An Introduction to Musical Theatre
The concept of musical theatre combines the drama and plot of a stage play with a musical component; the extent of this musical collaboration has changed over the years, from operas to orchestras to full-fledged plays. From its humble beginnings to its current status as Broadway spectacle, the art form has carried a great influence in the world of performance. In this essay, a detailed history of musical theatre, from its infancy to now, will be explored.
Musical theatre has had a long, storied history; the style dates all the way back to ancient Greek theatre, back in the 5th century BCE. In that time, Greek comedies and tragedies almost always had a musical component; songs and dance were common to the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, who acted as composers and choreographers to their own works. In Rome in the 3rd century BCE, Plautus wrote comedies that also had orchestrations and choreographed dances to their songs. Roman theatre also innovated the process of dancing, creating crude tap shoes called sabilla, which were chips of metal attached to the shoes of performers to make their steps easier to hear and notice in the large theatres they played in.
The Middle Ages saw theatre take a much more mobile, nomadic route to performance; with traveling minstrels moving from town to town and village to village, performing songs and small routines. Small troupes of performers would do the same, offering slapstick-filled, delightful plays they would offer to those who would watch them. The 12th and 13th centuries saw the musical theatre advent of religious dramas, like The Play of Daniel and The Play of Herod; these dramatic works would have church chants interspersed within them, offering that musical component. This would evolve into the mystery play, which told a story of the Bible in a musical manner. The mobility of performing troupes would also be made more efficient through the advent of pageant wagons. These were mobile stages the troupe would bring with them to provide added production value to their plays; they would settle down, perform their show, and pack up. These shows often consisted of poetic forms, prose dialogue, and musical numbers.
In the Renaissance, musical theatre took a giant leap forward with the development of commedia dell’arte, a type of musical theatre where well-known stories were improvised by actors using the art of clown to create broad humor throughout. Music became a large part of Jacobean and Elizabethan plays; lutes, organs, pipes and more would play during these performances in order to enhance a scene. Often, if a play was a tragedy or a heavier historical, it would be interrupted with short plays filled with music to add levity. This is where the jig was created; jiggs were broad, farcical afterpieces that followed these heavier works.
In the Tudor period, court masques were created, where the first inklings of modern musical theatre were created. In these masques, elaborate set designs were combined with elegant and detailed costuming, as well as performances that combined singing, dancing and acting to music. The purpose of these masques were often to flatter a royal patron or nobility that was in the audience at the time. The masques were popular types of theatre created by playwrights such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.
Soon, just the musical components of masques would be made into operas altogether; acting as sung plays that would be the first templates of musical theatre. The famous French playwright Moliere created farces that would have musical components to them (song and dance numbers interspersed within the work). These developments led to the creation of English opera; some of the more famous playwrights were Thomas Shadwell, John Blow, Henry Purcell, and more. By 1685, however, English opera started to lose its luster.
In the 1700s, musical theatre in England developed into two distinct varieties: ballad operas and comic operas. The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay is the quintessential example of the ballad opera; it offered new lyrics spoofing the popular songs of the time, the olde English equivalent of a jukebox musical. Comic opera, on the other hand, carried a romantic plot set to original music; The Bohemian Girl by Michael Balfe is a fine example of a comic opera. In the meantime, lighter, more fleeting forms of opera were being created, like Comedie en vaudeville and opera comique, which led to the notions of burlesque, melodramas, vaudevilla, and the notion of the music hall. Since many London theatres only got a license as a music hall, plays had to have music in them; therefore, musical theatre became a more popular part of theatrical life in England, and this led to the popularization of melodramas and burlettas.
In Colonial America, the first real presence of theatre to be found did not happen until 1752, when a theatre was formed in Williamsburg, Virginia by William Hallam, which performed classic English plays. Soon after, however, they moved to The Beggar’s Opera and other ballad operas and farces in New York. This theatrical presence slowly morphed into what would become Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. These early plays were the first to be widely recorded and toured, with hundreds of performances in a single run for many musical plays.
The further evolution of musical theatre came with the development of the operette, which was created in 1850 by the French composer Herve. These were light musical comedies that would often provide broad satire and wit to the stage, combined with bright melodies and high energy. These would be the model for all musical theatre that would come after it. After Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II would develop the style further, it would become popularized in the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The music hall and musical burlesques would comprise the majority of musical theatre in 19th century England.
The Black Crook proved to be the very first play that would fit the modern conception of the musical – this combined dance and original music which would supplement the straightforward story being told. In 1866, this play premiered in New York and became a staggering success. Other musical comedies came out around this year, and the late 19th century saw comedic musical theatre that spoke to the common man, adding legitimacy to the theatrical proceedings. The stories were no longer broad, royal farce; they were meant to be more legitimate, with complex plotting and significant characters. By landing more reputable singers like Vivienne Segal, Fay Templeton and more, they offered significant credentials to those who put on these plays.
