J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

The Beggar’s Opera Comes to Lexington, 11 Aug.

In December 1750 the New-York Gazette announced performances of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at the Nassau Street Theatre. That was, theater historians say, the first musical play staged in America. It had already been popular in Britain for twenty-two years.

On 6 May 1751, the New York players announced their “last Time playing the Beggar’s Opera this season” on the upcoming Monday. In the same advertisement they asked if anyone had a copy of a comedy called The Intriguing Chambermaid which they could borrow.

New England, with its Puritan roots, was much more resistant to theater. Opera had to sneak in under the guise of uplifting musical concerts, not full-fledged productions. On 16 Sept 1769 the Providence Gazette announced a “reading” of The Beggar’s Opera in which “All the songs will be sung.”

In Boston, the Deblois family—Anglican and Loyalist—pushed the boundaries for musical entertainment, especially after the arrival of a large number of British army officers in 1768. On 23 Mar 1770 the merchant John Rowe wrote in his diary:
In the evening I went to the Concert Hall to hear Mr [James] Joan read the Beggars Opera & sing the Songs. He read but indifferently but Sung in Taste. there were upwards one hundred people there.
That provides a precedent of sorts for an event at the Lexington Historical Society on Saturday, 11 August. The organization will host “a bawdy singalong and a presentation of The Beggar’s Opera,” as abridged by Diane Taraz, founder of the society’s Colonial Singers.

This concert will take place starting at 7:00 P.M. at the Depot in the center of town. Tickets cost $15-20. There will be snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, and an open bar, so attendees must be over age 21.

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