The term Music hall may refer to a form of theatrical and musical presentation or to a physical building or venue.
The performance form is also known as Vaudeville or Variety (see below).
- 1 The history and meaning of the term Music hall
- 2 The history and meaning of the term Vaudeville
- 3 The history and meaning of the term Variety
- 4 Music Hall, Variety and Vaudeville in South Africa
- 5 Sources
- 6 Return to
The history and meaning of the term Music hall
As a venue
The term "music hall" was originally merely a literal reference to the hall used as a venue for presentations of musical numbers, song-and-dance routines, impersonations, recitation of poetry, and so on, in early 19th century public houses and taverns in England.
As the eclectic form of entertainment called "music hall" became more popular, the venues gradually developed into more formally constructed buildings, custom built to house performances of comic songs, varied with acrobatics, conjuring, juggling, and dancing. These venues were often gilt-and-plush edifices, referred to rather grandly as "temples", "palaces" or "theatres".
Large numbers of such music halls were built in England in the second half of the 19th century, as well as in the key British colonies, including South Africa.
As a theatrical form
The term "Music hall" gradually also came to refer to the form of theatrical presentation itself and would become a rich tradition, one that exists even today, though in vastly smaller numbers than in its heyday during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like its French and American counterpart (see Vaudeville bedlow) it refers to a popular entertainment consisting of a number of contracted acts, or "turns", including songs, dances, acrobatic displays, comic turns, male/female impersonators, etc. The form became extremely popular toward the second half of the 19th century and first period of the 20th, also in South Africa, when numerous music hall artistes were brought from England to perform in the colonies.
A rich tradition, it exists even today, though in vastly smaller numbers than in its heyday. Its influence has been quite pervasive in the popular arts.
The history and meaning of the term Vaudeville
Vaudeville in France
Vaudeville is the French term for a theatrical form that originated in France at the end of the 18th century, usually as a purely comic entertainment based on a comical situation, described as "a kind of dramatic composition or light poetry, interspersed with songs or ballets". A number of French plays from the late 18th and 19th centuries are styled "une vaudeville", to indicate this set of qualities in the work.
The term vaudevillian is sometimes found as the name for a regular writer or performer of vaudeville acts, or as an adjective (i.e. relating to or characteristic of vaudeville).
Vaudeville in North America
The term Vaudeville became popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s, though the form and function of the performances differed radically from the French usage, in many ways closer to the British term music hall in meaning and form, developing from many sources, most notably popular entertainment forms.
It evolved there to become the more fashionable name for what had hitherto been known as Variety, i.e. a show consisting of a number of contracted acts, or "turns", including songs, dances, acrobatic displays. Vaudeville formally existed in America between 1881 when Tony Pastor first put on a new kind of variety show in New York, to 1932 when the last vaudeville theatre (the Palace Theatre on Broadway) closed. It succeeded the older concept of variety, though thought to be a little more “genteel”, and - like variety - consisted of a collection of anything up to fifteen robust farcical, comic, musical, animal, and other acts.
In North America a vaudeville performance (or variety as it was formerly known later) was not an irreverent stage comedy (as it was in France), so much as a mixed bag of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill - far more in the spirit of the British Music hall tradition. Such acts were performed by a range of actors, comedians, musicians, singers, dancers , magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers, impersonators, minstrels, and so on, and their acts ranged from one-act plays or popular and classical music to circus-style acts, gymnastic displays, lectures by celebrities, magic lantern shows and after the arrival of motion picture projection, films.
In the USA the term (and its alternative, variety) has become synonymous to what is known as "music hall" in Britain and its colonies. It evolved to became the general name for a show consisting of a number of contracted acts, or “turns”, including songs, dances, acrobatic displays, and formally existed in America between 1881 when Tony Pastor first put on a new kind of variety show in New York, to 1932 when the last vaudeville theatre (the Palace Theatre on Broadway) closed. It succeeded the older concept of variety, though thought to be a little more “genteel”, and - like variety - consisted of a collection of anything up to fifteen robust farcical, comic, musical, animal, and other acts.
