What is the American musical? It is many things: a fusion of song, dance, spoken and sung dialogue, and visual elements; an essential form of entertainment in popular culture; a venue for expression of political and social themes that have shaped the American experience; a money-making enterprise, with big-budget productions requiring enormous outlay of funds from wealthy sponsors; and a genre that both shapes and has been shaped by American culture. For many, it is synonymous with Broadway, hence the moniker “the Broadway musical.” But the musical is not just on Broadway. It is everywhere, in every major city in America and many smaller ones. Musicals are performed by professional touring companies and amateur community theatre groups and by young people in secondary schools, and they represent an area of study at colleges and universities.
Musicals are increasingly available to larger audiences through films with performances by major stars: Johnny Depp, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kevin Kline, Richard Gere, Neil Patrick Harris, and many others. Marquee stars such as Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe routinely perform in live award-winning Broadway musicals. Popular television shows even occasionally spoof or pay homage to the musical; memorable episodes of Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Flight of the Conchords have featured production numbers in which the lead characters sing and dance.
The musical is a living genre, one whose history is still developing. And as with any history that is still taking shape, scholars who study the musical disagree on important questions and issues, ones as basic as the following: What was the very first musical? What features define different genres? What factors were most significant in the musical’s development? Which works and which people were most influential? Which works are most representative of their time? And many others.
Early Musical Theatre: Entertainments and GenresMusicals throughout history can be said to represent many different generic designations; one way to study the musical is to look at them in terms of these categories. Genre names applied to the musical have come from various sources: some came from the creators themselves, others came from critics, and still others came from specialists who study the musical. Some of these genre names indicate important features of form and structure; others are tied to a work’s function in society.
The musical’s origins lie in a fusion of different entertainment genres from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These are traditionally called precursors, forerunners, or antecedents of the musical. Such labels imply a bias toward an organic unity that is the result of an anachronistic view. Sometimes the “early genres” are described in terms of what they are not: they are not book musicals, the genre that eventually displaced all of them, and one that privileges a traditional, forward-moving narrative, usually serious in tone. Book musicals (also called musical plays) are shows generally based on some kind of literary source with a story line that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. This genre came to dominate the history of musical theatre and is still the most popular category today.
Since the entertainments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not view themselves as forerunners to anything, we will not do that either. These entertainments represent a rich variety of generic types, the defining characteristics of which are not always clear. Many genres overlapped, coexisted with, and borrowed elements from one another.
Perhaps one of the most difficult genres for us to understand today involved white performers “blacking up”—coloring their skin with burnt cork—and imitating black Americans. Over the course of its complicated history, blacks eventually performed it as well. The tradition of both groups is known as minstrelsy. What today seems like the pinnacle of prejudice and offensiveness was a form of entertainment that offered black performers an entrée into what was then an all-white world. In fact, during its heyday, it was considered a source of pride.
An example of typical minstrel makeup, 1900. As late as 1978, blackface was used for a longrunning BBC show titled The Black and White Minstrel Show. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4–5698.
Blackface minstrelsy started becoming popular around 1843, eventually coming to rival melodrama in popularity. Early troupes comprised between four and six members who were all white males. Their comic skits involved stereotypes of blacks, dealing with plantation life or other situations, and songs with accompaniments by a minstrel band, in what were essentially variety shows. The so-called golden era was the 1840s to the 1870s. Black Americans started performing in troupes regularly after the abolition of slavery; eventually the troupes grew larger and were transformed—some were all female; some were all black.
In Dahomey (1903) by Will Marion Cook and Paul Dunbar is an early musical comedy drawing on the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. As we will see when we get to musical comedy, its elements are more integrated than in other genres and it has a more continuous narrative structure. An important black performer appearing in this work was Bert Williams. He was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld, an influential figure in the genre of the revue. Williams’s participation integrated the revue as a genre.
Several genres in particular exhibit a great deal of overlap in their distinguishing characteristics. They commingled and cross-fertilized each other during the second half of the nineteenth century. Pantomime refers to theatrical presentations that used gestures done in silence. It featured underscoring, or instrumental music that occurred during the performance of the gestures and that helped create a particular mood. Ballet, in the early history of the musical, simply refers to classical dance with a story line. Spectacles featured dance, elaborate scenery and costumes, sets, and sophisticated stage machinery. Extravaganzas had all of those components in addition to elements of melodrama and fantasy.
