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Spotlights on Women Composers in Early Broadway History: Week One, Cissie Loftus

Photo: Cecilia (“Cissie”) Loftus
Researched and Written by Sarah Whitfield

As Shoshana Greenberg has shown in her amazing timeline of women composers in musical theatre, created for Maestra: there are so many more women than we think there were in the history of musical theatre who wrote music. 

That we all largely assumed, myself included, that there weren’t many women composers is revealing. This may partly be a result of all the glossy coffee table books we read about the musicals, and the TV documentaries we may have seen, that brush over the complex history of this period. Many of those kinds of histories of the musical leave out the work of women composers, as well as the contributions of others with minoritised identities. Very few people have heard of the work of African American playwright and performer, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, who, aged only 21, wrote Slaves’ Escape, or the Underground Railroad for her musical troupe to perform in 1880. The names the timeline uncovers, names like Nora Bayes, Clare Kummer or Cissie Loftus mean very little to most of us. I’d certainly never heard of them before, and as a musical theatre historian, something had gone very wrong! So I began getting involved with some of the efforts to recover their work with the Clare Kummer Project group, but more on that later.

The missing names that Maestra timeline throws up are a serious problem for musical theatre as we understand it now. Their absence has had a consequence on our understanding of the musical’s development, of who we think has already been a part of the musical’s history. This is just as much a problem in seminar rooms and lecture halls as it is to those trying to figure out how they can be part of today’s musical theatre industry. The stories of these incredible people make a difference today. 

Part of my work as a researcher and academic is in trying to piece together the traces that these missing people have left behind in news reports and theatre magazines of the day, trying to understand the biographies of women who have rarely been written about much, if at all. I’ve spent quite a lot of time digging through these news reports, and perhaps the most surprising thing to my eyes was just how normal and unextraordinary coverage seems to be of women’s participation in the music business in the early 20th century.

This series puts the spotlight on some of these women: and traces, sometimes for the first time, a clear overview of their professional contributions as composers. In drawing on international press coverage about their activities, we can start to see exactly the scale of what they achieved. To start off, I’ll explore the work of three of the most prolific women composers in early 20th century musical theatre: Clare Kummer, Cecilia ‘Cissie’ Loftus, and Nora Bayes. They all worked at the beginning of the 20th century and all took on multiple roles in their professional careers, including: acting, music hall performance, composition, lyric-writing, and producing. The three women attracted extensive press coverage, not least because all three of them disobeyed expected social mores in their personal lives: Bayes had five husbands and Loftus’s divorce made international headlines. Yet their composition practice has largely been forgotten. Retracing their work is one way of changing that.

Cecilia ‘Cissie’ Marie Loftus
(10/22/1876 – 1943)

Composer, lyricist, performer (vocalist, impressions, dancer)

We know quite a lot about ‘Cissie’ (she later preferred Cecilia) Loftus’s work as an actor, and almost nothing about her work as a composer; and that part of her career has rarely been acknowledged.

Cecilia Loftus’s remarkable dual career in the UK and on Broadway as an actor and music hall performer is reasonably well-recorded: particularly her Peter Pan, she performed in the second ever production of J.M. Barrie’s play in London, December 1905. Barrie was delighted with the performance – and clearly the relationship was a special one, since she gave her child the middle name ‘Barrie’. 

She was born into a theatrical family, in Glasgow to two music hall performers. It can’t have been much of a surprise that she turned to the stage, first as her mother’s dresser, and then on stage herself at around 17 as Cissie Loftus. She performed impressionist acts (though one of her early billings lists her as a vocalist and dancer, so songs were involved from her start). Loftus mimicked the stage stars of the day like Ethel Barrymore and Sara Bernhardt, and performed extensively in West End variety theatres to great critical acclaim. She even appeared before George V and Queen Mary in the 1912 Royal Variety Performance

Loftus wasn’t satisfied with only working in comedy performance, and performed in ‘legitimate’ theatre throughout her career, playing roles like Ophelia in Hamlet, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, and Viola in Twelfth Night, and in London she played against the great Sir Henry Irving. Her entry in the Oxford Companion to American Theatre notes she was: ‘One of the most versatile of performers, who moved successfully back and forth between vaudeville and musical comedy on the one hand and romantic drama and Shakespeare on the other.’ When she died her performances as Nora in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House were counted as among her strongest. She acted in three early silent films, and during the 1930s and 40s, eleven subsequent Hollywood movies. But the Companion entry doesn’t mention her compositions – and this is part of the bigger problem of locating her compositions.

