1920s Broadway: The Women Behind The Scenes

Picture the Roaring Twenties at its height. Everything about the scene is loud and imposing, colorful and vibrant, daring and flashy. The women are dressed like never before, exploring the limits of their sexual freedom by wearing shorter and shinier skirts, more feathers and more attitude. All standards are turned on their heads as new painting, new music, new writing, and new social expectations flood America’s cities. These new ways of seeing the world cross paths at every social gathering, but all accumulate together on the stages along Broadway in Manhattan.american girl

Broadway musicals are all essentially love stories. In the vein of all love stories, they both celebrate the feminine through extensive appreciation (almost entirely commentary on physical appearance) and demean the feminine by showing it to be predictable, weak, and confused. The main goal is usually still marriage. However, historical context is key to these musicals, and the idea of the contemporary love story is more important than ever. And for the first time, producers had to consider their audience differently. During the 1920s, a record number of white single women held jobs as typists and assistants in the rise of corporate America, especially in New York City.

Working white single women hadgirlsdreams purchasing power, and therefore the power to demand a different kind of love story; a story where the woman has a little more punch, sometimes comes out on top, and sometimes gets a part written by another woman. Of course, the stories are still ripe with misogyny and sexist stereotypes, exemplified by the song, “The Girls of My Dreams,” and the “casting couch” would stick around for a couple more decades.

Within the Kislak Center’s Broadway sheet music collection which dates from 1919 to 1929, there are a total of 15 female lyricists, musicians, and producers for the 384 pieces in the collection. These include May Singhi Breen, Dorothy Terriss, Zelda Sears, Dorothy Fields,  Anne Caldwell, Nora Bayes, and Elsie Janis. All of the women are white. What allowed these women to succeed in a male dominated world where they were let in primarily by their looks, and secondarily by their talent… on a stage?

While researching the career trajectories of each of these amazing women, I noticed a fairly consistent pattern. Most of the women started out as actresses. Most dropped to the sidelines before achieving any kind of international fame for particular roles, and found a male mentor and promoter for their writing, usually a man already well established within Broadway circles. A fair portion of these women collaborated solely with their husbands on many projects in the beginning, with the wife writing the lyrics and the husband composing the music, like Dorothy Terriss and Nora Bayes-Norworth. However, as their songs gained popularity, these women gained authority and independence. The song in our collection written by Dorothy Terriss was not created with her husband, but rather with the composer Julian Robledo. And Nora Bayes, who had collaborated on many occasions with her husband Norworth, divorced him once she gained fame as an actress and a lyricist. They had been known as the happiest couple on the stage, to which she replied, “We were– on the stage.”

A Vision

A few women were truly superstars by the time they turned their attention to writing: Zelda Sears, Elise Janis, Nora Bayes, Ruth Etting, and Dorothy Donnelly were well known throughout the United States and parts of Europe. Many of them were noted for visiting the troops overseas during WWI. Elise Janis is the only female producer we have in our collection. Ruth Etting collaborated on a piece that she then sang in the musical production, Whoopee.

About a third of the women in the collection avoided relying on husbands and didn’t capitalize on star power. Anne Caldwell was truly a pioneer for all of these women, beginning her career in playwriting at the turn of the century. May Singhi Breen was a divorcee and single mother during the 1920s, and is one of the most prolific composers in our collection. Breen, dubbed the “Ukulele Lady,” arranged the ukulele accompaniment for over 15 works in the collection and was greatly responsible for the recognition of the ukulele as a serious instrument. She successfully advocated for the inclusion of ukulele players in the American Federation of Musicians.

One piece in our collection is truly significant. “Just Because!” from the musical, Just Because, is written and composed entirely by women and ran just over a month in the spring of 1922. It has never been produced again. The book by written by Helen S. Woodruff and Anna Wynne, the lyrics were written by Woodruff, and the music was composed by Madelyn Sheppard, the only female composer, along with Breen, represented in the Kislak Center’s collection.

While getting deeper into my research, I happened upon the article, “Sophie Treadwell vs. John Barrymore: Playwrights, Plagiarism, and Power in the Broadway Theatre of the 1920s,” by Jerry Dickey (1995). The article shouldn’t have been a surprise. It discussed the culture of plagiarism in emerging Broadway, but highlighted how the plagiarism undercut unknown female playwrights from receiving credit for their work. Very few women sued because they did not want to compromise their future employment options, however their work was taken from them, scene after scene after scene. When women like Sophie Treadwell did stand up, they called out the most powerful men in the industry, men like John Barrymore, grandfather of movie star Drew Barrymore. Industry titans Oliver Morosco and William Tully dragged out Grace Fendler’s suit against them for eighteen years (Dickey, page 76). These men proceeded to discredit and destroy these women professionally and personally in the public eye. Dickey writes, “Just as many defense strategies in rape cases attempt to dismiss victims’ allegations as being misinterpretations of unverifiable past actions, Barrymore unleashed a series of strategies designed to disarm Treadwell’s suspicions” (Dickey, page 72).  This comparison to a rape case re-framed the issue, and made the culture more relevant.

baby blueThe plagiarism sheds light on the lack of control female playwrights and lyricists had on the final product. Many Broadway productions in this time period were a reaction to the recent influx of immigration and an appeal to the nativism movement that was rumbling the WASP communities of New York City, a key component of Broadway audiences. The ideal woman is often described in the texts of this collection and she is a white, blonde woman with bright blue eyes. This image of womanhood was a part of an impediment during an era of feminist activism and civil rights activism. But if a playwright wanted a job, she might just have to go along with it.

The women in this collection represent a crack in a realm of white male control. It is not an advancement shared by women of color, who faced their own challenges up the street in Harlem as well as almost systematic barring from Broadway. As American musical theater began to separate itself from its European origin in postwar Manhattan, the opportunity arose for a re-imagining of a craft. These fifteen women, along with countless others who aren’t featured in our collection, jumped at that opportunity and laid the groundwork from not only Broadway, but Hollywood and beyond.



One thought on “1920s Broadway: The Women Behind The Scenes

  1. It is so great to learn about these talented women and the role that American musical theater played in creative women’s lives in this period! Looks like a great collection of material.

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