Just Because You’re the First Doesn’t Mean You’re the Best, or “Get the Cheese Plate”: the Immensely Gratifying Return of THE BLACK CROOK
I sauntered into McSorley’s just as my phone jingled. Moe Yousuf was running late; the trains in Brooklyn were to blame. My eyes met Josh Gelb’s as soon as I looked up from my screen. He, too, had just read Moe’s missive. At the same time, both our phones chimed again. A little piece of dining advice from the tardy Yousuf: “Get the cheese plate.”
Gelb greeted me warmly and then jumped straight to the topic at hand: “I like coming to McSorley’s because I imagine that the original cast and crew of the The Black Crook drank here.” There’s no doubt that could be possible; McSorley’s antedates the first production of The Black Crook by 12 years if the founding date of 1854, splayed so prominently on the pub’s commercially sold bottled beer, is to be believed. This intersection of history and art is also an essential idea behind this staging of The Black Crook that Gelb has cooked up. Attending his Black Crook in the coming weeks, audience members won’t just be seeing the play itself: we’ll be seeing playwright Charles Barras’ tragicomic life right alongside.
And how tragic and comic that life was. To give you a taste, the book Nineteenth Century American Plays, the book in which I first read The Black Crook, says that Barras was unsuccessful in his theatrical endeavors until The Black Crook, that he had a stammer, was completely bald and wore a ridiculous wig, but that his wife died before Barras’ new found wealth could save her. Gelb relayed that Barras was never happy with the spectacle of the production and offered the producers $5,000 to do the play, for one night, as he had originally wrote it, without all the dancers and long musical interludes. That would be nearly $70,000 in 2016. Finally, he killed himself by leaping from a train on his way to visit Edwin Booth.
I had first heard of The Black Crook as the nascent American musical in an undergraduate theater history course. I had written a paper on it in that course, during a time in my life when I fundamentally despised everything about musicals. Gelb’s first encounter with the play was in a book of classic theater posters his parents had given him. Leggy amazons look casually at two shadowy figures locked in mortal battle atop opposite cliffs split by a ghastly crevasse. Gelb notes that he was sexually aroused by the poster, though he doesn’t understand why anymore. The amazons are, in fact, quite tastefully dressed in unrevealing clothes, though the skin colored leggings worn by these amazons in the actual production were something of a sexual spectacle in 19th century NYC. Turns out that Gelb’s first experience of the play was not dissimilar from my own.
When he finally read the play, he was not exactly inspired. “I was totally unimpressed and found it to be a boring read. It’s not good. I didn’t know what to do with this. I gave up on the project. But I started looking into the history and found all these Faustian parallels with Barras selling his script, and Hertzog, the eponymous Black Crook, and Rodolfo selling their souls, and it became a much more interesting project. The play and history supplement each other in a fascinating way. The history itself is really interesting. It’s an ever evolving story. The theater burns down. From Barras’ point of view, he sold the play to pay for his wife’s medical bills. And of course she died. I even have this theory that if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t killed Abraham Lincoln, then The Black Crook would’ve never happened.”
It was while Gelb was explaining this startling theory that Moe Yousuf turned up, exactly when our cheese plate arrived. I suspect the only difference between this cheese plate and one served earlier in McSorley’s lengthy history is that our saltines came wrapped in sanitary plastic packaging. Apart from these neatly wrapped crackers, the plate was stacked with bland white cheese slices and a pile of raw white onion. I thought about the date I was going on after this, then slathered one cracker with spicy mustard, a slice of cheese, and topped it off with a few pieces of onion. Having the breath of George Boniface, who played Hertzog in the original production, would at least make for an interesting conversation starter.
I asked the duo about the point of staging The Black Crook again. They were quick to note it’s the 150th anniversary of the production. Also, Gelb pointed out that we’re in something of a golden age of interesting musicals with Fun Home, the Great Comet, and some show about a founding father, strutting their respective stuff on Broadway stages. At the same time, Cats is making a return in what Gelb says is an obvious cash grab. “The Black Crook is a warning to producers not to make cash grabs. Sure, it made a ton of money, but even at the time critics were lamenting it as a harbinger of the downfall of the American theater. It was pure spectacle. It basically set the lowest bar for what a musical could be.”
The Black Crook came about on that fateful day when the stinking bits of a melodramatic play, a fleet of French dancers, and a full orchestra first crawled from the primordial ooze and said, “I am musical.” Perhaps it was the first (this assertion is not uncontroversial), but, as Yousuf notes, “just because you’re the first, doesn’t mean you’re the best.” Which is perhaps why Gelb and Yousuf’s version goes beyond the script itself to tell the story of how that script came about. Because the play, let’s face it, is an overdone rip off of every German melodrama that has ever been written but with 4 hours of ballet jammed inelegantly into the middle. Its selling point was its spectacle, its historical prominence largely the result of its complete domination of American theater in the second half of the 19th century. Gelb and Yousuf’s production is harnessing the spectacle that made it a hit in a negative way: the musical that originally featured one hundred performers leaping about a massive stage at Niblo’s Garden that seated 1,500 audience members will be performed in the post-apocalyptic bunker known as the Underground Theater at Abrons with a cast of eight. It is an interrogation of the idea of spectacle with a special eye towards economy.
In the spirit of this, we decided to create a little spectacle of our own. Niblo’s Garden (well, the entrance at least) used to be at the corner of Prince and Broadway, a storefront that is now occupied by an Armani Exchange. Like any good producer, Yousuf reached out to Armani for sponsorship because of the historic relation between the production and the location of the SoHo Armani Exchange. He received no reply. After a tipsy stumble down Bowery and Houston, and after donning bright yellow trousers and sport coat ensemble in the Armani Exchange dressing room, Yousuf read his letter into a mirror as Gelb looked fondly on, basked in the oddly appropriate fluorescent lighting in the aircraft hangar themed store. Well, I’ll just let that moment speak for itself.
Or not, because it’s actually a gif.
And that’s not how gifs work.
So here’s an excerpt from the email:
In fall 2016 at The Abrons my colleague Josh Gelb and I are producing a special production of The Black Crook, the first American Musical originally produced in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden in Manhattan, for its 150th Anniversary.
We are specifically reaching out to Giorgio Armani for a sponsorship as Niblo’s Garden (featured in a popular Bowery Boys podcast) was the original venue for the production in 1866 and is the exact location of the Armani Exchange at 568 Broadway in SoHo. The historic location ties into our production and gives Armani an excellent opportunity to align itself with a powerful theatrical work / piece of New York history.
It was spectacular, if only for the yellow ensemble. It was steeped in history. It featured just the right amount of gawking into a full length mirror. In short, it was a microcosm of the excellence that will be the latest, perhaps greatest, incarnation of The Black Crook. But unlike The Black Crook, which runs at Abrons from September 17th – October 7th, Yousuf will never read this letter in these clothes in this Armani outlet again. So catch the other most economical of spectacles at Abrons while you can.