The Black Crook (1866) was an important extravaganza. Frequently cited as the first real precursor to the twentieth-century musical, it was a blockbuster hit. Lasting five and a half hours, it had little innovation but enjoyed great commercial success. With preexisting numbers by other composers (related to the operatic genre of the pasticcio), it offered lots of visual appeal and stage spectacle, complete with a chorus line with more than one hundred dancers. It ran for more than four hundred performances and was revived many times. Agnes de Mille made her debut as a choreographer in the 1929 revival.
Illustration of The Black Crook (1866). The title refers to a sorcerer who makes a deal with the devil to deliver souls in exchange for everlasting life. The play was a tired melodrama; its success was a result of interpolated popular songs, dance numbers, and immense spectacle. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-04512.
Burlesque emphasized broad comedy and sexual content. Its texts were full of puns, innuendos, and topical references and spoofed aspects of contemporary society. Evangeline (1874) was the first burlesque for which the music was newly written. Based on a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, 1847), it featured music by Edward Everett Rice and text by John Cheever Goodwin. This show is one of the first among several to be called a “musical comedy,” again reinforcing the general disagreement on this point as well as the overlap in characteristics of the early genres. Extravaganza, burlesque, and spectacle in particular were terms used interchangeably or in combination in the midnineteenth century.
Melodrama, popular by the last third of the nineteenth century, represents the use of short musical passages to heighten affect in drama, either in alternation with or underlying spoken dialogue. Coming from British popular theatre, it eventually developed into full-length melodramatic plays. Underscoring, a significant element in the later musical, grew out of this technique.
A burlesque theatre in Baltimore, one of many in the neighborhood called “the Bawdy Block.”
The revue emerged in the 1890s and remained popular to late 1930s. A style of entertainment that had become popular in Paris, the revue featured elements loosely related by an overarching theme. It had elements of vaudeville, with which it coexisted, but those elements were more integrated. They combined the components of the extravaganza—fantasy, ballet, spectacular scenery and costumes, and sophisticated stage machinery—with an emphasis on beautiful girls performing skits, solo numbers, and choruses. Tableaux vivants—still bodies (usually scantily clad and sometimes partially nude) arranged in attractive formations—lent the revue a sensuousness not seen in other genres from around the same time. Important composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen (who wrote “Somewhere over the Rainbow”) got their start in the revue. Flexible in types of presentation style, revues could be either single-shot (performed just once) or multiple, annual editions on Broadway. The Passing Show (1894) was the first successful American revue. Recurring revues had consistent visions that were determined by an impresario—a producer, director, or theatre manager—and were named for that person; the Ziegfeld Follies, for example, was a series of revues sponsored by the great impresario Florenz
Sheet music for a song included in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917. The theme of Flo Ziegfeld’s revues was “glorifying the American girl,” and this was often accomplished through seminudity. Unlike the women in burlesque shows frequently raided by police, Ziegfeld girls did not sing or dance. Instead, they paraded in expensive costumes with dispassionate expressions. Although Ziegfeld spent extravagantly on his productions, all made a profit.
Ziegfeld. Members of his chorus lines were known as Ziegfeld showgirls and represented a romantic model of the ultimate in femininity.
Variety, emerging around the 1850s, had little of the luxury and romance of the revue. Featuring skits, gags, and specialized acts, it was entertainment that was considered highly disreputable. Concert saloons were important venues for variety in the first decade of the genre’s popularity. They were patronized exclusively by men who bought drinks and watched the entertainments. Variety theatres began to develop during the 1880s and 1890s; these became the central venues for vaudeville.
Vaudeville might be thought of as variety without alcohol, in a theatre rather than a saloon. Theatre managers invented the term, changing the name of the entertainment in an attempt to attract family audiences (in
other words, women) and, in general, to clean up the form and render it more professional in tone and content. (Vaudeville was a term long used in French popular theatre, which bore close resemblances to variety.) Vaudeville shows featured skits, gags, and specialized acts like those found in variety but placed a greater emphasis on individual performers and independent acts, with no plot tying things together. Its heyday was the decades of the 1890s and 1910s.
George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones (1904) is considered the first American musical. Cohan’s vaudeville roots led to his rise to stardom. Coming from a family of vaudeville performers, Cohan was the composer, lyricist, producer, director, and choreographer of his shows. His songs, such as “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” became emblematic of vaudeville. Jimmy Cagney immortalized Cohan in the film Yankee Doodle Boy in the 1940s, and the vaudeville world forms the backdrop for the musical Gypsy, one of the most popular shows in the late 1950s.