Finding Loftus as a composer: difficult associations

Unpicking Loftus’s career as a composer is far more difficult than her work as a performer; like many women who were working in theatre music in the period, there is only fragmentary information remaining. And it often presents more questions than it answers! 

Loftus seems to have started writing for Broadway musicals (although the term is somewhat looser than it may be today) after publishing a series of individual songs. (Her first song was published when she was 20). As yet nothing really survives to tell us why she started composing, though a reasonable guess would be she was writing for her own act and publishing the successful songs from it. From the beginning of her career she drew on the popularity of a style of song that’s very difficult for us to revisit – the c–n song. The first song we know she published in 1896, ‘Can’t live widout ye any mo,’’ was written in the broken English dialect which was a key feature of the style, and part of the racist stereotyping that those songs almost always enacted. As a performer, Loftus was indelibly associated with this kind of music – she even appears in Edna Furber’s novel Showboat (which the musical would later be based on) as being on the same bill as the fictional Magnolia, singing c–n songs.  

C–n songs were phenomenally popular in sheet music sales and in theatres; musicals readily interpolated hit songs into their program: they are part of the careers of the first three women in this series, Loftus, Nora Bayes and Clare Kummer. The genre promoted racial stereotypes of African Americans; often drawing on the ‘plantation themes’ that Stephen Foster’s material had traded in so successfully. They were often a  version of ragtime music, with racially motivated lyrics and racialized and usually explicitly racist stereotypes. While white composers wrote these songs, many black composers, such as Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, and Sam Lucas, also composed music and lyrics – often to challenge or resist the racism they contained. C–n songs became popular in musicals and variety performances in the UK and the US, as well as in touring performances more globally. 

These kinds of songs featured heavily in Loftus’s first and second musicals. She collaborated with Glen MacDonough in 1899 for the musical Sister Mary which starred variety star May Irvine (Irvine had built her own fame on the c—n song). Loftus’s second show, The Belle of Bridgeport (1900) again featured and was produced by May Irvine with a book by Glen MacDonough. This would hardly be of note but for fact that the music was mostly composed by John Rosamund Johnson. Johnson was one of the most important early figures in black music, and he composed the best known setting for ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’. He was not alone though, since as well as Johnson, Belle of Bridgeport had additional material from some of the other finest African American composers in the period, including Will J. Accooe and Bob Cole. Cissie Loftus contributed the music and lyrics for two songs in the piece (perhaps at the instigation of Irvine, but this is uncertain). While this may seem like an anomaly, Clare Kummer (who we will cover in a few weeks time), also had a c–n song interpolated into the London production of In Dahomey, Will Marion Cook’s musical, in 1903. 

The songs Loftus had written for Belle were reissued in Madge Smith, Attorney (1900); again produced by May Irwin with music by J. Rosamund Johnson. Loftus also wrote the lyrics and music for at least two new songs for The Lancers: ‘Come Out in the Moonlight’ and ‘Our Bave Lancers’. Again – these later songs continue to use lyrics about the South and racially offensive stereotypes, with a man trying to lure a woman to leave her house to spend the night with him. The music uses gently syncopated rhythms – but it very much sits in the 1900s white version of ragtime.

Celebrity and scandal: performing till the end

Loftus’s personal life was every bit as glamorous as the press demanded, though the relentless coverage clearly took a toll on her wellbeing. She married Justin Huntley McCarthy at 17 and had divorced him by the age of 23. Her marriages and divorces were reported in UK and US newspaper coverage, and as her celebrity climbed, so did the press coverage. She continued to perform and use her image for advertisements (potentially, unless they used it without paying her), even giving her endorsement to ‘Orangeine’ painkillers.  Legal cases concerning her contracts were keenly reported in the British press; and, much to her distress, when she slipped into water the press queried at length whether it had really been an accident. 

When she married her second husband, Dr Waterman in 1909, she was asked if she would leave the stage, she told the reporter ‘oh, dear, no’. They had a son together, Peter John Barrie Waterman, and she faced a series of difficult and painful operations afterwards.  Perhaps as a result, in the 1920s, Loftus became addicted to drugs, and the press delighted in reporting the case and the news she had been convicted of possessing drugs with a year’s parole in British courts. She returned to the US accompanied by Nora Bayes (another composer from this period), explaining ‘the drugs came from sickness and suffering.’ 

She returned to the stage, and in 1924 she was still performing in variety acts, including performing as Bert Williams, singing his signature song ‘Nobody’. Clearly she was successful, as she went into Ziegfeld’s Follies that same year. As yet, no mention of her actually discussing her own compositions can be found, and we know little more about them. She did publish ‘A Serenade’ and ‘Requiem’ in 1923, so composition remained part of her professional life. She performed extensively on Broadway and in Hollywood in the 1930s, her final performance was in Little Dark Horse in 1941.

