Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater by Anne Alison Barnet
This is the entertaining tale of Robert Barnet (1853–1933), a prosperous Boston sugar merchant, and the enormously popular musical theatricals he wrote and produced for the First Corps of Cadets, a volunteer militia of young upper-class Boston businessmen who sought money to build an armory as protection against feared immigrant uprisings.
Barnet had already made a name for himself in local amateur theater circles when the Corps hired the middle-aged father of five to stage fund-raisers to erect the armory, known today as the Park Plaza Castle. Dubbed the "Extravaganza King" for his ever more elaborate productions, held annually in Boston from 1891 to 1906, Barnet almost single-handedly managed the lavish musical farces and Mother Goose burlesques, acting as librettist, director, stage manager, and costume designer. The male cadets, including several Harvard graduates trained in the Hasty Pudding tradition, played all of the roles in these overblown affairs, and Barnet himself starred as Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492, his most famous work. Donning dresses and wigs for the female parts, the hefty, muscular leading ladies raised laughter rather than eyebrows from the audiences of prominent Bostonians who attended the shows.
In this lively and light-hearted account, Barnet's great-granddaughter, Anne Alison Barnet, reclaims the little known story of the Cadet Theatricals and the creative force behind the huge productions, many of which later toured the country and had Broadway runs. Drawing on a trove of photographs, scrapbooks, and family memorabilia, she traces Barnet's life and the colorful history of the Cadet shows. While Barnet gained national fame for his long run of successes in Boston, his fortunes reversed after moving in 1908 to New York City, where he failed to adapt his talents to evolving musical theater tastes and fell into professional obscurity.
Barnet's captivating book transports the reader back to the turn of the last century, a time when extravaganzas—musical theater with enormous casts, elaborate scenery and costumes, special effects, and improbable, lightweight plots—were the rage in popular entertainment. It rescues Robert Barnet's astonishing career and illuminates his significant contribution to the rich heritage of American musicals.