Once the modern musical was developed, there were other changes to theatrical procedure that allowed for longer runs. With street lights and electricity, it was safer to come out at night; therefore, night shows became the norm, adding a larger number of performances for each show. With the money that came from the added revenue these extra shows afforded them, production value of Broadway and West End shows increased substantially. Gilbert and Sullivan began producing large comic opera shows that would become extremely popular around this time; shows like HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, as well as The Pirates of Penzance, were family friendly and very accessible, leading to worldwide success. Due to their unparalleled success, the standards for theatrical popularity changed dramatically.
Gilbert and Sullivan also pioneered several conventions of the modern musical as well; in their shows, the dialogue and the lyrics were combined to make the story more understandable and sensible, even with the integration of music into the performance. P.G. Wodehouse, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Andrew Lloyd Weber and more would take this particular style of comic opera and develop it further. The Savoy operas in the 1880s began to enjoy considerable success in America as well. Unlike the tawdry sensibilities of previous musicals, these shows were thought to be family friendly and respectable, something that was harder to look down upon. Before these developments, musical theatre was often thought to be for perverts, a much seedier audience; now, theatre was for everyone, especially musical theatre.
Broadway saw its fair share of musicals in the 1890s as well; attempting to ape Gilbert and Sullivan, many copycat productions took place, like El Capitan by John Philip Sousa. Ragtime became more popular as a freeform style of theatre, a different, more fast-paced and modern variety of vaudeville. Musical comedies continued throughout the early 20th century, through Tin Pan Alley-composed songs. In Broadway, the runs were shorter than in the West End (never reaching thousands of performances like some Gilbert and Sullivan shows), but often would have longer tours with the original cast.
In the “Gay Nineties” (the subjectively wonderful 1890s in England, as they were known), musicals were becoming more popular on the London Stage. George Edwardes took over the Gaiety Theatre, seeking to change it from the bawdy burlesque show that it was and providing a straightforward, light musical alternative to the heavy, absurdist and politically charged Savoy operas that were the flavor at the time. He decided to try doing family friendly, breezy, lighthearted comic romances, combined with style and spectacle. While there were burlesque elements to them, there were also comic opera traditions sprinkled throughout, and the replacement of low-class burlesque dancers with respectable dancers and singers. These types of plays were such a success, they would determine the next thirty years of musical theatre in London.
Many of these plays, like The Shop Girl and A Runaway Girl, followed the tropes of romances where the poor maiden falls in love with royalty, and faces many obstacles before finally winning him. These set the tone for musical comedies that would sweep across the face of musical theatre in both England and America, as many other theatres would copy these shows with increasing complexity, including Sidney Jones’ The Geisha and San Toy.
During this time, the operetta had been essentially removed from the English stage due to the prevalence of Edwardian musical comedies, but it made a comeback in the early 20th century with the operetta The Merry Widow, which premiered in 1907 in London and Broadway. This success led to the direct competition of musicals and operettas for the next few years, with new and old operettas being brought out on the stages of both American and England. New operettas that premiered at this time included the works of Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland, The Red Mill, The Fortune Teller), and modern musical plays that were a bit more intimate.
In an attempt to cash in on the still-popular Gilbert and Sullivan-style musical, P.G. Widehouse, Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton all came out with “Princess Theatre shows,” which offered light entertainment while remaining continuous with its songs and plot, offering a complete, detailed and complex story throughout. Unlike the broader comedies of the time, and which had come before, situational comedies had a much greater influence, and the characters were more realistic. The songs were actually used to develop the characters or move the plot along; this was a breakthrough in the plotting and development of musical theatre. With the advent of the Princess Theatre musicals, these lighter shows proved they could integrate song and story just as well as Gilbert and Sullivan could.
The theatre experienced a boom in business with the start of World War I; given the devastation of the battlefield and the front, audiences flocked to the stages in order to get some escapism. Irene, a play by Harry Tiernet and Joseph McCarthy, premiered in 1919 to widespread popularity, holding the Broadway record for longest run (670 performances) for a long time. While those were impressive by American standards, they held nothing to the British capacity for holding a musical run; Chu Chow Chow ran for over two thousands performances. Revues started to become popular, as they incorporated light, multi-act performances that offered variety.
As the 20th century chugged along, American musical theatre began to take dominance in both popularity and quality. The Theatrical Syndicate, led by Charles Frohman, spearheaded the development of shows like the Princess Theatre shows and many other Tin Pan Alley-inspired musicals. Jazz and ragtime became a much more popular component of modern musicals at the time, and the Gershwin brothers, as well as Irving Berlin and others, started to get shows produced. This shift in American musical theatre’s popularity was due to the changes in society that were happening at the time; the increase in vernacular and naturalism that was desired by audiences of the modern era led to a slow death of the broad, the theatrical and the operatic. Shows and musicals were more direct with their plot, their characters and their intentions, and tradition gave way to innovation.