The New Vaudeville
In the late 20th century there was for a while a movement to revive vaudeville in the USA, with what was known as the New Vaudeville. It initially emphasized circus, side-show and burlesque, but gradually also introduced the more traditional fare of comedy, music and dance forms of all types. It appears to have emerged largely from the active stand-up tradition in the USA. (See Cullen, Hackman and McNeilly, 2007)
The history and meaning of the term Variety
While Music-hall is largely a British term and Vaudeville served much the same purpose in the USA, the term Variety seems to be a kind of umbrella term embracing, both and found in most Anglophone countries. Occurring in formulations such as "variety shows", "variety arts", "variety entertainment" or quite simply "variety", it - like music hall or vaudeville - generally refers to a show introduced by a compére and consisting of a number of contracted acts, or "turns", including up to fifteen songs, dances, acrobatic displays, farcical pieces, comic acts, musical items, animal acts, and other items. This variety format most clearly made its way from late 20th century stage to radio and then television, with variety shows becoming the staple fare of English language television from the late 1940s into the 1980s.
Interestingly, the term has been immortalized in the name of the famous entertainment journal (now online-website) called Variety.
Music Hall, Variety and Vaudeville in South Africa
In South Africa these forms arrived largely through the music hall and minstrel traditions introduced by artists and impresarios from England and the dominions, followed by a number of American vaudeville stars who visited the country in the early years of the 20th century.
The music hall style and the performances themselves were popular in South Africa throughout the nineteenth century, often presented by visiting military units and most probably the huge influence of the first visit by the Christy's Minstrels, the music hall tradition really took hold round about the 1880’s when a number of entrepreneurs opened variety establishments in Cape Town and elsewhere, though interesting enough often using the American terms as well.
Because Music Hall and Variety relied on the attraction, generally, of an imported performer as top of the bill with local supporting acts, the country has over the years hosted numerous international luminaries. In the late 19th and early 20th century for example performers such as Charles du Val, Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, George Robey and Harry Tate appeared on South African music hall stages.
South African variety shows and performers
European and American forms
In later years, under apartheid, this importation of international stars was hampered somewhat by the international cultural boycott, yet prior to the advent of television broadcasting in 1976, impresarios such as Jim Stodel and Pieter Toerien managed to arrange visits for international stars such as Danny Kaye, Marcel Marceau, Liberace, Marlene Dietrich, Shelley Berman, among others.
South African variety performer/presenters included Eve Boswell, Brian Brooke, Taubie Kushlick, Adam Leslie, Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke, Pieter Toerien, and so on. (See for instance the Minstrels and Follies series during the 1970's).
By the late 20th century vaudeville and music-hall had, as elsewhere, largely been replaced by a scaled down version of the music hall approach in what was now referred to as the revue or even cabaret, as well as performances of musical comedy and television variety specials.
However, an interesting, and indeed important, form of this tradition is what Loren Kruger (1999) calls African variety. With this she refers to a range of popular performance forms – mainly concerts and sketches - that she sees evolving in the urban black life from about the 1920’s. The tradition seems to have drawn on such diverse influences as the commercial entertainments of European and American/African American culture, the ingoma and later ingoma ebusuku, Eisteddfodau, missionary choirs, rural modes of storytelling, praise poems and praise songs, minstrelsy, vaudeville gags, "tribal sketches", and so on.
A number of music hall and vaudeville type companies also arose in the black community, including the African Own Entertainers,
Clearly is these forms had an influence on the evolution of local comedy and standup, as well as the so-called "township musical" and even more serious work such as Woza Albert!, Sizwe Banzi is Dead and Sarafina!. Among the major figures to work in or be influenced by this tradition Kruger lists Griffiths Motsieloa, Todd Matshikiza, Gibson Kente, Mbongeni Ngema and Walter Chakela. (McM)
South African Music hall, Vaudeville and Variety venues
Among the notable South African venues named as music halls have been the New Music Hall (Cape Town, 1858), the Trafalgar* (1850's, Durban), Burn's Music Hall (1880's, Kimberley), The Empire (1894, the first of three in Johannesburg) and The Tivoli (1903, Cape Town), hosting such performers as Charles du Val, Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, George Robey and Harry Tate. In Bloemfontein there was the Vaudeville Theatre (circa 1900).
When music-hall venues dispensed with individual supper-tables to adapt to conventional theatre seating, many were renamed (e.g. the Cabinet Theatre, the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, the Empire Palace of Varieties ,
Bio-vaudeville and bio-vaudeville houses in South Africa
The introduction of movies led to the conversion of many theatres to host booth stage performances as well as films - performances later known in South Africa as Bio-vaudeville or Bio-variety, a custom that lasted in some form or other into the 1960s.
In view of this development, the early 20th century soon also saw the construction of custom-built Bio-vaudeville houses to present such variety shows.
See the entry on Bio-vaudeville for more details.
Kaplan and Robertson, 1991,
Phyllis Hartnoll. 1951.Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford University Press.
Frank Cullen, with Florence Hackman, Donald McNeilly. 2007. Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America. New York/London: Routledge.
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