Tin Pan Alley is neither a genre nor a real place, but it is important for understanding the musical side of the early musical theatrical genres. It is a nickname both for the area around 28th Street in Manhattan, where many early sheet music publishers were located from the 1880s to the 1950s, and for the type of music they published. Tin Pan Alley songs were the popular songs of America, and many were big hits. Tin Pan Alley helped to publicize the music of American musical theatre in two
George M. Cohan in one of his patriotic musicals.
Cast and dedicated in 1959, this Times Square statue of George M. Cohan came into being through a memorial committee that included composers Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein II. Photo by Stephanie Lynge.
important ways: people either wanted the music that they heard at the shows they saw, or they heard the songs and then wanted to see the shows from which those songs were drawn. In music stores, song pluggers, musicians who worked for a publishing firm, played songs on a piano to interest customers in buying the sheet music. Many composers of early musicals became known to the general public thanks to their talents. George Gershwin and Irving Berlin both started out as song pluggers. In terms of general form and structure, most songs took the form of AABA, with a repeating section, followed by a contrasting section, and a return
to the familiar material, over the course of thirty-two measures, yielding what came to be known as song form.
European opera was of great significance in the development of the
musical. American audiences at the end of the nineteenth century loved opera, and elements of opera’s music and dramatic language gradually carried over into operetta, or light opera. The first of the American musical’s great creative teams were the British creators of some of the world’s best-known operettas: William Schwenk Gilbert (lyricist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer). Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas feature comic stories that spoof nineteenth-century British society’s morals and behavior. Their H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885), to name a few, are considered staples of the musical theatre repertory and are still widely performed today. Pinafore in particular took America by storm, becoming immensely popular. In 1879, Gilbert and Sullivan traveled to the United States with the D’Oyly Carte company, and their performances influenced later ones by American
The 2009 production of The Pirates of Penzance, Hirsch Theatre, Jerusalem. Presented by Encore! Educational Theatre Company (directed by Robert Binder). Photo by Brian Negin.
companies. The colorful film Topsy-Turvy tells the story of Gilbert and Sullivan’s long and sometimes difficult collaboration.
Operetta in America was also strongly influenced by Americans’ passion for the Viennese waltz. Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (1907) and Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta (1910) with its romantic song, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” (famously parodied in the film Young Franken– stein), recreate a glamorous world with lyrical waltzes as an important
Sheet music from Victor Herbert’s operetta The Fortune Teller.
element. These and other works evoke the sights and sounds of Viennese operetta, such as Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, known as “the waltz king.” Other important contributions to operetta are Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926), and The New Moon (1928), as well as Rudolf Friml’s Rose-Marie (1924). The continuous narrative that would become an integral part of the book musical is central to the operetta and is possibly among that genre’s most important contributions to the development of the American musical.
Musical Comedies of the 1920s and 1930sMusical theatre in the 1920s and 1930s was all about entertainment. Dance—particularly tap dance—was a crucial element in the early musical comedies popular during these decades. The plots of musical comedies are usually considered frivolous, a result of viewing them through the lens of today’s book musicals. Musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s, like any other genre, need to be understood in their own time, place, and context. They do have narratives, but they stand apart from book musicals because their emphasis is more on comedy and dance than on drama and character development. The musical language of jazz and other types of American popular music greatly influenced musical theatre of this era.
The brothers George and Ira Gershwin (composer and lyricist, respectively) created many of this era’s most popular works. Songs from some of their musicals took on lives of their own, becoming popular in their own right, independent of the shows in which they had their premieres. At the same time, many of the era’s big stars had their debuts in Gershwin shows. The title song of Strike Up the Band (1927) was the Gershwins’ first hit of the 1930s. The catchy tune “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” with its driving syncopations was first heard in Lady Be Good (1924), the show in which siblings Fred and Adele Astaire made their debut as dancers. The lovely ballad “Someone to Watch over Me” was first heard in Oh, Kay! (1926). Girl Crazy (1930) introduced Ethel Merman to the theatregoing public. Her performance of “I Got Rhythm,” and Ginger Rogers’s of “Embraceable You,” helped to popularize these songs. The show spawned the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one of the greatest dance teams in the history of musicals. Although the show itself, like many of the musical comedies of these decades, did not enjoy lasting
Composer George Gershwin. Photo © Lebrecht Music and Arts/Corbis.
popularity, it took on new life much later, being revamped as Crazy for You in 1992. The Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (1931) was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama and the first show to have its book—the spoken dialogue apart from the song lyrics—published separately.
