A History of the Musical

What Is A Musical?

by John Kenrick

Copyright 1996-2003

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

The musical, in all its various forms, is very much a living art form. Our goal in these history essays is to see how the musical has developed over the last few centuries on stage and screen, to assess where it currently stands, and to finally make some educated guesses as to where it may be headed in years to come. Let's start with a basic definition –

musical (noun): a stage, television or film production utilizing popular-style songs - dialogue optional - to either tell a story (book musicals) or showcase the talents of the writers and/or performers (revues).

Book musicals have gone by many names: comic operas, operettas, opera bouffe, burlesque, burletta, extravaganza, musical comedy, etc. Revues have their roots in variety, vaudeville, music halls and minstrel shows. In the spirit of Shakespeare's "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," this site discusses all these forms. The best musicals have three essential qualities –

(And you thought MGM's The Wizard of Oz was just a children's flick?) Of course, quality is no guarantee of commercial success. However, musicals with these qualities are more likely to stand the test of time.

I believe that a great musical is a great musical, no matter what its point of origin. Those created for the large or small screen are no less interesting than those written for the stage. As one character in Boys In The Band (Crowley 1968) puts it, "Pardon me if your sense of art is offended, but odd as it may seem there wasn’t a Shubert Theatre in Hot Coffee, Mississippi!" So whether we are discussing Astaire & Rogers or Rodgers & Hammerstein, we are still considering the musical at its best.

"How Long Has This Been Going On?"

    theatreThe Greek Amphitheatre near Taormina in Sicily.  Odds are it saw its share of Greek and Roman musicals two millennia ago.

The art of telling stories either through or with songs dates back to time immemorial. We know that the ancient Greeks included music and dance in their stage comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th Century B.C. While some Athenian playwrights may have interpolated existing songs, we know that Aeschylus and Sophocles composed their own. Staged in open air amphitheatres, these plays featured sexual humor, political and social satire, jugglers, and anything else that might entertain the masses. The songs were often a means for the chorus to comment on the action, but they also took part in the plot, and musical solos were not unheard of. Some evidence of ancient musical notation has been discovered, but the melodies used in the few surviving plays are all long lost. While these musicals had no direct effect on the development of modern musical theater, they demonstrate that showtunes have been around for twenty five hundred years.

The Romans copied and expanded the forms and traditions of Greek theatre. The Third Century B.C. comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with orchestral accompaniment. To make the dance steps more audible, Roman actors attached metal chips called "sabilla" to their stage footwear – the first tap shoes. Although performed in enclosed wooden structures far smaller than Greek theatres, Roman stagecraft stressed spectacle and special effects, a trend that echoes into our own time.

"If the Roman theatre contributed little to the Greek literature that today's dramatic theatre rests on, musical comedy inherited spectacle and numerous technical achievements from this austere, mechanical, and jaded society."
- Denny Martin Flynn, Musical: A Grand Tour (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), p. 22.

In the Middle Ages, Europe's cultural mainstays included traveling minstrels and roving troupes of performers that offered popular songs and slapstick comedy. In the 12th and 13th centuries, there was also a tradition of religious dramas. Some of these works have survived, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel. Intended as liturgical teaching tools set to church chants, these plays developed into an autonomous form of musical theatre.

"In some of the musically most interesting (religious dramas), poetic forms – often as a sort of set piece – alternate with the prose dialogues and liturgical chants. In others, older prose texts were remodeled into poetry and provided with modified or completely new melodies. The process was occasionally carried to such extremes that almost the entire text was cast in poetic forms, with little or no dependence on liturgical texts and melodies. The result of this process is nowhere more evident than in The Play of Daniel, perhaps the best known because the most widely performed of medieval dramas. Except for two concluding items – one stanza of a hymn and the Te Deum – the texts and melodies of this play are entirely nonliturgical."
- Rochard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), pp. 180-181.

This reached its apex during the Renaissance in the commedia dell'arte, an Italian tradition where raucous clown characters improvised their way through familiar stories. These clowns included Harlequin, Pulcinella and Scaramouche – personas that became basic elements in Western stage comedy for centuries to come. Formal musical theatre was rare in the Renaissance, but Moliere turned several of his plays into comedies with songs (music provided by Jean Baptiste Lully) when the court of Louis XIV demanded song and dance entertainments in the late 1600s

By the 1700s, two forms of musical theater were common in Britain, France and Germany – ballad operas like John Gay's The Beggars Opera (1728) that borrowed popular songs of the day and rewrote the lyrics, and comic operas, with original scores and mostly romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1845). 

A sample scene from The Beggar's Opera

This brings us to a key question . . .

Are Musicals Descended From Opera?

Opera has been with us since the late 1500s, but (and there are those who will scream when they read this) . . . contemporary musical theatre and film are not direct descendants of grand opera. However, opera can be called a descendant of classical theatre. When Renaissance writers and composers tried to resurrect the forms of Greek drama, they added music. This eventually led to the birth of grand opera. From its birth in the 1800s, the musical has often spoofed opera, but it traces its main lineage to other sources. Vaudeville, burlesque, and many other forms are the true ancestors of the modern musical -- not opera.

Of course, the melodies of grand opera were part of the popular musical culture of the 1800s and early 1900s, and therefore had some residual effect on the musical theater melodies of that time. However, the so-called "comic operas" that dominated Broadway in the late 1880s and 90s, including Robin Hood and the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, are not operas -- at least not as most people use the term. Producers called these shows "comic operas" to make them sound more high minded, but with extended dialogue and melodies designed for the popular taste of that era, they were clearly musicals.

Some noted authorities disagree with me on this one. While I respect their opinions, I have not encountered a line of reasoning strong enough to make me change my position. The musical tradition that I trace in the pages to come did not build on the work of grand opera – popular tastes and, in some cases, legal restrictions, forced musicals to develop in an entirely different style and spirit. The real irony is that grand opera was invented by Renaissance Italians who were trying to copy Greek drama, which they mistakenly believed was sung-through. So not only are musicals not descended from opera, but opera is descended from the earliest musical theatre! features separate histories for musical theatre, film, television and cabaret, with a bibliography and a collection of dates and figures called "The Musicals Index." Pick your starting point:






Reference Resources