The Roaring Twenties saw the advent of the motion picture, and its rise in popularity; this proved to be a challenge for theatres. Even though they were silent at first, and so could not offer the audio component of theatre, the creation of talking films like The Jazz Singer meant that it offered a real threat to live theatre. Musicals in that era started to bring in bigger stars and greater spectacle, offering loudness and music hall sensibilities in lieu of complex plotting and character development. Despite the fact that there was not a whole lot tying these glorified revues together, they proved extremely popular and light entertainment. Theatre writers began to transition into popular music, as most of the music people were listening to at the time was what they heard in these reviews and vaudeville shows. Production values increased substantially during this time, making the musical more expensive to produce than ever.
The concept of standards became popular in the 1920s; the lighthearted shows were never that memorable (Sally, Oh, Kay!), but their songs would stick in the public’s mind. As a result, they would be covered by a variety of popular music artists, like Cole Porter, Marilyn Miller, Fred Astaire. Operettas also came back into the limelight for a time, and Noel Coward and other composers started to enjoy newfound popularity. Show Boat in 1927 proved to be one of the most complex mixes of score and book that there had been to date; even the Princess Theatre musicals lacked this level of sophistication. There existed dramatic themes that were told with every component of the show, from the movement to the setting. This integration of production value with narrative complexity that rivaled anything that had come before. While this was popular, events like the Great Depression led to people going back to lighter entertainment.
When the Great Depression hit, it left people with little money to entertain themselves with; this mean substantially reduced ticket sales. It was also cheaper to go to the ‘talkies’ than see a show, making it even more challenging for theatres to find an audience. Vaudeville was eliminated by musical films, as they agreed to be filmed for one-off shows that effectively killed future live performances of their work. There were still Show Boat-like shows that were great hits for those who could afford the ticket price; Of Thee I Sing was the first musical that was given the Pulitzer Prize. Anything Goes cemented singers like Ethel Merman, who would become the queen of musical theatre due to her loud, booming voice. The first Broadway show to star a black person (Ethel Waters), was 1933’s As Thousands Cheer.
Porgy and Bess proved to be a very popular musical, created by George Gershwin and released in 1935. Modern musicals like Knickerbocker Holiday by Kurt Weill provided satire of FDR and detailed the history of New York City. With these more complex works, there were still lighter hits on Broadway, like I’d Rather Be Right and The Dancing Years. Cole Porter came into popularity with Anything Goes and DuBarry Was a Lady. All of these contributions led to the overall success and survival of musical theatre, which was a miracle in a time when economic destitution was the worst this country has ever experienced. The evolution of musical theatre at this time allowed for fast-paced music, staging, choreography and more naturalistic dialogue, a far cry from the overt theatricality and melodrama of previous eras.
Musical theatre in the 1940s would hit a new zenith with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Oklahoma! Continuing the Show Boat tradition of having complex plotting and serious storytelling amongst musical numbers, the show offered dream ballets and integrated the music more cohesively into the story, rather than providing dance as an excuse for men to see barely-dressed women. Agnes de Mille was the choreographer for this show, and it revolutionized the format of musical theatre by providing a decided lack of tawdriness and an earnest desire for storytelling that was not present at this level before. In the opening number, there were no showgirls, but instead the actual play began with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'”. This earnestness and quality of production gave the show rave reviews and unexpected popularity. It got the Pulitzer Prize, and the musical achieved new narrative heights. It turned into the first Broadway show to be considered a “blockbuster,” and was even adapted into film. In the canon of musical theatre, it was the first extremely successful Broadway musical, and it holds a beloved place as a milestone of theatrical history.
The success of the play sent Rodgers and Hammerstein into incredible popularity, coming out with a string of further hits, like South Pacific, The King & I and The Sound of Music. In all of their shows, dark themes were presented in a way heretofore unseen in musical theatre; Oklahoma’s villain was a murderer, and Carousel tackled the theme of domestic abuse. Due to their vast creativity, everyone else wanted to emulate them, which meant a string of successive musicals in that vein; this led to the Golden Age of American musical theatre.
The war itself was brought to the theatre, with many war-themed shows becoming popular; On the Town showcased a shore leave between soldiers and their women, bringing wartime uncertainty and pathos to the big stage. Annie Get Your Gun, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me, Kate and other such plays were modeled after the Oklahoma! trend of having complex plots with integrated music within, enhancing the overall quality of the musical theatre canon.
