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Musical: Description

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The Black Crook (1866), considered by some historians to be the first musical[1]

Musical theatre is a form of theatre combining music, songs, spoken dialogue and dance. The emotional content of the piece – humor, pathos, love, anger – as well as the story itself, is communicated through the words, music, movement and technical aspects of the entertainment as an integrated whole. Since the early 20th century, musical theatre stage works have generally been called simply, "musicals".

Musicals are performed all around the world. They may be presented in large venues, such as big budget West End and Broadway theatre productions in London and New York City, or in smaller fringe theatre, Off-Broadway or regional productions, on tour, or by amateur groups in schools, theatres and other performance spaces. In addition to Britain and North America, there are vibrant musical theatre scenes in many countries in Europe, Latin America, Australasia and Asia.

Some famous musicals include Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, The Fantasticks, Hair, A Chorus Line, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, The Producers and Wicked.

Contents

Definitions

Book musicals

The 20th century "book musical" has been defined as a musical play where the songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-made story, with serious dramatic goals, that is able to evoke genuine emotions other than laughter.[2] The three main components of a book musical are the music, the lyrics, and the book. The book of a musical refers to the story, character development, and dramatic structure, including the spoken dialogue. Book can also refer to the dialogue and lyrics together, which are sometimes referred to (as in opera) as the libretto (Italian for “little book”). The music and lyrics together form the score of the musical. The interpretation of the musical by the creative team of each production heavily influences the way in which the musical is presented. That team includes a director, a musical director, usually a choreographer and sometimes an orchestrator. A musical's production is also creatively characterized by technical aspects, such as set design, costumes, stage properties (props), lighting and sound, which generally change from the original production to succeeding productions. Some famous production elements, however, may be retained from the original production; for example, Bob Fosse's choreography in Chicago.

There is no fixed length for a musical. It can range from a short one-act entertainment to several acts and several hours in length (or even a multi-evening presentation); however, most musicals range from one and a half hours to three hours. Musicals are usually presented in two acts, with one intermission ten to twenty minutes in length. The first act is frequently longer than the second act. It generally introduces nearly all of the characters and most of the music, and often ends with the introduction of a dramatic conflict or plot complication. The second act may introduce a few new songs but usually contains reprises of important musical themes and resolves the conflict or complication. A book musical is usually built around four to six main theme tunes that are reprised later in the show, although it sometimes consists of a series of songs not directly musically related. Spoken dialogue is generally interspersed between musical numbers, although "sung dialogue" or recitative may be used, especially in so-called "sung-through" musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, and Evita. Several shorter musicals on Broadway and in the West End have been presented in one act in recent decades.

A Gaiety Girl (1893) was one of the first hit musicals.

A book musical's moments of greatest dramatic intensity are often performed in song. Proverbially, "when the emotion becomes too strong for speech you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance." In a book musical, a song is ideally crafted to suit the character (or characters) and their situation within the story; although there have been times in the history of the musical (e.g. from the 1890s to the 1920s) when this integration between music and story has been tenuous. As New York Times critic Ben Brantley described the ideal of song in theatre in reviewing the 2008 revival of Gypsy, "There is no separation at all between song and character, which is what happens in those uncommon moments when musicals reach upward to achieve their ideal reasons to be."[3] Typically, many fewer words are sung in a five-minute song than are spoken in a five-minute block of dialogue. Therefore there is less time to develop drama in a musical than in a straight play of equivalent length, since a musical usually devotes more time to music than to dialogue. Within the compressed nature of the musical, the writers must develop the characters and the plot.

The material a musical may be original, or it may be adapted from novels (Wicked and Man of La Mancha), plays (Hello, Dolly!), classic legends (Camelot), historical events (Evita) or films (The Producers and Hairspray). On the other hand, many successful musical theatre works have been adapted for musical films, such as The Sound of Music, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and Chicago.

Distinctions and overlap with opera; other forms

Musical theatre is closely related to another theatrical performance art, opera. These forms are usually distinguished by weighing a number of factors. Musicals generally have a greater focus on spoken dialogue (though some musicals are entirely accompanied and sung through; and on the other hand, some operas, such as Die Zauberflöte, and most operettas, have some unaccompanied dialogue); on dancing (particularly by the principal performers as well as the chorus); on the use of various genres of popular music (or at least popular singing styles); and on the avoidance of certain operatic conventions. In particular, a musical is almost always performed in the language of its audience. Musicals produced in London or New York, for instance, are invariably sung in English, even if they were originally written in another language (Les Misérables, originally written in French, is a good example). While an opera singer is primarily a singer and only secondarily an actor (and rarely needs to dance), a musical theatre performer is often an actor first and then a singer and dancer. Someone who is equally accomplished at all three is referred to as a "triple threat". Composers of music for musicals often consider the vocal demands of roles with musical theatre performers in mind. Today, theatres staging musicals generally use amplification of the actors' singing voices in a way that would generally be disapproved of in an operatic context.

Some works (e.g. by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) have received both "musical theatre" and "operatic" productions.[4][5] Similarly, some older operettas or light operas (such as The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan) have had modern productions or adaptations that treat them as musicals. For some works, production styles are almost as important as the work's musical or dramatic content in defining into which art form the piece falls.[6] Sondheim said: "I really think that when something plays Broadway it's a musical, and when it plays in an opera house it's opera. That's it. It's the terrain, the countryside, the expectations of the audience that make it one thing or another."[7] This article primarily concerns musical theatre works that are "non-operatic", but overlap remains between lighter operatic forms and the more musically complex or ambitious musicals. In practice, it is often difficult to distinguish among the various kinds of musical theatre, including "musical play", "musical comedy", "operetta" and "light opera".

