In Just Jim Dale, the British Music Hall is featured as both a family business (Jim Dale's grandmother ran a theatrical boarding house adjoining a local music hall) and as a major influence on Dale's career. Music hall entertainment evolved out of musical performances given at local taverns. These "taproom concerts" were initially a background diversion, secondary to the eating, drinking, and debauchery common to early 19th century pubs. As the concerts gained popularity, pub owners took note, and by the mid-1830s, taverns often had entire "song and supper rooms" devoted to the entertainment. In 1843, the Theatre Regulations Act differentiated music halls from the "theatre proper" (theatres that housed ballet and opera performances). While smoking and drinking were banned in the theatre proper, they were allowed to continue in music hall entertainment, thus cementing the music hall's popularity as a hangout for working class audiences.
Several taverns, including The Borough Music Hall and The Eagle, became well-known music hall locales, but in 1852 Charles Morton became the first person to build an entirely new space dedicated to music hall entertainment: The Canterbury Hall. The space began at a 700-seat capacity, but the performances were so popular that the hall was renovated in 1856. Morton added more opulent décor and a balcony that increased the theatre's capacity to 1500 seats.
The success of Canterbury Hall inspired many like-minded entrepreneurs to construct their own music halls, and by 1875 some 375 new music halls had opened across Greater London. Throughout this period of expansion, music halls gained a wider appeal, drawing middle and upper class audiences to their entertainments. However, many of the halls retained a stature of ill repute, with rowdy crowds and enterprising prostitutes continuing to be a fixture of the music hall scene.
By the end of the 19th century, the music part of the music hall finally began to take center stage. Whereas audiences were first drawn in by the atmosphere of imbibing (whether in cigarettes, food, drinks, or sex), they were now enthralled by the performances themselves. Usually a combination of song and comedy routine, the performances often drew on pedestrian problems to tap into the broadest possible appeal. Domestic squabbles and money problems were reliably rich sources of content. Music hall performers became stars at such a high demand that, in the beginning of the music hall heyday, they might perform at several venues across town in one night.
Music hall owners quickly realized that this multi-venue stardom, while great for performers' pocketbooks, wasn't the most profitable business model for those in charge. They began to contract performers on a per-week or per-month (rather than per-performance) basis. Over time, performers began to bristle at these contracts. Many of them contained an "exclusivity clause" which kept performers from doing shows in other theatres (even after their performance engagements ended). In 1907, a large group of performers, musicians, and stagehands went on strike, demanding fair payment practices and an end to the abusive contracts.
At the top of the 20th century, a new type of theatre venue and experience began to take over England's entertainment scene: Variety Theatre. These performances might feature everything from a music hall star to a ballerina to an acrobat to a trained animal. Variety theatre owners began to leave the seedy and shocking elements of music hall behind, aiming for a large-scale, family-friendly theatrical event. The atmosphere of the theatres themselves began to reflect this change, as well. Audiences now sat in darkened rows of seats, rather than at tables, and drinks were purchased from a separate bar, rather than served in the auditorium. The proscenium-arch theatres built during this era look much like the Broadway houses we know today.
By the 1930s, movies, or "talking pictures" had begun to push out the Variety scene (with many of the theatres actually converting to movie houses). However, well-loved variety acts, their popularity bolstered by radio appearances, continued to perform in London and to tour England.
Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15 through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Just Jim Dale, Upstage