The Black Crook: A Little Near-Nudity Made This Show Broadway’s First True Hit

While many contemporary Broadway shows can gross $1 million during a great week’s run, the first show to reach that monumental box office number – earning the place as Broadway’s first bona fide hit – was the 1866 musical “The Black Crook,” which merged a touch of Faust with classic fairy tale, and marked the first time America would see anyone dance the can-can.

Set in 1600 in the Harz Mountains in Germany, the show tells the story of wealthy Count Wolfenstein, who longs to marry Amina, a beautiful girl from the village who is already betrothed to Rodolphe, a starving artist.

In an effort to win his love, the Count arranges for the region’s master of black magic, Hertzog, who has made a deal with the devil Zamiel that he will live forever as long as he delivers a new soul every New Year’s Eve, to make Amina’s love Rodolphe this year’s sacrifice. Rodolphe, however, escapes his fate, and along the way discovers a buried treasure, bringing him out of poverty, and rescues a dove, which turns out to be a fairy queen in disguise. So grateful is the queen that she brings Rodolphe to fairyland and reunites him with his beloved Amina.

Meanwhile, Hertzog, having failed in his mission to deliver his soul, is dragged to hell by demons, and the village girl and her artist love live happily ever after.

The show was the talk of the Big Apple during the 1866 and 1867 season, and was considered quite scandalous, thanks in part to the can-can, a fast-paced musical hall dance performed chorus-line style with high kicks and exposed stockings.

The New York Herald called it “an indecent and demoralizing exhibition,” and even Mark Twain wrote that the musical “debauched many a pure mind.”

Interestingly enough, the can-can and chorus girls weren’t even intended to be part of the show, but a fire at the New York Academy of Music left a troupe of French ballet dancers without a theater. Desperate, they turned to William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo’s Garden, and when he realized that all he had booked was the Charles M. Barras melodrama “The Black Crook,” he figured the two could join forces. While Barras was reluctant to change his script, he – like his artist lead character – was broke, and had no choice but to give in.

It was a lucky move for Barras, because the addition of the chorus girls caused such a stir that the show – which also was the first to introduce elaborate costumes and showy sets to the American audience – ran for 263 performances, despite clocking at a whopping five and a half hours each night.

“The scenic effects – the waterfalls, cascades, fountains, oceans, fairies, devils, hells, heavens, angels – are gorgeous beyond anything ever witnessed in America, perhaps, and these things attract the women and the girls. Then the endless ballets and splendid tableaux, with seventy beauties arrayed in dazzling half-costumes; and displaying all possible compromises between nakedness and decency, capture the men and boys,” wrote Mark Twain in his review as a special correspondent with the San Francisco Alta California newspaper.

“The scenery and the legs are everything; the actors who do the talking are the wretchedest sticks on the boards. But the fairy scenes – they fascinate the boys! Beautiful bare-legged girls hanging in flower baskets; others stretched in groups on great sea shells; others clustered around fluted columns; others in all possible attitudes; girls – nothing but a wilderness of girls – stacked up, pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theatre, diminishing in size and clothing, till the last row, mere children, dangle high up from invisible ropes, arrayed only in a camisa. The whole tableau resplendent with columns, scrolls, and a vast ornamental work, wrought in gold, silver and brilliant colors – all lit up with gorgeous theatrical fires, and witnessed through a great gauzy curtain that counterfeits a soft silver mist! It is the wonders of the Arabian Nights realized.

“Those girls dance in ballet, dressed with a meagreness that would make a parasol blush. And they prance around and expose themselves in a way that is scandalous to me. Moreover, they come trooping on the stage in platoons and battalions, in most princely attire I grant you, but always with more tights in view than anything else. They change their clothes every fifteen minutes for four hours, and their dresses become more beautiful and more rascally all the time.”

Even as he gushed, likely enamored himself over the sparse costumes that highlighted “The Black Crook,” Twain later said the show “gave birth to a state of things that may well be regarded as appalling.”

Still, the show not only spawned a successor, “The White Fawn” (which Twain called “much more magnificent” in his second Broadway review for the paper), it also served as the inspiration for classics including “Show Boat” and “Oklahoma!”

Author: Brenda Neugent