies, because, well, why not?
The production opened at Niblo’s Garden to wild success under the producing auspices of William Wheatley, part visionary, part fast-talking shyster, depending on whose version of the “behind the scenes” story you prefer. Wheatley managed to seize the opportunity of several extenuating circumstances to create a smash that Mark Twain would later comment “debauched many a pure mind.” After 473 performances at the corner of Broadway and Prince, The Black Crook hit the road and became a national sensation, galvanizing popular tastes, inventing the model for that elusive brass ring in American entertainment—the blockbuster.
As the story goes, Wheatley had recently acquired the rights of The Black Crook from Barras when a fire destroyed New York’s Academy of Music, leaving a ballet troupe from France without a venue. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Wheatley saw opportunity in this unfortunate event and contracted the ballet troupe to enliven his production, adding music and large scale dance sequences (adorned with bevies of scantily clad beauties) to Barras’s mediocre melodrama.
If formally these elements didn’t seem to go together, audiences didn’t care. Joseph Witton, Wheatley’s business manager, describes how The Black Crook’s lack of literary merits were not a problem: “Elegant writing, with its daintily picked words and smooth-flowing sentences, is all well enough in its place; but that place is not in the drama of this prosy, money-grabbing age. The playgoer doesn’t relish it. What he wants is something to please his eye and tickle his ear—something to strangle his cares and cut the throat of his troubles—something to make him laugh and forget he has a note to pay to-morrow, with no money to meet it. This is what he is after, and shrewd managers will show their shrewdness by accommodating him.”
It is this desire, to delight today’s 21st-century greedy playgoer, that gets Gelb crackling. His puckish joy is infectious as he chronicles his first foray into the play’s history, which began ten years ago, in a now non-existent black box. “It was a tiny shoe box theater on 8th Street and 6th Avenue. It’s a real-estate office now,” he recalls. “There we were, trying to stage one of the biggest spectacles ever written on a 12-by-12 foot stage.”
There, at the intersection of impossible combinations, Gelb seems to be most at home. A performer (BambiFucker/Kaffeehaus) and creator/director (Party in the USA), Gelb uses unexpected juxtaposition to show up the ridiculous ironies, both seen and unseen, that abound in our culture. In this recent redux of The Black Crook, the American need for eye-popping spectacle—or as Yousuf calls it, the “more is more American style”—is examined using a paired-down approach, where the commentary comes in the way that the production is scaled.
Producer Yousuf bills it as “the biggest little production of The Black Crook, from Broadway to East Broadway,” but the joke contains the metaphor, because how else can you trace the bloated contrivances of spectacle except with little means? In the days of CGI and 3-D glasses, surround sound, and multi-million dollar Suicide Squad budgets, theater is outmatched by Hollywood extravaganza. Productions like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark stretch further and further to wow audiences, but still come up short.
Rather than throngs of dancing chorus members, Gelb directs an ensemble of performers who are busy doing quadruple duty—playing multiple roles, singing, dancing, even playing instruments. “There will be ballet,” he promises, even if the performers are not expertly trained ballet dancers. Steven Rattazzi (of Target Margin’s luminous The Really Big Once) will play both the play’s hero, Rodolphe, and Barras, the character’s creator. Barras, sadly, had to sell the rights of his play to save his dying wife. The 2016 remake tells the biography of Barras, alongside The Black Crook, enacting the sometimes absurd clash between art and commerce.
The spectacle of this production relies on the frenetic exertion of the performers to meet the over-the-top demands of its original, with only eight people. It is an impossible task for such a small cast to recreate what was done by over 100, sort of like watching an elephant disappear before your eyes—one that audiences, no doubt, will marvel to see. Because for Gelb, musical theater is, and always has been, a free for all. “There are no rules. Why do people burst into song? There is no real answer to that question,” which is why perhaps, it remains such a satisfying sight to behold.
“[Musical theater] is a melting-pot entertainment,” muses Gelb. He could be describing his own creation, a cross-pollinated hybrid of history and legend, the experimental-traditional biggest littlest extravaganza ever to hit the Lower East Side.
The Black Crook: An Original, Magical and Spectacular Musical Drama, directed by Joshua William Gelb, adapted from the original 1886 Charles M. Barras musical, runs September 17 – October 7 at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street, at Pitt Street, in the Lower East Side). For more info and tickets ($25), please visit http://www.theblackcrook.com/.
ANDI STOVER is a playwright/dramaturg who is a founding member of LiveFeedNYC, a site-specific performance company. She is a also a professor and the Literary Manager for the Department of Theatre and Dance at Montclair State University.