Writing for Vaudeville (B)
by Brett Page

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Public Domain Books

Chapter XX - Putting Together the One-Act Musical Comedy With Hints on Making the Burlesque Tab

Unless you have a definite order to write a one-act musical comedy, it would seem, from the comparatively small part the writer has in the final effect, that the novice had better not write the musical comedy at all. Although this would appear to be clear from the discussion of the elements in the preceding chapter, I want to make it even more emphatic by saying that more than once I have written a musical comedy act for the “small time” in a few hours–and have then spent weeks dovetailing it to fit the musical numbers introduced and whipping the whole act into the aspect of a “production.”

But there is one time when even the amateur may write a musical comedy–when he has a great idea. But I do not mean the average musical comedy idea–I mean such an idea as that which made “The Naked Truth” so successful. And in the hope that you may possess such an idea, I offer a few hints that may prove helpful in casting your idea into smooth musical comedy form.

As I have already discussed plot in the chapters devoted to the playlet, and have taken up the structure of the monologue and the two-act in the chapters on those forms, there is now no need for considering “writing” at all save for a single hint. Yet even this one suggestion deals less with the formal “writing” element than with the “feel” of the material. It is stated rather humorously by Thomas J. Gray, who has written many successful one-act musical comedies, varying in style from “Gus Edwards’ School Boys and Girls” to “The Vaudeville Revue of 1915"–a musical travesty on prevailing ideas–and the books of a few long musical successes, from comedy scenes in “Watch your Step” to “Ned Wayburn’s Town Topics,” that “Musical comedy, from a vaudeville standpoint, and a ’Broadway’ or two-dollar standpoint, are two different things. A writer has to treat them in entirely different ways, as a doctor would two different patients suffering from the same ailment. In vaudeville an author has to remember that nearly everyone in the audience has some one particular favorite on the bill–you have to write something funny enough to: please the admirers of the acrobat, the magician, the dancer, the dramatic artist, the rag-time singer and the moving pictures. But in ’Broadway’ musical comedy it is easier to please the audiences because they usually know what the show is about before they buy their tickets, and they know what to expect. That’s why you can tell ’vaudeville stuff’ in a ’Broadway’ show–it’s the lines the audience laugh at.

“To put it in a different way, let me say that while in two-dollar musical comedy you can get by with ’smart lines’ and snickers, in vaudeville musical comedy you have to go deeper than the lip-laughter. You must waken the laughter that lies deep down and rises in appreciative roars. It is in ability to create situations that will produce this type of laughter that the one-act musical comedy writer’s success lies.”

1. An Average One-Act Musical Comedy Recipe

While it is not absolutely necessary to open a musical comedy with an ensemble number, many fine acts do so open. And the ensemble finish seems to be the rule. Therefore let us assume that you wish to form your musical comedy on this usual style. As your act should run anywhere from thirty to fifty minutes, and as your opening number will consume scarcely two minutes, and your closing ensemble perhaps three, you have–on a thirty-five minute basis– thirty minutes in which to bring in your third ensemble, your other musical numbers and your dialogue.

The third ensemble–probably a chorus number, with the tenor or the ingenue, or both, working in front of the chorus–will consume anywhere from five to seven minutes. Then your solo will take about three minutes. And if you have a duet or a trio, count four minutes more. So you have about eighteen minutes for your plot and comedy–including specialties.

While these time hints are obviously not exact, they are suggestive of the fact that you should time everything which enters into your act. And having timed your musical elements by some such rough standard as this–or, better still, by slowly reading your lyrics as though you were singing–you should set down for your own guidance a schedule that will look something like this:

Opening ensemble............. 2 minutes

Introducing Plot,
First Comedy Scenes....... 4 “

Solo......................... 3 “

Comedy and Specialties.... 5 “

Ensemble number.............. 5 “

Specialties, Comedy.
Plot climax–perhaps
a “big” love scene,
leading into.............. 7 “

Duet......................... 4 “

Plot Solution–the
final arrangement
of characters............. 2 “

Closing ensemble............. 3 “
________ 35 “

Of course this imaginary schedule is not the only schedule that can be used; also bear firmly in mind that you may make any arrangement of your elements that you desire, within the musical comedy form. Let me repeat what I am never tired of saying, that a rigid adherence to any existing form of vaudeville act is as likely to be disastrous as a too wild desire to be original. Be as unconventional as you can be within the necessary conventional limits. This is the way to success.

