Irving Berlin (1888–1989). “Tell Me, Little Gypsy” from Ziegfeld Follies of 1920. Sheet music. Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)

Variety stage, including musical review, burlesque, and vaudeville, were the dominant forms of entertainment in the United States in the early-twentieth century.  Of these, the musical review, closely aligned with musical comedy, has contributed most significantly to the history of scenic and costume design in the theater of the period. George White’s Scandals (1919–1939), Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues (1921–1924), and Earl Carroll’s Vanities were particularly famous for the beauty and overall artistic splendor of their sets. These long-running reviews created venues for the flowering of a distinctive American theatrical design.

Florenz Ziegfeld’s (1867–1932) annual Follies, a series of spectacularly devised musical comedies, were the most celebrated events in American theater of the time. Ziegfeld employed brilliant theatrical designers. The finish and consummate quality of Ziegfeld’s visual mastery and his intense preoccupation with the production lighting were legendary. The era’s finest composers in light theater provided the perfect complement to the magnificence of Ziegfeld’s staging, always on a mammoth scale and often in the largest and best-equipped theaters in New York. His opulent Ziegfeld Theatre on New York’s Sixth Avenue, designed by architect and designer Joseph Urban (1872–1933), was the home for Show Boat, Rio Rita, and Show Girl, among others productions.

Costume for Show Boat

Show Boat is often characterized in terms of superlatives: the first modern American musical, the most influential Broadway musical, and even the greatest American musical. Written at a time when most shows consisted of little more than thin plots and catchy tunes, Show Boat became a touchstone for the musical as we now know it—a cohesive dramatic presentation in which the music becomes a vehicle for the development of character and action. During its seventy-year history, it has been filmed three times and given several major New York revivals, including the one in 1946 for which Lucinda Ballard designed the costumes.

Lucinda Ballard (1906–1993). “Singer” costume design for Show Boat with fabric swatches, 1946 revival. Opened Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, January 5, 1946. Oscar Hammerstein II Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

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