Musical Comedy: Vaudeville

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This post is intended as supplemental material for the course “Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States”

Vaudeville was a multifaceted genre of theatrical performance which served as the primary form of American popular culture through most of the 19th century. According to Donald Travis Stewart (who performs and writes under the name Trav S.D.), this form did not truly die, but continued to be a part of U.S. pop culture:

Despite our contemporary amnesia, the fact remains that for approximately fifty years – the period spanning 1881 to 1932 – vaudeville was the heart of American show business. Its stars were American’s first stars in the modern sense. (Trav 2005, 4)

He explains two consequences of Vaudeville:

Its “products” were a veritable Who’s Who of twentieth century American show business: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fred and Adele Astaire, W.C. Fields, Mae West, George M. Cohan, Buster Keaton, and ten thousand others. Though soon to be eclipsed by movies and radio, Vaudeville was America’s first star machine. But because film and broadcasting had yet to arrive, the stars had to be physically transported to their audiences…this incessant cross-country travel placed great demands on the performers, but it left then disciplined, as well as responsive to the needs of their audience.

   Vaudeville was also the first major American institution to offer serious opportunity for advancement no matter a person’s race, sex, or religion, and thus had a liberating effect on the public. It was the instrument whereby new groups were introduced to the culture – initially demonized and ridiculed, later impersonated . . . and eventually appreciated and loved. By thrusting all these groups together, vaudeville became an agent of assimilation. (ibid, 10)

Vaudeville introduced variety formats (which are still a staple of many contemporary reality/talent TV shows) as well as ethnic and racial stereotypes that are still a part of American popular culture.

Reference List

Trav S. D. 2005. No applause, just throw money, or, The book that made vaudeville famous: A high-class, refined entertainment. New York: Faber and Faber.

See Also:

Clip from “American Masters: Vaudeville” (1997)

Week 9 (Sounds of Laughter)

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist, Instructor, Writer

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