I hated history in high school. At the time, I thought this was simply because the subject didn't interest me, but I eventually came to understand that it was because my history teachers were somewhat perfunctory and uninspired in the way they presented the subject matter.
In college, I was "forced" to take a full year of world history, and wound up being rather pleasantly surprised by this rather delightful professor who related everything in the course to the art and music of the time periods in question. Want to know what Louis XIV was thinking? Take a look at some baroque architecture or listen to some Bach, he said. Interested in what the mindset was after the French Revolution? Check out a Delacroix painting or The Red and the Black.
As a result of that experience, I firmly believe in teaching history, and musical-theater history in particular, not merely as a series of dates and events, but in terms of the progression of ideas and the cultural, social, and political influences on those ideas. One of the most important themes in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory is the evolution in the portrayal of certain societal subgroups: African Americans, women, and members of the LGBT community. In researching the course syllabus, I was really struck by how many of the shows that I was hoping to cover reflected the changing attitudes toward -- and treatment of -- women, blacks, and gays, and how the shows presented in their way a sort of cultural history of each of those groups.
I was particularly struck when I came across Bloomer Girl, a show that I honestly hadn't really been familiar with prior to researching this course. But as soon as I started reading about the show, I knew I wanted to include it in the course. Bloomer Girl concerns itself with Amelia Bloomer, the inventor, naturally enough, of "bloomers," and her efforts to bring about women's suffrage in particular and women's rights in general. But the show also takes on the parallel struggle to abolish slavery and the workings of the Underground Railroad. Here was a show that addressed, dead on, two of the key themes that were emerging for my course, so two years ago when I initiated the series of staged readings that supplement my course, I knew that Bloomer Girl would be on my short list of shows that I wanted to present. But Bloomer Girl is more than just a history lesson: it's also a delightfully witty and tuneful reminder of musicals from a bygone era.
Given the personnel behind Bloomer Girl, it's really no surprise that the show would have such a strong social conscience. The show features a score by the glorious Harold Arlen, whom many people simply know as the composer of the glorious songs to the 1939 film, "The Wizard of Oz." But Arlen also created the scores to about a dozen Broadway shows, including quite a few shows with all-or-mostly-black casts, including St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers, and Jamaica. E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Arlen's lyricist for Bloomer Girl, not to mention "The Wizard of Oz," had a similar history of contributing shows with inclusive content, including lyrics for the lighthearted sardonic revue Life Begins at 8:40 (which he also wrote with Arlen), book and lyrics for the scathingly funny social satire Finian's Rainbow (with Bloomer Girl librettist Fred Saidy), and book and lyrics to the outrageously bizarre but fascinating send-up of big business, Flahooley (also with Fred Saidy).
The original cast of Bloomer Girl (1944) featured Celeste Holm in the lead female role of Evalina. Holm was fresh off her star-making role as Ado Annie in Oklahoma, and Joan McCracken (the future ex-Mrs. Bob Fosse), who practically stole Bloomer Girl out from under Holm as the maid Daisy, was fresh out of Oklahoma as well. Also making the trip from Oklahoma to Cicero Falls, New York, was choreographer Agnes de Mille. The reviews and historical accounts of Bloomer Girl point to de Mille's choreography, in particular her legendary Civil War ballet, as being one of many highlights from the show, which ran an impressive 657 performances, or about 18 months.
Because we have only 4 days of rehearsal for these staged readings, my cast will, alas, not be performing the ballet, or any of the de Mille dances for that matter, but if you click on the link above, you can watch a video of the ballet, which comes from a 1956 television broadcast of Bloomer Girl, starring Barbara Cook and Keith Andes. Bloomer Girl has since all but vanished from view, save for a 2001 concert production by Encores, but the somewhat truncated cast recording serves to remind us of Arlen's eclectic score, Harburg's witty and evocative lyrics, and the dynamic performances of Holm, McCracken, and their able supporting cast.
(An interesting footnote: Bloomer Girl features a dramatically purposeful and symbolic performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin during the second act of the show. This was some six years before the Jerome Robbins ballet, "Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I. As I always say to my students, there's really no such thing as an original idea. What matters is the quality of the execution.)
Bloomer Girl performances at the Boston Conservatory are December 7th and December 8th at 8 pm in the Zack Box Theater. Admission is free. Seating is on a first come-first served basis. Email me for more details.