In the 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, many stage artists found a level of support through the federal government’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP), administered through the Works Progress Administration during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. The FTP included “units” for staging almost all forms of theater. Many scenic artists who found work through the program went on to fame in some of the nation’s greatest theaters. Among these were James Morcom and Nat Karson, both of whom later worked on productions at Radio City Music Hall in New York’s Rockefeller Center in addition to other venues.
In the aftermath of World War II the variety stage and theater came to reflect on its own past. Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army (1943) used variety theater to take an irreverent look at the burdens of the war. Director and choreographer Bob Fosse relied on the motifs of vaudeville and burlesque to create the atmosphere of the roaring 1920s in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical Chicago (1975), with stage design by Tony Walton. Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) and James Goldman’s musical Follies (1971) reflected on stage life and its vicissitudes, entwining memories of the heyday of variety theater as a commentary on the present. This glamour and nostalgia was enhanced by Florence Klotz’s costumes for Follies.
Federal Theatre Project
The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was administered entirely by, and was wholly a function of, the federal government and was intended to provide employment for theater professionals during the Great Depression. FTP productions included plays, musical revues, vaudeville, dance, children’s theater, puppetry, and circus performance. FTP also included black theater and Yiddish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish language presentations. There has been nothing comparable in the world of theater to date.
Several of the designs from vaudeville presentations are attributed to James Stewart Morcom. Like many FTP professionals, he had a successful later career. Morcom designed for the New York City Ballet and was with the Radio City Music Hall for many years.
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This Is the Army
This Is the Army, Irving Berlin’s World War II all-soldier revue, opened on July 4, 1942, in New York with plans for a four-week run. Intended as a morale-booster and a fund-raiser for the Army Emergency Relief Fund, it took on a life that far exceeded any expectations. The show toured the United States, was made into a movie, and for twenty-three months played before audiences of U.S. armed forces personnel in Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific before closing in Hawaii on October 22, 1945.
John Koenig (1911–1963). This Is the Army scenic rendering. Watercolor, pen, and ink. European tour, Rome Opera House, 1944. Irving Berlin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)
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