She remains something of a mystery to us; in a career spanning over five decades she was composing music for at least 27 years. It is worth remembering that the uncomfortable connection between her and c–n songs is a history that can be found in many of the so-called great composers of American popular musicals: Irving Berlin wrote many of these songs along with a variety of other ‘ethnic’ humour based songs in the 1900s. Loftus’s involvement in shows which featured the work of key black composers such as Rosamund Johnson is intriguing, though – and next week’s composer, Nora Bayes, also worked alongside composers like Bob Cole. Bayes – like Loftus – was hounded by newspapers and a huge celebrity, all while turning out an astonishing amount of music. 

Cissie Loftus as drawn by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Compositions – Musicals:

Sister Mary (1899)

‘Midnight Serenade’ (A Cake Walk) ( White-Smith Music Publishing Co. 1899) 

The Belle of Bridgeport (1900)

‘Bullfrog Ben’ (music and lyrics)

‘(I’m Gwine to Marry) Angeline’ (music and lyrics)

Madge Smith, Attorney (1900)

‘Bullfrog Ben’ (music and lyrics)

‘(I’m Gwine to Marry) Angeline’ (music and lyrics)

The Lancers (1907) NB: libretto by Rida Johnson Young

‘Our Brave Lancers’ (music and lyrics)

Come Out in the Moonlight’ (music and lyrics), New York : Jos. W. Stern & Co

(Although lists no further songs – sheet music from the period suggests a further series of numbers.)

‘If Love Cometh Not’

‘Then Go Out in the Moonlight’

Mandy Anna Loo’ Words and music by C. Loftus. New York: J. W. Stern & Co, (1907).

Compositions – Single songs:

‘Can’t live widout ye any mo’. (music and lyrics) London: Chappell & Co, 1896.

‘My bed is like a little boat’ (music and lyrics) White-Smith Music Publishing Co. 1899

‘If I Were You’: (music and lyrics) Weber, Fields & Stromberg, 1899

‘In Japan’, (music and lyrics?) White-Smith Music Publishing, 1899

‘On My Lips there was a Sigh’ (music and lyrics) M. Witmark & Sons, 1900

My Little Airs and Graces’ (music and lyrics) [New York] : W. Witmark & Sons, 1900

‘Near Woodstock Town’ (music and lyrics) M. Witmark & Sons, 1900

‘Where the Boats Go’ (music and lyrics) M. Witmark & Sons, 1900

‘Shadow Song’ (music and lyrics) M. Witmark & Sons, 1900

‘A Serenade’ (music and lyrics) Chappell & Co., 1923

‘Requiem’ [Song.] Poem by R. L. Stevenson, London, etc : Chappell & Co, 1923.

Sources for further reading:

Internet Broadway Database entry

The Irving Society

Bordman, G., & Hischak, T. (2004). Loftus, [Marie] Cecilia. In The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. : Oxford University Press.

Gale, Maggie B. “Going Solo: An Historical Perspective on the Actress and the Monologue.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Actress, Cambridge, edited by Gale, Maggie B. and John Stokes, 291-313. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Hindson, Catherine. “Loftus, Cissie [real name Marie Cecilia Loftus Brown] (1876–1943), actress.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 14 Jun. 2018; Accessed 28 Feb. 2020.

Sarah Whitfield (@sarahinthepark) is Senior Lecturer in Musical Theatre at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. She is a musical theatre researcher, practitioner, and academic. She writes about theater history with a particular focus in uncovering the work that under-represented and minoritized groups do, and have done, in the arts. Her recent publications include Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables and, as an editor, the 2019 collection Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity.

2 thoughts on “Spotlights on Women Composers in Early Broadway History: Week One, Cissie Loftus

  1. Please note the following corrections:
    Both “My Bed is Like a Little Boat” and “Where Go the Boats” (not “Where the Boats Go” as noted incorrectly at NYPL’s site) are settings of poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” The title used in the former setting is actually the opening line of the poem, titled by Stevenson “My Bed is a Boat.”

  2. The first page of music gives the title as “Where Go the Boats.” The cover of the music, which prints a number of titles and is difficult to see clearly in its NYPL digitization, gives the title as “Where the Boats Go.”
    “Shadow Song” is another Stevenson setting from the same collection, titled by the poet “My Shadow.”
    Incidentally, all of your links to the various NYPL titles lead to “Where the Boats Go”

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