The first tulips arrived in Holland, from the Orient, at the end of the 1500s. Almost overnight this stolid, puritanical country went mad for these exotic flowers. Every square inch of available land was turned over to tulip propagation, vast sums were spent to purchase a single untested hybrid; before long a tulip exchange was established for speculation in tulip bulbs.
We are guided through the story of “The Black Tulip” by a slightly sinister, aristocratic young man known to us as the Narrator. During the opening number, tulip fever spreads to every corner of the country. At the height of the frenzy, Prince William of Orange fans the flames even higher by offering a prize of one hundred thousand florins for the development or discovery of a black tulip (TULIP MADNESS.)
After the opening number, we meet two young people who, in the course of normal events, would never meet let alone fall in love. At his country estate, Cornelius Van Baerle, an orphaned aristocrat, secrets himself behind his garden walls tending his tulips. Far away in the city, another tender soul looks to flowers as her only friends. Rosa, a lovely young woman, the daughter of Gryphus, a drunken jailer, tends the wretched prisoners in The Hague. She grows a few common tulips on her window sill to brighten her dreary days. (MY FLOWERS ARE MY FRIENDS – recorded as a solo, now rewritten as a duet).
In his greenhouse, Cornelius begins crossbreeding bulbs in hope of capturing the black tulip prize. His jealous neighbor, Issac Boxtel, also hopes to capture the prize, but unlike Cornelius, Boxtel has no talent for horticulture. Consumed with envy, Boxtel spies on Cornelius, while plotting to steal the black tulip bulbs the moment Cornelius produces them. (THE GREEN-EYED MONSTER.)
At the same time, political unrest is brewing in the city. A hungry mob, resentful of the extravagant prices paid for tulips, demands the restoration of the monarchy. Jonathan De Witt, the democratic leader of Holland, refuses to resign. His brother, Cornelius De Witt, the Keeper of the Treasury, suggests that Prince William is manipulating the tulip market in an effort to bring down the economy, and the government along with it. To confirm his suspicions, Cornelius De Witt travels to the country to visit his nephew and namesake, Cornelius Van Baerle. Cornelius, the elder, asks Cornelius, the younger, an expert in tulip propagation, to interpret potentially damning correspondence between the Prince and a tulip developer. Young Cornelius confirms that the letters contain “inside information” designed to keep the tulip market falsely inflated. Cornelius De Witt leaves the packet of incriminating letters with his nephew for safe keeping. Boxtel, spying as usual, witnesses the exchange.
When Cornelius De Witt re-enters the city he is arrested. In short order he is accused of treason, found guilty and sentenced to banishment. But the mob outside the prison isn’t satisfied. Understanding that his death may be at hand, Cornelius De Witt sends a message to his nephew, written on the torn out flyleaf of his bible, bidding young Cornelius to destroy the packet of letters since the letters, if discovered, would condemn young Cornelius to the same fate as his uncle.
Rosa, who has befriended the De Witts, fears for their lives. She helps them escape through a secret gate. In exchange, Cornelius De Witt gives Rosa his bible and makes her promise to find someone who will teach her to read. Unfortunately, the mob will not be denied. The De Witt brothers are chased through the streets, cornered at the city gate, which is unaccountably locked, and executed by the mob. When the dust settles, one of the gatekeepers steps forward. He implicates the Prince of Orange in the death of the brothers De Witt.
Meanwhile, in the country, young Cornelius, unaware of these horrible events, succeeds in developing the bulbs that will produce a black tulip. Cornelius is busy contemplating their beauty, when his uncle’s servant arrives, delivering Cornelius De Witt’s urgent entreaty to destroy the letters. But suddenly, Royalist guards, tipped off by Boxtel, break into the house. In the confusion, Cornelius grabs his black tulip bulbs, wraps them in the unread letter, and stuffs them into his shirt. The Royalist guards search the greenhouse, find the hidden packet of letters, and arrest young Cornelius for treason.
As soon as the guards take Cornelius away, Boxtel searches the greenhouse, but he is unable to find the black tulip bulbs. In a moment of torment, Boxtel realizes that Cornelius must have taken the bulbs with him to prison.
At the prison, Cornelius meets Rosa, whose beauty remind him of a delicate flower. When he is condemned to death, Cornelius gives Rosa the black tulip bulbs, still wrapped in his uncle’s letter. However, just as the executioner raises his ax, a herald arrives. Prince William has taken pity on Cornelius. His sentence is commuted to life in prison.
When he is returned to his cell, Cornelius and Rosa make a bargain. Rosa will help Cornelius grow the black tulip bulbs, in exchange he will teach her to read. As they read from the De Witt family bible, Rosa and Cornelius fall in love (THE READING SONG).
