Although the cancan made its North American debut with Offenbach’s opera Orpheus of the Underworld in 1861, it wasn’t until it appeared in the first American musical that the cancan became a true phenomenon in North America.
In 1866 Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer imported a large group of Parisian dancers to perform the balletLa Biche au Bois. Their plans were smashed when The Academy of Music – the New York theatre – burned down. Stranded with 100 foreign dancers, the two men needed a solution.
They approached William Wheately, the owner of Niblo’s Garden Theatre. Wheately was preparing to mount Charles M. Barras’ melodrama The Black Crook. Concerned about the strength of the script, the proposal to combine the two casts (forming a massive production) was just the solution Wheately needed.
The playwright, Barras, was less thrilled about having dancers in his show but $1500 seemed to have appeased him and the deal was struck. The combination of singing, dancing and plot was a magic formula and it’s why The Black Crook is referred to by theatrical scholars as “the first American musical.”
The show opened on September 12, 1866 and, despite the fact that it was more than five hours long, it was a knock-out success and ran for an unprecedented 474 performances.
Much of the show’s popularity was attributed to the beautiful young ladies who danced the cancan. Men and women flocked to get a glimpse of 200 legs flying across the stage in their revealing flesh-coloured body suits and frilly dresses.
If the Black Crook brought the cancan to America, it was British burlesque star Lydia Thompson who in 1868, brought her brash, brave form of female entertainment who helped spread it across the continent. The promotion that preceded her arrival touted that her recent tours of Europe, generated so many passionate admirers that it resulted in suicides and duels. When her show Ixion opened in New York on September 28, 1868, all of the 2,265 seats at Woods Theatre were sold. The show featured the cancan along with jigs, hornpipes and parodies. It introduced America to a new fashion style from Paris called the “Grecian Bend” and featured topical jokes that poked fun at male masculinity and Victorian piousness. Songs like “While Strolling through the Park One Day” teased the audience with an in-your-face form of sexuality that was extremely enticing, alluring and shocking to New York audiences.
Newspaper columnists went from rave reviews to discomfort. The Spirit of the Times described Thompson’s performance as “remarkably free from vulgarity and coarseness of mien or gesture,” and stated that she had “captivated her audiences, men and women, by her delightful deviltry.”
Like the cancan, burlesque poked fun at the conventional, and Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes challenged the contemporary view that women should be pure and pious. In fact, in 1970 she chased down a Chicago journalist and dished out a very public horse-whipping because she considered his criticism of her performance a personal attack.
She was charged and had to pay a fine, but you can bet that journalists around the country paid attention as she headed for their town on her national tour.
The enormous popularity of the cancan made it a sure-fire attraction and by 1870 it had been woven into the fabric of variety theatre, burlesque and vaudeville shows, opera, operetta and ballet.
After taking New York by storm, it was about to become the resident dance of the Wild West saloons and the frontier theatres of the North.
In our next segment: the 1870s saw the cancan spread across North America, raising the ire of the Moral Reform Movement and triggering police raids and arrests across the country.