A Notch Above Vaudeville: The Great Broadway Revues

The great Broadway revues were lavish stage shows that combined elements of vaudeville and burlesque – and wrapped them in Broadway packaging. The vaudeville element was a bill of top variety acts from all fields. The burlesque element was a chorus of scantily clad pretty girls. The “Broadway” element was a rehearsed and choreographed program, distinguished by original scores by top composers, and original sketches by top comedy writers.

In 1907, Florenz Ziegfeld inaugurated his famous Follies, which established the Broadway revue formula. He’d copped the format from the stage show of the French Folies Bergere which since 1869 had incorporated elaborate tableaux of beautiful young women as framing devices around the traditional music hall talent. Initially created to showcase his wife, French chorine Anna Held, Zeigfeld’s Follies eventually came to star all the major performers of the day, as did its many imitators. Others which sprang up over the years included: the Passing Show series presented by the Shuberts (1912-34), George White’s Scandals (1919-39), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (the dirtiest of the bunch, 1923-31), the Greenwich Village Follies (1920-28), and Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues (1921-24). All of these annual revues (and many other, “one shot” productions) employed the top vaudeville stars of the day.

To graduate to a Broadway Revue for many vaudevillians was the true measure of “making it”. Some stars continued to work both in vaudeville and revues at the same time, but many said “s’long” to the grind of the circuits for the greater prestige and remuneration to be had on the revue stage. The differences in working conditions were palpable. Even a big time vaudevillian was obligated to do two shows a day; the revues were strictly prime time. Also the revues were really a New York phenomenon. While some did tour, for the most part the performer could go to work right from his home, bypassing the bad food, harsh travel and dumpy accommodations that were part of the ordeal of traveling the vaudeville circuit.

Vaudevillians who made the jump: Leon Errol and Bert Williams (1911), Willie and Eugene Howard (1912), Ed Wynn (1914), W.C. Fields and Will Rogers (1915), and Eddie Cantor (1917). Women singers like Nora Bayes, Belle Baker, Eva Tanguay and Ruth Etting were in-and-out, switching vaudeville and revues like so many pairs of stockings.

Some stars were so big or so lucky, they built entire revues around themselves.

The series of revues Ed Wynn produced through the twenties and early thirties were his  highest realization as a performing artist. To this day, despite ample record of Wynn’s comic genius on film, radio and TV,  this string of Broadway smashes is regarded as the pinnacle of Wynn’s career. Each was based around the familiar character Wynn had been developing in vaudeville. Among the most successful of these tailor-made starring vehicles were Ed Wynn’s Carnival (1920), The Perfect Fool (1921), The Grab Bag (1924), Simple Simon (1930) and The Laugh Parade (1931).

Other high profile revues built around a single vaudeville star included Raymond Hitchcock’s successful Hitchy Koo series, the Marx Brothers 1924 hit I’ll Say She Is! and Frank Fay’s Fables, whichflopped.

In many ways these revues were better than vaudeville. No animal acts or acrobats to sit through…just the top singers and comedy stars, framed by beautiful women wearing opulent costumes. In fact, these revues drained off a lot of the top talent from vaudeville, and contributed to the prohibitive salary increases of many of the performers.

But the Great Depression was a harsh storm to weather. Although the vogue for revues outlasted vaudeville by a few years, by the end of the 1930s that, too had passed.

“Revue” is one of those theatre words with multiple meanings and applications, however. Certainly many other large scale, lavish revues were tried on Broadway in the years since that great heyday – and some succeeded. And of course, small scale revues have flourished at intimate venues all over the country right along. The satiric “sketch revue” has been a popular format in cabarets, small theatres and on television since the 1950s. When people, mostly ill-informed journalists, say to me “Saturday Night Live, isn’t that descended from vaudeville?” I usually say, “No, no, man, that’s a sketch revue. What are ya—new?

To learn more about the variety arts past and present, including Broadway revuesconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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