In the meantime, Boxtel arrives at the prison determined to steal the black tulip bulbs. Disguised as a wine and spirits merchant, and calling himself Jacob Gisels, Boxtel makes friends with Rosa’s father, Gryphus, by plying him with liquor. Each night when Gryphus passes out, Boxtel creeps up the prison stairs to spy on the lovers.
Before Boxtel has a chance to make his move, Gryphus catches Rosa and Cornelius planting one of the three black tulip bulbs in a soup tureen. Unaware of its value, Gryphus wantonly crushes the bulb. Cornelius is consumed with despair. Rosa encourages him to keep hope alive (THREE DREAMS – recorded as a solo, now rewritten as a duet).
When Boxtel learns that one of the precious bulbs has been crushed, he nearly goes mad. He urges Gryphus to search the prisoner’s cell for the additional bulbs. Gryphus dashes off eager to execute his mission. While he is gone, Boxtel attempts to seduce Rosa, in the process he discovers that Rosa is tending the black tulip in her room. Gryphus returns moments later, empty handed. He explains that he didn’t search the cell because he couldn’t find the right key (THESE LITTLE KEYS). During the song , Boxtel steals the key to Rosa’s room.
Eventually, with care and patience, the tulip planted in Rosa’s window box forms a bud, and then a second and then a third. One day, as Rosa gives Cornelius a detailed account of the size and shape of the buds, the lovers hear a noise on the stairs. Rosa tells Cornelius that her father’s new friend, Jacob Gisels, is always following her. Cornelius immediately assumes Gisels is a tulip thief. He urges Rosa to protect the tulip at all cost, even if it means ending their friendship. Rosa is crushed. It appears that Cornelius loves the dream of the black tulip more than he loves her. She runs off, determined not to visit him ever again. Left alone in his cell, Cornelius realizes his mistake, it’s Rosa he loves, not the black tulip. After a visit from Cornelius’s housekeeper, the lovers are reconciled.
As the days pass, the buds swell. Finally, the tulip blooms, its magnificent blossoms are indeed black; as black as the devil’s soul. Rosa hurries to Cornelius to tell him the news. Boxtel, seizing the opportunity, slips into Rosa’s room and steals the black tulip. When Rosa discovers that the tulip is gone, she rightly assumes that Gisels (Boxtel) stole it, and that he will claim the black tulip prize for himself.
Determined to set the record straight, Rosa hurries to the Horticultural Society where Gisels has already registered the black tulip. As it happens, Prince William has come to see the flower himself. At this point, the Narrator steps into the scene. He reveals that he is, in fact, Prince William, the all powerful Prince of Orange. When Rosa accuses Boxtel of stealing the tulip, Boxtel makes a counter charge; Rosa is guilty of giving aid and comfort to Cornelius Van Baerle, an enemy of the crown. Prince William, incensed by Rosa’s audacity, finds her guilty on the spot. He sends guards to fetch Cornelius and promises to punish him as well.
As the tulip festival begins, the black tulip is paraded through the streets on a liter. The townspeople follow, waving flags and banners. (THE BLACK TULIP.) When all parties are assembled in the square, Prince William announces Rosa’s treachery and sentences her to forty lashes. As the sentence is about to be carried out, Gryphus arrives with Cornelius. Cornelius insists that he alone is guilty; that he should be punished not Rosa. Prince William agrees. He summarily sentences Cornelius to death. It seems that all is lost.
In a desperate effort to prove the true ownership of the black tulip, Rosa presents the third and final black tulip bulb, which is still wrapped in the letter sent to Cornelius from his uncle, Cornelius De Witt, way back in act one; a letter which absolves young Cornelius of treason. Rosa’s believes it is divine intervention since the meaning of the letter would have passed unnoticed if Cornelius had not taught Rosa to read.
Rosa hands the letter to the Prince, who flashes back to the day of the De Witt’s death. Once again the Gatekeeper steps forward. He insists that the man who ordered him to close and lock the city gate, which blocked the De Witt’s path to freedom, looked a lot like his Majesty, Prince William. The Prince’s complicity in the De Witt’s murder becomes clear.
Determined to re-balance the scales of justice, Prince William exonerates Cornelius, and Rosa. He awards Rosa the prize of one hundred thousand florins, and appoints Cornelius to the post of Royal Gardener. As for Boxtel, he reaps what he has sown – a life sentence for tulip theft. As the lovers kiss the townspeople raise their voices in praise of flowers and love. (THE BLACK TULIP REPRISE.)
Narrator – David Wasson
Cornelius – Davis Gaines
Rosa – Ann Martin
Boxtel – David Arthur
John Leslie Wolfe