The best known musical of this era is decidedly not a comedy. Show Boat (1927), by composer Jerome Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, is an actual book musical, widely considered the very first in the genre’s history. With its serious tone and treatment of controversial issues of race, this work stands apart from the popular emphasis on comic entertainment that characterized shows from around its time. Based on a 1926 novel by Edna Ferber with the same title, the show deals with issues of race and class, demonstrating the controversy surrounding miscegenation (interracial marriage). Another innovation concerns the integration of the songs into the plot. Show Boat’s songs are more central to the narrative than those of earlier (and later) musical comedies. This element would become a defining characteristic of the later book musical. Some of Show Boat’s songs are related to each other through similarity of their musical material. For instance, the famous song “Ol’ Man River” (in the familiar song form, AABA) is linked to “Cotton Blossom” through inversion of melodic material: the first few notes of the opening of the melody of “Ol’ Man River” are the same as that of “Cotton Blossom” when the
The 2013 production of Show Boat, produced jointly by the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Dan Rest.
This 2011 Portland Center Stage production of Oklahoma! was performed by an all-black cast. Traditionally, this story of love in a farming community in 1906 is done with white actors. However, director Chris Coleman discovered through his research that at one point, one third of cowboys in the West were black, and during the time of the play, there were fifty all-black towns in Oklahoma. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.
tune is run backward. Unfortunately, Show Boat did not inspire a trend. The work and its innovations would not be influential in the development of the musical until the 1940s, when Oklahoma!, the next great book musical and the one to usher in the tradition of greater emphasis on dramatic content, had its premiere. Instead, musical comedies continued to dominate.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, the first composer-lyricist team to attain recognition as such, had a hit with On Your Toes (1936). The great choreographer George Balanchine created the dances, which were central to the plot, and Rodgers and Hart wrote the book together, in a partnership that would span twenty-four years.
Irving Berlin is known better today for a show that came much later in his career: Annie Get Your Gun (1946). His reputation in the 1930s was built on the strength of his songs, many of which were wildly popular, such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “Blue Skies,” to name a few. Berlin wrote both the music and lyrics for his songs, as did Cole Porter, one of the most important figures from around this time. Porter, like Berlin, was classically trained in music, and like Berlin, Porter also had a hit later in his career with Kiss Me Kate (1948). Porter’s songs have a technical complexity unmatched by those of any of his contemporaries. Porter’s lyrics are witty and suggestive and often exhibit a sophisticated use of rhyme. His Anything Goes (1934) was a vehicle for Ethel Merman (it highlighted her as the star); the title song is typical of Porter’s style. Again, dance is a central element in the narrative. The show’s recent successful Broadway revival demonstrates its popularity with modern audiences. Porter’s turbulent career and personal life is the subject of De-Lovely, a biopic with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, which presents an intriguing montage of many of Porter’s songs (and is named for one of his best-known ones).
The Rise and Dominance of the Book Musical in the 1940s and 1950sThe 1940s and 1950s were dominated by the book musical. Creators and audiences increasingly favored shows that were based on some sort of literary source (such a book, play, novel, or story), many of which were serious in tone and content. They typically featured down-to-earth, realistic
characters with whom people could identify and had a recognizable story line. The songs in works during this period were part of the dramatic fabric and essential to the narrative, a result of the close collaboration between the members of the creative teams who conceived the works. In contrast to earlier shows, the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s combined lighthearted and comic elements with those of a greater depth and weight, with characters that are more complex as individuals and in relation to each other. A sense of unity pervades the shows of these decades, with an emphasis on a smooth integration of all the elements.
The musicals of the two great teams of the 1940s and 1950s are the “meat and potatoes” of the genre, classics that are still popular today; many are given regular productions in community theatres around the country as well as revivals on Broadway. The formula they created was expanded upon by their successors, and elements of it are evident in shows throughout the remaining decades of the twentieth century. Shows from this era are sometimes called “symphonic musicals” because they are symphonic in conception and execution, calling for the resources of a full classical orchestra. The composers of these partnerships carefully utilized particular instrumental colors in composing their musical scores, and professional orchestral musicians played in pit orchestras on Broadway.
Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist) began to collaborate after Rodgers’s partnership with Lorenz Hart came to an end. Oklahoma! (1943), based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, was their first collaboration. It was immensely popular, one of most successful musicals ever on Broadway. It broke the record for the show with the longest run, with more than two thousand performances (a record it would hold for fifteen years), and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its choreographer was Agnes de Mille, whose balletic style transformed theatrical dance and who originated the dream ballet (an extended sequence in which a character’s dream is acted out by dancers). The original cast recording helped make the show famous nationally. Carousel (1945) dealt with the somber theme of spousal abuse and featured an onstage death. Again, Agnes de Mille’s choreography was, like the songs, an essential component of the storytelling. One of the songs, “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” is an example of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s expansion of the classic song form, in which a reprise (a vocal coda, which repeats some of the music from earlier) enlarges the scope
of the song and broadens it to include participation by the chorus. South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951) share some common features. Both are based on novels, are set in exotic locales, and deal with issues of racism and ethnic prejudice—how it is both created and overcome. South Pacific’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” addressed this issue explicitly. Both shows also centered on unusual love interests represented by lead characters from different cultural traditions and have many memorable songs that became associated with the music of the era (“Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific; “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You” from The King and I). The Sound of Music (1959) is perhaps their most famous show, known to family audiences through the well-loved film version from 1965 starring Julie Andrews.
Frederick Loewe (composer) and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) built successfully on the Rodgers and Hammerstein model. Lerner, unlike most lyricists, had musical training. The two began collaborating in the early 1940s. Their Brigadoon (1947), set in a mystical land in the highlands of Scotland, appealed to audiences for its elements of fantasy and exoticism. Their greatest hit, My Fair Lady (1956), was based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Against a backdrop of class conflict in nineteenth-century Britain, it introduced lively and lovable characters and situations. Camelot (1960) recreated the medieval world of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, retelling the story of their love triangle. The film versions of these shows brought them to a broad audience. These were often heavily revised versions of the originals, with nonsinging film actors whose voices were dubbed (Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady is a classic example). These musicals thus developed a national following that shows from the early years of the century never had. The existence of these shows as films contributed greatly to their status as classics that they enjoy today.
Varieties of Nostalgia in the 1950s
The shows of these two towering creative teams were not the only ones to receive acclaim or to introduce innovations. Musicals carried different meanings for different audiences. The themes of the stories and situations dealt with many different issues and topics that were both appealing and thought-provoking in diverse ways and in varying degrees. Several important shows by other composers evoked a nostalgic view of America. They are known as works by their composers alone, rather than as ones
that represent a partnership. Guys and Dolls (1950), by Frank Loesser, was based on characters from stories by Damon Runyon set in the New York underworld of the 1920s and 1930s (which became known as “Runyonland”). The Music Man (1957), by Meredith Willson, another classically trained musician, is the love story of a librarian and a traveling salesman set in small-town Iowa. Audiences loved the sweet, romantic view of urban and rural surroundings depicted by these two shows. Gypsy (1959), by Jule (pronounced JOO-lie) Styne, can be viewed as representing nostalgia of a very different type. Set during the vaudeville era, it was based on the autobiography of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Dealing with hard-edged subject matter, it was among the first shows to reveal the unpleasant side of human relationships, with several emotionally wrenching scenes and songs for Gypsy’s strong-willed mother, Mama Rose. The collaboration among members of the personnel was complex and is a good example of the strong influence performers could exert in the creation of a musical. Ethel Merman was engaged to play Mama Rose and was brought into the planning stages early on. She insisted that Styne was a better choice as composer than Stephen Sondheim, who had made his mark as lyricist for West Side Story two years earlier. In the end, Sondheim, who was slated to compose the music and lyrics for Gypsy, partnered with Styne, creating many of the songs and retaining his role as lyricist. Gypsy featured other West Side Story collaborators as well: Arthur
A 2011 national tour of West Side Story. The choreography, a blend of modern dance and ballet styles, uses dance as a means of expressing territoriality and violence in much the same way as modern “dance battles” depicted in movies. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Laurents, who wrote the book, and Jerome Robbins, a significant figure in theatrical dance in later decades, who created the choreography.
Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure in the history of American music. His contributions to the musical world as composer, conductor, and educator are unsurpassed by those of any other artist in America in the second half of the twentieth century. Bernstein composed concert works in various genres and film scores as well as musicals. On the Town (1944), his first musical, took its inspiration from a ballet he and Robbins had created called Fancy Free. It exhibits the thorough integration of book, music, and dance so important to Bernstein’s creative vision and that would become essential to the musical’s later development.
