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[You can stop reading when you get to “The Bewitching New Fashions.”]
Despite Twain’s moral outrage—and he was certainly not the only offended party—audiences of men and women flocked to see the musical. In fact, the continuous public protests against the musical—which always gave details about the barely dressed women of the chorus—ensured the success of the show! The controversial attire of the dancers did little to prevent women from attending. Wheatley’s attention to lavish scene design and lighting gave female audience members a place to avert their eyes during the dances. According to Marlis Schweitzer, an author and Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies, female attendance at The Black Crook—whether to view scenery or peek at the dancers—gave tacit approval to future producers for the continued exploitation of females as objects (2009).
Throughout history, dance would consistently push the boundaries of sexuality and American identity. With its French ballet and German operetta, The Black Crook’s European roots lent sophistication to the production, allowing audiences to forgive the blatant display of the feminine body as art.
Raymond Knapp, author of The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, gives additional insight into the lasting legacy of The Black Crook:
First and foremost–considering the importance of commerce to the future history of the American musical—its signal achievement was what we would now call its “bottom line”: its unquestioned and lasting commercial success. The Black Crook went on to enjoy a then-phenomenon 474 performances, and thus became a shining emblem of the potential for commercial success in American musical theater, widely imitated and often revived in the following decades. (2005, p. 23)
Knapp goes on to say that it is unlikely that The Black Crook was the first American musical. It’s more likely that The Black Crook was the first musical to blend story, music, dance and scenery in a manner that garnered commercial success. It was this distinct combination of elements that made The Black Crook the first model for future American musicals (2005).
We’re talking a great deal about this musical because it really demonstrates the relationship of dance entertainment to audience response, societal issues and commercialism. The presence of barely-clad dancers in The Black Crook drew audiences despite the conservative moral code of the time. Ticket purchases showed the discrepancy between this public moral standard and the individual desires of audience members.
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