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Musicals On Stage:

A Capsule History

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2003)

The ancient Greeks had plays with songs, and Roman comedies included song and dance routines. But the music of these eras disappeared long ago, so they had no real influence on the development of modern musical theatre and film. The Middle Ages brought traveling minstrels and musical morality plays staged by churches, but these had little if any influence on the development of musicals as an art form.

Although there were many musical stage entertainments in the 1700s, none of them were called "musicals." The first lasting English-language work of this period was John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), a ballad opera that reset popular tunes of the day to lyrics that fit a satirical spoof of respectable citizens who are no better than common thieves. This, and other British ballad operas, burlettas and pantomimes, formed the majority of musicals offered on American stages right into the early 1800s.

The musical as we know it has some of its roots in the French and Viennese Operettas of the 1800s. The satiric works of Jacques Offenbach (Paris) and the romantic comedies of Johann Strauss II (Vienna) were the first musicals to achieve international popularity. Continental operettas were well received in England, but audiences there preferred the looser variety format of the Music Hall.

While the contemporary Broadway musical took its form from operetta, it got its comic soul from the variety entertainments that delighted America from the mid-1800s onward. Crude American Variety and Minstrel Shows eventually gave way to the more refined pleasures of Vaudeville -- and the rowdy spirit of Burlesque.

The success of The Black Crook (1860) opened the way for the development of American musicals in the 1860s, including extravaganzas, pantomimes, and the musical farces of Harrigan & Hart. The comic operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan (1871-1896) were witty, tuneful and exquisitely produced – leading to new standards of theatrical production. After Gilbert and Sullivan, the theatre in Britain and the United States was re-defined – first by imitation, then by innovation.

During the early 1900s, imports like Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (1907) had enormous influence on the Broadway musical, but American composers George M. Cohan and Victor Herbert gave the American musical comedy a distinctive sound and style. Then (1910s) Jerome Kern, Guy Boulton and P.G. Wodehouse took this a step further with the Princess Theatre shows, putting believable people and situations on the musical stage. During the same years, Florenz Ziegfeld introduced his Follies, the ultimate stage revue.

In the 1920s, the American musical comedy gained worldwide influence. Broadway saw the composing debuts of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins and many others. The British contributed several intimate reviews and introduced the multi-talented Noel Coward. Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the innovative Showboat (1927) the most lasting hit of the 1920s.

The Great Depression did not stop Broadway – in fact, the 1930s saw the lighthearted musical comedy reach its creative zenith. The Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing (1931) was the first musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rodgers & Hart (On Your Toes - 1936) and Cole Porter (Anything Goes – 1934) contributed their share of lasting hit shows and songs.

The 1940s started out with business-as-usual musical comedy, but Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey and Weill and Gershwin’s Lady in the Dark opened the way for more realistic musicals. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma (1943) was the first fully integrated musical play, using every song and dance to develop the characters or the plot. After Oklahoma, the musical would never be the same – but composers Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun - 1946) and Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate – 1947) soon proved themselves ready to adapt to the integrated musical.

During the 1950s, the music of Broadway was the popular music of the western world. Every season brought a fresh crop of classic hit musicals that were eagerly awaited and celebrated by the general public. Great stories, told with memorable songs and dances were the order of the day, resulting in such unforgettable hits as The King and I, My Fair Lady, Gypsy and dozens more. These musicals were shaped by three key elements:

Composers: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Loesser, Bernstein
Directors: George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse
Female stars: Gwen Verdon, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman

At first, the 1960s were more of the same, with Broadway turning out record setting hits (Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof). But as popular musical tastes shifted, the musical was left behind. The rock musical "happening" Hair (1968) was hailed as a landmark, but it ushered in a period of confusion in the musical theatre.

Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince refocused the genre in the 1970s by introducing concept musicals – shows built around an idea rather than a traditional plot. Company (1970), Follies (1972) and A Little Night Music (1973) succeeded, while rock musicals quickly faded into the background. The concept musical peaked with A Chorus Line (1974), conceived and directed by Michael Bennett. No, No, Nanette (1973) initiated a slew of popular 1970s revivals, but by decade’s end the battle line was drawn between serious new works (Sweeney Todd) and heavily commercialized British mega-musicals (Evita).

The public ruled heavily in favor of the mega-musicals, so the 1980s brought a succession of long-running "Brit hits" to Broadway – Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon were light on intellectual content and heavy on special effects and marketing.

By the 1990s, new mega-musicals were no longer winning the public, and costs were so high that even long-running hits (Crazy for You, Sunset Boulevard) were unable to turn a profit on Broadway. New stage musicals now required the backing of multi-million dollar corporations to develop and succeed – a trend proven by Disney’s Lion King, and Livent’s Ragtime. Even Rent and Titanic were fostered by smaller, Broadway-based corporate entities.

As the 20th century ended, the musical theatre was in an uncertain state, relying on rehashed numbers (Fosse) and stage versions of old movies (Footloose, Saturday Night Fever), as well as the still-running mega-musicals of the previous decade. But starting in the year 2000, a new resurgence of American musical comedies took Broadway by surprise. The Producers, Urinetown, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray -- funny, melodic and inventively staged, these hit shows offered new hope for the genre.

What lies ahead in the future? It's hard to say, but there will most assuredly be new musicals. The musical may go places some of its fans will not want to follow, but the form will live on so long as people like a story told with songs.

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