You have your big idea, and you have the safe, conventional ensemble opening, or a semi-ensemble novelty opening. Also you have a solo number for the tenor or the ingenue, with the chorus working behind them. Finally you have your ensemble ending. Now, within these boundaries, arrange your solo and duet–or dispense with them, as you feel best fits your plot and your comedy. Develop your story by comedy situations–don’t depend upon lines. Place your big scene in the last big dialogue space–the seven minutes of the foregoing schedule–and then bring your act to an end with a great big musical finish.

2. Timing the Costume Changes

Although the schedule given allows plenty of time for costume changes, you must not consider your schedule as a ready-made formula. Read it and learn the lesson it points out–then cast it aside. Test every minute of your act by the test of time. Be especially careful to give your chorus and your principal characters time to make costume changes.

In gauging the minutes these changes will take, time yourself in making actual changes of clothing. Remember that you must allow one minute to get to the dressing room and return to the stage. But do not make the mistake of supposing that the first test you make in changing your own clothes will be the actual time it will take experienced dressers to change. You yourself can cut down your time record by practice–and your clothes are not equipped with time-saving fasteners. Furthermore, it often happens that the most complicated dress is worn in the first scene and a very quick change is prepared for by under-dressing–that is, wearing some of the garments of the next change under the pretentious over-garments of the preceding scene. These are merely stripped off and the person is ready dressed to go back on the stage in half a minute.

But precise exactness in costume changes need not worry you very much. If you have been reasonably exact, the producer–upon whom the costume changes and the costumes themselves depend–will add a minute of dialogue here or take away a minute there, to make the act run as it should.

3. The Production Song

Certain songs lend themselves more readily to effective staging, and these are called “production songs.” For instance: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” could be–and often was–put on with a real band. The principal character could sing the first verse and the chorus alone. Then the chorus girls could come out in regimentals, each one “playing” some instrument–the music faked by the orchestra or produced by “zobos"–and when they were all on the stage, the chorus could be played again with rousing effect. During the second verse, sung as a solo, the girls could act out the lines. Then with the repetitioin of the chorus, they could produce funny characteristic effects on the instruments. And then they could all exit–waiting for the audience to bring them back for the novelties the audience would expect to be introduced in an encore.

This is often the way a “popular song” is “plugged” in cabarets, musical comedies, burlesque, and in vaudeville. It is made so attractive that it is repeated again and again–and so drummed into the ears of the audience that they go out whistling it. Ned Wayburn demonstrated this in his vaudeville act “Staging an Act." He took a commonplace melody and built it up into a production–then the audience liked it. George Cohan did precisely the same thing in his “Hello, Broadway"; taking a silly lyric and a melody, he told the audience he was going to make ’em like it; and he did–by “producing it.”

But not every “popular song” lends itself to production treatment. For instance, how would you go about producing “When it Strikes Home”? How would you stage “When I Lost You”? Or–to show you that serious songs are not the only ones that may not be producible– how would you put on “Oh, How that German Could Love”? Of course you could bring the chorus on in couples and have them sing such a sentimental song to each other–but that would not, in the fullest sense, be producing it.

Just as not every “popular song” can be produced, so not every production song can be made popular. You have never whistled that song produced in “Staging an Act,” nor have you ever whistled Cohan’s song from “Hello, Broadway.” If they ever had any names I have forgotten them, but the audience liked them immensely at the time.