West Side Story (1957) epitomizes Bernstein’s genius as a craftsman of musical theatre and has earned its place as a classic in the genre. Opening the same year as The Music Man (demonstrating contemporary audiences’ widely ranging tastes), it involved the collaboration of the era’s leading artists: Sondheim as lyricist, Laurents as author of the book, and Robbins as choreographer. Themes of discrimination, racism, and love play out in a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York highlighting the relationships between members of rival gangs and their families. The film version of 1961 won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The show’s music is rich in melodic and harmonic invention. The ensembles are particularly challenging to coordinate, with dense textures and complex rhythms. The “Tonight” ensemble is operatic in conception, with energetic interplay between individual lines as well as choral groups. Like the best opera composers, Bernstein portrays characters and their contrasting emotions through the changing qualities of the music they sing. “America,” with its driving rhythms and shifting accents, is another high point of the show; both ensembles require performers who are skilled dancers as well as exceptional singers.
Expansions of and Alternatives to the Book Musical in the 1960s–1980sStarting in the 1960s, creators of the musical began to experiment with new ways of telling stories, exploring new narrative structures that did not rely as greatly on the book musical’s plot-oriented approach. The book
musical never disappeared or went out of style, however, and is still the most prevalent genre in popular shows of today. But certain aspects of its conventions have been influenced by stylistic developments that started to occur in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the categories we will explore here are not actually different genres, but are ones that place different amounts and kinds of emphasis on the traditional musical’s various components.
Breaking the Mold
Perhaps the most significant change to occur in the book musical’s development around this time is the continued broadening of the types of subject matter that came to be considered acceptable for presentation on the musical stage. Gypsy, with its gritty realism, might be considered the first show to have initiated this trend and achieved success. Three shows of the 1960s and 1970s—musicals with strong dramatic subjects by new creative teams—stand out as examples: Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof (1964), John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret (1966), and Chicago (1985). Fiddler and Cabaret were directed by Hal Prince, whose later collaborations with Sondheim would continue transforming the genre. Both shows deal with ethnic prejudice and discrimination, exploring issues of Jewish cultural identity in different times and places. Fiddler set a new record, garnering more than three thousand performances and winning many awards. Jerome Robbins choreographed the dances, which were increasingly important to the action, figuring even more greatly into the plot than those of earlier decades. The film version featuring Zero Mostel is now considered a classic.
Cabaret plays with generic convention perhaps more than any of its predecessors, the role of the narrator (the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, originated by Joel Grey) playing an important part in that process. In addition, many of the songs are commentaries on the events in the plot. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, its serious subject—the encroachment of Nazism in 1930s Germany—was given a darkly ironic treatment. Kander and Ebb had another hit with Chicago. Against the backdrop of prohibition and Al Capone’s crime world, Chicago integrated vaudeville-influenced songs and images with the edgy choreography of Bob Fosse. The recent movie version with performances by film stars Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, and John C. Reilly gave the show new life.
The most important alternative to the book musical to emerge in the 1970s was the concept musical. Shows in this genre are more nonlinear meditations on various themes—explorations of concepts—than unified stories. A Chorus Line (1975) is perhaps the first concept musical to gain critical acclaim, winning nine Tony awards. It is also called a “fully integrated” musical, a reference to the prominence of dance in the action. Bob Fosse created the dances, continuing his rise to prominence as the leading choreographer/director of the decade. The experiences of dancers auditioning for a place in a chorus line, and their individual stories, form the dramatic material. Two songs from the show in particular became well known: “One” and “What I Did for Love.”
Stephen Sondheim, arguably the most significant composer in the history of American musical theatre, is truly in a class by himself. His eclectic works exhibit a dazzlingly broad range of styles and types of dramatic and musical expression. His shows dominated Broadway during the 1970s and much of the 1980s, garnering numerous awards including six Tonys for Best Broadway Musical. Sondheim was classically trained in music, having studied with the modernist composer Milton Babbitt, but his true mentor was Oscar Hammerstein II. After he collaborated in West Side Story and Gypsy, Sondheim’s first show for which he composed all the music was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), a hilarious throwback to the tradition of musical comedy. A recurring theme in his subsequent shows is the many different ways people communicate with each other—or do not—in relationships. He creates complex characters who feel deeply. His shows not only explore his characters’ inner lives but address basic, larger questions about what motivates people to do the things they do. The complex psychological portraits he creates emerge as a central feature of his dramatic language. Sondheim’s shows often defy categorization because of his innovative approaches to form and structure and his tireless search for new ways to manipulate generic conventions.
