A devastating theater fire. A desperate, stranded French ballet troupe. A script that suggests a Stephenie Meyer rewrite of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust.” There’s sensation aplenty in the legend of “The Black Crook” — the 1866 New York stage spectacular that is regularly cited as the first American musical. No wonder, then, that once he heard the story, rising composer and history buff Joseph Thalken couldn’t forget it.
“It was an idea that had been percolating in my brain for a long time,” Thalken says during a break from rehearsals for “And the Curtain Rises,” the “Black Crook”-themed musical comedy he has written with book writer Michael Slade and lyricist Mark Campbell. Signature Theatre in Arlington is presenting the work’s world premiere, which starts performances on March 17 and runs through April 10. Broadway veteran Kristin Hanggi directs.
The third fully produced new musical to spring as a commission from Signature’s ambitious American Musical Voices Project, “And the Curtain Rises” riffs on the actual circumstances surrounding the birth of “The Black Crook.” According to lore, that birth was largely accidental: In the aftermath of the Civil War, William Wheatley, manager of a New York theater called Niblo’s Garden, was prepping a hackneyed melodrama penned by one Charles M. Barras. After the Academy of Music, another city venue, burned down, a gaggle of French ballerinas had nowhere to perform, so Wheatley incorporated their dance extravaganza into his own production.
The resultant innovative piece of stagecraft — a play that contained music and hoofin’! — clocked in at 5 1 / 2 hours on opening night and showcased a plot involving a demon; his helper (the eponymous Black Crook); a set of star-crossed lovers; and a tribe of fairies. Partly thanks to the dancers’ (for the time) shockingly scanty attire — Mark Twain, who saw the show, quipped that it “debauched many a pure mind”— and state-of-the-art special effects, “The Black Crook” proved a mega-hit, running for 16 months and subsequently touring for decades.
It’s “such a fun romp of a story,” the thin, quiet Thalken observes as he sits for an interview with Campbell and Slade in a Signature conference room. But the composer — whose credits include the musicals “Harold & Maude” (based on the 1971 movie) and “Was” (based on the Geoff Ryman novel) — sees meaning in his latest foray, too. For him, “And the Curtain Rises” is a “loving homage” to the musical-theater genre and to the concept of serendipity and artistic problem-solving.
“Out of necessity came this art form that never existed before,” Thalken says, summing up the myth of Wheatley’s achievement.
His book writer and lyricist concur. “And the Curtain Rises” is a “valentine to the American musical,” explains Slade, who has honed his talents on such varied fare as TV soap operas (he was Emmy-nominated for “One Life to Live”); a play about prisoners at the Nazis’ Terezin concentration camp; and a Radio City Music Hall offering called “Pokemon Live!”
Slade sees his latest effort as an exploration of “the nature of collaboration”: The new musical imagines how Wheatley (portrayed by actor Nick Dalton), Barras (Sean Thompson) and their cast spar over Barras’s tin-eared script, and how grafted-in tunes, choreography and costumes — supplied at the last minute by the ballet troupe — rescue Wheatley’s production from commercial disaster.
As for artistic disaster — well, in the opinion of the Signature trio, the real “Black Crook” must have come pretty close. Thalken, Campbell and Slade spent time at the New York Public Library perusing original materials from the 1866 production, and they don’t think much of the fiends-and-fairies narrative.
“It makes no sense — and that’s what makes it so delicious!” crows Campbell, an accomplished opera librettist. (Among other achievements, he wrote the text for “Volpone,” the opera that premiered at Wolf Trap in 2004. This April, “The Inspector” and “Rappahannock County,” new works for which he wrote librettos, debut at Wolf Trap and at the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk, respectively.)
“It borrows from any and every story line you have ever heard,” Slade says with relish.
“It’s awful,” agrees Thalken, cheerfully. (He notes that the original “Black Crook” music is “incredibly mundane,” as well.)
Fortunately, the three collaborators have felt no need to reconstruct the 1866 blockbuster (as a 1929 production did, with Agnes de Mille’s help). And they emphasize that they’ve taken liberties with the historical story about Wheatley. “We’ve reimagined it as it could have happened,” Campbell stresses. (They’re not the first. “The Girl in Pink Tights,” scored by Sigmund Romberg, conjured the tale on Broadway in 1954.)
“And the Curtain Rises” is the first joint endeavor for the three men, who live in New York and met through mutual friends. Thalken contributed music to Campbell’s song cycle “Songs from an Unmade Bed” some years ago.
A native Californian who says he started writing music at age 6, Thalken registered on the theater world’s radar in 2003, when the National Alliance for Musical Theatre featured “Harold & Maude” and “Was” in a new-works festival. He’s also a pianist and conductor who has toured with Patti LuPone and presided in the orchestra pit at Broadway’s “Victor/Victoria” starring Julie Andrews.
In 2006, Signature announced that Thalken was one of three composers to receive a guaranteed full production of a new work — not to mention a $25,000-a-year stipend and health insurance for four years — through the newly launched American Musical Voices Project. The other two composers were Michael John LaChiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon, whose commissions through the program were 2009’s “Giant” and 2010’s “Sycamore Trees,” respectively.
Thalken mulled ideas, and being a history fan (he recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”), eventually returned to “The Black Crook.” In the view of Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s artistic director, it’s a felicitous choice, given the company’s track record with the genre that William Wheatley jump-started. “It’s perfect, because of our history of musical theater,” Schaeffer said by phone from London where he was preparing for the opening of “Million Dollar Quartet,” a musical he directed. He noted that “And the Curtain Rises” will have an inimitable Thalken sound: “His music is very Joe, which is great. It has its own personality.”
The fact that Thalken’s new show had an assurance of production was a huge selling point for Campbell and Slade, who signed on happily: The team knew its work would not languish for years in development limbo, and they knew they would be able to stay true to their artistic vision.
“It gives us the freedom to really write what we want,” Thalken says.
Last summer, Hanggi (Tony-nominated for her direction of Broadway’s arena-rock confection “Rock of Ages”), came aboard. “I got excited, because I consider myself a director whose favorite thing in the world is new musicals,” she says. So tackling a work about “the creation of the first new musical,” she adds, “to me is thrilling.”
Of course, theater-history scholars might quibble about whether “The Black Crook” was really so formally groundbreaking. After all, by 1866, traditions in America such as the ballad opera and burlesque had already pointed toward the musical format.
“The first original musical — there’s no such thing. You can’t draw such a line in the sand in absolute terms,” observes theater historian Richard C. Norton, author of the three-volume “A Chronology of American Musical Theater” (Oxford University Press). He calls “The Black Crook” significant, rather, for its “importation of European spectacle elements” and its long run, which at the time was “unheard of.”
As for any visions of panicked ballerinas merging with Barras’s play at the last minute, while ashes drifted over New York, the Academy of Music actually burned down in May, 1866, some four months before “The Black Crook” opened.
But so what? The goal of “And the Curtain Rises,” Slade points out, “was never to just give a history lesson. The intent was to be writing about the nature of collaboration — about the act of artistic creation.”
Wren is a freelance writer.