Talking about a Broadway blockbuster today requires a discourse on the song and dance numbers involved. The musical reigns supreme at the Broadway box office, but this wasn’t always the case. The book musical with its full integration of song, dance, and narrative was still in its infancy 100 years ago, and the stand out hits of the time were straight plays.
The biggest dramatic hit of the 1912-1913 season was the inaugural production at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre. Within the Law opened on September 11, 1912. In the play, young shop girl Mary Turner is accused of theft. Though she did not commit the crime, Mary is convicted to a three year sentence. Making the most of her incarceration, Mary studies law and discovers legal ways to exact her revenge. Once on the outside, she assembles a team from both sides of the law and begins extorting money from wealthy men including her accuser’s son. Tension heightens when Mary’s mark sincerely falls in love with her, and she begins to return his feelings.
The story is full of confidence tricks, double-crosses, police informers, triple-crosses, and a gun shot on stage (made all the more blood-tingling through the use of the fairly new Maxim Silencer). The play ends in true melodramatic form. The real criminals are punished and love triumphs. Audiences were rewarded with a thrilling evening of entertainment that did not significantly challenge the status quo. Rich people may afford better protection under the law, but the hard-work of a virtuous spirit will ultimately win.
Within the Law ran 541 performances with consistently high box office receipts, but it was only the second biggest hit of the season. That honor fell to the comedy Peg O’ My Heart with over 600 performances. Also a girl from humble beginnings, the titular Peg (played by Laurette Taylor) travels to England to be reunited with long-lost relatives.Peg’s father is poor and Irish, and her mother ran off with him to America, effectively abandoning her own wealthy English family. Peg’s uncle has recently passed away and left her a small fortune. This same uncle also left a stipend to any respectable family members willing to take up Peg’s education and introduction into society. Peg’s aunt, Mrs. Chichester, left desperate by a bad investment scheme, welcomes Peg into her home.
Soon the warmth of Peg’s Irish-American manners crashes against the hypocritical reserve of her English relations. In a scene in Act II, Peg returns home from a dance with her sweetheart “Jerry” (later discovered to be Sir Gerald) and runs into her cousin Ethel sneaking out to elope with a married man.When the noise of their run-in wakes the house, Peg cheerily admits to coming from the dance in an effort to distract the family from the fact that her cousin is fully clothed at a nocturnal hour. Peg’s sacrifice teaches the Chichesters the value of familial duty and care. The play ends as it must, with all parties reconciled, everyone once again financially comfortable, and Peg with her arms around her sweetheart Jerry.
The popular song “Peg O’ My Heart” by Alfred Bryan and Fred Fisher is said to be inspired by the play’s main character. Though it did not appear in the play, the song was performed on Broadway as part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913. 100 years later, the popularity of the song has outlasted that of the original play.
Peg O’ My Heart enjoyed another successful run in 1922 again starring Laurette Taylor, who also starred in a silent film version of the play that same year. Despite the success of its first two runs, no Broadway production has been mounted since 1922. Within the Law was also only revived once on Broadway, just 16 years after its smash debut. The play was considered too dated and closed within the month it opened. Though record breaking hits, both productions were unable to endure the changing times. With influence of European artistic movements in the wake of World War I, audiences were no longer satisfied with the clear cut heroes and villains of melodrama.