India produces numerous musical films, referred to as "Bollywood" musicals, and in Japan a based on popular Anime and Manga comics has developed. Other current musical forms include the revue. Another recent genre of musicals, called "jukebox musicals" (for instance, Mamma Mia!), weaves songs written by (or introduced by) a popular artist, group or genre into a story, sometimes based on the life or career of the person/group in question. Shorter "junior" versions of many musicals are available for schools and youth groups, and very short works created or adapted for performance by children are sometimes called minimusicals.[8][9]

History

Antiquity to Middle Ages

Musical theatre in Europe dates back to the theatre of the ancient Greeks, who included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies in the 5th century BCE.[10] The dramatists Aeschylus and Sophocles composed their own music to accompany their plays and choreographed the dances of the chorus. The 3rd-century BCE Roman comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with orchestrations. The Romans introduced technical innovations. For example, to make the dance steps more audible in large open air theatres, Roman actors attached metal chips called "sabilla" to their stage footwear – the first tap shoes.[11] By the Middle Ages, theatre in Europe consisted mostly of travelling minstrels and small performing troupes of performers singing and offering slapstick comedy.[12] In the 12th and 13th centuries, religious dramas, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel taught the liturgy, set to church chants. Later "Mystery plays" were created that told a biblical story in a sequence of entertaining parts. Several pageant wagons (stages on wheels) would move about the city, and a group of actors would tell their part of the story. Once finished, the group would move on with their wagon, and the next group would arrive to tell its part of the story. These plays developed into an autonomous form of musical theatre, with poetic forms sometimes alternating with the prose dialogues and liturgical chants. The poetry was provided with modified or completely new melodies.[13]

Musical theatre in India also began in antiquity, with highly stylized ancient Sanskrit drama focused on spectacle, where the dramatic experience was created by combining Classical Indian music, Classical Indian dance and mime. Natya Shastra was a form of Sanskrit dance-drama. As Sanskrit theatre declined, around the 10th century, Indian folk theatre became popular. The theatre of the Parsi people "blended realism and fantasy, music and dance, narrative and spectacle, earthy dialogue and ingenuity of stage presentation, integrating them into a dramatic discourse of melodrama."[14] These theatrical forms have had an influence on modern Indian cinema, including the Bollywood films.[14]

Renaissance to the 1700s

The European Renaissance saw older forms evolve into commedia dell'arte, an Italian tradition where raucous clowns improvised their way through familiar stories, and from there, opera buffa.

A view of Rhodes, designed by John Webb, to be painted on a backshutter for the first performance of The Siege of Rhodes, 1856

In England, Elizabethan and Jacobean plays frequently included music, with performances on organs, lutes, viols and pipes for up to an hour before and during the performance.[15] Plays, perhaps particularly the heavier histories and tragedies, were frequently broken up with a short musical play, perhaps derived from the Italian intermezzo, with music, jokes and dancing, or were followed by an afterpiece known as a jigg, often consisting of scandalous or libellous dialogue set to popular tunes (anticipating the Ballad Opera).[16] Court masques developed during the Tudor period. Masques were elaborate performances involving music, dancing, singing and acting, often with expensive costumes and a complex stage design, sometimes by a renowned architect such as Inigo Jones, presented a deferential allegory flattering to a noble or royal patron.[17]Ben Jonson wrote many masques, often collaborating with Jones. Shakespeare included masque-like sections in many of his plays.[18]

The musical sections of masques developed into sung plays that are recognizable as English operas, the first usually being thought of as William Davenant's The Siege of Rhodes (1656), originally given in a private performance.[19] In France, meanwhile, Molière turned several of his farcical comedies into musical entertainments with songs (music provided by Jean Baptiste Lully) and dance in the late 17th century. His Psyche was the model for an English opera by Thomas Shadwell, The Miser produced in 1672.[20] Davenant produced The Tempest in 1667, which was the first Shakespeare plot set to music, and which was then adapted by Shadwell into an opera in 1674 (composed by Matthew Locke and others).[20] About 1683, John Blow composed Venus and Adonis, often considered the first true English-language opera.[21] Blow was followed by Henry Purcell and a brief period of English opera. After the death of Charles II in 1685, English opera began to fall out of fashion.[19]

Painting based on The Beggar's Opera, Scene V, William Hogarth, c. 1728

By the 18th century, two forms of musical theatre were popular in Britain, France and Germany: ballad operas, like John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), that included lyrics written to the tunes of popular songs of the day (often spoofing opera), and comic operas, with original scores and mostly romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1845). Other musical theatre forms developed by the 19th century, such as vaudeville, British music hall, melodrama and burlesque. Melodramas and burlettas, in particular, were popularized partly because most London theatres were licensed only as music halls and not allowed to present plays without music. In any event, what a piece was called did not necessarily define what it was. The Broadway extravaganza The Magic Deer (1852) advertised itself as "A Serio Comico Tragico Operatical Historical Extravaganzical Burletical Tale of Enchantment."[12]