As many production songs are good only for stage purposes, and therefore are not a source of much financial profit to their writers, there is no need for me to describe their special differences and the way to go about writing them. Furthermore, their elements are precisely the same as those of any other song–with the exception that each chorus is fitted with different catch lines in the place of the regular punch lines, and there may be any number of different verses. [1] Now having your “big" idea, and having built it up with your musical elements carefully spaced to allow for costume changes, perhaps having made your comedy rise out of the monologue and the two-act to good plot advantage, and having developed your story to its climax in the last part of your act, you assemble all your people, join the loose plot ends and bring your musical comedy to a close with a rousing ensemble finish.

[1] See Chapter XXII.


The word “tab” is vaudeville’s way of saying “tabloid,” or condensed version. While vaudeville is in itself a series of tabloid entertainments, “tab” is used to identify the form of a musical comedy act which may run longer than the average one-act musical comedy. Although a tabloid is almost invariably in one act, it is hardly ever in only one scene. There are usually several different sets used, and the uninterrupted forty-five minutes, or even more than an hour, are designed to give a greater effect of bigness to the production.

But the greatest difference between the one-act musical comedy and the burlesque tab does not lie in playing-time, nor bigness of effect. While a one-act musical comedy is usually intended to be made up of carefully joined and new humorous situations, the burlesque tab–you will recall the definition of burlesque–depends upon older and more crude humor.

James Madison, whose “My Old Kentucky Home” [1] has been chosen as showing clearly the elements peculiar to the burlesque tab, describes the difference in this way:

“Burlesque does not depend for success upon smoothly joined plot, musical numbers or pictorial effects. Neither does it depend upon lines. Making its appeal particularly to those who like their humor of the elemental kind, the burlesque tab often uses slap-stick comedy methods. Frankly acknowledging this, vaudeville burlesque nevertheless makes a clean appeal. It does not countenance either word or gesture that could offend. Since its purpose is to raise uproarious laughter, it does not take time to smooth the changes from one comedy bit to the next, but one bit follows another swiftly, with the frankly avowed purpose to amuse, and to amuse for the moment only. Finally, the burlesque tab comes to an end swiftly: it has made use of a plot merely for the purpose of stringing on comedy bits, and having come toward the close, it boldly states that fact, as it were, by a swift rearrangement of characters–and then ends.”

[1] See the Appendix

While the burlesque tab nearly always opens with an ensemble number, and almost invariably ends with an ensemble, there may be more solos, duets, trios, quartets and ensembles than are used by the musical comedy–if the act is designed to run for a longer time. But as its appeal is made by humor rather than by musical or pictorial effect, the burlesque tab places the emphasis on the humor. It does this by giving more time to comedy and by making its comedy more elemental, more uproarious.

In a burlesque tab, the comedy bits are never barred by age–providing they are sure-fire–and therefore they are sometimes reminiscent. [2] The effort to give them freshness and newness is to relate the happenings to different characters, and to introduce the bits in novel ways.

[2] Mr. Madison informed me that the “statuary bit” in “My Old Kentucky Home” is one of the oldest “bits” in the show business. It is even older than Weber and Field’s first use of it a generation ago.

Therefore, it would seem obvious that the writing of the burlesque tab is not “writing” at all. It is stage managing. And as the comedy bits are in many cases parts of the history of the stage–written down in the memories of actor and producer–the novice had better not devote his thoughts to writing burlesque. However, if he can produce bits of new business that will be sure-fire, he may find the burlesque tab for him the most profitable of all opportunities the vaudeville stage has to offer. That, however, is a rare condition for the beginner.


Chapter XX - Putting Together the One-Act Musical Comedy With Hints on Making the Burlesque Tab  •  Chapter XXI - The Musical Elements of the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXII - The Elements of a Successful Lyric  •  Chapter XXIII - Writing the Popular Song  •  Chapter XXIV - Manuscripts and Markets  •  Chapter XXV - How a Vaudeville Act is Booked  •  Appendix - Nine Famous Vaudeville Acts Complete  •  Glossary