- Music in German Immigrant Theater: New York City, 1840–1940
When one thinks of musical theater in America, the initial response almost invariably leads to English-language traditions, particularly those associated with Broadway, the fabled “Great White Way.” Thanks to John Koegel’s magnificent and substantial tome, long overdue light is shed on a parallel tradition, that of the German-language musical theater. Koegel estimates (conservatively) that between 1840 and 1940, at least 40,000 to 50,000 musical theater performances of about 4,000 different works took place on New York City’s German-speaking stages. In the course of nearly six hundred pages, Koegel reveals long-forgotten legacies of shows, theaters, impresarios, composers, conductors, and performers. The book is meticulous in its detail, but never ponderous or pedantic to read. The prose is lively, and many well-produced illustrations (including portraits, production photos, images of theaters, and sheet-music covers) add to the book’s charm.
In the nineteenth century New York had the third largest German population of any city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna. Likewise, it maintained a rich cultural heritage that included performances of plays with incidental music, operettas, operas, and music dramas. Koegel documents the full range of these activities in the German-speaking community, but places his focus on the popular musical theater, the world of Possen (farces) and Volksstücke (folk pieces created for urban audiences). The study is framed around patterns of immigrant cultural maintenance, conflict, accommodation, and acculturation.
Koegel arranges his study into three large sections: (1) Musical Theater in Little Germany, 1840–1918: An Imported European Tradition; (2) Entr’acte: German American Performers and Characterizations; and (3) Adolf Philipp and the German American Immigrant Musical. Seven performer-manager-impresarios figure prominently in the narrative for their efforts in creating and shaping German [End Page 378] American theater in New York: Otto Hoym, Adolf Neuendorff, Gustav Amberg, Mathilde Cottrelly, Heinrich Conreid, Adolf Philipp, and Rudolf Christians. Among these, Koegel devotes the most attention to Neuendorff and Philipp. As a champion of Wagner, Neuendorff sought to promote high art, while Philipp, the most prolific of all German American playwrights, created popular musical comedies based on the immigrant experience.
Many long-forgotten works and personalities are brought to light in the first part of this impressive survey. For example, Johann Nestroy and Adolf Müller’s Der böse Geist Lumpacivagabundus (The Evil Spirit Lumpacivagabundus, 1833; first performed in New York in 1840) was, according to Koegel, “probably the most frequently performed German-language musical play in nineteenth-century New York” (26). Neuendorff and his activities at the Germania Theatre between 1872 and 1883 are subsequently chronicled, with special attention given to Adolf L’Arronge and Rudolf Bial’s Mein Leopold (My Leopold), a popular German import that extols the features of a Volksstück. Koegel aptly demonstrates how typical aspects of the genre—namely sentimentality, a sprinkling of low-brow elements, and a prodigal son character who, although he bankrupts his father, is redeemed at the end—are treated in this popular work. Neuendorff was much more than a theatrical manager, however, for he also was an operetta composer and an accomplished orchestral and operatic conductor. This central figure of popular musical theater conducted the American premieres of three Wagner music dramas: Lohengrin (1871), Der fliegende Holländer (1877), and Die Walküre (1877).
Activities at the Thalia and Amberg theatres between 1879 and 1893 are the focus of the tantalizingly titled chapter, “An Orgy of Operetta.” Works by Viennese-based composers Franz von Suppé, Carol Millöcker, and Johann Strauss II appeared at the Thalia (and elsewhere), as did German-language productions of Glbert and Sullivan’s most popular works. In 1893 Heinrich Conreid took over the Amberg Theatre’s management and artistic direction from his rival Gustav Amberg, the house’s namesake. Renaming it the Irving Place Theatre, Conreid recruited a new group of...