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The form we now know as musical comedy was initiated on Broadway by Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart. Produced between 1878 and 1884, with book and lyrics by Harrigan and music by his father-in-law David Braham, these shows featured characters and situations taken from everyday street life familiar to most New Yorkers. Harrigan, Hart and Braham laid a path that Broadway musicals would follow profitably for more than a century to come.

Harrigan was a variety comic who had made his name in the variety melodeons of San Francisco, and Hart was a stage-struck reform school escapee with a rare gift for stage comedy. They met in the mid 1870’s, when both were touring the Midwest, and soon developed a routine that poked fun at New York’s infamous neighborhood militia’s. These local “guard troops” were little more than uniformed drinking clubs sponsored by local politicians. Weekend parades to impress the public were usually so beer-soaked that the participants only managed to look ridiculous. To spoof this, Harrigan and Hart donned ill-fitting uniforms and staggered through inept military drills while singing a merry march.

Audiences all across the country loved the act and the catchy “Mulligan Guard’s March” was soon heard all around the world. In the novel Kim Rudyard Kipling notes that it was a favorite with British troops in India who replaced the names of New York streets with various Indian locales.

When Harrigan and Hart reached New York, the “Mulligan Guard” act was such a sensation that it toured the city’s top variety theaters for over a year. Inspired by this acclaim, they expanded the act into “The Mulligan Guard Picnic” in 1878. This sketch ran for forty minutes and it packed audiences into Broadway’s Theatre Comique for a month.

In the Mulligan Guard shows the versatile Harrigan performed, produced, and directed while writing the scripts and lyrics. The action was always set on the scruffy streets of downtown Manhattan, with Harrigan playing politically ambitious Irish saloon owner Dan Mulligan, and Hart winning praise as the black washerwoman Rebecca Allup. Their shows still used the minstrel form of blackface.

It was the first in what would be a seven-year series of full-length musical farces. Most of these farces centered around Irish-Americans in New York. These farces proved extremely popular with New York’s immigrant-based lower and middle classes, overlooked groups that loved seeing themselves depicted on stage. Powerful politicians made a point of showing up too, anxious to curry the favor of voters.

With the success of their plays came financial gains. They were called The Merry Partners but by 1885 the partnership had run its course. Harrigan’s penchant for hiring relatives annoyed Hart who felt he was being slighted. Hart went off on his own, but the crippling late stages of syphilis forced him off the stage a year later and he died in 1891 at the young age of 36.

Harrigan continued his busy life. In December 1890, he opened his own theater on 35th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhatttan. While his plays eventually became passe, with Vaudeville emerging, he still was sought out as an actor and continued to act through 1909. On June 12, 1911 Harrigan died.

While their songs and plays are rarely heard today their legacy is important to Irish-Americans. Prior to Harrigan & Hart most Americans looked down upon the Irish immigrants. “No Irish Need Apply” was the common phrase. After Harrigan & Hart’s shows became popular, Irish-Americans were at least looked at  differently. Harrigan & Hart’s bumbling New York Irish cop, a pre-curser to the Keystone Cops, at least brought a smile to the faces of the many Americans familiar with their plays. This was a major step for Irish-Americans who had previously been depicted as apes and hoodlums.

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