The first recorded long running play of any kind was The Beggar's Opera, which ran for 62 successive performances in 1728. It would take almost a century before the first play broke 100 performances, with Tom and Jerry, based on the book Life in London (1821), and the record soon reached 150 in the late 1820s.[22]

Colonial America did not have a significant theatre presence until 1752, when London entrepreneur William Hallam sent a company of twelve actors to the colonies with his brother Lewis as their manager.[23] They established a theatre in Williamsburg, Virginia and opened with The Merchant of Venice and The Anatomist. The company moved to New York in the summer of 1753, performing ballad-operas such as The Beggar’s Opera and ballad-farces like Damon and Phillida.[23] By the 1840s, P.T. Barnum was operating an entertainment complex in lower Manhattan.[24] Theatre in New York moved from downtown gradually to midtown from around 1850, seeking less expensive real estate prices, and did not arrive in the Times Square area until the 1920s and 1930s. Broadway's first "long-run" musical was a 50 performance hit called The Elves in 1857. New York runs continued to lag far behind those in London, but Laura Keene's "musical burletta" Seven Sisters (1860) shattered previous New York records with a run of 253 performances.[25]

Development of musical comedy

The first theatre piece that conforms to the modern conception of a musical, adding dance and original music that helped to tell the story, is generally considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York on September 12, 1866. The production was a staggering five-and-a-half hours long, but despite its length, it ran for a record-breaking 474 performances. The same year, The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post was the first show to call itself a "musical comedy." At that time, in England, musical theatre consisted of mostly of music hall, adaptations of risqué French operetta and musical burlesques, notably at the Gaiety Theatre beginning in 1868. In reaction to these a few family-friendly entertainments were created, such as the German Reed Entertainments.

Comedians Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart produced and starred in musicals on Broadway between 1878 (The Mulligan Guard Picnic) and 1885, with book and lyrics by Harrigan and music by his father-in-law David Braham. These musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York's lower classes and represented a significant step forward from burletta and burlesque, towards a more literate form. They starred high quality singers (Lillian Russell, Vivienne Segal, and Fay Templeton) instead of the ladies of questionable repute who had starred in earlier musical forms.

Poster for an early production.

The length of runs in the theatre changed rapidly around the same time that the modern musical was born. As transportation improved, poverty in London and New York diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values. The first play to achieve 500 consecutive performances was the London (non-musical) comedy Our Boys, opening in 1875, which set an astonishing new record of 1,362 performances.[22]

This run was not equaled on the musical stage until World War I, but musical theatre soon broke the 500 performance mark in London, most notably by the series of more than a dozen long-running Gilbert and Sullivan family-friendly comic opera hits, including H.M.S. Pinafore in 1878 and The Mikado in 1885, which were sensations on both sides of the Atlantic. However, The Chimes of Normandy, 1878 (adapted from the French Les Cloches de Corneville), ran for 705 performances in London, beating any of the Gilbert and Sullivan pieces. Its run was not exceeded by any other piece of musical theatre until Alfred Cellier and B. C. Stephenson's record-breaking 1886 hit, Dorothy (a show midway between comic opera and musical comedy), with 931 performances, which was chased (but not equaled) by several of the most successful London musicals of the 1890s. Other British composers of the period included Edward Solomon and F. Osmond Carr. The most popular of these shows also enjoyed profitable New York productions and tours of Britain, America, Europe, Australasia and South Africa. These shows were fare for "respectable" audiences, a marked contrast from the risqué burlesques, melodramas, bawdy music hall shows and badly translated French operettas that dominated the stage earlier in the 19th century and drew a sometimes seedy crowd looking for easy entertainment.

Charles Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown (1891) was Broadway's long-run champion (until Irene in 1919), running for 657 performances. Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas were both pirated and imitated in New York by productions such as Reginald de Koven's Robin Hood (1891) and John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896). A Trip to Coontown (1898) was the first musical comedy entirely produced and performed by African Americans in a Broadway theatre (largely inspired by the routines of the minstrel shows), followed by the ragtime-tinged Clorindy the Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), and the highly successful In Dahomey (1902). Hundreds of musical comedies were staged on Broadway in the 1890s and early 20th century composed of songs written in New York's Tin Pan Alley by composers such as Gus Edwards, John Walter Bratton and George M. Cohan (Little Johnny Jones (1904)). Still, New York runs continued to be relatively short, with a few exceptions, compared with London runs, until the 1920s.[22]

George Edwardes

Meanwhile, musicals had spread to the London stage by the Gay Nineties. George Edwardes had left the management of Richard D'Oyly Carte's Savoy Theatre. He took over the Gaiety Theatre and, at first, he improved the quality of the old Gaiety Theatre burlesques. He perceived that audiences wanted a new alternative to the Savoy-style comic operas and their intellectual, political, absurdist satire. He experimented with a modern-dress, family-friendly musical theatre style, with breezy, popular songs, snappy, romantic banter, and stylish spectacle at the Gaiety, Daly's Theatre and other venues. These drew on the traditions of comic opera and also used elements of burlesque and of the Harrigan and Hart pieces. He replaced the bawdy women of burlesque with his "respectable" corps of dancing, singing Gaiety Girls to complete the musical and visual fun. The success of the first of these, In Town in 1892 and A Gaiety Girl in 1893, confirmed Edwardes on the path he was taking. These "musical comedies", as he called them, revolutionized the London stage and set the tone for the next three decades.