Company (1970) was the first of Sondheim’s collaborations with director Hal Prince, a partnership that would last about a decade and result in Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. Company is a concept musical exploring the theme of communication; its action centers on the lead character, a single man named Bobby, and his
relationships to his married friends and girlfriends. Sondheim both links him with and sets him apart from the other characters through the use of a particular musical motive—a short two-pitch unit that is repeated and transformed throughout the course of the show. The motive is manipulated in specific ways to reflect Bobby’s relationships with the characters, and theirs with each other. Follies (1971) recreates the lavish world of the Ziegfeld Follies, within which characters reexamine their life choices and the consequences of those choices. One of several of Sondheim’s shows to play with time and its passing in intriguing ways, Follies uses flashbacks to the characters’ youth as a central feature of the narrative. A Little Night Music (1973) is sometimes referred to as an operetta for the central role played by the waltz as its predominant musical style; its heartfelt ballad “Send In the Clowns” was made famous by the 1970s pop singer Judy Collins.
Sweeney Todd (1979) has been described as a musical thriller. Its subject matter—a deranged barber who kills his customers and sends them to his neighbor, who then turns them into meat pies to be eaten by the unsuspecting public—is at once disturbing and irresistible. The story’s passion, tragedy, fascinating characters, and suspenseful situations have made it a modern classic that is both hair-raising and heartbreaking. Inspired by melodrama and British lore of the nineteenth century, it is an adaptation of the story The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In contrast to conventional musicals, Sweeney Todd is almost entirely sung throughout (like many operas) with very little spoken dialogue and extensive underscoring. The original cast included Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, and in a creative recent revival featuring Patti LuPone, the cast played all the instruments onstage (an approach also taken with the revival of Company). The movie version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter highlighted the plot’s elements of horror.
Sondheim’s prominence lasted into the 1980s and 1990s, during which he continued to experiment with form and nonlinear ways of storytelling. In Merrily We Roll Along (1981) everything runs backward, but audiences found this reverse narrative structure hard to follow (and consequently the show was later revised). Sunday in the Park with George (1984), winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (one of the few musicals to do so), ushered in the era of partnership with James Lapine, the writer-director who wrote the book. Sondheim and Lapine also created Into the Woods and Pas– sion and revised Merrily We Roll Along. Based on the famous painting
The 2003 production of Sweeney Todd, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London. Photo © Robbie Jack/ Corbis.
of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, Sunday in the Park explores the nature of the creative process, playing with time and dramatic structure in new ways.
Into the Woods (1987) exhibits still more innovation. Lapine and Sondheim won Tony Awards for best book and best musical score. The show is about community responsibility, as characters in different fairy tales gradually begin to interact with and learn from each other in how to live life. One excerpt in particular stands out for its role in the creation of musical and dramatic structure. Sondheim rarely used reprises—repeats of pieces or sections of them—in his shows, believing that if characters grow and develop emotionally, it doesn’t make sense for them to sing the same music over again. The first-act duet, “Agony,” sung by Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, presents interesting and effective characterization, as they try to outdo each other with descriptions of each maiden’s beauty and inaccessibility. But when the duet is presented as a reprise in
the second act, another layer to the men’s emotional development, or lack thereof, is revealed: they reprise their earlier music to demonstrate that they have indeed not grown or matured—and they go on just as they have before.
Assassins (1991) is a concept musical and a pastiche—an eclectic mix of musical styles drawn from diverse sources and influences. Presidential assassins (both actual and would-be) from different periods of history tell their stories and reveal their motivations and goals, reflecting on their shared experiences as alienated outsiders. Passion (1994) represents in some ways a return to more traditional storytelling and musical language. The show is based on the Italian film Passione d’amore, and its musical style is overtly romantic, with lush harmonies and soaring melodies. Its use of flashback recalls Follies. It is perhaps the most sensuous of Sondheim’s musicals.
New Developments from the 1980s and Beyond: Diversity ContinuesThe development of musical theatre from the 1980s to the present has seen a proliferation of new genres as well as an ever-increasing overlap among the characteristics that define them. Questions as to what constitutes the major new trends and how musical theatre will develop in the future continue to occupy creators, critics, and audiences. Important genres taking shape since the 1980s are based on factors such as dimensions and scope, musical style, reuse of earlier music, and relation to film. And many shows belong to more than one genre.