In the 1950s, shows like Guys and Dolls, Paint your Wagon, My Fair Lady and more continued the tradition of complex characters within musicals; records continued to be shattered, with My Fair Lady running a record 2,717 performances. Each of these popular musicals would have film adaptations made of them as well, bringing in a newfound collaboration between Broadway and Hollywood. Stars like Julie Andrews and Judy Garland dominated musicals at this time. Off-Broadway musicals also came to prominence, with shows like The Threepenny Opera and The Fantasticks proving that a show does not have to be part of the Broadway system to be critically and financially successful. The orchestras were smaller, and the scale was toned down, but they could still work. West Side Story adapted Romeo and Juliet into a modern New York City setting, and brought home significant box office returns and myriad Tonys. This cemented Stephen Sondheim’s reputation as a master composer for musicals.
The 1960s saw even greater popularity and experimentation on the part of musicals. More blockbusters, such as Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly!, Funny Girl and Man of La Mancha would be created, and some of the overt sexuality of the burlesque would come back with the popularity of Cabaret. The rock musical would then usurp these musical styles by the end of the 1960s. Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman would significantly shape the pattern of musicals in this decade and the next, through the darker themes that he would explore in works like Sweeney Todd and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. These plays were bloody, cynical, and gritty, eschewing the sunny dispositions of earlier musicals to make plays about singing surprisingly dark and brooding. Into the Woods and Assassins explored these themes further, showcasing a sophistication in lyrics and music that belied the overall exclusiveness of some of the plays’ themes. Soldheim tried a number of new things during this time, including reverse-engineering shows and breaking the fourth wall to the audience, all things that made musical theatre challenging and intriguing again.
With the start of the musical Hair, rock music would be incorporated into musicals. Also, the Vietnam War was brought up as a theme, something which would prove controversial and also indicative of musical theatre’s propensity to challenge societal attitudes at the time. Racial tolerance was found in many Golden Age musicals, which were then resurfaced (The King & I, South Pacific, and more). Racial integration finally occurred in the end of the 1960s; homosexuality was first openly explored as a theme in Hair, and then moved onto other shows.
In the 1970s, with the advent of the rock musical, The Rocky Horror Show, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and more started to bring in this rapidly popular style of music to the theatrical realm, bringing with it an added edge that was never before seen onstage. Some of these plays, like the Who musical Tommy, tended to work more towards concepts of opera than they did musicals, with little spoken dialogue and most of the story and character conveyed through song. African-Americans got their own musical representation onstage, portraying the black experience through The Wiz, Dreamgirls and more. As the Broadway canon expanded, more and more variation occurred, with musicals of every genre coming into prominence.
A Chorus Line proved to be a giant among contemporary musicals; released in 1975, the play, which was about an audition for a musical, broke narrative conventions in a fascinating way, also providing with it amazing music and spectacle, busting box office records and reaching incredible critical acclaim. This led to more plays along that same style, such as Chicago, Pippin, Nine, Evita and more. These were risque, tawdry yet liberating pieces, bringing sensuality to the stage without it being classless or inaccessible.
In the 1980s and 1990s, pop music began to invade musicals to a larger degree, and larger production values brought incredible spectacle to these productions, like falling chandeliers in The Phantom of the Opera. Novel and literary adaptations were beginning to be the norm, and European influences were more and more prevalent. Andrew Lloyd Webber became an incredible mega-hit musical creator with Cats and Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and more. A greater emphasis on adaptations has been put forth as the 1990s rolled along; corporations began to get into the Broadway game, with the Disney Company allying with Broadway to adapt their musical films to the stage; Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King stands out among that canon.
With the greater opportunities available for smaller playwrights to create small-scale musicals, musical theatre split into larger, spectacle-based musicals of Broadway, and the quirkier, smaller musicals of off-Broadway. Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy: The Musical, and others provided smaller scale but interesting stories that eschewed overly elaborate set pieces for small sets of characters and developed storylines. Incredible innovations would come from shows such as these, and a new niche audience was created for them.
In order to attract younger audiences, Rent was released on Broadway and the West End, a dramatic tale of New York bohemia, rock music, and AIDS. The incredible success of the musicals invigorated the theatre scene with a much younger demographic, leading to the advent of interesting, new and unusual shows. Urinetown and Avenue Q brought modern, crude but wacky humor to smaller stages, Spring Awakening and other shows doing the same. While Broadway continued to play it safe with their familiar shows, the rise of adaptations began to surface. Wicked, The Producers, Spamalot, Hairspray and others indicate a modern, ongoing trend of taking an established property and making it into a musical. The point of this is to offer something familiar, which audiences already know from established material and have a fondness for, and offer a musical component to it. The jukebox musical, exemplified by Mamma Mia! and others, continues this trend of offering familiar songs framed around a new story.