Cover of the Vocal Score of Sidney Jones' The Geisha.jpg

Edwardes' early Gaiety hits included a series of light, romantic "poor maiden loves aristocrat and wins him against all odds" shows, usually with the word "Girl" in the title, including The Shop Girl (1894) and A Runaway Girl (1898), with music by Ivan Caryll and Lionel Monckton. These shows were immediately widely copied at other London theatres (and soon in America), and the Edwardian musical comedy swept away the earlier musical forms of comic opera and operetta. At Daly's Theatre, Edwardes presented slightly more complex comedy hits. The Geisha (1896) by Sidney Jones with lyrics by Harry Greenbank and Adrian Ross and then Jones' San Toy (1899) each ran for more than two years and also found great international success.

The British musical comedy Florodora (1899) by Leslie Stuart and Paul Rubens made a splash on both sides of the Atlantic, as did A Chinese Honeymoon (1901), by British lyricist George Dance and American-born composer Howard Talbot, which ran for a record setting 1,074 performances in London and 376 in New York. The story concerns couples who honeymoon in China and inadvertently break the kissing laws (shades of The Mikado). The Belle of New York (1898) ran for 697 performances in London after a brief New York run, becoming the first American musical to run for over a year in London. After the turn of the 20th century, Seymour Hicks (who joined forces with American producer Charles Frohman) wrote popular shows with composer Charles Taylor and others, and Edwardes and Ross continued to churn out hits like The Toreador (1901), A Country Girl (1902), The Orchid (1903), The Girls of Gottenberg (1907) and Our Miss Gibbs (1909). Other Edwardian musical comedy hits included The Arcadians (1909) and The Quaker Girl (1910).

Operetta and World War I

Victor Herbert

Meanwhile, around 1850, the French composer Hervé was experimenting with a form of comic musical theatre that came to be called operette.[26] Probably the best known composers of operette, or operetta in English, were Jacques Offenbach in the 1850s to 1870s and Johann Strauss II in the 1870s and 1880s (usually played in bad, bawdy translations in London and New York). In England in the 1870s and 1880s, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan created a family-friendly alternative to French operetta, styled British comic opera. Although lightly-plotted topical British and American musicals of the 1890s and the first few years of the 20th century had virtually swept operetta and comic opera from the stage, operettas returned to London and Broadway in 1907 with The Merry Widow, and operettas and musicals became direct competitors for a time.

In the early years of the 20th century, English-language adaptations of 19th century continental operettas, as well as operettas by a new generation of European composers, such as Franz Lehár and Oscar Straus, among others, spread throughout the English-speaking world, and Victor Herbert, whose work included some intimate musical plays with modern settings as well as his string of famous operettas (The Fortune Teller (1898), Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906) and Naughty Marietta (1910)) often with librettist Harry B. Smith. These operetta composers were joined by British and American composers and librettists of the 1910s, including the team of P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern. Following in the footsteps of Gilbert and Sullivan, their "Princess Theatre shows" paved the way for Kern's later work by showing that a musical could combine light, popular entertainment with continuity between its story and songs:[27]

"These shows built and polished the mold from which almost all later major musical comedies evolved. ... The characters and situations were, within the limitations of musical comedy license, believable and the humor came from the situations or the nature of the characters. Kern's exquisitely flowing melodies were employed to further the action or develop characterization. The integration of song and story is periodically announced as a breakthrough in ... musical theater. Great opera has always done this, and it is easy to demonstrate such integration in Gilbert and Sullivan or the French opera bouffe. However, early musical comedy was often guilty of inserting songs in a hit-or-miss fashion. The Princess Theatre musicals brought about a change in approach. P. G. Wodehouse, the most observant, literate, and witty lyricist of his day, and the team of Bolton, Wodehouse, and Kern had an influence which can be felt to this day.[28]

The winner of this competition between operetta and musicals was the theatre-going public, who needed escapist entertainment during the dark times of World War I. While Americans discovered Victor Herbert (Irene, whose run of 670 performances was a Broadway record that held until 1938's Hellzapoppin) and the Princess Theatre musicals, the British public flocked to theatres for hits like Maid of the Mountains and especially Chu Chin Chow (whose run of 2,238 performances, more than twice as many as any previous musical, set a record that stood for nearly forty years until Salad Days) as well as popular revues like The Bing Boys Are Here. The legacy of the operetta composers served as an inspiration to the next generation of composers of operettas in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, while the Princess theatre musicals inspired George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Noël Coward; and all these, in turn, influenced Rodgers, Sondheim, and those composing later in the century.[12]

At the same time, the primacy of British musical theatre from the 19th century through th 1920s was gradually replaced by American innovation in the 20th century. Edwardes' competitor and counterpart in the U.S. was Charles Frohman and his Theatrical Syndicate. In the U.S., first George M. Cohan filled the Broadway theatres with lively musical entertainments, soon joined by the Tin Pan Alley composers, and by World War I, composers like Kern began to bring new musical styles such as ragtime and jazz to the theatres. The Shubert Brothers took control of the Broadway theatres after the war. Musical theatre writer Andrew Lamb notes, "The triumph of American works over European in the first decades of the twentieth century came about against a changing social background. The operatic and theatrical styles of nineteenth-century social structures were replaced by a musical style more aptly suited to twentieth-century society and its vernacular idiom. It was from America that the more direct style emerged, and in America that it was able to flourish in a developing society less hidebound by nineteenth-century tradition."[29]

