Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

If you were asked, “What is a one-act musical comedy?” you might answer: “Let’s see, a one-act musical comedy is–is–. Well, all I remember is a lot of pretty girls who changed their clothes every few minutes, two lovers who sang about the moon, a funny couple and a whole lot of music.”

Hazy? Not at all. This is really a clear and reasonably correct definition of the average one-act musical colnedy, for this type of act is usually about fifty per cent. girl, twenty per cent. costumes and scenery, twenty-five per cent. music, and usually, but not always, five per cent. comedy. A musical comedy, therefore, is not music and comedy–it is girls and music. That is why the trade name of this, one of the most pleasing of vaudeville acts, is–a girl-act.”

It was the girl-act, perhaps more than any other one style of act, that helped to build vaudeville up to its present high standing. On nearly every bill of the years that are past there was a girl-act. It is a form of entertainment that pleases young and old, and coming in the middle or toward the end of a varied program, it lends a touch of romance and melody without which many vaudeville bills would seem incomplete.

A girl-act is a picture, too. Moreover, it holds a touch of bigness, due to the number of its people, their changing costumes, and the length of time the act holds the stage. With its tuneful haste, its swiftly moving events, its rapid dialogue, its succession of characters, and its ever-changing, colorful pictures, the one-act musical comedy is not so much written as put together.

1. The Musical Elements

Technically known as a girl-act, and booked by managers who wish a “flash"–a big effect–the one-act musical comedy naturally puts its best foot foremost as soon as the curtain rises. And, equally of course, it builds up its effects into a concluding best-foot.

The best-foot of a musical comedy is the ensemble number, in which all the characters–save the principals, sometimes–join in a rousing song. The ensemble is musical comedy, and one-act musical comedy is–let this exaggeration clinch the truth–the ensemble. [1]

[1] Of course, I am discussing the usual musical comedy–the flash of a bill–in pointing out so forcefully the value of the ensemble. There have been some fine one-act musical comedies in which the ensemble was not used at all. Indeed, the musical comedy in one act without any ensemble offers most promising possibilities.

Between the opening and the closing ensembles there is usually one other ensemble number, and sometimes two. And between these three or four ensembles there are usually one or two single numbers–solos by a man or a woman–and a duet, or a trio, or a quartet. These form the musical element of the one-act musical comedy.

2. Scenery and Costumes–The Picture-Elements

While the one-act musical comedy may be played in one set of scenery only, it very often happens that there are two or three different scenes. The act may open in One, as did Joe Hart’s “If We Said What We Thought,” and then go into Full Stage; or it may open in Full Stage, go into One for a little musical number, and then go back into a different full-stage scene for its finish. It may even be divided into three big scenes–each played in a different set–with two interesting numbers in One, if time permits, or the act be planned to make its appeal by spectacular effects.

Very often, as in Lasky’s “A Night on a Houseboat,” a big set-piece or a trick scene is used to give an effect of difference, although the entire act is played without dropping a curtain.

To sum up the idea behind the use of musical comedy scenery: it is designed to present an effect of bigness–to make the audience feel they are viewing a “production.”

The same thought is behind the continual costume changes which are an integral part of the one-act musical comedy effect. For each ensemble number the girls’ costumes are changed. If there are three ensembles there are three costumes, and four changes if there are four ensembles. Needless to say, it sometimes keeps the girls hustling every minute the act is in progress, changing from one costume to another, and taking that one off to don a third or a fourth.

The result in spectacular effect is as though a scene were changed every time an ensemble number is sung. Furthermore, the lights are so contrived as to add to this effect of difference, and the combination of different colors playing over different costumes, moving about in different sets, forms an ever-changing picture delightfully pleasing and big.

Now, as the musical comedy depends for its appeal upon musical volume, numbers of people, sometimes shifting scenery, a kaleidoscopic effect of pretty girls in ever changing costumes and dancing about to catchy music, it does not have to lean upon a fascinating plot or brilliant dialogue, in order to succeed. But of course, as we shall see, a good story and funny dialogue make a good musical comedy better.

3. The Element of Plot

If your memory and my recollection of numerous musical comedies of both the one-act and the longer production of the legitimate stage are to be trusted, a plot is something not vital to the success of a musical comedy. Indeed, it is actually true that many a musical comedy has failed because the emphasis was placed on plot rather than on a skeleton of a story which showed the larger elements to the best advantage. Therefore I present the plot element of the average one-act musical comedy thus:

Whereas the opening and the finish of the playlet are two of its most difficult parts to write, in the musical comedy the beginning and the finish are ready-made to the writer’s hand. However anxious he may be to introduce a novel twist of plot at the end, the writer is debarred from doing so, because he must finish with an ensemble number where the appeal is made by numbers of people, costumes, pretty girls and music. At the beginning, however, the writer may be as unconventional as he pleases–providing he does not take too long to bring on his first ensemble, and so disappoint his audience, who are waiting for the music and the girls. Therefore the writer must be content to “tag on” his plot to an opening nearly always– if not always–indicated, and to round his plot out into an almost invariably specified ending.

Between the opening and the closing ensembles the writer has to figure on at least one, and maybe more, ensembles, and a solo and a duet, or a trio and a quartet, or other combinations of these musical elements. These demands restrict his plot still further. He must indeed make his plot so slight that it will lead out from and blend into the overshadowing stage effects. Necessarily, his plot must first serve the demands of scenery and musical numbers– then and only then may his plot be whatever he can make it.