New Genres and Approaches
Megamusicals are those in which the visual spectacle is the main emphasis and is larger than life. Many have enjoyed widespread popular appeal. The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables are classic examples, shows that are known to audiences worldwide. Cats (1982), which is also a concept musical, can also be added to the list. Phantom and Cats, both by British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, are among Broadway’s longest-running shows, and songs from them have become known to the point of becoming clichés (“Memory” from Cats and “Music of the Night” from Phantom, among others). Cats closed in 2000; Phantom, still running on Broadway, opened in London in 1986 and New York
Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in the Universal Pictures film Les Misérables (2012). Photo © Universal Pictures.
in 1988. Les Misérables (1987), by the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, won eight Tonys, running from 1987 to 2003. These works are sometimes called poperas, with music that is influenced by popular idioms and is continuously sung throughout, with no spoken dialogue.
Many successful shows are based on musical styles from past decades for which their genres are named. The rock musical is one of the most difficult genres to define, primarily because rock-influenced music has been part of the musical since at least the 1950s. It is a category that is still in flux, with the boundaries of its definition still being formulated by specialists. Those who define the rock musical’s parameters are concerned with the use of rock as a musical language (whether as the show’s primary one or as one style among many) and whether a show is or is not called a “rock musical” by its creators or commentators, among other considerations. Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Godspell (1971), The Wiz (1975), and Rent (1996) are generally considered to be rock musicals. Subcategories based on specific popular musical styles have also emerged: Dreamgirls (1981) is a Motown musical, and City of Angels (1989) represents the jazz musical. The pervasiveness of popular musical idioms in musical theatre is one factor in the development of a related genre, the jukebox musical. Shows in this genre, also sometimes called “compilation shows,” consist of existing pop songs, whether by a single
group or artist or by different ones from a particular era: Mamma Mia! (2001), Movin’ Out (2002), Jersey Boys (2005), and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2011) belong to this category.
Intersections with Film
The musical’s relationship with film has been a significant part of its history since the 1930s. Many of the great shows of the 1940s and 1950s were made into well-known films, some of which won Oscars for Best Picture and have become known as classics (such as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music). And some musicals that began life as films were produced on the stage, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi, and Singin’ in the Rain. The Disney variety, such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, represents particularly interesting crossovers from screen to stage. (These are sometimes called “movicals”; they also qualify as megamusicals.) Different kinds of crossovers are stage shows that are adaptations of nonmusical films, of which The Producers represents a recent success. Setting a record in 2001 for winning a total of twelve Tony Awards, Mel Brooks’s show, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, started out as his 1968 film, which starred Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. The movie version featuring the original Broadway duo (joined by Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman) came out in 2006. Another show with a similarly circuitous route is the campy Little Shop of Horrors: the popular stage show of 1980, based on a bizarre science-fiction movie from 1960, was made into a movie featuring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin in 1986 (newly released on DVD in 2000). The aforementioned Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is similarly based on a nonmusical film, as is Billy Elliott (2008).
Revivals, Reworkings, and New Shows
Many of the best-loved shows from the past have enjoyed successful recent Broadway revivals: Oklahoma!, Anything Goes (with Sutton Foster), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (with Daniel Radcliffe), and Annie Get Your Gun (with Bernadette Peters) are a few examples. Some revivals represent reworkings, such as the recent production of West Side Story in which some of the dialogue was sung in Spanish. But many newly created shows are being offered regularly, and many of these represent the enduring tradition of the book musical. Some of the most original and exciting new works draw upon tried-and-true elements
Creators of musicals continue to push the envelope of what is considered acceptable subject matter for musicals. In Avenue Q (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx), a familiar children’s puppet show is used as a vehicle to discuss adult themes. 2013 production, Hippodrome Theatre, Gainesville, FL (featuring Michael Hull, Marissa Toogood, and Jennifer Lauren Brown; directed by Lauren Caldwell and Charlie Mitchell).
of the familiar structure of traditional narrative but offer exciting new opportunities for its expansion and elaboration. These include the wildly successful Wicked (2003), the frank and energetic In the Heights (2008), and the emotionally wrenching Next to Normal (2009), to name a few. Wicked, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (the creator of Godspell and Pippin, popular shows from the 1970s), is based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name, in which L. Frank Baum’s fantasy The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is retold from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view. Wicked, still running since its opening in 2003, won numerous Tony Awards including Best Musical, and hit upon what seems to be the modern formula for success: a familiar story (but one that offers a new twist); strong dramatic situations with complex characters who wrestle with conflicting emotions (Elphaba and Glinda’s relationship); larger-than-life spectacular moments that are integrated into the drama (Elphaba’s thrilling ascent in “Defying Gravity”); big stars with name recognition (Joel Grey, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel); and affecting music in a range of styles that creates a broad array of contrasting moods.