The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression

The motion picture mounted a challenge to the stage. At first, films were silent and presented only a limited challenge to theatre. But by the end of the 1920s, films like The Jazz Singer could be presented with synchronized sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theatre altogether. The musicals of the Roaring Twenties, borrowing from vaudeville, music hall and other light entertainments, tended to ignore plot in favor of emphasizing star actors and actresses, big dance routines, and popular songs. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, popular music was dominated by theatre writers. Many shows were revues with little plot. For instance, Florenz Ziegfeld produced annual spectacular song-and-dance revues on Broadway featuring extravagant sets and elaborate costumes, but there was little to tie the various numbers together. In London, the Aldwych Farces were similarly successful, and stars such as Ivor Novello were popular. These spectacles also raised production values, and mounting a musical generally became more expensive.

Sheet music from Sally, 1920

Typical of the decade were lighthearted productions like Sally; Lady Be Good; Sunny; No, No, Nanette; Oh, Kay!; and Funny Face. Their books may have been forgettable, but they produced enduring standards from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Kern, Vincent Youmans, and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, among others, and featured stars like Marilyn Miller and Fred Astaire. Audiences tapped their toes to these musicals on both sides of the Atlantic ocean while popular operettas (after taking a break since World War I) returned from continental Europe and also from composers like Noël Coward in London and Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml in America. Clearly, cinema had not killed live theatre.

Leaving these comparatively frivolous entertainments behind, and taking the drama a giant step beyond Victor Herbert and merely sentimental operetta, Show Boat, which premiered on December 27, 1927 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, represented an even more complete integration of book and score than the Princess Theatre musicals, with dramatic themes, as told through the music, dialogue, setting and movement, woven together even more seamlessly. This was accomplished by combining the lyricism of Kern with the skillful craft of Oscar Hammerstein II, who adapted Edna Ferber's novel. One historian wrote, "Here we come to a completely new genre – the musical play as distinguished from musical comedy. Now ... the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now ... came complete integration of song, humor and production numbers into a single and inextricable artistic entity."[30] However, Bordman argues, "Show Boat is certainly an operetta with its many arioso passages, its musical depth and seriousness, and its romantic story set, in typical operetta fashion, in the long ago and far away."[28] Nevertheless, as the Great Depression set in during the post-Broadway national tour of Show Boat, the public turned back to light, brassy, escapist entertainment, and no follow-up was produced so seriously treating serious social themes until Oklahoma! in 1943.[28]

1930s

The Great Depression affected theatre audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, as people had little money to spend on entertainment. In addition, "talkie" films at low prices presented a strong challenge to theatre of all kinds. Early musical films effectively killed off vaudeville by the early 1930s. Historian John Kenrick commented: "Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for one-time pay-offs, inadvertently helping to speed the death of vaudeville. After all, when 'small time' theatres could offer 'big time' performers on screen at a nickel a seat, who could ask audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live talent?"[31] Only a few stage shows exceeded a run on Broadway or in London of 500 performances during the decade. Still, for those who could afford it, this was an exciting time in the development of musical theatre. Encouraged by the success of Show Boat, creative teams began following the "format" of that popular hit, integrating song and dance with smart books. Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind, was the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Band Wagon (1931), starred dancing partners Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. Porter's Anything Goes (1934) confirmed Ethel Merman's position as the First Lady of musical theatre – a title she maintained for many years. As Thousands Cheer (1933) was an Irving Berlin and Moss Hart success that marked Marilyn Miller's last show and the first Broadway show to star an African-American, Ethel Waters).[32]

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) was a step closer to opera than Show Boat and the other musicals of the era, and in some respects it foreshadowed such "operatic" musicals as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd. The Cradle Will Rock (1937), with a book and score by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles, was a highly political piece that, despite the controversy surrounding it, managed to run for 108 performances. Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday brought to the musical stage New York City's early history, using as its source writings by Washington Irving, while good-naturedly satirizing the good intentions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

British writers such as Noël Coward and Ivor Novello continued to deliver old fashioned, sentimental musicals, such as The Dancing Years. Similarly, Rodgers & Hart returned from Hollywood to churn out a series of lighthearted Broadway hits, including On Your Toes (1936, with Ray Bolger, the first Broadway musical to make dramatic use of classical dance), Babes In Arms (1937), I'd Rather Be Right, a political satire with George M. Cohan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and The Boys From Syracuse (1938), and Cole Porter wrote a similar string of hits, including Anything Goes (1934) and DuBarry Was a Lady (1939). He later would go on to write scores for such classics as Can-Can (1953) and Silk Stockings (1955). But the longest running piece of musical theatre of the 1930s was Hellzapoppin (1938), a revue with audience participation, which played for 1,404 performances, setting a new Broadway record that was finally beaten by Oklahoma!

Despite the economic woes and the competition from film, the musical survived. In fact, the move towards political satire in Of Thee I Sing, I'd Rather Be Right and Knickerbocker Holiday, together with the musical sophistication of the Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers and Weill musicals and the fast-paced staging and naturalistic dialogue style created by director George Abbott showed that musical theatre was finally evolving beyond the gags and showgirls musicals of the Gay Nineties and Roaring Twenties and the sentimental romance of operetta.

