Curtain Comes Down on Follies

Unfortunately, the show has closed: The Great American Revue exhibition at NYPL’s Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center ended its run last weekend.

Performer in one of The Passing Show revues (1912-1919), which spoofed politicians and Broadway shows (kind of like “Forbidden Broadway”)

Today, Broadway pretty much consists of musicals and dramas, but back in the day, the “tired businessman” was entertained by chorus lines, comics, impersonators, satirists, and the best songwriters. (Think Cohan, Berlin, Rogers & Hart.)

Perhaps the note found in the archives inside a Follies costume swatch book sums it up: “Costume designs are attached. Lyrics will be written if you are interested.”

This terrific NYPL show explored how follies and revues evolved between the years 1902 (the dawn of the Hammerstein Roof Garden shows) to 1938 (when topical revues of the Great Depression, such as Pins and Needles made their mark).

The curators’ chronology and commentary is brilliant, chronicling the four stages of development: beginnings, experimenting with formats, celebrating the “body as performance”, and the emergence of political satires (1930s). (Download the show’s mini-program to get the Cliff Notes version.)

Chorus line from Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1923-1940), which featured the Most Beautiful Girl in the World

Who knew that the original Hippodrome was also built by the team that built Coney Island’s Luna Park? Who knew that George White invented “souvenir programs”? Who knew that Martha Graham got her start in settlement-house venues way back when the Neighborhood Playhouse was at the Henry Street Settlement? Who knew that audience participation shows and mini-revues on rooftop eating-drinking gardens predated the Brooklyn Bowl mash-up by 100 years?

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