Theater has long been a staple of NYC entertainment and "The Black Crook" holds the distinction of being the first American musical, which is now celebrating its 150th anniversary. The play originally opened in New York in 1866--one year after the Civil War ended. The story follows the adventures of a painter who sells his soul to a sorcerer. It included ballet dancing and ran for five hours with over one hundred performers! The show is regarded as the birth of Broadway as we know it, and now, 150 years later, a team of eight actors, dancers, and musicians will revive this historic piece at the Abrons Art Center throughout September and October 2016. This performance mixes original story with facts about the life of its creator, Charles M. Barras. Recently, director Josh William Gelb spoke to AXS about his experiences working on this show and in the theater industry in general:
AXS: What inspired you to get involved with theater?
Josh Gelb (JG): Well, I grew up in the type of New York suburban family where the soundtrack of our road-trips was Sondheim cast recordings. My mother was the director/choreographer of most of the musicals at the local high school so a lot of my after-school hours were spent watching rehearsals. I guess the rest was inevitable, right?
AXS: Growing up, what shows and/or stories had the biggest impact on you? Why?
JG: I grew up watching all the classic musicals, reading Shakespeare, learning the Gilbert and Sullivan cannon (supplemented with a healthy dose of Marx Bros. and Fellini movies). But my preference was always for the misfits. Musicals like “Candide” or “Anyone Can Whistle.” Ibsen's “Peer Gynt.” Problem plays. And when I finally moved to the city and started seeing the work of some of my favorite directors (Simon McBurney, Mary Zimmerman, Ivo Van Hove...), I finally was able to identify an experimental theatrical tradition that seemed to compliment the types of stories I was interested in telling. Actually the jump from musical theater to experimental theater, and vice-versa, has always been rather natural. I think they're both intrinsic rejections of naturalism and use many of the same techniques.
AXS: How did you find out about "The Black Crook" and what inspired you to remake it?
JG: When I was quite young I came across an old book of theater posters in which the 1873 revival of “The Black Crook” was featured. It depicted two Amazons in their infamous flesh colored tights, and much like the severely repressed audiences of the 19th century, I suppose something rather latent was awakened in me. Quite frankly, I was aroused--which is an awkward way to say that I was always aware of the mythology of “The Black Crook” as the "supposed first musical." When I finally hunted down a copy, however, I was a little disappointed. It's a hackneyed melodrama in every sense of the word. And it wasn't until I began to notice the Faustian parallels between “The Black Crook” and the story of how the original production came about that I was able to really envision what a new production of “The Black Crook” might look like. So once I decided to mash up the two stories there remained merely the issue of reviving one of the biggest spectacles in theater history on a shoe-string budget.
AXS: What most interested you about the life of the original show's creator, Charles M. Barras?
JG: When you find a playwright whose name rhymes with "embarrass" a lot of the work is done for you. In fact, Charles M. Barras was considered a bit of a hack at the time, and a ridiculed one at that. His plays were derivative, he had a pretty bad stammer, a tick, and he went bald quite early as well, so he always wore this rather obvious wig. He mostly lived off his wife, Sallie St. Clair, who was a celebrated comic actress at the time. But when an illness ended her career performing, it was up to Barras to provide for her, and he was unusually certain that his script for “The Black Crook” should be their meal ticket. Of course, Barras couldn't fathom what the producers would ultimately turn it into, and this tension between what the artist imagines his work to be and what the economics of producing popular theater demand always seemed like a subject ripe for exploration.
AXS: What other plays have you worked on and do you have a favorite?
JG: Funny, usually I respond to this question by talking about “The Black Crook,” which I started working on almost ten years ago and dragged out of my drawer when I realized the 150th anniversary was approaching. So I guess I have to reconfigure my answer now. I still think about a wild production of “Man of La Mancha” that I created with Justin Levine (who's co-arranging the music for “The Black Crook”) back in 2008. We took the prison framing-device completely literally, asking what would happen if the entire musical had to be improvised by eight men in a prison cell with nothing but two guitars, a chamber pot, and orange jumpsuits. La Mancha via Marat/Sade, I guess. It was a dark interpretation--really dark. I can't say whether it was any good (we got savaged by critics) but I still think about it.
AXS: What would be your “dream project”?
JG: I've always fantasized about delving into “The Jazz Singer,” as a lover of old music, old movies, and also as an artist of Jewish heritage. Talk about a problem text though. Oy. The story is so culturally charged at this point that I have to wonder if it's even my story to tell anymore... Maybe that's an interesting place to start.
AXS: So far, what has been the most rewarding thing about being involved in the theater industry?
JG: What can I say? At this very moment I get to spend four weeks with these incredibly talented performers and designers and creators, listening to beautiful music, and mostly nerding out over musicals and NYC history. Abrons Arts Center has been so generous that we're working inside the theater every single day of this process, which is totally abnormal and an absolute luxury. Making the work: That's the reward. And sadly it's all too often the smallest part of the process, particularly when you're self-producing.
AXS: Career wise, where do you see yourself in ten years?
JG: Probably celebrating the 160th anniversary of “The Black Crook”!
AXS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention?
JG: Right after “The Black Crook” opens I have a new adaptation of Kafka's short story “A Hunger Artist” going up at the New Ohio, which I've been working on with Jon Levin and Sinking Ship Productions. Also, composer Stephanie Johnstone and I are about to release a live-concert recording of our latest show; it's called Hail Oblivion and it's an epic musical fantasia on piratical themes.
AXS: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to enter the theater industry?
JG: If I could figure out how to successfully dissuade someone from entering the industry, I probably would. I mean, as early as 1866, when the “The Black Crook” opened, practitioners were already complaining that a life in the American theater was impossible. But since dissuasion rarely works, I'll just recommend taking a coding class.
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