The Golden Age (1940s to 1960s)

Rodgers and Hammerstein (left and right) and Irving Berlin (center)

1940s

The 1940s would begin with more hits from Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Weill and Gershwin, some with runs over 500 performances as the economy rebounded, but artistic change was in the air.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! completed the revolution begun by Show Boat, by tightly integrating all the aspects of musical theatre, with a cohesive plot, songs that furthered the action of the story, and featured dream ballets and other dances that advanced the plot and developed the characters, rather than using dance as an excuse to parade scantily clad women across the stage. Rodgers and Hammerstein hired ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille, who used everyday motions to help the characters express their ideas. It defied musical conventions by raising its first act curtain not on a bevy of chorus girls, but rather on a woman churning butter, with an off-stage voice singing the opening lines of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' a capella. It drew rave reviews, set off a box-office frenzy and received a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that the show's opening number changed the history of musical theater: “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable."[33] It was the first "blockbuster" Broadway show, running a total of 2,212 performances, and was made into a hit film. It remains one of the most frequently produced of the team's projects. William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird wrote that this was a "show, that, like Show Boat, became a milestone, so that later historians writing about important moments in twentieth-century theatre would begin to identify eras according to their relationship to Oklahoma!"[34]

"After Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most important contributors to the musical-play form... The examples they set in creating vital plays, often rich with social thought, provided the necessary encouragement for other gifted writers to create musical plays of their own".[30] The two collaborators created an extraordinary collection of some of musical theatre's best loved and most enduring classics, including Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), and The Sound of Music (1959). Some of these musicals treat more serious subject matter than most earlier shows: the villain in Oklahoma! is a suspected murderer and psychopath with a fondness for lewd post cards; Carousel deals with spousal abuse, thievery, suicide and the afterlife; South Pacific explores miscegenation even more thoroughly than Show Boat; and the hero of The King and I dies onstage.

The show's creativity stimulated Rodgers and Hammerstein's contemporaries and ushered in the "Golden Age" of American musical theatre.[33] Americana was displayed on Broadway during the "Golden Age", as the wartime cycle of shows began to arrive. An example of this is On the Town (1944), written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composed by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. The musical is set during wartime, where a group of three sailors are on a 24 hour shore leave in New York. During their day, they each meet a wonderful woman. The women in this show have a specific power to them, as if saying, "Come here! I need a man!" The show also gives the impression of a country with an uncertain future, as the sailors also have with their women before leaving.

Oklahoma! inspired others to continue the trend. Irving Berlin used sharpshooter Annie Oakley's career as a basis for his Annie Get Your Gun (1946, 1,147 performances); Burton Lane, E. Y. Harburg, and Fred Saidy combined political satire with Irish whimsy for their fantasy Finian's Rainbow (1947, 1,725 performances); and Cole Porter found inspiration in William Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew for Kiss Me, Kate (1948, 1,077 performances). The American musicals overwhelmed the old-fashioned British Coward/Novello-style shows, one of the last big successes of which was Novello's Perchance to Dream (1945, 1,021 performances).

1950s

Damon Runyon's eclectic characters were at the core of Frank Loesser's and Abe Burrows' Guys and Dolls, (1950, 1,200 performances); and the Gold Rush was the setting for Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Paint Your Wagon (1951). The relatively brief seven-month run of that show didn't discourage Lerner and Loewe from collaborating again, this time on My Fair Lady (1956), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, which at 2,717 performances held the long-run record for many years. Popular Hollywood movies were made of all of these musicals. The Boy Friend (1954) ran for 2,078 performances in London, briefly becoming the third-longest running musical in West End or Broadway history (after Chu Chin Chow and Oklahoma!), until it was demoted by Salad Days. It marked Julie Andrews' American debut. Another record was set by The Threepenny Opera, which ran for 2,707 performances, becoming the longest-running off-Broadway musical until The Fantasticks. The production also broke ground by showing that musicals could be profitable off-Broadway in a small-scale, small orchestra format. This was confirmed in 1959 when a revival of Jerome Kern and P. G. Wodehouse's Leave it to Jane ran for more than two years. The 1959–1960 Off-Broadway season included a dozen musicals and revues including Little Mary Sunshine, The Fantasticks and Ernest in Love, a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1895 hit The Importance of Being Earnest.[35]

Leonard Bernstein, 1971

As in Oklahoma!, dance was an integral part of West Side Story (1957), which transported Romeo and Juliet to modern day New York City and converted the feuding Montague and Capulet families into opposing ethnic gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The book was adapted by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim. It was embraced by the critics but failed to be a popular choice for the "blue-haired matinee ladies," who preferred the small town River City, Iowa of Meredith Willson's The Music Man to the alleys of Manhattan's Upper West Side. Apparently Tony Award voters were of a similar mind, since they favored the former over the latter. West Side Story had a respectable run of 732 performances (1,040 in the West End), while The Music Man ran nearly twice as long, with 1,375 performances. However, the film of West Side Story was extremely successful.

Laurents and Sondheim teamed up again for Gypsy (1959, 702 performances), with Jule Styne providing the music for a backstage story about the most driven stage mother of all-time, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's mother Rose. The original production ran for 702 performances, and was given four subsequent revivals, with Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone later tackling the role made famous by Ethel Merman.