The one important rule for the making of a musical comedy plot is this: The plot of a one-act musical comedy should be considered as made up of story and comedy elements so spaced that the time necessary for setting scenery and changing costumes is neither too long nor too short.

More than one dress rehearsal on the night before opening has been wisely devoted to the precise rehearsing of musical numbers and costume changes only. The dialogue was never even hastily spoken. The entire effort was directed to making the entrances and exits of the chorus and principals on time. “For,” the producer cannily reasons, “if they slip up on the dialogue they can fake it–but the slightest wait on a musical number will seem like a mortal wound.”

If you recall any of Jesse L. Lasky’s famous musical acts, “A Night at the Country Club,” “At the Waldorf,” “The Love Waltz,” “The Song Shop” (these come readily to mind, but for the life of me I cannot recall even one incident of any of their plots), you will realize how important is the correct timing of musical numbers. You will also understand how unimportant to a successful vaudeville musical comedy is its plot.

4. Story Told by Situations, Not by Dialogue

As there is no time for studied character analysis and plot exposition, and little time for dialogue, the story of a musical comedy must be told by broad strokes. When you read “A Persian Garden,” selected for full reproduction in the Appendix because it is one of the best examples of a well-balanced musical comedy plot ever seen in vaudeville, you will understand why so careful a constructionist as Edgar Allan Woolf begins his act with the following broad stroke:

The opening chorus has been sung, and instantly an old man’s voice is heard off stage. Then all the chorus girls run up and say, “Oh, here comes the old Sheik now.”

Again, when Paul wishes to be alone with Rose, Mr. Woolf makes Paul turn to Phil and say, “What did I tell you to do?” Then Phil seizes Mrs. Schuyler and runs her off the stage into the house.

Mr. Woolf’s skill built this very broad stroke up into a comedy exit good for a laugh, but you and I have seen other exits where the comedy was lacking and the mechanics stood out even more boldly.

So we see that the same time-restriction which makes a musical comedy plot a skeleton, also makes the exits and entrances and the dialogue and every happening structurally a skeleton so loosely jointed that it would rattle horribly–were it not for the beautiful covering of the larger effects of costumes, scenery and music. Therefore the overshadowing necessity for speed makes admissible in the musical comedy broad strokes that would not be tolerated anywhere else.

It is by willingly granting this necessary license that the audience is permitted to enjoy many single musical numbers and delightful ensembles within the time-limits vaudeville can afford for anyone act. So we see why it is–to return to the bald expository statement with which this division begins–that the writer must consider his story and his comedy scenes only as time-fillers to make the waits between musical numbers pleasantly interesting and laughter-worthwhile.

5. The Comedy Element

Plainly recognizing the quickness with which one character must be brought on the stage and taken off again, and thoroughly appreciating that whatever is done between the musical numbers must be speedily dismissed, let us now see what forms of comedy are possible.

Obviously the comedy cannot depend upon delicate shades. It must be the sort of comedy that is physical rather than mental. Slap-stick comedy would seem to be the surest to succeed.

But while this is true, there is no need to depend entirely on the slap-stick brand of humor. For instance, while we find in “A Persian Garden” one whole comedy scene built on the killing of mosquitoes on Phil’s face–certainly the slap-stick brand, even though a hand delivers the slap–we also have the comedy of character in Mrs. Schuyler’s speeches.

Comedy rising directly out of and dependent upon plot, however, is not the sort of comedy that usually gives the best results, because plot is nearly always subservient to the musical and picture making elements. But the comedy element of plot may be made to run throughout and can be used with good effect, if it is the kind that is easily dismissed and brought back. This is why so many musical comedies have made use of plots hinged on mistaken identity, Kings and Princesses in masquerade, and wives and husbands anxiously avoiding each other and forever meeting unexpectedly.

Still, plot-comedy may be depended upon for at least one big scene, if the idea is big enough. For instance, the internationally successful “The Naked Truth” possessed a plot that was big enough to carry the musical comedy on plot-interest alone, if that were necessary. Indeed, it might have been used as a good farce without music. The whole act hung on a magic statue in whose presence nothing but the truth could be told, on pain of parting from one’s clothes. And the comedy scenes that developed out of it carried a series of twists and turns of real plot-interest that made the musical numbers all the more delightful and the whole act a notable success. The musical element of this delightful vaudeville form makes certain other humorous acts fit into the musical comedy structure. For instance, if the comedy character is left alone on the stage, he can with perfect propriety deliver a short monologue. Or he may do anything else that will win laughter and applause.

And the two-act, even more perfectly than the monologue, fits into the musical comedy. No matter what the two-act is, if it is short and humorous, it may be used for one of the ornamental time-gap stoppers. A quarrel scene may be just what is needed to fill out and advance the plot. But more often, the flirtation two-act is the form that best suits, for the nature of the musical comedy seems best expressed by love and its romantic moments. Indeed, the flirtation two-act is often a little musical comedy in itself, minus a background of girls. As an example, take Louis Weslyn’s very successful two-act, “After the Shower.” [1] You can easily imagine all the other girls in the camping party appearing, to act as the chorus. Then suppply a talkative chaperon, and you have only to add her comical husband to produce a fine musical comedy offering.

[1] See the Appendix.

So we see once more that the one-act musical comedy is the result of assembling, rather than of writing. There is no need of adding even one instruction paragraph here.

Before we take up the one or two hints on writing that would seem to present themselves in helpful guise, you should read Edgar Allan Woolf’s “A Persian Garden.” Turn to the Appendix and this act will show you clearly how the writer welds these different vaudeville forms into one perfect whole.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy  • 

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Writing for Vaudeville
By Brett Page
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