Back in 1911, one of the most talked-about Broadway roles was played by a woman dressed as a rooster, and now you can revisit the surreal staging with recently digitized photographs from the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).
With support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, MCNY has taken on digitizing over 30,000 images of more than 5,000 Broadway shows from their theater production archives. Lissa Rivera, who’s been working on the imaging, wrote an extensive blog post on one of the more curious finds in the project: photos from the 1911 Broadway production of Chantecler. Written by Edmond Rostand, the show features only animal characters, centering on a rooster named Chantecler who believes his morning song brings the dawn. A pheasant in the forest attempts to win his love, but his heart ends up staying with the farm. Rivera explains that the play followed 10 years of writer’s block for Rostand and was met with some public disturbance “that such an elaborate production featured chickens.” Furthermore, “the American version was surrounded in controversy over the casting of a woman (Maude Adams) as the male protagonist.”
Adams, although not versed in avian acting, was experienced in male roles, having played Peter Pan in 1905. Reactions to her performance in the Knickerbocker Theater’s Chantecler were mixed, however: the New York Times review, while favorable to the “strange assemblage of feathery and furry folk,” said of Adams, “the sum of all her qualities spells woman, if it spells anything at all.” Despite all the mutterings about her gender, the show was wildly popular with the public, touring to 60 cities outside New York.
It’s impossible to judge now how well Adams strutted through the performance in her elaborate rooster suit, which appeared at appropriate scale thanks to sets of towering trees and a bustling barnyard. But we do have these photographs, which show an incredible world of surprisingly detailed costumes for owls, a pheasant, and a scraggly dog, and a production that turned early 20th-century Broadway into a beautiful bestiary.
You can see these and more of the Museum of the City of New York’s over 30,000 Broadway production photographs online.