Automotive companies and other types of corporations began to hire Broadway talent to write corporate musicals, private shows which were only seen by their employees or customers. The 1950s ended with Rodgers and Hammerstein's last hit, The Sound of Music, which also became another hit for Mary Martin. It ran for 1,443 performances and shared the Tony Award for Best Musical. Together with its extremely successful 1965 film version, it has become one of the most popular musicals in history.

1960s

In 1960, The Fantasticks was first produced off-Broadway. This intimate allegorical show would quietly run for over 40 years at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village, becoming by far the longest-running musical in history. Its authors produced other innovative works in the 1960s, such as Celebration and I Do! I Do!, the first two-character Broadway musical. The 1960s would see a number of blockbusters, like Fiddler on the Roof (1964; 3,242 performances), Hello, Dolly! (1964; 2,844 performances), Funny Girl (1964; 1,348 performances), and Man of La Mancha (1965; 2,328 performances), and some more risqué pieces like Cabaret, before ending with the emergence of the rock musical. Two men had considerable impact on musical theatre history beginning in this decade, Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman.

Bernadette Peters (shown in 2008) has starred in several Sondheim shows

The first project for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962, 964 performances), with a book based on the works of Plautus by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, and starring Zero Mostel. Sondheim moved the musical beyond its concentration on the romantic plots typical of earlier eras; his work tended to be darker, exploring the grittier sides of life both present and past. Some of his earlier works include Anyone Can Whistle (1964, which—at a mere nine performances, despite having star power in Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury—is an infamous flop), Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973). He has found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources—the opening of Japan to Western trade for Pacific Overtures, a legendary murderous barber seeking revenge in the Industrial Age of London for Sweeney Todd, the paintings of Georges Seurat for Sunday in the Park with George, fairy tales for Into the Woods, and a collection of presidential assassins in Assassins.

While some critics have argued that some of Sondheim’s musicals lack commercial appeal, others have praised their lyrical sophistication and musical complexity, as well as the interplay of lyrics and music in his shows. Some of Sondheim's notable innovations include a show presented in reverse (Merrily We Roll Along) and the above-mentioned Anyone Can Whistle, in which the first act ends with the cast informing the audience that they are mad.

Jerry Herman played a significant role in American musical theatre, beginning with his first Broadway production, Milk and Honey (1961, 563 performances), about the founding of the state of Israel, and continuing with the smash hits Hello, Dolly! (1964, 2,844 performances), Mame (1966, 1,508 performances), and La Cage aux Folles (1983, 1,761 performances). Even his less successful shows like Dear World (1969) and Mack & Mabel (1974) have had memorable scores (Mack & Mabel was later reworked into a London hit). Writing both words and music, many of Herman's show tunes have become popular standards, including "Hello, Dolly!", "We Need a Little Christmas", "I Am What I Am", "Mame", "The Best of Times", "Before the Parade Passes By", "Put On Your Sunday Clothes", "It Only Takes a Moment", "Bosom Buddies", and "I Won't Send Roses", recorded by such artists as Louis Armstrong, Eydie Gorme, Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark and Bernadette Peters. Herman's songbook has been the subject of two popular musical revues, Jerry's Girls (Broadway, 1985), and Showtune (off-Broadway, 2003).

The musical started to diverge from the relatively narrow confines of the 1950s. Rock music would be used in several Broadway musicals, beginning with Hair, which featured not only rock music but also nudity and controversial opinions about the Vietnam War, race relations and other social issues.[36]

Social themes

After Show Boat and Porgy and Bess, and as the struggle in America and elsewhere for minorities' civil rights progressed, Hammerstein, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg and others were emboldened to write more musicals and operas which aimed to normalize societal toleration of minorities and urged racial harmony. Early Golden Age works that focused on racial tolerance included Finian's Rainbow, South Pacific, and The King and I. Towards the end of the Golden Age, several shows tackled Jewish subjects and issues, such as Fiddler on the Roof, Milk and Honey, Blitz! and later Rags. The original concept that became West Side Story was set in the Lower East Side during Easter-Passover celebrations; the rival gangs were to be Jewish and Italian Catholic. The creative team later decided that the Polish (white) vs. Puerto Rican conflict was fresher.[37]

Tolerance as an important theme in musicals has continued in recent decades. The final expression of West Side Story left a message of racial tolerance. By the end of the '60s, musicals became racially integrated, with black and white cast members even covering each others' roles, as they did in Hair.[38] Casting in some musicals is an attempt to represent the community at the subject of the drama, as in Rent and In the Heights. Homosexuality has been explored in such musicals, beginning with Hair, and even more overtly in La Cage aux Folles and Falsettos. Parade is a sensitive exploration of both anti-Semitism and historical American racism.

More recent periods

1970s

After the success of Hair, rock musicals flourished in the 1970s, with Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, The Rocky Horror Show and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Some of these rock musicals began with "concept albums" and then moved to film or stage, such as Tommy. Others had no dialogue or were otherwise reminiscent of opera, with dramatic, emotional themes; these sometimes started as concept albums and were referred to as rock operas. The musical also went in other directions. Shows like Raisin, Dreamgirls, Purlie, and The Wiz brought a significant African-American influence to Broadway. More varied musical genres and styles were incorporated into musicals both on and especially off-Broadway.

1975 brought one of the great contemporary musicals to the stage. A Chorus Line emerged from recorded group therapy-style sessions Michael Bennett conducted with Gypsies — those who sing and dance in support of the leading players —from the Broadway community. From hundreds of hours of tapes, James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nick Dante fashioned a book about an audition for a musical, incorporating into it many of the real-life stories of those who had sat in on the sessions — and some of whom eventually played variations of themselves or each other in the show. With music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line first opened at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in lower Manhattan. Advance word-of-mouth— that something extraordinary was about to explode — boosted box office sales, and after critics ran out of superlatives to describe what they witnessed on opening night, what initially had been planned as a limited engagement eventually moved to the Shubert Theatre uptown for a run that seemed to last forever. The show swept the Tony Awards and won the Pulitzer Prize, and its hit song, What I Did for Love, became an instant standard.

Clearly, Broadway audiences were eager to welcome musicals that strayed from the usual style and substance. John Kander and Fred Ebb explored the rise of Nazism in Germany in Cabaret and Prohibition-era Chicago, which relied on old vaudeville techniques to tell its tale of murder and the media. Pippin, by Stephen Schwartz, was set in the days of Charlemagne. Federico Fellini's autobiographical film became Maury Yeston's Nine. At the end of the decade, Evita gave a more serious political biography than audiences were used to at musicals, and Sweeney Todd was the precursor to the darker, big budget musicals of the 1980s like Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, and The Phantom of the Opera, that depended on dramatic stories, sweeping scores and spectacular effects. But during this same period, old-fashioned values were still embraced in such hits as Annie, 42nd Street, My One and Only, and popular revivals of No, No, Nanette and Irene.

1980s and 1990s

The 1980s and 1990s saw the influence of European "mega-musicals" or "pop operas," which typically featured a pop-influenced score and had large casts and sets and were identified as much by their notable effects—a falling chandelier (in Phantom), a helicopter landing on stage (in Miss Saigon)—as they were by anything else in the production. Many were based on novels or other works of literature. The most important writers of mega-musicals include the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, responsible for Les Misérables, which became the longest-running international musical hit in history. The team, in collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr., continued to produce hits, including Miss Saigon (inspired by the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly).

Elaine Paige

The British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, saw similar mega-success with Evita, based on the life of Argentina's Eva Perón, and Cats, derived from the poems of T. S. Eliot, both of which musicals originally starred Elaine Paige. Other Lloyd Webber musical successes include Starlight Express, performed on roller skates; The Phantom of the Opera, derived from the Gaston Leroux novel, "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra"; and Sunset Boulevard (from the classic film of the same name). Several of these works ran (or are still running) for decades in both New York and London. The 90s also saw the influence of large corporations on the production of musicals. The most important has been The Walt Disney Company, which began adapting some of its animated movie musicals for the stage, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney also created original stage productions like Aida, with music by Elton John.

With the growing scale (and cost) of musicals, style was sometimes emphasized in favor of substance during the last two decades of the 20th century. At the same time, however, many writers broke from this pattern and began to create smaller scale, but critically acclaimed and financially successful musicals, such as Falsettoland, Passion, Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy: The Musical, and Blood Brothers. The topics vary widely, and the music ranges from rock to pop, but they often are produced off-Broadway (or for smaller London theatres) and feature smaller casts and generally less expensive productions. Some of these have been noted as imaginative and innovative.[39]

The cost of tickets to Broadway and West End musicals was escalating beyond the budget of many theatregoers, and the trend was for these musicals to be viewed by a smaller and smaller audience. Jonathan Larson's musical Rent (based on the opera La Bohème) was marketed to increase the popularity of musicals among a younger audience. It featured a young cast, and the score is heavily rock-influenced. The musical became a hit. Its young fans, many of them students, calling themselves RENTheads, lined up at the Nederlander Theatre hours early in hopes of winning the lottery for $20 front row tickets, and some have seen the show more than 50 times. Other writers who have attempted to bring a taste of modern rock music to the stage include Jason Robert Brown. Also, a majority of shows on Broadway have now followed Rent's lead by offering heavily discounted day-of-performance or standing-room tickets, although often the discounts are offered only to students.[40]

2000s

Recent trends

In recent years, familiarity has been embraced by producers and investors anxious to guarantee that they recoup their considerable investments, if not show a healthy profit. Some took (usually modest-budget) chances on the new and unusual, such as Urinetown (2001), Avenue Q (2003), Caroline or Change (2004), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), Spring Awakening (2006), In the Heights (2007) and Next to Normal (2009). But most took a safe route with revivals of familiar fare, such as Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, South Pacific, Gypsy, Hair, West Side Story and Grease, or with other proven material, such as films (The Producers, Spamalot, Hairspray, The Color Purple, Xanadu, Billy Elliot and Shrek) or well-known literature (The Scarlet Pimpernel and Wicked) hoping that the shows would have a built-in audience as a result. The reuse of film plots, especially those from Disney (such as Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid), has been considered by some critics to be a redefinition of Broadway and West End musicals as, rather than a creative outlet, a tourist attraction.[12]

It is less likely today that a sole producer, such as David Merrick or Cameron Mackintosh, backs a production. Corporate sponsors dominate Broadway, and often alliances are formed to stage musicals which require an investment of $10 million or more. In 2002, the credits for Thoroughly Modern Millie listed ten producers, and among those names were entities composed of several individuals.[41] Typically, off-Broadway and regional theatres tend to produce smaller and therefore less expensive musicals, and development of new musicals has increasingly taken place outside of New York and London or in smaller venues. For example,